Is there a more convenient plot device than magic? When it comes to creating instant obstacles or advantages for characters, nothing is better than the malleable rules of a spell to make a writer’s job a lot easier. This entire season, I’ve wanted to see the fairy tale and Storybrooke worlds bleed together more, but now that it’s happening, I find myself regretting those words. An over-reliance on ambiguous magic has derailed shows like Buffy and the current season of Vampire Diaries, but in the former case, it was in the name of (however ill-advised) character development, and in the latter, it’s done to move the roller coaster plot along. Once Upon A Time lacks both the character and plot strengths of either of those series, and this week’s dependence on magic just feels like lazy storytelling.
When I write these recaps, I tend to put on the Into The Woods Original Broadway Cast Recording because I’m a nerd like that. The title of this week’s episode immediately put me in mind of Stephen Sondheim’s musical and the list of magical items the Baker and his Wife have to procure to break a witch’s curse of infertility: the cow as white as milk, the hair as yellow as corn, the slipper as pure as gold, and the cape as red as blood. If only the entertainment value of Regina’s apple could equal that of Little Red Riding Hood’s cape in Into The Woods. Few works of art have been able to balance the moral optimism of fairy tales with the harsh truths of reality (Fables is the other big one in my mind), and what OUAT has been trying to achieve over the course of a 22-episode season, Sondheim does with intense emotion and exceptional wit in just over two hours.
This episode is OUAT at its most serious, revealing the events that led to Snow White biting into that fateful apple as Regina’s makes her final plans to rid Storybrooke of Emma Swan. With a story from Whedonverse alum Jane Espenson and David H. Goodman, I’d expect more humor in the dialogue, but this episode plays it straight. When the plot is Snow White’s evil queen teaming up with the Mad Hatter to retrieve a poisonous apple that she’s going to use so she can get custody of Snow White and Prince Charming’s daughter’s son, that’s a problem. And that’s not even including the big dwarf/fairy action sequence. There are so many times I find myself saying “that’s silly” to myself during this show; do the people behind the scenes just not see the goof factor?
This episode has similar qualities to a Disney Channel Original Movie: dumpy special effects, a far-fetched story, and intense child overacting. It’s been a long time since Henry’s had to do any heavy lifting on this show, and this episode reminds us why. There’s a whole lot of acting going on in his big scenes with Emma as they sob about spells and psychological delusions and stuff, and the harder they try, the less believable it becomes. Henry’s scene with August is just painful, and Eion Bailey overcompensates to really capture the stakes of the situation, which are that he’s turning into a wooden puppet.
Lana Parilla isn’t the most subtle actress, and her Ursula couture in the fairy back gives her extra motivation to chew up the green screen. The special effects had been improving on this show, but this episode forces the effects team to whip out the ole’ green screens for the castle scenes, and it looks just as bad as it always has. An army of fairies is an already absurd image, but the ’80s music video visuals just make it worse.
Although the fairies are a bust, Snow White delivers in battle, getting a chance to show off the skills she’s learned in the forest. Seeing Ginnifer Goodwin (and likely her stunt double) in hand-to-hand combat brings back fond memories of Buffy and seeing the cute girl kick butt. It still can’t stop her from being outsmarted by Regina, though, who has imprisoned Prince James and will kill him unless Snow willingly bites from the magic apple that will knock her out. Snow takes the bite, setting us up for James’ gallant rescue in the show’s pilot, and as the apple rolls down the hill, Regina plucks it from the hat in Storybrooke. Magic is oh so convenient.
If Regina kills Emma, the curse is lifted, because those are the rules as prescribed by Mr. Gold. When Gold refuses to change the terms of their agreement, Regina plucks the already bitten apple from the fantasy world, cuts it up into pieces, and cooks it into a pastry to give to Emma. When Henry sees the pastry, he takes a bite of it to prove to Emma that the curse is real, and then passes out. Could this be the catalyst for Emma finally becoming Storybrooke’s savior? Maybe. Or she might just spend next episode wondering whether or not she’s able to handle all the responsibility.
OUAT isn’t picked up for a second season yet, but as this season’s number one new drama, it’s pretty much guaranteed a slot in ABC’s line-up. I’m hoping that we see a rebirth of magic at the end of next week’s finale, and that the show tries to reinvent itself in the second season. There’s still time to have fun with this concept, and the melding of the fairy tale and real worlds will open up a slew of storytelling possibilities. I dream of this series following the same path as a show like Angel, which tried to tell more serious, down-to-Earth stories in its first season before embracing the fantasy and finding the reality and humor within that in later seasons. What would you want to see in this show’s second season?
- Regina has incredibly straightforward dreams, really hitting on all the bad things in her life in one fell swoop.
- The season finale preview looks fun, but anything becomes exponentially more epic when you add the Requiem For A Dream theme.
- Admiral Granny: “It’s a trap!”
- August: “You’re a smart kid.” Henry: “And you’re Pinocchio!” This show is so silly.