By John Keegan and Edmund Boys
The time has come for “Once Upon A Time” to take a bite out of the apple, lose its innocence, and finally gain knowledge of the world around it. Oh, sorry, wrong storybook. In this tale, apples make you want to take a long nap, and answers will have to wait for the season finale (and maybe beyond).
The trailer for this episode showed a stilted confrontation between Regina and the rest of Storybrooke. Thankfully, that is dispensed with up front as a painfully obvious dream sequence for Regina, with a grossly rotten apple thrown in to establish the theme of the night. After she wakes, she’s obviously a little bleary and out of sorts, since she falls for Henry’s pillow trick. (Of course, given harsher consequences, kids may not do that in Fairy-Tale Land.)
Thankfully, her discomfiture does lead her to consult with Mr. Gold, where they engage in their usual verbal fencing match. (We really need much more of Lana Parilla and Robert Carlyle doing this next season.) Something is actually rotten in the state of her apples, and, as they brainstorm, we learn that killing Emma will lift the curse. If anyone thinks some other fruit holds the key to this dilemma, they have not been paying attention.
What is also dispensed with early is Emma’s harebrained scheme to kidnap Henry. We know no-one can leave Storybrooke, a ban that has been enforced in decidedly unsupernatural ways. Here it just takes a twist of the wheel from Henry. I think Emma’s Bug must share some DNA with fellow Disney property, Herbie, since it can run off the road without injuring its passengers.
All of which is prelude to the meat, or should I say pith, of the episode, which is Snow White finally going all-out Robin Hood to save Charming. This is an attack we’ve been anticipating since the end of “Heart of Darkness”, with the promise of bad-ass dwarves standing in for the Merry Men. We are also treated to the developments on the other side of the conflict. The Evil Queen once again deploys the persuasive powers of cleavage to wrest James away from his ‘father’, whose contrasting wardrobe choice screams, “pushover!”
As a set-piece, the battle is a little odd. The sword-play is more “Court Jester” and “Princess Bride” than Flynn and Rathbone, but that’s in keeping with the lighter tone. Clothing the fairies in garish, neon satin has always seemed out of place. I’m sure the intent is to emphasize their other-ness, but it makes their CG nature stand out like a sore thumb. Unleashing a bomber squadron of them was great tactics, but not their finest moment visually.
The battle proves to be fruitless, once Snow discovers they attacked the wrong castle. Charming has been spirited to the evil queen’s. Since the budget can’t support another assault, she agrees to a parlay instead. In a nice twist on tradition, Snow is actually given a reason to eat the apple, sacrificing herself for James’ life. However, after so much buildup, ending the conflict with a quick grab and chomp felt very quick and perfunctory.
Absent that, this storyline has always been the show’s strongest. Storybrooke suffers in comparison, partially due to being more of a setup for the finale, but also due to one gaping plot hole. Regina lays a White Rabbit card on Grace Slick’s, sorry, I mean Paige’s, bike, and, lo and behold, Jefferson, the Mad Hatter appears. What’s odd is there’s no mention of how he survived defenestration. If that’s being left for the finale, fine, but my hopes aren’t high.
Anyhoo, Jefferson’s taken into Regina’s Vault of Magic, where she’s had his hat all along.
With the residual magic fading, he can only reach back for one thing, and Regina picks, wait for it, the apple. Regina bakes it into a turnover. Then, inexplicably, she doesn’t convince Emma to try it right there in the kitchen, where she could lasciviously watch her victory, just as she did with Snow.
Of course, that would’ve forestalled the ‘shock’ ending that became obvious the moment Henry showed up at Emma’s door. Having the savior down for the count, with Henry and the rest having to step up, could have been a more intriguing development. Especially after Henry laments that everyone is giving up. But the show has been pointing to an Emma-Regina showdown, and that’s what we’re going to get, with Henry’s life hanging in the balance.
Plot conveniences aside, there are some very nice character beats in Storybrooke. Emma finally wises up, with the help of Dr. Hopper/Jiminy. Mary Margaret steps up as well, with some forceful advice that can only be called motherly. It was a nice reality check to acknowledge that, by any standard measure, Regina has the better claim. That tug-of-war between appearance and reality is sure to play a role in deciding the fate of Henry and Storybrooke.
Before the finale, I do want to go on record with my hopes for the second season. From the start, there’s been speculation about how long the curse would hold sway, and how the show could continue if it lifted. Especially given the "Lost" pedigree, I always felt defeating the curse this season would be a great twist. Especially if it means flipping the whole premise, with everyone transported back to the Enchanted Forest. Henry would be in hog heaven, with Emma desperately trying to figure out a way back. Budget restraints probably preclude this, but, as fairy tales tell us, you can always dream. And sometimes, dreams come true.John Keegan is Editor-in-Chief for Critical Myth, a partner site of SciFi Vision. Edmund Boys is Critical Myth's reviewer for Once Upon a Time.