Watching this week’s episode, I found myself viewing Once Upon A Time in the way that I usually look at shows like Batman: The Animated Series and Adventure Time, through a lens that is partially dictated by that inner child who just wants to have some fun and doesn’t care about facts or logic. Once Upon A Time isn’t Breaking Bad or Game Of Thrones, and although it might have more sex and violence than the usual kid’s show, it’s difficult to argue with the idea that kids are a big part of this show’s target audience. That’s why the prop hearts are cheap-looking glowing plastic when they get ripped out of chests. You don’t want to give the kiddies nightmare after watching the adventures of Snow White and Rumpelstiltskin and Pongo the Dog.
I realize that probably sounds incredibly condescending, but as Batman and Adventure Time and Korra and Pixar movies have shown us, children’s entertainment can be just as satisfying for adults. Once Upon A Time isn’t a children’s show, but it’s definitely an all-ages one. Every so often, there’s a sex joke or someone pulls a gun, but people also throw magical beans that explode into portals and use magical tear eyedrops. This week’s episode probably pushes the show into its most adult territory as Regina endures electroshock torture from Greg Mendel and Tamara, but I saw a lot of kids at Iron Man 3 this weekend and nothing in “Second Star To The Right” was worse than what was in that film.
The results aren’t always spectacular, but you have to applaud Once Upon A Time’s willingness to play fast and loose with established fairy tales, folding the established Disney mythology together into a shared universe where Mulan has a crush on Prince Phillip and Rumpelstiltskin’s son lives with the Darling children in turn-of-the-century London. As a kid, I jumped off my parents’ wardrobe so I could be like Peter Pan, so I knew going into this episode that I would either love it or hate it. After last week’s stream of magical absurdity, prospects looked dim, but “Second Star To The Right” delivers enough payoff moments and enjoyably soapy character developments to make it one of the show’s stronger episodes.
After falling through the magical portal in the Enchanted Forest, a young Baelfire is ripped from his father and thrown into early 20th century London, where he wanders into the Darling house for food after starving on the streets for weeks. He immediately befriends Wendy, who keeps him hidden in their crawl space until she’s discovered by her furious father and ever-compassionate mother. Mrs. Darling insists that they take the boy in, and he joins a new family that is still being threatened by magic in the form of Peter Pan’s Shadow. “Second Star To The Right” reimagines the plot of Peter Pan as a horror story where Neverland is a place where young boys are trapped in a state of eternal youth and held captive by a malevolent Shadow king. It’s a fun twist on the story, casting Peter as a villain, and it’s also something that Bill Willingham had originally planned for Fables. In an A.V. Club interview, Willingham said:
“I wanted the Adversary to be Peter Pan. Even when I was a kid, I couldn't understand why he was considered the good guy in these stories. Basically, he would come to our world and steal our kids. That just seemed pretty sinister. I thought, ‘Okay, we'll do a little turnaround on that, and make Peter Pan the evil Adversary, and that means that Captain Hook and his pirates were really a crew that were going to Neverland and rescuing these kids, and they were painted as pirates only because Peter was doing the press releases.’”
It looks like Once Upon A Time is going to take that idea and run with it, turning Peter Pan into a little boy-snatching forever-child who rules over his magical domain with an iron fist (or at least the shadow of an iron fist). This is all hypothetical because we don’t see Peter Pan proper at all in this episode, but when Wendy returns from Neverland, she’s terrified for the fate of her brothers, one of whom the Shadow is coming for that evening. The kids stockpile whatever weaponry they can create from everyday households objects, but it’s no use against a magical force from another dimension, and ultimately, Baelfire sacrifices himself to save Michael and keep the Shadow away from the Darling family. He goes on a green screen journey through the London skies and when he gets to Neverland, he lights a match and gets the Shadow to drop him over the sea. He’s pulled out of the water by Captain Hook, setting up a new fairyback thread to be picked up next season while present-day Neal gets similarly trapped in another world.
Over in Storybrooke, Neal has to deal with a maniacal father and a treacherous fiancée, and things go very badly for him when he finally finds out the truth about Tamara. After stopping Rumpelstiltskin from stomping a man on the street, Neal gets harassed by his dad and is told that he still holds a candle for Emma, which is right on the mark. When Regina goes missing, Emma immediately suspects Tamara again and rushes off to tell Neal, who is only slightly dubious of his ex now. They have a heart-to-heart on the beach where Neal tells Emma that he regrets leaving her behind, establishing once and for all that these two are definitely getting coupled up again. That is, until Tamara throws a magic bean grenade that sends Neal through a neon green portal to magic land.
In order to find Regina, Charming cashes in his favor from Rumpelstiltskin and procures some magic that will allow Snow White to see through the Evil Queen’s eye. After putting in the eyedrops, Snow is overwhelmed by the feeling of electricity and constraint. Also, the smell of sardines. That clue leads Emma and Neal to investigate the docks, and that’s where they’re ambushed by Tamara, who is holding them off while Greg tries to find out what happened to his father. In an awesome Lana Parilla moment, Regina doesn’t flinch when she tells Greg what happened to his father: She immediately killed him and buried him in the campsite he shared with his son. Damn, that’s cold.
After bashing Emma’s head with a metal pipe and shooting her fiancé, Tamara throws the magic bean to make her escape. While Neal is getting pulled into the portal, Emma professes her love and Neal reciprocates before getting teleported away. So we’re going to get a rehash of the Snow White/Prince Charming plotline from the beginning of this season, but this time with Emma and Neal. It’s not the most intriguing development in this episode, but “Second Star To The Right” sets up a lot for next season, from Baelfire’s adventures in Neverland to the Home Office that has drafted Greg and Tamara in the ongoing fight against magic. Magic has been causing trouble on Earth for years, and Greg and Tamara are part of a task force that is trying to eliminate all magic. In order to make that happen, they’re going to wipe Storybrooke off the map, and they have Regina’s failsafe to help them do just that. The stakes in this episode build much more organically than last week, and that’s because the characters are so actively trying to avoid magic. It’s not a coincidence that this show improves when it finds drama in the personal relationships rather than creating drama through fantastic means.
- Regina invades Walt Disney World in a commercial for the New Fantasyland resort. I wonder if they’ll ever start having people dress as Once Upon A Time iterations of the fairy tale characters at the Disney parks. I could see it happening.
- The writers are going to need to do some major damage control with Belle, who has become a stereotypical floozy sidekick who is obsessed with being young. Remember when Belle was the Disney princess who wanted to be independent and read her books and didn’t throw herself into the arms of the most powerful thing around?
- Ladies and gentlemen, Once Upon A Time dialogue in a nutshell: Snow: “Why do you have one of Regina’s tears?” Rumpelstiltskin: “Because I do.”