Another week, another episode of Once Upon a Time, another soul to rescue from the Underworld. This week, in an episode titled “Labor of Love”, it’s Hercules’s (Jonathan Whitesell) turn in the spotlight. What might’ve been a trite plot device — a sort of “rescue of the week” — is, at least so far, being used to provide a focal point for some much-needed complexity.
Among the other pleasures of Hercules’s appearance was a chance to see David’s (Josh Dallas) jealous side. It turns out Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin) was once a bit sweet on Hercules when they were teenagers. Although this is done only playfully; it’s hard to be too jealous when you’re “Charming”, after all (not to mention he shares a heart with Mary Margaret).
Hercules also added to the complicated tangle that is the Storybrook family tree. Hercules is, of course, not only Zeus’s son, but Hades’s (Greg Germann) nephew. For now, that’s only one small connection, but it doesn’t help matters that Hercules was involved with Mary Margaret in the past, creating the impression, if not the reality, that she too is related to Hades. Once Upon a Time seems eager to remind us just how complicated the other relationships in the series are by reminding us in the flashback plotline that Regina (Lana Parrilla) was Snow White’s stepmother (which means all sorts of things about all sorts of people, including — I think — that Henry’s (Jared Gilmore) his own adopted step-grandfather).
Then again, Once Upon a Time is always at its best when things get complicated, and this episode is not only complicated in terms of kinship but also in terms of plots, several of which Once Upon a Time now has up in the air at once. We finally check in on Killian (Colin O’Donoghue), who helps a mysterious young woman, Megara (Kacey Rohl), escape from the clutches of Hades, only to find himself in Hades’s clutches. We follow Mary Margaret and Hercules, both in the past and the present, as each try to overcome their fears and rediscover their courage. Meanwhile Henry and Robin (Sean Maguire) break into Cora’s (Barbara Hershey) office, Henry encounters Cruella De Vil (Victoria Smurfit), and the narrative of the “author” resurfaces.
Three distinct plotlines, but all woven together through subtle connections: Mary Margaret and Hercules learn about Killian, for instance, from Megara, who later turns out to have an even deeper connection to Hercules. But then — as mentioned — Hercules also turns out to have a relationship to Hades. We already know of Hades’s connection to Cora, and through her to Regina, which ultimately connects us back to Henry in Cora’s study.
Once Upon a Time tends to thrive when it keeps things complex in this way, as the twists and turns of its various plotlines, the way it weaves together so many mythical tales is, on the one hand its most impressive trick as a series, and on the other a means of distracting us from the fact that the execution of these many stories can sometimes be a little clumsy in terms of dialogue and sets.
Perhaps most interesting of all in this regard, though, is the way the levels of the story line up so well with one another in a structural sense. We’re given not just multiple plot lines, but multiple good guys, multiple bad guys, and multiple quests to think about, all at once and in relationship to one another. So, for instance, we watch in the past as Mary Margaret and Hercules deal with Regina, in this time frame the evil queen. The story sets up easily enough: good guys take on the bad guys (Regina’s henchman, “Deadeye” [Teach Grant]), lose, suffer self-doubt, but ultimately triumph.
The same basic structure appears in the Underworld present, with Hercules and Mary Margaret once again facing down the agents of evil, in this case the Cerberus controlled by Hades. Here again, after initially failing in their quest, they suffer crippling self-doubt, only to rediscover their heroic natures and defeat the Cerberus together.
Things cross neatly, and expectedly: Hercules teaches Snow to be brave in the past while she must restore his heroism in the present. Yet people and events cross in other, more unexpected ways as well: Snow, for instance, finds a new level of heroism of her own in the present through helping Hercules re-discover his. At the same time, the formerly evil Regina, now on the side of the good, plays her own role in helping Snow find herself. Thus do the parallel structures play out, but so too do oppositional structures.
In the same way, we find not merely one bad guy in this episode, but various levels of bad guys. Regina fulfills this role in the past, but Hades certainly fulfills it in the present, while Henry’s storyline includes its own baddie in the form of Cruella. It’s this juggling, not just of plotlines but of what are, in some ways, interchangeable plotlines, in which pieces fit together in curious, unexpected ways, that helps to make Once Upon a Time so fascinating.
All of which doesn’t even touch on this episode’s absent characters, including yet another bad guy, Mr. Gold (Robert Carlyle). In fact, the previews from next week promise perhaps the most riveting encounter of them all, as Gold, the Dark One, faces Hades, the lord of the Underworld. Light and dark are far from simple in this storyworld, but rather come in many forms. Best of all, though, this meeting offers the chance to see two top-shelf actors, in Robert Carlyle and Greg Germann, play against one another. It’s more than enough reason to tune in.