Ready for a history lesson, Once Upon a Time-style? “Nimue” is essentially The Dark One and Excalibur 101, as flashbacks reveal how Merlin got his magic, how the first Dark One was created and how Excalibur came to be.

While only a few minutes are actually spent in present-day Storybrooke, they are a very important few minutes. Most of the episode is spent in flashbacks, whether it’s the missing time in Camelot or the time Merlin spent before he was a tree.

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Succumbing to the Darkness

A long time ago, Merlin is just a man running through a desert, not quite as desperate for water as his friend, who sees a decorative goblet on a rock and thinks, “Hey, this doesn’t seem suspicious at all. Let me just drink from it without really thinking this through.” He turns to dust when he touches it. Merlin, on the other hand, looks to the sky, says, “With your permission,” and then reaches for the goblet … and drinks from it successfully. After offering his thanks, he touches the ground and grass grows. “I have magic,” he realizes, looking around him as the desert becomes a forest. That’s what happens when you drink from the Holy Grail.

Years and years later, Merlin’s healing people when he meets Nimue, who tells him of how a masked man, Vortigan, is ransacking towns and burning them to the ground. Hers fell victim just like others had already, but she was able to rescue seeds of a flower that only existed around her village. She says the best revenge would be for them to live on them, so he plants them. And as they bloom in front of them, he hopes she’ll stick around (though with her, for some reason, he cannot see the future).

Flash forward some time later and Merlin has fallen for Nimue so hard that he just wants to grow old by her side. He tells her how he got his magic and became immortal, but when she suggests she just drink from the Grail as well, he shoots that idea down. Life is made of little moments, precious as diamonds, he explains, and an endless sea of diamonds would make them worthless. Instead, he has a different idea: remake the Grail into a sword that will take away his immortality and they can live normal lives together. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, too bad a masked figure is watching them.

During a brief stop at the remains of Nimue’s village, she brings up what she would do with magic like his — hand out power to those who need it, strike down those who (in her opinion, it seems) deserve it. With his magic, he can kill Vortigan, she argues, but Merlin tells her that if he kills, the darkness will take root inside him. Yep, obviously teetering on the edge of becoming a Dark One if given the opportunity, and honestly, I’m surprised Merlin trusts her to hold the Grail when he asks her to check that it’s secure. Oh, love is blind in this case, I suppose.

It’s easy to guess what happens next. Merlin uses the flame of Prometheus (if 5B isn’t about the underworld, I’m going to be very disappointed) to turn the Grail into Excalibur, but then Vortigan shows up, grabs Nimue, she fights him, he stabs her and Merlin think she has died in his arms. However, she then takes Vortigan’s heart out of his chest. See, she’s not really dead because she drank from the Grail earlier (oh, immortality) and she used the opportunity to show Merlin what death looks like. Even though Merlin pleads with her to spare Vortigan’s life, to not choose the dark path, to be the woman he knows, she crushes his heart and becomes the Dark One — the first Dark One. She’s the one who breaks Excalibur into two.

As Merlin later explains to Emma, he and his apprentice made sure the sword would be safe (in the stone) and he created the dagger and tethered Nimue’s spirit to it so he could control her, but she got it away from him and turned him into the tree. He says that the Dark One killed the woman he loved because she killed the woman she used to be.

Resisting the Darkness

In Camelot, Emma spends her time making dreamcatchers to take memories out of people’s heads instead of sleeping, while the others come up with a plan to save her from the darkness. Merlin will take her on a quest to get the spark from mankind’s original fire, the flame of Prometheus, while the others need to get into the castle and get Excalibur somehow. While saying goodbye, Hook gives Emma a ring on a chain; he isn’t proposing, but it will serve as a reminder that she has a pirate waiting who loves her. 

The journey isn’t going to be an easy one for Emma. She will need to deal with the Dark One, the original, the one from whom all the evil that followed was born, and Merlin warns her that he sees two paths: one in which she resists the darkness and they succeed, and one in which she succumbs to it and he dies — at her hand, because only a Dark One has the power to kill him.

Along the way, Emma admits that she worries not seeing Rumplestiltskin in her head is a bad thing, that she has embraced her dark powers, especially since she has done some dark things. But there’s still hope, right? Once they reach where Merlin had turned the Grail into Excalibur, Merlin explains that the first Dark One possessed the flame in the form of a single ember, with the spark they needed inside. And so Emma takes the dagger, calls on the spirits of the previous Dark Ones, hopes she’ll take the right path and summons the first Dark One — Nimue.

That is when things go south, with Nimue using Emma to attack Merlin, being the voice in her ear that Rumple had been, telling her that she can’t let someone she loved try to stop her from being her and to kill them if necessary. Emma tries to resist, but she can’t until she has her hands around Merlin’s throat, with Nimue telling her that the Dark Ones are one and the same and she has to destroy Merlin, even as Merlin tells her to fight. And fight Emma does, regaining control and taking the ember from Nimue, who lets her know the sword she will make has more than one use and she’ll be right there, in her head when she wants her, before disappearing. So how does it feel for Emma to take the right path? “Damn good.”

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Zelena Being Zelena

Meanwhile, Zelena has had enough of listening to what she deems to be stupid plans from Regina, David, Mary Margaret, Hook and Robin as they try to figure out a way into the castle to get the sword and, once she has her voice back, reveals that she had plotted her escape while a mute handmaiden found a way out, meaning it’s also a way for them to get in.

While inside the castle, Arthur puts together a nasty concoction that will basically melt the “intruders.” Mary Margaret is left on guard duty with Zelena outside, while the others enter … only for Zelena to trick her long enough to knock her out and tie her up. Just Zelena being Zelena.

When the others reach Arthur and Excalibur, Zelena, cuff-free, joins them with her hostage and does a bit of magic for Arthur so that Merlin’s name appears on Excalibur and he can summon him. And summon him there he does, ordering Merlin to use his magic to keep the others from attacking him. Merlin has no choice but to do so, but he does try to get through to Arthur, to put him back on the right path. But Arthur, more interested in glory than fulfilling Merlin’s prophecy, orders him to make the “intruders” leave. And Merlin does just that.

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Now that Emma has both the broken Excalibur and the dagger, the Dark One is eager to see them finally reunited. They represent more than just power, the being wearing Rumplestiltskin’s face tells her. They represent history.

So it’s only fitting that, when the time comes for Emma to use the spark she took from Nimue to reunite the two parts of the blade, the Dark One is wearing Nimue’s face. All the Dark Ones are proud of her, she tells Emma, and those Dark Ones echo “all of us” as they fill the basement cave. However, once the blade is whole again, she does hesitate to touch it, recalling Merlin’s warning from when she was a girl to “leave the sword alone.” But with the Dark Ones chanting at her to take the power, she takes Excalibur in hand.

Once Upon a Time season 5 airs Sundays at 8pm on ABC.

(Image courtesy of ABC)

Meredith Jacobs

Contributing Writer, BuddyTV

If it’s on TV — especially if it’s a procedural or superhero show — chances are Meredith watches it. She has a love for all things fiction, starting from a young age with ER and The X-Files on the small screen and the Nancy Drew books. Arrow kicked off the Arrowverse and her true passion for all things heroes. She’s enjoyed getting into the minds of serial killers since Criminal Minds, so it should be no surprise that her latest obsession is Prodigal Son.