Around the Water Cooler: “Once Upon a Time,” the Mid-Season Finale & Season 3 Progress Report (MAJOR SPOILERS)

THE SPECS:

Who: “Once Upon a Time” airs on network TV, specifically on ABC, Sundays at 8:00 PM (though, currently, it is on hiatus until March 2014).

What: “Once Upon a Time,” a fantasy drama wherein storybook and fairy tale characters are not only real but are living in this world, away from their enchanted kingdoms and worlds beyond reality, and how they all interrelate (for a more detailed Synopsis, read here: http://www.aceshowbiz.com/tv/once_upon_a_time/summary.html).

When: The Season 3 mid-season finale aired on Sunday, December 15, 2013, on ABC at 8:00 PM.

Where: The show is set in fictional Storybrooke, Maine, as well as in “The Enchanted Forest,” the fairy tale kingdom from where most of the main characters originate. The action takes place primarily in present day, though there are flashbacks to the characters’ past lives, before they were whisked away to Storybrooke via curse wrought by the Evil Queen Regina (Lana Parilla) and before they were made run-of-the-mill real world residents with serious bouts of amnesia.

Why: Two primary reasons: one, I love fantasy and fairy tales, and the Disney network green-lit a live action serial television program about fairy tale characters that they would probably own the rights to, if the characters weren’t already public domain.  Two, the creators are Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, two of the head writers of Lost. Whatever else may be said about the latter program, I don’t think anyone could argue that Lost wasn’t well written.  Once boasted some whopper ingredients that promised to result in an explosive and tantalizing mixture of story possibilities; the show has done nothing but live up to that expectation and then some.

How – as in How’s It Going? (THOUGHTS…at present)

Well.  Wow.  Phew.

Again, this blogger has delayed writing this particular entry because, frankly, there is so much to cover.  The revelations that have occurred so far this season on Once Upon a Time (OUAT for short) have been fast-coming, jaw-dropping, and amazing, so much so that I wasn’t quite sure where to begin for a time.

In addition, as of the mid-season finale, OUAT provided a cliffhanger that is on the level of Jack Shepard screaming “We have to go back!” on Lost, i.e. the episode that introduced flash forwards, the Oceanic 6, and the idea that some of the castaways escaped the island of smoke monsters and polar bears.  Only this show’s cliffhanger essentially rebooted the entire plot line of Once Upon a Time! Also, said cliffhanger could be compared to the end of Back to the Future, when Doc Emmett Brown appears in Marty McFly’s driveway and encourages him to hop into his flying Delorean and sail to the year 2015 to save his good-for-nothing children.  By the way – where are my flying car and hoverboard?  You’ve got one year, Mattel and…car-makers.  I digress.

The first half of season 3 squarely centered on the quest to #SaveHenry from the nefarious Peter Pan (Robbie Kay).  Emma (Jennifer Morrison), Captain Hook (Colin O’Donaghue), Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), and Regina as well as Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle) banded together and followed Henry (Jared S. Gilmore), who had plummeted through a portal and landed in Never Land.  By engaging in a magical voyage aboard the Jolly Roger, sailing for the second star to the right and straight on til morning, our motley crew of heroes battled bratty Lost Boys, destructive mermaids, and a very mean Shadow while the other citizens of Storybrooke were left behind to await their return.  The two tricky humans who started all of this mess lost their lives early to an enraged Rumpel, who went off on his own with his own score to settle.  Plus, it seems Rumpel wasn’t interested only in self-protection.  This progress report will chart the revelations that the first half of this high octane, if uneven, season of OUAT provided for its loyal viewers before recapping the mid-season finale in its gloriously heart-wrenching entirety.

1) REVELATION 1: Peter Pan is Rumpelstiltskin’s father.

Oddly, it’s as if Luke Skywalker’s and Darth Vader’s roles were reversed.  Peter Pan, as it turns out, was tempted by the Shadow of Never Land to become the very, very selfish boy who never grew up.  Back in the day, Rump’s father was a lazy grifter of a single dad who saw his only son as a leech to his apparently numerous unrealized dreams (he liked to con people out of money, so money seemed to be what he was after most).  Yet, their village pretty much hated Rump’s dear papa, and Rumpel strangely learned about opening portals from two bitty spinsters his father began to abandon him with.  Eager for a fresh start, Papa agreed to join Rumpel in a spell to open a portal and found themselves in the magical Never Land, where Rump’s dad was given an offer he couldn’t refuse: become a flying lad with an unrivaled smugness, the leader of the island of misfit boys, and the protector of the Shadow, the Godfather of this apparently evil place.  The Shadow magicked Rump’s very adult papa into the brat imp we’ve come to know as Pan and then hauled poor Rumpel away, crying for his father, who, by his own admission to anyone who would listen, including lead Lost Boy henchman Felix, never really loved his son.  No wonder Rump turned out the way he did!

2) REVELATION 2: Baelfire, aka Neal, still loves Emma.

Baelfire (or Nealfire’s) fall through the same portal as Henry actually brought him back to the Enchanted Forest.  There, he encountered Aurora, Mulan, Prince Philip, and Robin Hood, all of whom helped Bae to summon the Never Land Shadow, when he figured out that Emma, Henry, and the rest were in Never Land thanks to the magical artifacts still roaming about his dad’s former castle (where apparently Robin Hood took up residence with his adorable son).  The shadow whisks him away to Never Land, where he meets up with his father first, though the Shadow and Pan trick Bae into believing that Rumpel is up to his old tricks.  Eventually, he reunites with Emma and the others for several barrier-causing adventures, including saving the Wendy of the Peter Pan storybooks, still a now kidnapped child who is being searched for by her now grown up brothers John and Michael; helping Charming to cast off a spell chaining him to the accursed island, after he was poisoned with dream-shade by a Lost Boy arrow and drank the Never Land water to preserve his life in exchange for never departing the island; and saving Henry from certain death.  At one point, he confesses that he will never stop fighting for Emma. Unfortunately, he has to fight because he’s got competition.

3) REVELATION 3: Hook also loves Emma.

For Hook, it’s all about appreciating Emma’s earthier charms.  She’s a fighter, a survivor, and is unafraid to act a bit like a pirate to achieve her aims.  Hook fell for Emma, uh…hook, line, and sinker, but he knows her feelings for him are complicated by lingering feelings for Baelfire.

4) REVELATION 4: Pan may be Rumpel’s father, Baelfire’s grandfather, and, therefore, Henry’s great-grandfather, but he’s an evil, evil, selfish, no-good, bratty little urchin with too much magic at his disposal.

Why was Pan concerned about getting Henry’s heart, which he deemed to be the Heart of a True Believer?  He was right about the true believing part, because poor misguided Henry believes just about anything he hears, but he wanted Henry’s actual heart to stave off his death.  Seems the boy who never grows up is still somewhat mortal and was given borrowed time by the Shadow. Feeding Henry’s heart to a giant hourglass at the heart of Never Land ultimately appeased the Shadow, even though the use of Pandora’s Box, which Rumpel conveniently stored in his shop back in Storybrooke–which had to be retrieved by the Little Mermaid herself, Ariel, who was summoned to Never Land by Regina (she knows everyone!) because she can cross between worlds without the use of stupid things like portals–and a trick of Pan’s resulted in Pan and Henry switching bodies, and Pan Henry being trapped in the Box for some time.  Fortunately, Emma and Regina sniffed out the fact that their son was a bit off…and just in time. By the way: Pan took his Peter Pan moniker from the straw doll, which was Rumpel’s.  Rumpel called his doll Peter Pan.  Cruel twist of the knife there, dad.

5) REVELATION 5: Pan’s resentment against having a child (never mind the fact that he knocked up Rumpel’s mother) resulted in his intent to destroy Storybrooke and create a new Never Land – all because he hates his kid so much.

Henry Pan, i.e. Henry’s body with Pan’s soul, who was far more annoying than regular Pan, decided to enact revenge by planting a curse in the well in the Lost Wood with the intent of recreating Storybrooke into a new Never Land that he could control magically.  When our intrepid heroes discovered his aims, they were forced to band together again.  I’ll get to that in a second.

6) REVELATION 6: Villains don’t get happy endings.

Part of the brilliance of this show is that none of the characters are perfect, and none of them are strictly good or strictly evil as much as they are mostly good or mostly evil.  Snow was tempted to trick Regina into murdering her own mother, and her heart blackened.  Regina has been searching for redemption since season one, in an attempt to convince herself and everyone else, particularly Henry, that she is deserving of Henry’s love.  As it turns out, Regina didn’t procure specifically Henry to be her child on purpose.  After Regina’s run-in with the little boy who grew up and wanted to destroy magic, and after realizing (in an ingenious flashback episode) that creating a curse bringing fairy tale characters to the real world with forgotten identities meant she would be all alone in the end, Regina decided that she needed to be a mother and sought adoption. Fate, as in any good fairy tale, had its hand in introducing the Savior’s little boy to Regina, and it took her a few tries before motherhood actually stuck, but Regina’s quest, particularly this season, was to accept for herself that she could be a mother with unconditional love for the son she legitimately adopted to be hers.  Only in the end did she accept what Rumpel came to accept: villains, i.e. those who choose paths of evil and darkness, aren’t destined for happiness, even when they try to seek redemption for the horrors they’ve causedd.

So, let’s talk about the mid-season finale.

Henry Pan sacrifices Felix, his most loyal Lost Boy (after all the Lost Boys and Wendy were rescued by our band of heroes), to enact the curse starting in the well in the Lost Wood.  Felix, after all, shows undying loyalty for Pan, and loyalty, a type of unconditional love, was the missing ingredient.  Rumpel figures out what Pan is trying to do and also knows how to switch Henry and Pan back into their own bodies: by getting the Black Fairy’s wand, a wand with incredibly powerful dark magic.  Yet, the Blue Fairy, who is now dead thanks to the Shadow, hid the Black Fairy’s wand.  So, Charming, Hook, Baelfire, and Tinkerbell go to the town church with the intent of retrieving it but are confronted by the Never Land Shadow.  Yet, Tink, with the last bit of pixie dust, believes in herself long enough to light the coconut candle invented by Baelfire when he was a Lost Boy that traps the Shadow.  She flies up to greet it and traps the Shadow prior to incinerating him in an urn pyre. The Blue Fairy recovers her own shadow, originally taken by the Evil Shadow, and is resurrected.  She hands the Black Wand to Baelfire and reinstates Tink’s fairy status.

Back in Gold’s shop, Rumpel casts the spell, and Pan and Henry are recovered into their rightful bodies.  Henry emerges from the town library and is sniffed out by Granny.  He has the scroll with the original curse that Regina cast to create Storybrooke in his hand, as Pan was after the same scroll to start his own curse.  When Henry hands the scroll to his adoptive mother, Regina has a vision of the price of canceling her curse: the only way to stop Pan’s efforts from being successful.

In the meantime, Pan awakens in Gold’s shop, his devil’s spawn self again, and taunts his son. Rumpel’s attempts to foil Pan’s magic with the use of a bracelet taken from Tamara are useless: Pan created the bracelet and is immune to its effects.  Pan, instead, magicks the bracelet to his son’s wrist and beats him up, accusing him of likely reverting to the village coward without the aid of magic to protect him.

Pan finds Regina, Emma, Henry, Snow, Charming, Baelfire, Belle, and Hook in the town square by the library, freezes them into place, and threatens to kill his grandson and Belle, the two people Rumpel loves most.  Yet, Rumpel emerges victorious, willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice to protect those he loves.  Reminding his terrible father that he also does not have his shadow, he summons its return, as it carries the Dark One’s dagger, hidden by a spell of Rumpel in command of his shadow, to him.  Rump then stabs dear old dad in the back as they embrace; Pan reverts to the selfish, broken, pathetic man that was Rumpel’s father, while Rumpel ends both of their lives (seemingly) with one thrust of the dagger through both of their shoulders.  They disappear before the eyes of the now unfrozen heroes.

Belle’s tears don’t stop there.  Regina describes her vision and the price to be paid — if she reverses the curse, she reverses Storybrooke and all that has happened since its creation.  All of the fairy tale characters return to their respective homelands, while Henry, who was born in the real world, remains behind.  Regina tells Emma that she must run, to save herself and Henry, as the Savior she’s always meant to be.  Emma doesn’t want to leave her family behind: her parents, Snow and Charming; the father of her son, Baelfire; and the emerging lover Hook.  She doesn’t want Henry to be without his other mother, Regina, either.  Yet, Regina reminds her that there is no stopping Pan’s curse, which now threatens to overtake the entire town.  It is either revert to being fairy tales, or watch everyone be destroyed by the magical green smoke billowing over the sleepy Maine village.  Emma reluctantly agrees, but not without Regina promising to do what she did in the beginning: to alter Emma and Henry’s memories (since they will have lost the memories of everyone they came to know in Storybrooke), so that they remember always being together, always having a happy past, and so that they can forage ahead and create a happy future.  After many tears (including by this viewer – both times I saw it), Emma and Henry get into her yellow Volkswagen Beetle and drive away, their memories and the town-that-was disappearing into the mist.

The cliffhanger of all time begins with an episode postscript. Emma and Henry are enjoying a breakfast together in their New York City apartment, replete with hot cocoa topped with cinnamon, when Hook shows up at Emma’s door.  Though he tries, unsuccessfully, to jog her suspicious and forgotten memory with a kiss, Emma, not knowing who he is, threatens to call the cops.  She slams the door in his face, just as he says: “Your family is in trouble!  You have to save them!”

Before Rumpel met his apparent demise, Papa attempted to wheedle his son for extra years by promising a second chance at a happy ending together.  Rumpel responded sardonically, “Ah, but I’m a villain!  And villains don’t get happy endings,” before plunging the dagger into Papa’s back and his own shoulder.

Regina, as Henry tearfully apologized for causing all this magical trouble by finding his biological mom to begin with and doubting Regina’s love for him, assured him that none of the town’s troubles were his fault but were hers.  She cast the curse out of vengeance – she accepted Gold’s truth.  She’s a villain and can’t expect a happy ending.

Emma, saying tearful goodbyes to her same-aged mom and dad, wanted to take Henry into the Enchanted Forest with everyone else, but Regina said if she did so, the attempt to combat Pan’s curse wouldn’t work, as the price – i.e. Regina leaving behind the thing she loves most (Henry) – had to be paid.  Snow reminded Emma, as she reminded her grandson when she gave the “Once Upon a Time” storybook to him, that happy ends aren’t always what we expect.

To say that this is the most creative and riveting show on television right now doesn’t seem to quite do the show credit – and I don’t think this opinion of mine quite ranks to the status of being hyperbole.  Once Upon a Time has benefited from its writers’ and producers’ past experience.  The story arc that began 2.5 seasons ago ended the minute Storybrooke disappeared.  Now, Emma and Henry have to go back, like Jack and Kate did on Lost.  They have to get in that Delorean with Doc Brown (Hook, that is) and find a way to save the family they don’t remember.  Not only was the end of this chapter profound and deeply moving, but the possibilities to come can’t even be imagined by anyone outside the writers’ room. This is the hallmark of a brilliant program and story in its best years and seasons, and though the acting can be a bit melodramatic at times, the show is recommended to everyone.  It’s family friendly, full of life lessons, and completely engaging.  I don’t have a bad thing to say about it – though I am glad that the Never Land part of the story is finished.

Questions, Impressions, and Future Considerations

Old Questions

1) Belle appeared to Rumpel in a magical vision in episode 2, as she is his true love and his tether to goodness and reality, in some senses.  Yet, isn’t she still amnesiac back in Storybrooke?  Isn’t she still Lacey, thanks to her unfortunate crossing of the village line?

Answer: I don’t remember when Lacey remembered that she is Belle, but she does now.  I can say that the Belle that appeared to Rumpel in Never Land was the Shadow, playing tricks on him.

New Question: The show never addressed what the Shadow actually was or where it actually came from, and now it’s destroyed.  We know it’s evil, but why did it exist to begin with?  What was Never Land really, in the end?

2) In fact, how are our Storybrooke friends doing?  I miss the dwarfs, Granny, Red, Archie/Jiminy Cricket, Mother Superior Blue Fairy, and the others.  Also, fun fact: Cinderella in season 1 was played by the same actress who plays Sarah Newlin on True Blood.

Answer: They were living their lives in Storybrooke, but, as with our core group of heroes, they would be whisked back to the Enchanted Forest when Regina revoked the curse.

New Question: So, how are they faring now?  What does the Enchanted Forest look like, having never been cursed, since the revocation of the curse caused the effects to blip out of existence?  Or, is the Forest still destroyed as an after-effect, and do our characters remember everything (Hook certainly does)?  What has happened to our beloved characters in the eleven years of the lost memory and/or the one year since Storybrooke was no more?

3) What does Pan mean when he believes that Henry will choose to stay in Never Land?  Especially since Henry is pretty excited about his magical family reuniting.   Also, what’s with this business about needing the Heart of a True Believer?  I know he said that Never Land exists and operates on imagination, but wouldn’t that be the imaginations of several as in millions of believing kids?  What’s Henry’s part to play here?

Answer: Pan meant that Henry believed him, as the True Believer would, that if Henry didn’t give Pan his heart, Never Land and everything in it would be destroyed.  The Heart of a True Believer feeds the darkness of the Shadow and allows Never Land to survive, as it is a place of pure imagination, fueled by the imaginations of children the world(s) over.  Henry was an easy target for Pan – his (known) great-grandson and the product of several fairy tale lineages meant he is genetically gullible.  Fair enough.

4) Emma is oftentimes the voice of the audience – in episode 2, she bit back at her mom by suggesting that she and Charming couldn’t be her parents when they’re now the same age, and that circumstances meant they couldn’t be the family Snow and Charming envisioned.  Still, Emma has some serious traumas to work through: being an orphan, being a fairy tale, being magical, being in a weird symbiotic relationship with the Evil Queen – and how about that love triangle with Bae and flirtatious Hook?  Since it’s a win/win all around with those hot men, I’d say she’s a luckier woman than she thinks.

Answer: Emma has worked through some of those traumas.  She accepted being an orphan but also finding her family, and she began to believe in herself, as her mother encouraged her to do.  She also has, cautiously, accepted that she has the use of magic, and she’s used it a few times, and was even copacetic in the end with coexisting with Regina as one of Henry’s two moms.  The love triangle is still unresolved, however, especially since she doesn’t remember either Baelfire or Hook.  

New Question: What will happen when she sees these guys again?  Hook’s risky kiss might have damaged his quest for love a bit, but Emma finding these men again should be interesting.  What will fate reveal?

5) Despite the above, Emma and Bae, all the way!

Answer: I still vote for Bae, even though Colin O’Donaghue is a beautiful man. Emma does not need a shifty pirate in her life.  He is the bad boy.  Baelfire is the Lost Boy who found himself.  Plus, he’s Henry’s dad.

6) There are too many interesting tidbits and Easter Eggs to cover.   My only hope is that these writers, along with former Buffy head writer Jane Espenson, can keep on chugging and creating a truly magical Sunday night viewing experience.

Answer: Oh God, have they!

New Questions

1) The biggest question of all: how will Emma and Henry get into that Enchanted Forest, and what will happen to convince them that they are related to heretofore fictional characters?

-and-

2) Is Rumpelstiltskin aka Mr. Gold really dead?  I hope not!

PARTING SHOTS

Though I’m largely repeating myself here, Once Upon a Time continues its unmistakable reign as must-see television.  It’s family friendly and thrilling all at the same time.  It’s not perfect: the dialogue can be a little ham-fisted at times, and the special effects a bit questionable, but the creativity of this show and the attention to detail proffered by the writers makes it a truly magical hour of television each week.  Also, the Lost alums learned lessons from their prior job: while they keep the audience guessing, they know when to provide the key answers at the key times without it becoming frustrating or a story too big to rein in by the time all is said and done.   Hopefully, the show has a long life ahead of it.  This viewer believes, based on that last episode, that life just got quite a bit longer for this creative and satisfying program.

LOOKING AHEAD:

Once Upon a Time  was automatically ordered for a full season, as it is one of the network’s highest rated shows, so much so that a spin-off was created (see Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, though that show will likely be canceled).  Though nothing official has been announced, this viewer predicts additional season renewals because the program is one of the highest rated shows in its time slot; yet, the show is on hiatus until March 9, 2014, while ABC experiments with other programming.

I can’t wait until it returns.  I have to go back!!

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