As expected after the midseason finale, the gang from Storybrooke — Emma (Jennifer Morrison), Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin), David (Josh Dallas), Regina (Lana Parrilla), Robin Hood (Sean Maguire), Henry (Jared Gilmore), and Gold (Robert Carlyle) — have arrived in the Underworld, where they will apparently spend the second half of the season searching for and rescuing Hook (Colin O’Donoghue). Hook’s plotline, however, remains mostly in the background of “Souls of the Departed”, suggesting he’ll remain a long-term goal.
Instead, most of this episode serves to reset the series, introduce us to this new world, and perhaps most importantly, set up a pattern for the episodes to follow. In fact, “Souls of the Departed” hints that the next several episodes may follow more of a pattern than we’ve seen up to this point in Once Upon a Time, with each one centered on freeing another lost soul, what Henry dubs “Operation Phoenix”.
Once Upon a Time has always alternated smoothly between season or half-season story arcs and shorter episodic narratives, a story-telling approach originally pioneered by The X-Files. Once Upon a Time plays by its own rules though, mixing the two story approaches so seamlessly that it’s sometimes difficult to tell one from the other. Often, for example, while a larger story-arc works itself out over multiple episode — defeating Regina’s curse, battling Peter Pan (Robbie Kay), saving Frozen’s Elsa (Georgina Haig) from herself — a B plot within each episode takes us back in time to understand individual characters and relationships (a device since used by other series, most notably Orange is the New Black).
Typically, these B plots help us better understand the overarching storyline. More importantly, though, these “back stories” form an even longer story-arc, a complicated web of material that underlies the entire series. Our foray into Camelot this past fall offers a good illustration. The quest to re-forge Excalibur drives the half-season “arc”, while an episode like “Nimue”, which focused on Merlin’s youth, seems packaged as a separate individual story. Yet that story offers greater depth to the larger Once Upon a Time storyworld, digging further into this world’s origins and pushing the boundaries of its mythologies.
The Underworld promises to work as a similar sort of backdrop, with Hook, at least for now, serving as the larger quest. This episode’s chief function, then, is to introduce us to this new environment, to give us a sense of its rules. What we’re shown is a dark replica of Storybrooke, inhabited by lost souls all looking to right some wrong from their pasts. There’s also a devil of sorts, Hades (the impish Greg Germann in a bit of inspired casting), who, as might be expected, aims to keep all these souls from escaping into the light.
It appears, however, the equation between the two kinds of stories may have shifted, so that rather than individual stories supporting a larger narrative, that larger narrative may provide the umbrella beneath which these individual stories can develop. Rescuing Hook from Hades may be the ultimate goal, but Hook, it seems, is only one of many who must be rescued, each one a step towards completing that ultimate goal.
In this first instance, it’s Regina’s father who must come to terms with his own guilt at not standing up to his wife Cora (Barbara Hershey) when he was alive. Tellingly, the town’s clock — lying broken on the ground in this version of Storybrooke — ticks off one minute as his soul escapes. In fact, this season promises to be more episodic, with that single tick suggesting we’ll encounter many other souls with many other sins to be purged. I’m expecting a lengthy story about outwitting Hades a la Benet’s “Devil and Daniel Webster”, or Charlie Daniels’s more danceable take, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”, but I’m also expecting we’ll be dealing with a different soul each week as we work our way towards Hook.
Then again, that’s another of the nicer aspects of this episode and perhaps this particular story-arc: it’s brought back a number of familiar faces, and it promises to bring back more. Here, we not only get Regina’s parents, but also David’s twin brother, Peter Pan (aka Gold’s father), and glimpses of Cruella De Vil (Victoria Smurfit) driving down a side street. As I’ve talked about before in terms of Once Upon a Time, one of the series’ best qualities is the way it manages to periodically re-weave the storylines so that they intersect in new and unexpected ways.
The choice to make this setting an alternate version of Storybooke, rather than a completely separate universe, promises to help this reset as well. For while some forays into other kingdoms have worked well — Neverland, for example — others haven’t (last fall’s Scotland was a disaster, and although Camelot offered promise, it ultimately fizzled as well; facts not lost on the producers apparently, who’ve dropped those storylines without what might be called “satisfactory conclusions”). Returning to Storybrooke, even if it’s not quite Storybrooke, should help restore the emphasis on characters and plots that sometimes goes missing in experiments with setting.
Besides Hook and Hades, a number of other story lines are at play in this episode. This is another good sign for the series, as Once Upon a Time can become a touch silly when it stares too long at any one tale; that silliness feels more purposeful when several stories are allowed to play together at once. Gold’s resumption of his role as the Dark One promises to take us in interesting directions — especially now that he finds himself so close to an even “darker” one in the figure of Hades — and we’ve already seen the potential for confusion between David and his twin brother, who managed to trick Mary Margaret into a rather passionate kiss.
All in all, although some ragged edges remain from the fall half of the season, this first episode, without providing any spectacular fireworks, has laid some promising groundwork for a tighter spring.