Darkness Thickens in Storybrooke, and Just in Time
If you’re a regular reader of this review series, you’ll know I had my doubts, after the last two episodes of Once Upon a Time, about whether the producers could right the ship after the Thanksgiving Break as the fall season wraps up. In fact, I’ve tried to offer some helpful suggestions for how they might do this. Now, I can’t guarantee that Adam Horowitz, Edward Kitsis, and company were actually paying attention to my humble little review, but I am pleased to report that this week’s episode offered a significant improvement over where the show had been heading lately, both in thought and in execution.
In fact, Once Upon a Time has had its share of good moments this season, particularly in terms of the themes and motifs it’s been developing. Early on, the show explored some interesting questions about the nature of leadership, offering in David (Josh Dallas) and Arthur (Liam Garrigan) two competing visions of what it means to be a king. We’ve also seen new examples of what makes a hero, both in Gold’s (Robert Carlyle) transformation and in Henry’s (Jared Gilmore) efforts to woo young Violet (Olivia Steele Falconer) and impress her father. We’ve even touched on male chauvinism in the character of Arthur, a moment that reinforced Once Upon a Time’s ongoing deconstruction of the fairy tale princess.
A number of enduring themes remain as well, though: the thin line between good and evil, the danger secrets can cause, and the wonders and limitations of true love. Episode 10, “Broken Heart,” offered a few new angles on some of these. Up to now, for instance, the transition from good to evil has mainly operated in one direction, with characters like Regina (Lana Parrilla), Gold, and Hook (Colin O’Donoghue) finding redemption from their dark pasts. It’s about time, then, that we saw a character or two transition in the opposite direction. Of course, we’ve had Emma (Jennifer Morrison), the savior turned dark one, since the end of last season, but hers has been a quest to keep herself free from the taint of evil. As a result, she’s never felt particularly “bad”, only caught in some unfortunate circumstances. Her decision to share her darkness with Hook, however, has given rise to a new sort of villain, one capable of preying on Emma’s feelings, killing without remorse, and summoning up very dark forces indeed.
So too the issue of secrets took on new meaning this week. Throughout this season, Emma has kept the past to herself, having stored everyone else’s memories in dreamcatchers. We’ve seen the negative effects of these secrets, most memorably when Henry discovered his mother manipulated his love life back in Camelot. Here, however, we get a slight shift in this theme, as we discover all of Emma’s efforts were driven by good intentions. That in itself offers a fascinating commentary on the nature of the fairy tale, but also gives us a chance to consider whether a character who doesn’t know he is evil — in this case Hook — can actually be good, as he apparently has remained since returning to Storybrooke. Apparently consciousness of evil is necessary for evil?
To add to these new directions, we also discover for the first time that love doesn’t necessarily conquer all. Up to this point, we’ve been reminded over and over that dark magic can be broken with true love’s kiss. In “Broken Heart,” two loves are frustrated — first Emma’s and Hook’s, severed by the secret Emma kept, but likewise by the darkness that seems to have completely overtaken Hook’s personality. But in addition, Belle (Emilie de Ravin) rejects Gold — now an established hero — ironically deciding that, despite the fact that he is now firmly good, he has broken her heart to many times to trust him again.
The real assets of the episode, however, have more to do with production. Episodes in Scotland have been far too bright and comical, and the return to a dark atmosphere is welcome; even the special effects come off as more believable (I don’t know why grey smoke is more realistic than green; it just is). At the same time, we focus mainly on the central cast, with Henry, David and Mary-Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin), and Regina all getting important moments in the storyline. But perhaps most importantly, everyone is back together again and working towards a common purpose. In next week’s review, I’ll talk a bit about how this reunion taps into important archetypes, but for now, let’s just say that we’re all happier when the gang’s all here and pulling in one direction.
As for what remains in the next episode, the winter finale: Regina seems to be trying to rehabilitate her sister Zelena (Rebecca Mader), using Zelena and Robin’s (Sean Maguire) child as carrot; Gold, of course, must decide how to deal with Belle’s rejection; Henry and Victoria’s relationship has yet to be resolved; Merida (Amy Manson) has only recently vowed revenge on Arthur (who is apparently still wandering about at loose ends); and we’ve seen the return of Red Riding Hood (Meghan Ory), which must surely herald some significant new plot direction.