From its first episode, Once Upon A Time has revolved around family, tying together its characters in familial ties that seemed highly improbable at times (Mary Margaret is Emma’s mother, sure). For good or ill, family is the hearthstone of the series, but this episode, surprisingly, actually makes thoughtful use of it. Bolstered by an excellent flashback, and when’s the last time we saw one of those?
But first: The monotonous life of all the Storybrookers in the Underworld remains confounding to me. Getting groceries? (Although it’s a helpful nod to point out that they actually need to eat occasionally, That hardly ever happened in Neverland.) Hanging around that infernal kitchen island? Robin’s finally back, dragging around his unnamed infant daughter, so where’s Henry now?
Even the brother-on-brother action between the Charming twins is more heated than expected, showing off the disadvantage of fighting someone who’s already dead. If you shoot them with an arrow it doesn’t mean anything, but they can shoot you in the head for reals. Josh Dallas does a passable job, as does the CGI, of pulling off both David and James and their battle. And Cruella is always welcome.
But this additional sibling rivalry plot just feels tacked on when compared to the fabulous trifecta of Zelena, Regina, and Cora. The flashback works thanks to child actors who are actually affecting, especially Ava Acres, who plays Regina. What David and James and Regina and Zelena have in common is the concept of stolen birthright and brewing resentment that’s long overdue.
OUAT appears to give a lot of credit to birthright, and blood relation, even when it’s not called for. James gets a “Despite everything, he was my brother!” one-line eulogy from David, but why such remorse for someone who wanted nothing but to see him dead? Similarly, Zelena and Regina have always fought like a pair of alley cats, despite their sibling status, until the surprising reveal that they were actually friends at one time.
So it’s no surprise that unloved Zelena would find some solace with Hades. It’s almost more surprising that Regina would call him out for being a villain, when she of all people knows how tenuous that title is. But for all of OUAT’s conflicted heroes and villains, it’s hard to top the kind of character transformation that Cora has this episode. She appears as her most villainous, separating two little girls who love each other, and her most benevolent, bringing them together again. Her confession that she wanted to save Regina from love because it brought weakness, even helps explain a lot about Regina’s prior behavior. Barbara Hershey somehow pulls this all off with equal parts of malice and compassion, resulting in a scene that’s out-and-out tear-inducing, a rarity for OUAT. For all of the misdeeds the three of them have concocted, as Cora points out, there’s a very deep emotional hole there, that the villainous Zelena has been trying to fill with evil toward her sister (similar to James’ obsession with David, who, like Regina, had nothing to do with the discarding of his infant sibling. James even got to be a prince, for crying out loud.). Cora’s right, neither of them are really at fault, as they were pitted against each other from the first, ever since she made the decision to abscond with their happy memories. The moment in the farmhouse when they all reconnect makes for a wonderful scene.
As heavy-handed as OUAT is, it isn’t going to let Cora get away without what seems like at least two goodbye scenes too many, and a giant “Psyche!” regarding her eventual fate. (And despite her final transformation, her ascent into the heavens still is a bit of a stretch.)
It even ends on an engaging cliffhanger: There has been way too little Robbie Kay this season, so glad to see him finally back into play, especially on the same side as Rumple, which we haven’t seen before. Hard to imagine the rest of the Storybrookers getting on board to look for Regina’s missing sister, especially since by the end of this episode she fails to complete the one job she was given: splitting up Zelena and Hades. But the amorous Hades is bound to get involved as well, no doubt scored by The Ink Spots.
We‘ve said goodbye to Barbara Hershey’s Cora a few times on this show, but this departure appears to be permanent (except for future flashbacks). She went out masterfully. It was a moment when OUAT wisely capitalized on the show’s now-long history, the strength of certain performers, and what family, in the end, means to all of us.
- If the awesome Ava Acres looks familiar, it’s because she also played the young Rebecca on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend this season.
- David/James seems confused about his anniversary date, but Emma consoles him: “With all the curses and the time jumps, who could blame you?’ Preach.
- “Yes Mother, I know how it works” still doesn’t cover up clunky exposition, OUAT.
- Cora’s sort-of eyeroll when Regina started mouthing off about helping her friends again was everything.
- Where did the car seat come from?
- Clueless Emma: “Dad, what the hell?”
- That eagle scream when Cruella showed up was hilarious. She should be in every episode. “Why is everything in the woods with you people?”
- All Zelena seems to do is sit in that farmhouse and look at a dead flower. Maybe start a fire in the fireplace if she’s up for it.
- Why didn’t young Zelena use her magic on the guards dragging her away?
- Robin, do not run toward the River Of Souls with a baby! What if you tripped?