"Once Upon a Time" left us with an intriguing cliffhanger before the midseason break, so it was pleasing that the show came back with a bang, displaying purpose and confidence in its 2013 return.
While Snow White and Emma's trip to the Enchanted Forest was important in terms of setting up storylines, introducing Hook and bringing back Cora, there were certainly episodes where it seemed like the show was spinning its wheels, drawing out the separation past its expiration date for the sake of additional drama.
Thankfully, the show fully regained its momentum in "The Cricket Game," getting a simple but effective adrenaline boost just by allowing our favorite characters to reunite. While the journey is undoubtedly as important as the destination in serialized storytelling, we're invested in these characters' relationships above all, which means that seeing them apart for any great length of time becomes frustrating. As Charming joked in this week's episode, "we will always find each other, but here's to not having to look for a while." The Charming family has already faced so many obstacles and separations, it will be fantastic to see all of the characters getting the chance to interact together and learn about each other in a deeper way, since now they'll be facing these new obstacles together.
This week's episode was all about second chances, with the characters in Storybrooke struggling to believe in Regina's desire for redemption, mostly because of their previous experience with The Evil Queen in Fairytale Land, and her unrepentant remorselessness in her quest to destroy Snow White. Likewise, for the audience, poor Archie got a second chance at life, after we all believed him dead at Cora's hand. But a do-over isn't always such a positive thing, as Cora illustrated; her desire to reconnect with her daughter (giving Regina a second chance to be the obedient child Cora always wanted) resulted in quite the body count, with one man turned into a fish and another killed in Archie's place to disguise his kidnapping. Cora's quest to break her daughter by stripping away all her meager connections and relationships is particularly nefarious, and a fitting juxtaposition to the generous and supportive vision of motherhood that Snow and Emma embody.
The episode seemed like one of the most mature of the series to date -- and not just because it hilariously began with Snow and Charming in coitus interruptus thanks to the arrival of a mortified Emma and confused Henry. (Their apartment really needs some more walls.)
The themes of loneliness and self-loathing were entirely relatable, and Emma's scenes with Regina were both poignant and surprisingly realistic, given the fantastical nature of the show. Emma at least righted the wrong of the last episode and invited Regina to their "welcome home" party, but then the poor woman spent most of the night sat alone in the corner while the other fairytale folk celebrated without her.
And while it's right that people should be suspicious of her motives after all the bad things she's done, as Emma pointed out, Regina also saved their lives when letting them through the portal and she genuinely seemed to want to change her bad behavior and reliance on magic -- since it always comes with a price. Emma and Regina's confrontation outside Granny's was compelling, with both women having valid reasons for their reactions, fighting for Henry's best interests even without having the moral high ground. Regina certainly hasn't proved herself as a reliable parent yet, but then neither has Emma, since it's true that even Charming has probably spent more time actively looking after Henry than Emma has at this point. Ultimately this tug-of-war over Henry needs to be left up to the kid himself.
Then there was the meat of the episode -- the procedural "mystery" of proving Regina's guilt or innocence in Archie's apparent murder case. If I could change one thing about the episode, it would be having the audience discovering that it was Cora guilty of the crime so soon. Why couldn't we spend the majority of the episode wondering, as Snow, Charming and Emma did, whether she was guilty or not as the evidence stacked up, with Cora revealing both truths (about her guilt and Archie's kidnapping) at the end of the episode?
Knowing all the facts in advance drained the episode of some dramatic tension, but the flashbacks to Fairytale Land did offer us interesting insight into Snow and Regina's tumultuous relationship, allowing us to understand why she and Charming had such a hard time giving her a second chance. Regina's singleminded focus on killing her stepdaughter is obviously not a new thing, and it also allowed Lana Parrilla another opportunity to peel back some of Regina's layers and show some of the Evil Queen's vulnerabilities, thanks to her emotional scene with her father.
It also further fleshed out the origins of the curse, with Rumple's protection spell over Snow and Charming necessitating the move to a different world from Regina's perspective, which -- in true Rumple form -- then served the dual purpose of allowing him to look for his son in another land.
The greatest tragedy of all was that Regina really was telling the truth the whole time (and Emma went above and beyond to give her the benefit of the doubt), and her growing alienation will likely push her right back into her mother's grasp, a self-fulfilling prophecy that will come back to haunt all of our characters.
But the most major revelation of the episode was undoubtedly Emma's further use of magic. We've seen glimpses of her abilities this season, but this was the first opportunity for her to have awareness and control of her powers, and it will be fascinating to see whether she falls into the same trap as Regina and begins relying on Rumplestiltskin to help her master the skills, or whether she'll turn to a more sane teacher like the Blue Fairy.
The episode, written by David H. Goodman & Robert Hull, had some of the best lines of the season so far packed into one hour. From Regina's snarky lines about Red taking herself for a walk and Archie getting his PhD from a curse, to Emma's hilarious reaction to finding her parents in bed together and Granny's lament about meatloaf, there were plenty of memorable gems, further proving how deftly the show can balance humor and emotion when done right.
While Cora and Hook's storyline is obviously going to be a slower burn (and poor Hook spent all episode lounging around alone at the docks) the twist of Archie's survival will open up some interesting new avenues -- and hopefully allow him some time to gather intel of his own on the nefarious visitors. I was just glad that the writers didn't kill off our beloved cricket.
"Once Upon a Time" airs Sundays at 8 p.m. EST on ABC.
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