This review contains spoilers! Proceed with caution.

The long-awaited Season 5 premiere of Once Upon a Time gave us everything we’d been anticipating – and threw in a few surprises for good measure. ‘The Dark Swan’ followed two parallel storylines: Regina headed up a rescue mission in Storybrooke, while Emma ran into Merida in the Enchanted Forest. Their respective plots provided a stark contrast between light and dark and hinted at the overarching themes of this season.

It was revealed that a young Emma (played by the adorable Mckenna Grace) had once met the legendary Merlin. He left her with an ominous message: ‘Leave the sword alone’ (this is pretty heavy stuff to be dumping on a child. If I were Emma I’d be too creeped out to actually pay attention to what he was saying). We then cut to Camelot. King Arthur pried Excalibur from its stone, victorious, only to discover that a piece of it was missing. And that piece was used to craft none other than the Dark One’s dagger. I’m intrigued as to how this information – and Merlin’s warnings – will play into the larger storyline. Do Excalibur and the Dark Dagger have similar magical properties? Is that why Emma shouldn’t meddle with the sword? These questions likely won’t be answered until the midseason finale – in the meantime I’ll be over here making wild speculative guesses.

Emma’s journey this episode was as much emotional as it was physical. It was heart-wrenching to watch her trying so valiantly to resist the darkness. Jennifer Morrison deserves serious praise for being able to peel back her character’s layers and expose the raw emotion at her core. We’ve glimpsed Emma’s vulnerable side in recent seasons, and I’m hoping we’ll see more of it – and JMo’s acting talents – as her character continues to grow. I also loved Robert Carlyle’s appearance as the ever-present manifestation of Emma’s darkness. Lines like ‘Do you like knitting?’ were classic Rumple wit and provided a bit of hilarity in an otherwise bleak situation.

Regina’s new hero status was cemented by the fact that she wasn’t evil enough to wield the Apprentice’s wand. She’s still the Queen we know and love – all razor-sharp edges and biting remarks – only now her scheming is being put to good use. Her plan to trick Zelena into opening the portal established that her allegiances lie firmly with the Charmings. The days when she was an antagonist are truly behind us, and I’m excited to see how this character arc pans out. I’m also looking forward to more exchanges between her and Hook. Putting the two most sarcastic people in Storybrooke within hearing distance of each other always makes for great entertainment.

I felt as though Leroy articulated a valid point when he told Mary Margaret ‘We’ve been on the sidelines too long, sister’. Once has become very hero-centric of late, with a lot of minor characters being neglected in the process. In the end, the entirety of Granny’s Diner was tornado’d to the Enchanted Forest. Hopefully this means the writers intend to give them larger roles this season. I personally think it’d be great to see a shift back to the Season 1 format of the show, when side characters had equally interesting plotlines instead of being background furniture to the Charming family.

And speaking of family, I teared up when they all rushed to stop Emma from succumbing to darkness. Killian being the one to talk her out of crushing Merida’s heart proved that he understands her in a way that the other characters just don’t (is anyone else hoping for a TLK by the end of this season?). Emma entrusting the Dagger to Regina was a beautiful moment that perfectly showcased how far their relationship has come. It felt like a real turning point for everyone involved.

But then came theOUAT 22 twist. We were flung six weeks into the future, as disoriented as our heroes when they landed back in Storybrooke. Truthfully, I was less than pleased to learn that they’d been put under another memory-loss curse. This seems to be the writers’ go-to plot device and it’s getting old. The only thing that saved the scene was Emma showing up, accompanied by thunder and lightning and all that jazz. Her parting words – ‘I am the Dark One’ – made it clear that she’d undergone a major personality change. Which begs the question: what the hell happened in Camelot?!

Overall, the episode was well-paced and did a good job of setting up the tone and major arcs of Season 5A. Emma and Regina’s contrasting plotlines were fascinating. They’ve stepped into each other’s shoes in a sense, and we’ll just have to wait and see where that takes them. I must admit that I was disappointed by how abruptly Merida was written out. After all that hype and last year’s Frozen arc I was expecting her to be more than a mere cameo. Other than that, it’ll be interesting to see how the writers manage that time leap in upcoming episodes. And, of course, Emma’s transformation into the Dark Swan is something I can’t wait to see played out.