Once Upon A Time: “Queen Of Hearts”
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Once Upon A Time: “Queen Of Hearts”

For its winter finale, Once Upon A Time reverts back to the old status quo before throwing a silly new wrinkle in the mix, but let’s all just celebrate that Emma Swan and Snow White have finally made it back to Storybrooke. As their fairy-tale adventure dragged on, the show began to lose focus of the relationships, but this week’s installment helps get things back on track. 

That said, it’s the structurally flawed track that Once Upon A Time has been on since the start, so there are still plenty of issues with “Queen Of Hearts.” This episode credited to showrunners Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz is definitely stronger than the  chapters, but it still feels unsatisfying. The writers continue to quickly write the characters out of every obstacle with a makeshift magical solution, and the result is a general “That was it?” feeling when everything is resolved.

I’ve heard this season of Once Upon A Time compared to Charmed, which is a series that I didn’t watch regularly, but I can understand the comparisons. Both shows are fantasy soap operas with one foot in a world somewhat resembling reality, have a heavy emphasis on magic, and feature a cast of tough females, but there’s also an artificiality that makes everything a little bit hokey. It can be difficult to make things convincing as an actor on genre shows, and there’s only so much the Stanislavski system can do to make lines like “The only chance Snow and Emma have of defeating her is with the squid ink” less ridiculous. Shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel,and Charmed took a bit more of a tongue-in-cheek approach to their fantasy elements, allowing them to poke fun at the absurdity of magic, but everything is deadly serious in Once Upon A Time.

Fairybacks are back this week, and we learn about how Hook came to work with Cora, who became Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts when she was portal-ed away by Regina. The fairybacks really do a lot to flesh out the personal aspects of these characters, and this week gets back to something this season has been missing: seeing classic Disney figures re-imagined in this shared universe. I feel like a fool for not making the connection that Cora would be the Queen of Hearts (she who rips out people’s beating organs whenever she pleases), but it’s a smart way of folding this new character into the established Disney mythos.

In the past, Regina hired Hook to rip out her mother’s heart in exchange for the opportunity to kill Rumpelstiltskin, but when Hook is sent through the magic hat to Wonderland, it doesn’t take much for him to switch sides. When he can’t rip out Cora’s heart (she doesn’t keep it in her chest like most people), Hook switches to the other side, although Cora is basically offering the same thing as Regina. Cora’s clearly the stronger of the two, so it’s wise of Hook to ally himself with the witch that can do the most damage when needed.

Lana Parrilla’s overblown acting in the fairybacks is laughable, and it’s impossible to take her seriously when she’s playing a cartoon character. She tries to make Regina really evil, which means lots of glaring and aggressive line readings, but the exaggeration just stiffens her as a performer. Regina lets her guard down when Hook tricks her into thinking that her mother has been killed, and delivers a monologue about how she needs to get rid of her mother because of how much she loves her. Cora’s hold on Regina’s heart is too strong, and she can’t afford weakness when the curse comes. It’s a rare moment of vulnerability from Regina at her most flamboyant, and Parrilla gets the chance to do some actual acting with dramatic stakes and emotions and stuff like that. When the story flips back to Storybrooke, Parrilla improves by leaps and bounds because she doesn’t have to put on this caricature of a persona, and she’s able to navigate Regina’s emotions with a lot more confidence and honesty.

In Storybrooke, Rumpelstiltskin and Regina are dealing with the possibility that it might not be Snow and Emma who come through the portal, and Rumpelstiltskin wants Regina to help with a spell that will protect Storybrooke and take out whomever is trying to travel between worlds. She refuses to put Emma and Snow in danger, but Rumpelstiltskin begins to manipulate her into think that this is a win-win situation if she’s willing to tell a simple little lie. If Cora comes through the portal, then she dies and everything’s taken care of, but if Emma and Swan come through, Regina can blame their deaths on a magic flaw and have Henry all to herself. Regina is in a more vulnerable position this season, allowing her to fall prey to Rumpelstiltskin’s influence even though it’s not in her best interest. Now that we’ve seen what Regina’s relationship was like with Rumpelstiltskin in the past, it’s interesting to see how their old dynamic resurfaces now that he’s in a position of power over her.

This week’s episode covers a lot of the same ground as last week’s in regard to Henry and Regina’s relationship, giving us not one, but two scenes where Henry notes that Regina really has changed. Of course, that means that she’s probably going to revert back to her old self now that Emma is back, and Regina immediately reacts with hostility when Emma shows affection to her son. It’s not like she was just trapped in an alternate dimension or anything.

Emma Swan has become a problematic character, but this week she finally learns to believe in herself with the power of magic love-waves. When she gets locked in Rumpelstiltskin’s jail cell with Snow, Mulan, and a heart-controlled Aurora, Emma becomes obsessed with a piece of paper Rumpelstiltskin left with her name scrawled all over it. She views it as the latest piece of evidence that she’s not a great savior or hero, just another pawn in a destiny that was always written out for her. And it doesn’t help that Captain Hook compares her to a petrified bean. Snow White is there to help her feel better about herself, walking her daughter through a moment of self-doubt, but like the words on the page, there’s something magical in Emma waiting to be unleashed.

By blowing on the page, Snow White releases the magic squid ink that Rumpelstiltskin used to write Emma’s name, and the ink eats through the bars of their cell to give them a way to Cora. The witch has opened the portal to Storybrooke, but before she can use the enchanted compass, Snow shoots it out of her hand with an arrow. A battle breaks out as Emma works through some sexual tension with Hook and Mulan goes up again Cora (her sword deflects Cora’s magic because of course it does); meanwhile, Rumpelstiltskin and Regina have performed their spell on the other side of the wishing well, just in time for Henry to show up and guilt his mom about breaking her promise. When Cora and Snow White fight, Cora begins to go for her opponent’s heart, but Emma pushes her out of the way and gets her chest penetrated instead. Cora tries to rip out her heart but can’t, and then Emma sends out a love shockwave that gives Snow and her the opportunity to escape through the portal, just as Regina sucks out all the dark magic because Henry’s guilt trip totally works.

Back in Storybrooke, the first thing Snow does is run to Charming, whom she awakens with true love’s kiss, sending out another love-wave when the sleeping curse is broken. Emma goes to Rumpelstiltskin’s shop to confront him about being the writer of her destiny, but when she asks him about the power she showed with Cora, he has no answer other than something mysterious about Emma being magic. So now Emma is developing magic powers like Regina. Emma’s been a knight fighting for Storybrooke, is she about to become a witch now? One thing’s for sure: She’s going to need to power up if she’s going to take down the pirate ship that just pulled into port.

Remember how Cora and Hook went through all that planning and deception to open the portal to Storybrooke? When Emma and Snow jump through the portal, it seems like the villains will be stuck in the fairy tale world for the time being. Wrong. Hook uses the restorative waters of the portal to restore his petrified magic bean, giving Cora and him the opportunity to travel to the real world in a pirate ship. How the hell are the writers going to work with this development? There’s a lot of fun that could be had in seeing Cora and Hook interacting with the real world (meeting up with Baelfire?), but it’s entirely possible that their arrival will be heralded with the same grave seriousness that sucks the enjoyment out of this show. The move back to Storybrooke can only be a good thing, though, as the extended time spent in the fairytale world over the first part of this season proved to be too much for both this show’s effects budget and writing staff.   

Stray observations:

  • Fairyback Regina looks so much like Shannel from RuPaul’s Drag Race it’s uncanny.
  • I love how at the end of the episode, everyone is walking down the middle of the Storybrooke street in a straight line, the way people do. They couldn’t even use a sidewalk?
  • How exactly did Emma and Snow pull themselves out of the wishing well?
  • Mulan and Aurora are going off to save Prince Phillip’s soul from another dimension. How long until that thread intersects with whatever happens in Storybrooke?
  • “When I jab you with my sword, you’ll feel it.” Hook gets all rape-y this week, which is pretty uncool.

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