There were moments during this Once Upon A Time season finale when I was pretty sure it was the greatest OUAT episode(s) I had ever seen (and after four seasons, I’ve seen a lot). The show usually nails its finales (I liked last year’s quite a bit as well) but Enchanted Forest Bizarro World was fantastic and had loads of wasted potential.

From the very beginning, the fun of OUAT has been the way it plays with the fairy-tale tropes we’ve all known from childhood and twists them around. What if Rumplestiltskin was Belle’s Beast? What if the Evil Queen tried to redeem herself? What if Snow White had a personality? (Jury’s still out, there.)

Since then, OUAT has tripped itself up on its two-Big Bad arcs per season. Despite an excellent performance by Elizabeth Mitchell as the Snow Queen, the Frozen arc that kicked off this season amounted to little more than a shameless plug to capitalize on Disney’s biggest movie. The second half, OUAT’s showrunners appeared to believe that more was more, piling on no less than three female villains, and bringing back another (Zalena) for good measure. In the midst of all this appeared the Author, fortunately played by Patrick Fischler, who brought a lot to a tough part, as we had been hearing about this mythical creature for awhile. Becasue it wouldn’t be OUAT without the ability to bring new meaning to the word “convoluted,” Rumple and the Author needed Emma to turn dark so then she would be the Dark Savior, whose blood could then turn into ink for the Author’s quill. Sure. Okay.

Fischler kicks off this episode in an era that looks similar to his earlier Mad Men role, a TV salesman who’s a frustrated novelist. We see how he leaves that world to become the author, to get what he’s always dreamed of (yes, room service is great, and why would anyone give up indoor plumbing if they didn’t have to?). So he and Rumple hatch their plan to turn the tables on the heroes and villains, and the result is so amazing, I so wish it had lasted longer than an episode. The scenes played well off of even the OUAT mythology that we’re now familiar with: The Queen’s forest is now populated by evil dwarves who mean terrible things when they say, “hi ho.” Charming and Snow’s obnoxious “I will always find you” love phrase takes on a fun sinister quality when it’s a command he’s forced to repeat. We know Rumple well enough to now that when he calls everyone “dearie” outside the church, he’s shedding his do-gooder persona for his real one. This twist could have easily been a season (or at least a half-season, as is OUAT’s wont) arc.

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Mainly because everyone brought so much to their alterna-roles, even the dwarves. Regina and Snow switch places, and Ginnifer Goodwin’s turn as the evil Snow White is the most fun I’ve ever seen this actor ever have on this show. Parts got a bit tripped up as the author would have to interject with elements of the story we’d perhaps seen a long time ago, but hadn’t read (“I know why you’re unhappy! Because this Charming is a pale imitation of his twin brother, who you loved!”) Robert Carlyle’s Rumplestiltskin delightfully hammed it up as the Light One/Ogre Slayer. Colin O’Donoghue convincingly made Killian a coward. Lana Parrilla made Regina believable as a woodland thief, and Jared Gilmore did a commendable job of holding it all together as once again, Henry was the only one who knew that all of these people were characters trapped in a book. (And maybe everyone was reverting to type at the end, as Zalena became an outrageous bridezilla over Regina’s wounded body, resulting in a telling spot of green on her hand.)

Because this is Once Upon A Time, it’s impossible for me to get through an entire episode without smacking my head a few times. If Killian was sacrificing himself so that Emma and Henry could get away, why did she stay there and watch him die, thereby negating his sacrifice? Even though Robin was already married, wouldn’t true-love’s kiss had worked on her after she got stabbed? If so, why didn’t she and Robin kiss then (something about the bells)?

But most of all, why did this show cut down this inspired twist so quickly? I like how it all wound up and Henry makes sense as the new Author; he’s been toting that damn book around for years. But I was disappointed to find everyone back in Storybrooke at the end, when the alternative was so much more interesting.

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Sure, they have to set up some cliffhangers for next season, like who Lily’s dragon dad could be. And there had to be something complicated with the frickin’ sorcerer’s hat. Kind of hilariously vague that what they’re fighting at the end is, you know, darkness, but we all could have guessed what Emma’s ultimate sacrifice would be. The show has teased out a Dark Emma for weeks, so it makes sense that she finally becomes the Dark One after the group saves Rumple and the darkness goes after Regina (after all the crap he’s tried to pull on them, everyone still pools their efforts to save Rumple. Those Storybrookers, they stick together). Those dark tentacles were pretty effective, but again with OUAT, went on too long: I don’t think we needed black-tornado reaction shots from literally everyone.

So I guess we will still get some of this switchup next season, with a pure-of heart Rumple and a Dark Emma (pontification in my house: Would Emma had been able to dive into the darkness in front of Henry?). And next to chilly Arendelle or dark, dreary Neverland (never forget), Camelot sounds downright entertaining: knights, wizards, more magical objects (Excalibur, a Holy Grail), and a witch (Morgan Le Fey) who can give Zalena a run for her money.

Stray observations:

  • Henry dipping his pen into his mother’s bloody hand to fix the story: youch.
  • Here’s our new Random Roles with Patrick Fischler, where he discusses how his role on Lost led to this one.
  • Where was Maleficent?
  • It’s coincidental that Three Dog Night’s “Shambala” was the happy soundtrack to the pre-finale at Granny’s. I wrote about that band for Hear This this week.
  • I always enjoy being able to stop by and check in on Once Upon A Time: thanks for reading. Look for The Dark Side Of Emma Swan, coming this fall!

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