A few episodes ago, I would have thought Once Upon A Time was an unsalvageable series, but after “What Happened To Frederick,” I’m beginning to see the potential in the show’s concept. This is an episode that fully commits to both worlds, fairy-tale and real, and by heightening the fantasy, the drama becomes that much more effective. The fairybacks have a tone reminiscent of The Princess Bride with their economic special effects and cheeky dialogue, and if this show embraced that visual aesthetic and sense of humor, it could eliminate a lot of its faults.
The David-Mary-Kathryn love triangle (along with its fairyback foil) comes to its end this episode as David and Mary Margaret agree to come clean, although David skimps on some of the facts when he ends his marriage. He breaks up with Kathryn because after his accident he couldn’t make a connection with her anymore, and it’s unfair to her to keep going when there’s nothing there anymore. He goes for the “it’s unfair to you” breakup rather than the “I’m seeing someone else” breakup, setting up the contrast between David Nolan and Prince “Charming” James that is the best use of the fairybacks yet.
Prince James is a man that will risk his life to retrieve water from a magical lake and slay a murderous siren for a woman that he’s not in love with, while David can’t tell his wife that he’s got a girl on the side. Writer David H. Goodman has worked on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Fringe, three series that all balance fantastic elements with down-to-earth human drama, and this is the episode where that balance is strongest. Goodman wrote one of the first strong episodes of Once Upon A Time, “The Price Of Gold” (the one where Rumpelstiltskin kills Cinderella’s fairy godmother), but he also co-wrote (with Liz Tigelaar) one of the worst : “True North,” the abysmal Hansel and Gretel anti-foster care story. Turns out he wasn’t the problem in that partnership.
Goodman won me over with one piece of dialogue, which is completely absurd but works perfectly in context. When Prince James sees Abigail’s love, Frederick, encased in gold after touching her father King Midas to protect him during an ambush, he asks if she’s tried to break the spell: “Have you tried true love’s kiss?” That’s an amazing line, so silly yet spoken with such earnest from Josh Dallas that it is perfect for the moment. Abigail’s response: “Until my lips bled.” True love’s first kiss isn’t ridiculous in the fairy-tale world, it’s apparently a very common cure for many magical ailments, except getting turned into gold by King Midas.
When he’s on his own, Goodman turns in scripts that use the fairybacks to elaborate on the events in the present, keeping strong thematic ties within the stories without pointing them out in the dialogue. Water is especially important to the story, as August explains to Emma that water has been worshipped since ancient times for bringing civilizations together. (The Stranger’s name is August Wayne Booth, the fakest name ever.) James has to retrieve water to save Abigail’s golden knight, Emma has to drink water from a magic well to find Henry’s lost book, and lots of water is shed when David’s affair is revealed.
Dallas played Fandral the Dashing in Thor, and it’s nice to see that bravado put on display in this episode. He has the amped-up charisma of a Disney prince when playing James, channeling James Marsden in Enchanted when he decides to accept Abigail’s quest to save her lost love. This is exactly what I want from this show: for the fairyback to be an exaggeration of the real-world character—which is what it is for Prince Charming/David and Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold. Snow White/Mary Margaret and Regina don’t have that contrast yet, and their characters are less interesting for it.
Regina makes some strides to separate herself from the Evil Queen this episode, playing the friend to Kathryn as she manipulates her rather than being an openly raging bitch, but she still has her moments of cartoonish villainy that are jarring in the more grounded universe of Storybrooke. That could be completely intentional because she’s the only character who retains her past self, but it causes a disconnect when her performance is so different from her co-stars. She needs to commit to playing a real person when she’s in Storybrooke, because it destroys the illusion that Regina’s spell is trying to keep up.
The B-plot involves August and Emma’s growing flirtation, and once The Stranger gives us a name, he becomes a much more interesting character. Because right after that is when he starts adding pages to Henry’s book! I’ve always wanted to see how a book gets sewn together, and that sequence was great. My roommate says, “That’s some intense book-making porn.” Was he adding pages to the book? Making a fake? I’m interested in finding out. On the flip side, I hate that stupid book and its Photoshopped pictures and Operation: Cobra, so I have to deal with that now it’s back in the picture.
This is easily the best-looking episode of Once Upon A Time, and the show’s ratings are definitely starting to show in the budget. The first sequence with Prince James fleeing on horseback has dynamic camerawork from director Dean White, and by keeping the fairybacks outdoors, the director is able to avoid a reliance on the green-screen environments that have plagued the series. This show doesn’t need CGI when B-movie techniques will work just fine, giving it a high-budget Faerie Tale Theatre vibe. The Lady of the Lake sequence looks perfect with just a pool, a lift, and some fancy lights. All you have to do is put a glass platform just beneath a lake’s surface and you can easily film someone walking on water. CGI vines are unnecessary when you can make some fake algae that will work just as well at grabbing a person’s ankle, and it’s real so the actor can actually react to it.
It’s unfortunate that this episode may be Kathryn’s last, because she’s become my favorite character in her few appearances. Kathryn is more clearly defined than much of the regular cast, and Anastasia Griffiths has brought a refreshing honesty to her performance, refusing to let her character be a villain or a victim. That doesn’t stop her from going berserk when Regina tells her about David and Mary Margaret, slapping Mary Margaret at school and ratting her out in front of all her students, but she also tries to atone for it later.
Kathryn is a woman that wants a love that’s real, who believes in a love that’s real. She conveniently sees that David and Mary Margaret have it when she studies Regina’s photographs of them, and decides to offer her blessing to them. She won’t stop someone else from having real love, and she seizes the opportunity to find it somewhere else, leaving Storybrooke for law school in Boston.
And then her car crashes and she disappears. Next episode is a missing-person mystery written by series creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz that spotlights Grumpy the Dwarf and his romance with Angel and Dollhouse’s Amy Acker as a “beautiful yet clumsy” fairy. That’s sounds like it could be pretty good, and I suddenly find myself wanting to watch the next episode of Once Upon A Time. It’s like magic!
- Abigail wears a gorgeous dress in the fairybacks. Keep giving the costume department more money (except for Frederick’s weird, yellow Old Navy scarf under his armor).
- Everytime David says “I choose you,” I hear Ralph Wiggum.
- Soccer-ball guy in Mary Margaret’s school is Abigail’s Prince Frederick. Groan.
- The script still features plenty of stock TV drama lines like “you two deserve each other,” but they’re less frequent this episode.
- That is a beautiful tree near the wishing well. Nature is more beautiful than technology!
- “You’re prepared to lay down your life. How charming.” Goodman uses “charming” once, whereas Liz Tigelaar used it a whole lot during “Snow Falls.”
- Emma: “I’m not your mother.” Mary Margaret: “According to Henry, I’m yours.”
- “I had no idea you were so good with plants.” “Better them than people it would seem.”