Once Upon a Time’s greatest strength is how it takes and transforms stories and mythologies so familiar, it seems like we’re born knowing them. So we’re automatically engaged when Red Riding Hood changes into a wolf, or Belle turns into a drunken trollop or, in one of the most promising developments yet, Neverland becomes nightmarish at the end of last season. Peter Pan is a pretty bleak story, after all, with motherless boys never aging on a savage island, and that shadowy figure at the Darling window grabbing at Bae and Wendy seemed to embody every childhood fear.
On the way to Neverland, unfortunately, OUAT’s season-three premiere gets immediately bogged down in family issues, an area where these Storybrookers have loads of problems. Henry (Jared Gilmore) has two mommies who don’t like each other. Emma (Jennifer Morrison) has had a much bleaker life experience than her fairy-tale parents, Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), and is infuriated by their unfailing optimism. (Here’s some clunky dialogue: “So if you would just let us share our wisdom…” “I appreciate your trying to be parents, but we’re the same age. We have the same amount of wisdom.”) Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle) wants to kill his grandson, because of a prophecy that says the boy will be his downfall, but let’s face it, we all want to see the end of his grandson.
The episode begins as last season ended, as Emma, Snow, Charming, Regina the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla), and Rumple set off on Hook’s pirate ship through a magic-bean-opened portal to find Henry. He was grabbed by Greg/Owen and Tamara, who are idiotically working for a giant conglomerate they know nothing about, except that it is supposedly aimed toward the end of magic (there are lots of leaps of faith involved in watching OUAT).
All the family-related strife comes to a ridiculous head on the Jolly Roger, when the ship is attacked by mermaids. Again, part of fun of OUAT is turning previous myths and fables around, so that Peter Pan is now the Big Bad, but in this universe, even mermaids are evil? What earthly (or unearthly) reason would they have for attacking a boat like that, with their big fishy tails? But attack they do, until it finally dawns on Regina that she’s magic, so she throws some fireballs at them until they go away. Except for the one that Emma and Snow have caught in a net, again, for no apparent reason. They pull the mermaid up onto the boat, and she testily grabs a nearby conch shell (?) to summon a storm. Then they all fight about what to do with the mermaid: Regina (surprise!) wants to kill her, Snow (guess what?) wants to let her go. Regina gets fed up and turns the mermaid into wood, which leads to a Perfect Storm of storms. Regina and Snow actually get into an all-out fistfight about this, because now that Snow’s plastic heart has some black in it she keeps slapping people, which somehow leads Charming and Hook (Colin O’Donoghue) to get into a fight as well. Emma, realizing that their fighting is causing the storm, tries to stop them, and when they won’t listen to her, she jumps into the water to her own possible watery grave, again, why? Maybe it’s her own leap of faith that the feuders will have to pull together to save her. But honestly, after 40-some episodes, the battle between the Evil Queen and her stepdaughter’s family is beyond tired. And since everyone was possibly going to sacrifice all of Storybrooke in last season’s finale just for the chance to save Regina, can’t it please be over by now?
Also in the illogical realm: why is everyone so convinced that Neal (Michael Raymond-James) is automatically dead because he went through a portal, but Henry is not? Okay, Neal was shot, but, as most would suspect, he winds up in the Enchanted Forest (because in a portal you wind up in the place you’re thinking of, and he was remembering growing up there?) where he receives fabulous medieval medical attention from Aurora, Philip, and Mulan. He heads with Mulan to his father’s castle, where he finds a famous archer/squatter (Neal remarks, “No way, Robin Hood,” but in the Enchanted Forest, can this really be a surprise?). Then Neal weirdly whips around Rumplestiltskin’s old walking stick to find a stash of magical stuff behind a cloaking spell that hopefully will help lead him to Emma. There’s also a strong theme of “belief” in this episode: Emma isn’t enough of a believer in imagination and magic to find Henry on Neverland, but Rumple is. She also doesn’t believe that good will always win, but her parents do. Owen and Tamara’s unflagging belief in the “Home Office” turns out to be a grave mistake. Neal/Baelfire has been running from magic his whole life, but now must embrace it to be able to use a crystal ball to find Emma (and somehow is able to discern from a tiny, two-second shot where she is).
Onto better things: Warrior Rumplestiltskin is the best Rumplestiltstkin. He saunters onto Neverland in a fantastic bad-boy leather outfit like a boss as he’s decided to save Henry, even though it will probably be his downfall, and so be it. He crushes Tamara’s heart on the way; good riddance, Little Miss “I didn’t know who I was working for.” But Rumple is felled by Lost Boy #1, who tosses him an old doll that Baelfire probably had on the island, which makes him crumble. Robert Carlyle continues to be far and away the best part of this show.
Another standout: Henry is fairly awesome in this episode, from talking smack to Owen and Tamara as they blindly follow the “Home Office” (“Good thing you guys don’t ask any questions,” he snarks), which actually turns out to be the Lost Boys, led by Pan. They don’t want to end magic, they just want Henry, because he is the heart of the episode title: He is the truest believer. So much so that he even sprinkles pixie dust on himself and is able to fly. Unfortunately for Henry, the heart of the truest believer is Pan’s greatest desire right now, although it probably take a few more weeks into the season to figure out why. Probably for the same reason this season starts out with a flashback of Henry’s birth: Emma says her superpower is that she’s a mother, the mother of Henry, who according to Pan is the most valuable of all. Cue the family issues.
- Do you think show creators Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, who also worked on Lost, were excited to get their main characters stuck together on a mysterious island? Familiar territory, to be sure. Those Lost Boys were very Othersy.
- Shadow Pan ripping the shadow from Greg/Owen was pretty horrific.
- As a fan of Hook and Baelfire’s brief life together on the pirate ship, I was glad to see the pirate reference it to Emma in a nice bonding scene.
- All those fish jokes about the mermaids were old before they started: “I’m all out of fish food,” “Filet the bitch,” “I’m going fishing!” But…Kraken shoutout!
- The kid playing Pan (Robbie Kay) did a stellar job of transitioning from innocent ex-Lost Boy into the supervillian himself.
- “What’s a movie?”…“Yeah, I don’t know how to explain what a movie is.”
- This episode was preceded by “Journey To Neverland,” a hour-long clip-show exploration of the show’s already-intricate histories and storylines, narrated by Horowitz and Kitsis, who offer fairly non-revealing insights. It’s a thorough explanation if you’re wondering how Emma broke the curse, her history with Neal, the neverending squabble between Snow and Regina, etc. The show’s creators take the opportunity to hammer home OUAT’s many themes, like how evil isn’t born, it’s made, and let’s remember, magic always has a price.