Once Upon A Time knows how to deliver a bombshell: in the first minutes, with pretty much no build-up. Surprising no one but the characters on this show, Rumpelstiltskin’s son Baelfire is revealed to be the same man who knocked up Emma and created the good acting vacuum that is Henry Mills. It’s a development that is supposed to have major repercussion for these characters, but it just leads to a lot of repetitive drama that is exacerbated by Rumpel’s fairyback story. This show has gotten very good at repeating itself, so anyone who wants to jump right in this week should have no problem because everyone makes it excessively clear how they feel, why they feel that way, and the events that transpired to make them feel that way. That’s great for catching people up, but when it happens week after week it becomes laborious, especially when the motivations don’t make very much sense when spoken aloud.
I’ve talked about how frustrating magic can be as a storytelling tool, and there are two clunky applications of magic in this episode that are overly convenient ways to move the plot forward: Regina in the hospital with Belle and Rumpelstiltskin with the Seer in the fairyback. Regina was so much more interesting when she tried to cut herself off from magic, and the longer she stays allied with Cora and Hook, the more shallow her character becomes. Apparently, Regina’s desire to have ownership of Henry is so strong that it’s erased her memory of how horrible her mother was to her. Cora wants to retrieve the Dark One’s dagger so that they can control Rumpelstiltskin and use him to kill Emma and her parents, which will leave Regina blameless for when Henry inevitably runs into her arms.
The fact that Regina is willing to go along with this absurd plan shows how dumb she’s gotten over the last few episodes, and when she visits Belle in the hospital to see if she can find out where Rumpel’s dagger is, she makes a very careless mistake. Rather than digging through Belle’s purse because there’s a stranger in town who doesn’t know about magic, she does her best impression of Merlin in The Sword In The Stone and makes the contents of the purse float through the air. Storybrooke’s new visitor Greg Mendell is luckily standing right behind Belle’s door and catches it all on camera, then sends the video to his wife. Regina was showing so much promise at the start of this season, but as is usually the case, magic shows up to throw her off course.
In Rumpelstiltkin’s case, magic is used to push a character on a radically different course. His fairyback begins with him being drafted into the Ogre Wars, giving him the opportunity to make up for his father’s cowardice on the battlefield. When he gets there, he encounters the military’s secret weapon, a disfigured young girl who can see the future. Regarding the Seer, it’s entirely possible that the creators of this show are paying tribute to Pan’s Labyrinth with the eyes-on-the-hands character design, but it sure does feel like a rip-off. Rumpelstiltskin can’t resist finding out about his future, and he finds out from the Seer that his wife is pregnant, but that his actions will leave the boy fatherless. There’s an element of Greek tragedy in this week’s fairyback, featuring an oracle, a twisted family dynamic, and a horrific physical maiming.
The fairyback goes awry when a transformed Rumpelstiltskin finds the Seer years later as an adult, and she gives him a run-down of everything that is going to happen regarding the Dark Curse along with some visions that are setting up a new path for the character in the present. She tells him that a boy (Henry) is going to lead him to his son, but that the boy is more than he appears. The boy will be his undoing, and past Rumpelstiltskin vows that he’ll just kill him when it gets to that point. So Rumpelstiltskin now wants Henry dead? I’m not going to complain if that happens, but it’s a completely random development that is introduced via magical prophecy. The big downside to that is that it makes Henry a major player in the story again, and as this episode shows, Jared S. Gilmore still can’t act. This show tends to lack honesty, and there’s nothing more fake than that boy’s line readings.
This episode’s best scenes involve no magic whatsoever. After getting a bone-headed call from Emma asking if she should tell Baelfire and Henry that they’re father and son, Snow and Charming take a moment to assess how complicated their family tree has become. It’s nice to see characters step back and assess just how crazy their lives are becoming, which shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and The Vampire Diaries do effectively as they become more fantastic. But the best scene of “Manhattan” is when Rumpelstiltskin smashes his leg with a hammer so that he doesn’t have to fight in the ogre wars. No magic, just hammer to bone, and it’s a grisly sequence that shows how effective some good, old-fashioned physical violence can be.
In Manhattan, everyone is confronting everyone else, and the dialogue during these arguments is stiff and generally ridiculous. Adam Horowitz and Ed Kitsis don’t have great explanations behind why Baelfire would stay away from Emma or why Emma would keep the identity of Henry’s father a secret, so there’s a lot of yelling followed by generalized responses. Emma yells at Baelfire for knowing about her past and not reaching out to her, Baelfire yells at Rumpelstiltskin for abandoning him, Henry yells at Emma for lying about his father, and Rumpelstiltskin yells at Emma when she tries to lie to him about his son’s escape.
Baelfire and Emma have very similar back-stories, which is an intentional parallel, but Baelfire’s angry confrontation with his dad covers the same ground as Emma’s freakouts with her parents earlier in the season. It’s repetitive, and this show doesn’t do things well enough the first time to merit doing them again. While Henry’s the most insufferable, Rumpelstiltskin is the most clueless of the bunch, and he tries to convince his son to come to Storybrooke so that he can use magic to either turn him into a 14-year-old or erase his bad memories. That’s the kind of crazy shit that made him hate you in the first place, Rumpel.
- Thank god Regina ran her mom to the nearest Ann Taylor for some new clothes. That evil witch queen look won’t fly in New England.
- Ever since she used a dreamcatcher to read Pongo’s mind to find out who killed Jiminy Cricket, Emma has a soft spot for those Native American tchotchkes.
- Fire escape green screen effects provided by Tommy Wiseau.
- This week’s horrible child comic relief moment: “Maybe you should’ve said FedEx.”
- Charming: “So Rumpelstiltskin is Henry’s grandfather.” Snow: “Apparently.” Charming: “But I’m his grandfather.” Snow: “You can have more than one.”
- “It’s a good thing we don’t have Thanksgiving in our land because that dinner would suck.”