King Leopold (Richard Schiff of "The West Wing") dotes on his daughter, Snow (Ginnifer Goodwin).

B+Is there anything freer than knowing exactly who you are? You have nothing to prove, because your expectations are much more reasonable and whenever you create, or work, or do what it is you do, you do it with a exactness that no one else could ever conceive of.

Well, “OUAT,” I believe, has found that sweet spot. They have embraced an identity, and it falls short of many great shows on television. I can provide you with 10 better written shows, and I can find you ten shows that I certainly look up to more for their innovation and artistry. Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz worked on one of those before, “LOST.” If you have read my reviews you know how much I adored, and still carry great affection for, that show. Despite it being the one show my dad and I will never watch together, and while my opinions contrasts with those who loathed the final five minutes of the series finale so severely that it ruined the entire journey before it, it is undoubtedly, one for the history books. OUAT, will never be LOST. OUAT wishes they had the privilege of “LOST’s” club of flaws. However, OUAT has a lightness to it now, as if they have dropped the burden of expectations and have decided to care less about being great, and want to a force of its own will. “Once Upon A Time” will make me groan weekly with its insisting witticisms connecting their dual realms, but beyond today I will note them no longer (but seriously, referring to a plan to expose Regina as reaching for the fruit of the poisonous tree, COME ON!) because it’s charming just how little they wish to please me. And now that they have stopped catering to some false sense of importance, it has become more enjoyable, more effortlessly engaging, and more goddamed fun.

Although tonight, my patience was tried within mere minutes of the still lame title sequence (this isn’t a haunted house show, let’s be real). Lana Parilla is a clearly attractive woman in her own right, and I’m sure come Emmy season I will be scraping my jaw off the floor after she has walked onto the red carpet, but any chemistry we had has been killed by her shrewish attitude on the show. I’m sure that is how she has been directed to be, but why couldn’t she be more seductive. Isn’t the purest evil the kind that sneaks up behind you because you trusted it would never harm you? Well, it seems the show may be in the business of granting wishes. I say this not just because “The Genie” from Aladdin lore is the subject of tonight’s fairyback, but because in said fairyback, the Queen effectively seduced me.

But not before she made my balls shrink up inside me with condescensions like, “He’ll have a cracked cranium if you aren’t careful,” or “It’s time to be responsible Ms. Swan.” These gems and more are a part of a barrage of berating remarks by Regina, aimed at Emma, after she finds her and Henry playing at a now dilapidated playground (Henry’s castle) after the storm hit it. Emma, initially, is willing to let her usual overreaching roll off. Then she hits up Granny’s. Here we find Gus (damn, still not Breaking Bad, huh), I mean Sidney Glass, editor of the Storybrooke Mirror throwing back whiskeys for breakfast. Turns out he has a grudge with Regina too. After he was humiliated at the sheriff elections he decided to expose her for the corrupt mayor she is, to no avail. She found him out and fired him. Now, Sidney’s looking to partner up with Emma to take her down through some good old dirt-digging. Emma declines, claiming she wants to take her down without getting her hands dirty, but when she sees Henry’s playground is demolished and his book (THE BOOK) missing from its hiding place, she decides all bets are off.

As mentioned, we meet Genie this week who is Sidney’s alter ego (played by the supremely talented Giancarlo Esposito, who found his career-defining role as Gus in AMC’s “Breaking Bad”). As we know from prior installments (so don’t be shocked) Sidney is the magic mirror to Regina’s Evil Queen. This sets up easily the show’s most effective twist on conventional fairy tales, The Genie becomes the mirror. And despite this nugget not being concealed, I was still enthralled by the how of it all. The genie is summoned from the lamp and appears before King Leopold, father of Snow White. Esposito’s take on Genie is refreshing, he too wishes to be broken from the shackles of his gig, but this Genie isn’t masking his longing with cheer and improvisational humor. This guy is unenthused and apathetic. He recites his spiel about his magic’s limitations sans gusto. Being a kind royal, who wants for nothing (though it’s much easier to be humble when you’re royalty though) Leopold wishes for Genie’s freedom, a gesture that delights our not-so-blue friend. With his second wish he grants that his third wish be given to the Genie to use. Genie is again grateful, but asserts he will never use it. He’s granted 1001 wishes, and all of them have had grave consequences. Without much purpose to pair with his newfound liberty, Leopold offers to make him a member of his court where he’s certain he’ll find the one wish Genie cannot grant for himself, true love.

Making a brief appearance in the real world is Mary Margaret who meets up with David for a surprise picnic at the place where they first met, the ever-romantic toll bridge. Mary Margaret, amidst a flurry of kisses, wonders if they should face the reality that he is married, but David just wants to love her guilt-free so they push worry off to tomorrow. Mary Margaret also delivers possibly the funniest line of the night, when she see Sidney and Emma sifting through public records to discover any seeds of wrongdoing: “Yeah, maybe you’re doing something wrong, but if it’s right and it’s meant to be, does that make you a bad person?” Ha! Oh, Mary Margaret, even when you’re a mistress tortured by guilt and shame, you’re cute as a button. Meanwhile, Sidney seems convinced that this $50,000 of unappropriated funds will be the Mayor’s undoing, the “crack in the mirror” (ughhhhh…but I’m letting go…). When Emma questions why Sidney ever got in her pocket in the first place he more organically alludes to the parallel story, “I used to think she was a different person.”

Here we start to feel for Evil Queen (EQ). At some festivity, we see the King waxing philosophic about his daughter’s unmatched beauty, but then he strikes at EQ’s self-esteem saying Snow is a constant reminder of his “fairest of them all” first wife, and her mother. EQ has no place in his court, or in his heart. She is trapped in an essentially loveless marriage, or at least one where she will always play second fiddle. Genie runs after her into her courtyard where the soon-to-be poisonous apple tree grows. He lifts her spirits by gifting her a mirror, so that she may see what he sees, the true “fairest of them all.”

In Storybrooke, Emma confronts Regina directly about the missing funds. Regina is quick with an alibi, saying the record of the transaction was burned in the fire that got her elected. While leaning against her desk, Emma plants a bug so she can intercept some clue of where she allocated the money. When she overhears a phone call about a roadside meeting, she and Sidney spring into action. While heading to the location, the brakes fail on Emma’s car and Sidney immediately notices they were tampered with and that Regina must have discovered the bug. Coincidentally, Mr. Gold is out by the roadside. He informs them that the mayor met with him to buy his land. He also warns about emotional entanglements, and how they can distort the truth and people will get hurt. Unconvinced, Emma heads for Regina’s office and breaks in. She gathers any files related to the land grab off her computer, but not before running into Regina herself. Emma, quick-witted, conjures up a tale about a teenage prank that Sidney had witnessed. Across town, we also get a short glimpse of Mysterious Writer/ Biker Dude who bumps into Henry who is trying to record the details of THE BOOK, in case it isn’t found. When “Oh Precocious One” grills the man with the box about why he is here, he mocks the child, “Stuff.”

The Evil Queen’s father makes a surprise visit, dropping in on Genie when he expected a rendezvous with the Queen. The King has pilfered his wife’s diary and has knowledge about a man who has stolen her heart. He recognizes that he can never love EQ like she deserves, but he’s still aghast at her betrayal. He charges Genie, whom he trusts, to sniff out this mystery man. In response, EQ’s father has come to deliver his daughter a package, a way out of this prison of a life, an escape from her own form of servitude. When she opens the box we find two Agrabah vipers. For those with a working knowledge of Disney, Agrabah is the homeland of the Genie. EQ’s plan is to kill herself with one venomous bite, but Genie stops her. Clearly enamored with her, he offers to kill the king himself by setting the vipers loose on him. In this scene in particular we see another side of Regina/EQ, one who is stricken with sadness, but oozes sensuality as she brushes against Genie’s cheek and embraces him for his selflessness: a deep contrast to the shrill, unabashedly evil Regina that has inhabited every other episode. The added dimension is well executed and goes a long way to establishing a character we can invest in instead of just emphatically opposing.

Then the entanglements Mr. Gold forewarned of begin to unravel. At a city council meeting, Emma and Syndey speak up, exposing Regina’s plans to build a second home in the woods with taxpayer money. Unphased, Regina retorts she is indeed building a house. A PLAYHOUSE. OH SNAP! She circumvented the city governance so she could get the project underway quicker, so that the town’s children would have a safe place to play. Disgraced and defeated, Emma loses not just her plot for revenge, but Henry as well. Regina blackmails Emma with evidence that she did truly break-in to her office and bans her from seeing Henry for an undetermined period of time. The one ray of hope she clings to is that Sidney is her ally now, and no longer Regina’s spy. Earlier, he had pulled out a shoebox of photos he had taken of Emma while under Regina’s employ, tracking Emma’s every move so she could prevent her from getting close to Henry.

With a powerful ally, Emma has the strength she needs to stand up to Regina when the time is right. Except, the last scene of the episode suggest differently. Sidney is seated before a mirror in Regina’s office and he reports that “she bought it,” he has earned Emma’s trust and holds a tape recordings of all their meetings. Regina is as unstoppable as ever, now she can track the sheriff’s every move and will always be one step ahead. What seemed like a foregone conclusion, Emma’s penetration of Regina’s facade, now seems improbable. With a well-established network of watchful eyes, Regina seems to have an unrelinquishing grasp on her power, and Emma. Although, mysterious writer/biker dude may be the thorn in her side. We get a quick glimpse of the all-important box, the one that last week held a typewriter. Now it holds… THE BOOK! WHAAAAATTTTT? Stay tuned, as they say.

The twist with the most payoff though, was in the fairyback. Genie sicks the vipers on his dear friend and they both dig their fangs into his neck causing an almost instant death. In his last moments though, Genie expresses his regret. He acknowledges that he’s forever indebted for the freedom the king granted him, but that he had to do the same for his queen, and break her chains as well. And as the king’s life is sucked out, he reminds Genie of another way he could have freed her. His last wish from the map. Damn. Either Genie was too gosh darn stubborn or too caught up to use it, but that would have been a more civil route to go. When he rushes to his love’s side to tell her the good news, she appears in more despair than before. The guards know the vipers are of Genie’s homeland, and that he will be executed. She offers him safe passage, but Genie is connecting the dots. Of all the snakes she could have picked, she picked those from Agrabah. She set him up. She never loved him at all, and used him to kill the king. EQ acknowledges this, and erases any possibility he could ever be in her life. But Genie has his one last trick up his lamp. He uses his last wish to grant that he will be by her side always, and that every day he will look upon her. And the magic of FTL does grant him this. He is to be stuck inside her mirror for the rest of his life. The show has introduced a litany of grim ways that magic has haunted these characters that have relied on it for solutions to their ills, but never has it been more tragic than when this man, recently freed, is once again enslaved. But this time, it was of his own will. He could not live without her, now he certainly cannot.

“7:15 A.M” delivered for me last week, but with this episode coming in consecutive weeks, I’m sure that it was no fluke. Appealing to pathos once again, the show struck a chord by sticking with the cliched but proven conceit that love can be the grandest magic in the world, but it can also inflict the greatest of pains. The fate of unrequited love has never been pretty, and I’m glad OUAT was bold enough to confront it. For the second week in a row I have reason to celebrate the achievements of a series that has labored through much of its first few months for my approval, and frankly the approval of many critics. But I’m confident that this week many others will be singing it’s praises. Surely, Regina cannot become a totally different character and will continue to thwart any of my attempts to like her or root for her success, but I can’t imagine this show is striving for that sort of moral ambiguity. At any rate, for this week I was again delighted to delve into both worlds (more so with the FTL because of the world-building and tragedy), and I’m excited for where the series can go from here in defying expectation now that they are ironically freed from its constraints. For allowing the captivating Giancarlo Esposito the space to play, for expanding our conception of the Queen’s capabilities, and for feeling like the gust of fresh air the show set out to be at its inception, OUAT repeats its success with a second straight triumph over my preconceived notions. I mean, the dialogue is still wooden; and much of my interest in the real world activity is riding on potential plot threads, my parallel investment in the FTL, and my admiration for a few performances. No buts about it though, the “fruits” of their labor have earned them a B+.

About The Author

Christopher Peck is a former Blast television editor

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