You’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching one of those vintage-Dharma episodes of Lost this week, as Once went back to the 80s to explore the beginnings of our little cursed hamlet. The opening is replete with characters we don’t know, an old song, and then something otherworldly: no, nobody climbs out of a hatch, but a huge cloud of purple smoke does roll into the woods where father and son are camping! They seek shelter in the tent instead of their car, which perhaps a more inveterate camper can explain logically to me? When they emerge next morning, devastation is everywhere, their car is nestled beneath a felled tree, and a town is plonked down where yesterday was nothing. They walk into town and look fearfully at the clock tower (again, no logic to it) when dreamy Sheriff Graham appears to announce the episode’s title. “Welcome to Storybrooke.”
Regina wakes up on her first day in Storybrooke in a decidedly less glamorously decorated room than her current one (I guess trends came and went even though time stood still?) She’s amazed and triumphant, and even swoons over her new far-inferior wardrobe (black sheath dress < wicked witch drama collars). She meanders down Main Street, reveling at the monotonous, unhappy lots of her fellow townsfolk on her way to seek out her arch-nemesis. The former Snow White accompanies Mayor Mills to the hospital to confirm that she doesn’t recognize her once-love, and Regina is positively giddy.
Things really are coming up roses for Regina, who also has Graham dutifully flirting with her at Granny’s as she discovers the joy of pancakes. That is, until a little boy named Owen busts into her life. What are these outsiders doing in town, she wonders? (Even if dad Kurt Flynn is a little ruggedly attractive and delightfully snarky and Owen is infinitely more tolerable than Henry.) Regina perceives a threat, and it’s worrisome for all involved.
In the present day, Regina and Gold spar over Cora’s coffin in the Mills family mausoleum. Regina won’t go after Gold, she says, because of the power of The Dagger, but she is openly hell-bent on murdering Snow for making her kill her own mother (I guess this is more egregious than when she knowingly killed her own father?) The eternally wise Rumpelstiltskin tells Regina that vengeance will never bring her happiness, and will cost her Henry. He implores her to learn from her mistakes, but she petulantly vows to “have everything.” Foolish, foolish girl.
Back in the studio apartment shared by the whole Charming clan, Mary Margaret huddles catatonic in the bed three feet from where the rest of the family is eating breakfast and openly talking about her. Okay. Emma decides to tell Henry the truth (having been successfully manipulated by the kid, so don’t think he’s some scion of innocence either) about his grandmother’s part in Cora’s death. Why this is such a problem I don’t know, because Cora was essentially a terrorist whose plans invariably involved harm to their family; Mary Margaret is the family’s defender, not its undoing. Henry whines and refuses to accept that Snow White would hurt anybody (um, except all the guards and stuff she had to kill back in Fairy Tale when she was on the run?) I take such umbrage at this infantile view of ethics that the show is evincing; I’m fine with Henry taking such an unspoiled stance on things, but the show should know better and present a more realistic and nuanced understanding. (Not to keep comparing the two, but Lost did this spectacularly.) Grampelstiltskin does a drop-by to tell them what they could have predicted about Regina’s revenge, and David argues that Rumpel owes the family a debt for Mary Margaret saving his life, which if I’m Rumpelstiltskin I’m replying to with, “Get it in writing.”
Back in the 80s, Regina’s routine is upset when Owen sits in her seat at Granny’s. Jeez, woman, you only got to town two days ago, is the ritual really that ingrained? The kid makes a peace offering of his little lanyard thing, which seems a poor fate for an heirloom his father just gave him, but sweet I guess. It obviously impacts the mayor.
Next we watch Regina go through a Groundhog’s Day sequence of her daily routine. Marco repairs a sign, Mr. Gold hobbles along, Ruby is a slut, Dr. Hopper walks his Dalmatian, and on and on ad infinitum. At first it brings her joy, but it’s short-lived. To wit: At first when she bumps into Mary Margaret on the street and the teacher apologizes, Regina retorts “You should be sorry!” Later, she’s annoyed that the girl would apologize for something that wasn’t her fault. She marches over to Gold’s shop to complain that everyone in town does what she wants them to not of free will but of obligation. Without being real, it isn’t satisfying. Starved for genuine human contact, she invites the Flynns over for dinner.
Presently, an unhinged Regina roots through her mother’s possessions to find a spell. When David and Rumpel arrive (moments later?), Rumpel informs us that she’s removed chimera’s blood and viper’s eye from her handy potion-making kit, which can only mean she’s making The Curse of the Empty-Hearted. This is a spell that can make someone love you. But wait!, you say, that breaks all the laws of magic evinced by the Genie in Aladdin! (Who, by the way, needs to be on this show STAT.) Well, you and Emma will be placated to know that the curse doesn’t really create love, but makes the victim believe they love you, which raises interesting questions of free will and intent versus action. Also, may or may not be the same curse Merope Gaunt used on Tom Riddle, so there’s your cautionary tale. Oh, and one more thing: the last ingredient in the curse is the heart of the one you hate most, so Snow White gets to die and Henry love Regina in one fell swoop!
At this point you may rightly be feeling some sense of déjà vu. Wasn’t it just a minute ago that we were trading Cora’s death for Rumpel’s life and worrying over the conflict of power and love? Well, as Rumpelstiltskin points out – ever the wisest man around – this is an old blood feud, and old blood feuds are only ended by the spilling of more blood. This is basically valid, and if you disagree I invite you to offer a viable and bloodless solution. Even Henry can’t think of a good one, so he resorts to blame-mongering, accusing his family, who used to be heroes, of falling from grace. Of course, anyone who’s seen any hero-based movie in the past ten years is well aware that heroes do fall from grace, and that maybe the fall is more about perception than heart; Batman didn’t become any more good at the end of Dark Knight Rises, he didn’t kill any less or stop causing harm; only the rhetoric changed. Perhaps when Henry grows up a little he’ll understand this.
In the 80s, Regina bonds with Owen. He speaks openly and freely, which she appreciates. They even make (non-poisonous) apple turnovers together and talk about how they both lost their moms. Owen even says Regina would make a good mom, and her ovaries just swoon so hard. She tries to persuade Kurt to move to Storybrooke, but he’s a Jersey boy at heart. No dice.
She’s not the only one new at this parenting thing; at Granny’s circa now, Neal tries transparently to bribe Henry with an ice cream sundae. He and Emma want to spirit Henry away to New York and out of the reach of magic, but this gets the idea in Henry’s head that they should destroy magic! (Don’t you remember what happened when they tried to do that to the hatch, Henry?!) Neal reports that it went well and the kid conceded, but Emma notices that Henry took his backpack with him “to the bathroom.” She scolds, “Did you really fall for that? He’s your son!” This is the most authentic and delightful line of the night. They go after him.
Regina magicks the lock open at Chez Charming (damn, that’s some shoddy craftsmanship, Pinocchio! Okay, I forgive you. <3) and waltzes right in to find Mary Margaret sitting prone on the bed (who would have guessed?) Rumpelstiltskin steps out of the corner, revealing himself as her defender. It’s thoroughly tensionless.
What’s far more tense is the 80s storyline, where Regina tries to keep the Flynns in town longer by delaying their car repair; unfortunately, that ship has already sailed. Desperate, she calls in a favor to the sheriff on her proto-cellphone still-beating heart, ordering him to pull Kurt over and arrest him for drunk driving, then bring the boy to her. The worst ever thing happens when Kurt stops by to say goodbye and HEARS ALL THIS. She tries to talk her way out of it, but really what can you say then? He escapes Graham’s grasp and hits the road in a HURRY.
2013: Greg, the stranger who drove into town a few weeks back, is “hiking” in the woods when he runs into Henry, who’s “going for a merit badge in Boy Scouts.” Two equally shady cover stories, but at least to everyone’s credit neither seem convinced. Alas, Greg sees Henry’s name, labeled on his backpack, and resolves to tattle. If you don’t know who Greg really is by now you don’t deserve to watch TV, because you’re doing it wrong. He tells Regina, “I just thought you’d want to know, that’s ALL.” But I suspect it is NOT.
The family Charming checks the mines for Henry, which I don’t understand even a little. They discover there that he stole some dynamite, and Neal puzzles out that he wants to use it to destroy magic (which is probably not how that works.) Away to the fountain in the woods! Some issues I’d like to raise here: Isn’t eradicating magic in itself sort of a “magic” solution to all one’s problems? Besides which, they’ve worked so hard up till now to restore magic so that everyone can return to their world and lives and families in Fairy Tale; getting rid of magic will doom everyone but Henry’s family, which is wildly selfish and demonstrates why those in power regularly have to make difficult and not-nice decisions for the good of their people.
A car chase ensues in the past as the Flynns try to flee town. They almost make the town line before the admittedly capable sheriff T-bones his car in the street to block them (too bad they didn’t have off-road capabilities on cars in 1983!) Kurt entreats his son to run into the woods and call his uncle when he can. We understand, and so does Owen, that he’s saying goodbye. It is chillingly sad and more compelling than anything our regular cast members have done recently. Graham overpowers Kurt while Owen runs, but Regina calmly goes after him. She just wants him to stay with her, but he says he doesn’t want to, “not like this.” It’s a lesson that you can’t make people love you, one that in light of recent events it seems she learned nothing from. So what exactly is the point of this story?
We try to find out as Regina is the first to find Henry at the well. Didn’t either of his mothers teach him not to play with matches? Regina vanishes the dynamite, which is both good magic and good parenting. He pleads with her not to cast the curse or kill Mary Margaret, and you know the woman is off her rocker when she’s explaining to her son why she’s going to curse him. She knows this isn’t right. Just then the Charmings arrive on the scene, because Henry wasn’t acting self-righteous enough on his own. Emma boldly declares that if she wants to kill Mary Margaret, she’ll have to go through all of them (you have to wonder if Neal’s like, “um, no, don’t include me”), to which Regina gamely replies, “Okay.” Best line delivery ever?
Henry screams then that someone better help him destroy magic or else! Ugh. Just push this kid in the well already. Regina notes that blowing up the well won’t work, because, um, magic doesn’t work that way. Henry argues that magic is what corrupted Mary Margaret, and the fact that no one disputes this is problematic because it shows they agree, and are therefore still blaming magic for their problems instead of taking responsibility. None of them will admit that Mary Margaret made that choice for herself, but hold that magic and by extension Regina drove her to her actions. This is kind of like blaming the kid who gets bullied for the bullying. Regina burns up the spell at Henry’s behest, which is kind of big of her, and they all retire to their own sides. Poor Regina! Her acceptance of her own deeds and shortcomings makes her far more sympathetic to me than Mary Margaret, which is why characters like her and Rumpelstiltskin, not Henry, make this show great.
Young Owen returns to the Storybrooke town line with some real cops, but the enchantment keeps them from seeing it. The poor kid vows to find his dad, to never stop looking! (Doesn’t everyone on this show make the same vow?) But hey, it’s not all bad news: maybe he can grow up in the same foster home as Emma and/or August!
Back at Chez Charming, Rumpelstiltskin receives a call and relays the good news to Mary Margaret: he’s no longer needed to protect her. (And thank goodness, because how boring must that have been?) She asks how he lives with himself and the things that he’s done, and he responds, “You tell yourself you did the right thing, and if you say it often enough, one day you might actually believe it.” He leaves dolefully, and she stares out the window with faux significance. But Rumpelstiltskin, it must be noted, did NOT fall into a crippling depression after the darkening of his soul, instead working tirelessly to mend his mistakes; in this way, he is far stronger and better than fair-as-Snow. Think on your sins, Mary Margaret.
She must, because she finally gets out of bed and shows up on Regina’s doorstep beseeching the mayor to kill her. End the fighting and the bloodshed, she says, which is counterintuitive. Regina won’t do it, because obviously Henry would never forgive her. She does, however, rip out Snow’s heart and show her a small dark stain at its center, taunting that Snow did it to herself and that it will only grow darker and darker. Mary Margaret desperately pleads that she crush it, but Regina says she doesn’t need to, because Snow is destroying herself. Okay, can anybody else see the huge flaw in Snow’s reasoning here? WHY DOESN’T SHE KILL HERSELF? It is immensely cowardly to implore Regina to do it for her; putting aside Regina’s past crimes, why should she have to commit murder to free Snow from her troubles? Furthermore, this would in no way end the blood feud, because clearly then the Charmings would seek revenge on Regina, and on and on it goes. Snow here seeks the coward’s way out, which to me is even worse than her killing Cora, which at least served a greater good; her own desire for death is utterly selfish. Shame on you, Snow. Shame.
Of course, who should be barely concealed in the bushes with his spectacular cameraphone but Greg Mendell aka Owen Flynn! This guy is like the greatest paparazzo ever, catching gratuitous displays of magic left, right, and center. At least his purpose is finally revealed, ish.
Next week: Neal’s fiancée comes to town, and seems poised to be somebody important. Someone is trying to take the magic from Storybrooke, which, ugh. And AUGUST IS BACK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! BUT HE’S MADE OF WOOD AND LOOKS STUPID. That BETTER not be how he appears for the entire episode, and he’d BETTER not only appear in the last five minutes. Lot of pressure on next week, guys.
Owen and Kurt are from New Jersey, home of the Boss! As a New Jerseyan, this just amuses me. Perhaps Kurt went to my high school!
When Regina goes to complain to Mr. Gold in his shop during the first week of the curse, he seems genuinely not to know what she’s talking about. If this is true, when and how did he become sentient of the situation?