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“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” or some variation of that cliche was drilled into me as a kid so that I would develop patience, and not be so results-oriented: “I want this, I want that,” and the like. And it’s useful, because when you embrace that value you’re less likely to be disappointed. Sure, if you invest mightily in a project you want to see it succeed, but if the process was rewarding in itself, then you won’t walk away like you’ve wasted your efforts.
As a viewer of “Once Upon A Time,” I cannot speak for all, but in my enjoyment of the breakneck speed conclusion, I wondered if the journey that led me to this satisfying destination was tainting it. Almost as if I had such a traumatic flight en route to a luxury resort on a tropical island that it soured me on the whole paradise thing. While I’m sure I could find a way to enjoy soaking up some rays and bathing in pristine waters, this finale wasn’t so mind-blowing that I’d forgotten how pissed I was on the way over. Last week, I talked about being that proverbial kid who always need to pee in the back seat, whining incessantly, “Are we there yet?” Now, I feel like the spoiled kid who got the Christmas present he wanted, but upon receiving it doesn’t want it as badly, Because I waited so long for it lost its allure. I saw the commercials every day after school and the desire for it became pathological. When Mom said I would get it for Christmas, I danced around for what seemed like forever and passed the time imagining what it would be like to call it my own. Then the day came and I wanted something else more.
That feeling of getting almost exactly what you wanted, but not being as thrilled with it as you’d imagined you would was my overwhelming emotion watching the conclusion to OUAT’s first season. The isolated fairybacks, whose relevance eluded us got connections that were more than tenuous at best, magic got context and concrete boundaries instead of fluid, willy-nilly usage and the emotional toll on the characters was palpable. Withholding these methods of engagement doesn’t seem fruitful to me, especially when you need to convince your viewers that 22 episodes are a worthy investment. I understand the storytelling advantages inherent in character by character flashbacks, but for me the real world arc was dragging its heels so that its development would sync up that of the Fairy Tale Land. But Storybrooke is the aftermath, the fallout from these FTL events. Being beholden to those fairybacks serves no narrative purpose.
The “Lost” formula was successful for a reason, but the application of it was sloppy. Yes, an episode of “Lost” would focus primarily on one character through flashbacks and they would become more fleshed out in the current timeline as a result, but the world didn’t stop so that we could get to know them. For example, in the Grumpy episode, what did we glean from having Grumpy crush on a nun and sell candles? Yeah, nothing. That contributed zero to the direction of the arc. And while the relevance of certain threads like The Mad Hatter’s and Belle’s were given heft in the finale, many other detours remained a distraction, the part of the magician’s trick where they subtly get you to draw your focus away so that you’ll miss the manipulation. Shoehorning a “see wasn’t that worth it, kids?” into one pretty thrilling day trip, does not make this television show a worthwhile “vacation.” To me, it’s a case of lazy parents who are putting off presents until the holiday so they don’t have to deal with it now. And they hope that by making it special, the excruciating wait will be forgotten. Sorry, I remember the bumpy ride to Disneyworld or the painfully drawn out months that preceded the most wonderful time of the year.
Let’s get down to logistics. there was a lot to be delighted about. And while promises are not always kept on this show, we end on a note that would suggest OUAT won’t just be meandering in The Infinite Forest in its follow-up season. In the FTL, we begin where we left off, with Snow White poisoned and Charming trapped. While being escorted to his execution, Charming busts out his apparent military training as he totally owns the Evil Queen’s guards. However, as he turns down the hall a guard points his bow and arrow at him, and another guard boxes him in. Awaiting an arrow in the chest, the guard fires and hits his own man instead. Why did the guard help him? Well, because that guard is the Huntsman a.k.a Sheriff Graham. I got nervous they were bringing him back from the dead as some ploy, but then I remembered that in FTL you have the luxury of living after your heart is ripped out of you and crushed in someone’s hands.
Emma rushes Henry to the hospital and Dr. Whale asks her how this happened. She now does believe in Henry so she screams that he ate a poisoned apple turnover! Emma’s insistence was kind of hilarious, because for once she gets to feel how ridiculous it is to explain this to a non-believer. As the kid goes comatose, she touches his book and she’s flooded with memories of the FTL. It feels cheap. I understand that belief is powerful, and the point is that her son being in immortal danger is and should be a galvanizing force, but seeing “magic” as a catalyst again brings out the groans in me. Regina flurries in and Emma goes ape. She shoves Regina in a supply closet and throws her around. Well, it’s about damn time! I know it makes sense that Emma would only get some fight in her now that she believes, but Regina could have used some roughing up a while ago. Regina admits that it’s all true and that it was poisoned to make Emma fall asleep. The brief moment where we see Regina’s desperation to keep her son is touching, but most emotional moments are breezed through and not given time to ferment because, as I said, the answers are shoehorned in and it’s a mad dash to revelations. Regina says they must consult the only other person in Storybrooke who knows magic. Emma guesses Gold, but then Regina delivers the laugher line: “Actually, he goes by Rumpelstiltskin.”
Lost in the forest, Charming bumps into Rumpy who enchants his mother’s ring to help find Snow. On one condition. He must insert a potion, carefully encased in a golden egg, into “the belly of the beast…for a rainy day” (hehe). The potion, of course, is that true love potion I was excited about. Eeerily enough, the potion was made from strands of Charming and Snow’s hair. We also get a gem of a line about what Rumpelstiltskin knows of true love (obviously referring to Belle): “It was a brief flicker of light amidst a notion of darkness. Badass.
Continuing with the overt parallelism, in the following real world scene, Gold tells Emma about the nature of the curse, and the reason why she is the anointed savior, the safety valve. He put one drop of true love’s potion onto the parchment of the curse, meaning that she, the product of true love, is the one glimmer of hope in all that misery. See, that’s cool. I like that. As I’ve mentioned, I’m a sucker for true love, but it also follows through on what I have been asking for, some guidelines for how magic can be used, instead of being deployed when it’s convenient. We get the punchline too for the “rainy day” joke when Emma replies, “Well it’s stormy as a bitch, where is it?” Gold smiles with that Rumpy, mischievous grin and gives Emma her father’s sword.
We get another Spark Notes version of emotion when both Regina and Emma say their potential goodbyes to Henry. There’s some good acting, they just aren’t afforded time to linger with the severity of the situation. Like when Regina’s goodbye is abruptly cut off by Jefferson creeping in the shadows, waiting for his deal to be honored where he doesn’t remember his old life. But their deal is null and void since Emma is still awake. Jefferson doesn’t take this loophole well and seems to have the face of a schemer.
Emma stalls a bit to visit August with an obligatory, “You were right!” He can’t open the door though because at this point, he’s mostly wood (giggity) and as his face, the last remnant of humanity turns, he tells Emma that he has the faith she can save them all. Emma then meets Regina at the post office where she has a secret lair (surprise, surprise) with an elevator that will take her to Maleficent. We all know it’s gonna be a dragon, but they’re coy about it like it will be some big reveal. But anyone with a working knowledge of fairy tales knew that was coming, right? Anyway, Emma assures her majesty that the only reason she’s not dead is she needs her help. But if Henry dies, she does too. See, Emma with some bite is awesome, more please!
Our double duty dragon battles ensue, with father and daughter trying to accomplish opposite goals. While the CGI dragon was impressive, it was depressing to see how horrible the green screen scenery was. All the effort put in to those sword fights and gorgeous fire-breathers, and it’s downplayed by a really artificial looking castle. At any rate, having both battles at the same time felt like overkill, like I was in an anteroom waiting for the real action to start, but it looked damn good. And we get a couple standout moments from Emma’s bout: she pulls out her gun because she is clumsy with a sword; and she chucks the sword at the dragon as the prince did in the Disney film.
Charming finds Snow with his GPS ring and then asks for her hand. It was a nice touch for Goodwin to say, “What do you think?” playing off the knowledge that we obviously knew where this was headed. Egg in hand, Emma gets stalled in the elevator and screams up to Regina only for Gold to answer. He says to throw up the egg before she climbs up. Boneheaded move. Once up there, she sees that Gold gagged Regina, and that upon catching the egg, Gold ran off. It’s then when Regina and Emma both receive messages. Henry’s dead. Now, fair warning. This is horrible. But did anyone else HOPE he stayed dead. I’m not a proponent of child murder per say, BUT man would that add some urgency or what, huh? I’m sorry. I’m a terrible person and should be ashamed. I will let the record show though, that losing Jared Gilmore as a child actor would not be the worst thing. There’s a reason he didn’t stick around on “Mad Men.”
While Henry was going into cardiac arrest, Jefferson uses the chaos to slip downstairs to the mental institution wing. As revenge against Regina, he frees Belle and tells her to go seek out Mr. Gold and tell him that Regina locked her up. Why he couldn’t escort her, I don’t know. Late for tea, maybe? Yeah, I suck. So, when Gold opens the egg at his shop and Belle strolls in, he’s astonished. If there was one sentiment that sang in this episode it was that reunion. Emile de Ravin and Robert Carlyle killed it. Even if we got only one episode of them together, I thought their reuniting was more triumphant than even Snow and Charming’s, and we follow them along their treacherous journey all season.
As Emma stares shocked at Henry’s lifeless body, we can hear her exasperated breaths. She’s torn up, knowing that her lack of faith, not necessarily in fairy tales but in her son, was to blame is a heavy burden. But she pours her love into an “I love you,” and a kiss on his forehead and true love’s kiss radiates throughout Storybrooke, jolting Henry awake and reigniting the memories in all the former fairy tale characters’ heads. Again, seeing Belle remember how she loved Rumpy beats out even David turning around from leaving Storybrooke to hold Mary/Snow in his arms again. On the opposite end of the spectrum, everyone also remembers how they hate Regina, and while she would love to stay and be grateful Henry’s alive, she ducks out ready for a mob and cries into Henry’s pillow instead. That sounds a bit stalkerish though when you say it out loud, doesn’t it? Hm.
Despite having love reintroduced into his life, Rumpy hasn’t abandoned his lust for power. He leads Belle to the magical well we were introduced to in “What Happened to Frederick.” This was the well with water that can bring back what you’ve lost. Now we also have the nugget in our minds that Rumpelstiltskin told the prince he’s invested in true love, especially the powerful concoction Charming and Snow have, because of what its magic creates. With that veiled threat in my mind we see Rumpy pour the contents of true love’s vial into the well and a billowy, purple smoke blasts through town. I was intrigued that Henry knew it was bad right away. I mean, as we know from “Lost,” smoke of any color is bad, but considering that the return of magic was what the kid wanted, it’s curious how the idea of magic in the real world is so frightening. As Rumpy manically informs his new/old beauty, “Magic is power,” but couldn’t that power be acquired by the good guys? I suppose it’s interesting too because the other Sunday show I review, “Game of Thrones,” is also dealing with the perils of magic in its second season, so maybe this is an admirable direction for reinvigorating this series.
Regardless, the realization of their past while remaining in the real world is almost exactly what I was calling for. I didn’t want this to be adventure time in FTL, and I’m glad Kitsis/Horowitz got the memo. Now that the characters know, there’s more opportunity to seize their own destiny instead of being servile prisoners of the EQ. And the devilish grin upon her face when the smoke tumbled through suggested to me that Henry’s dalliance with death hasn’t softened her. I’ve already addressed my quibbles ad nauseum, but now props must go out to the writers for lurching ahead with this runaway train instead of trying desperately to slow it down. It’s reassuring to know—although still infuriating to a degree that it wasn’t apparent earlier— that there was a finite plan and trajectory.
The callbacks were pleasant, and at points even fun and sweet. Because we wandered aimlessly so much, I didn’t realize how much I cared about Belle, but on a practical level to have less space and time wasted was refreshing. Still, there needs to be a concerted effort to pace the season just like this episode. Obviously, don’t show your hand, but making us aware of what’s important wouldn’t hurt. It’s not a spoiler to say, for example, that Emma is the drop of true love Rumpy put into the curse as a safety valve. That’s more informative than just “she’s the savior.” In a fantasy world, we need structure and rules just as necessarily as we do in the real world. Because like our fairy tale counterparts in Storybrooke, we’re only human, so let’s respect that and not pretend we’re don’t need things like love to stay alive.