Once Upon A Time is a problematic series, but it’s not unfixable. The last two episodes back from winter hiatus have made big strides toward improving this show, largely by focusing on character development rather than mythology. While it’s fun to see how these Disney fairy tales intersect in the past, the fantasy elements can feel empty without a strong emotional core. “The Outsider” does a good job balancing those different aspects of the series, spotlighting Belle as she fights to help Rumpelstiltskin realize the good inside himself while teaming up with Mulan in the past to hunt a giant flaming dog. It’s a little silly but that’s the Once Upon A Time M.O., and ultimately the episode is a strong story about fighting for what you really believe in, even if that ends up getting you a bullet in the back.
Regina and Rumpelstiltskin are the major villains on this show, and they’ve quickly become the most interesting characters. As the writers find more personal motivations for why these villains act the way they do, they create a very nice contrast between their exaggerated fairyback selves and their more human Storybrook characterizations. Rumpelstiltskin’s love for Belle and his son has given him a lot of depth, and when he learns that he can cross over the Storybrooke border by enchanting the thing he cherishes most, he has the chance to move past his villainous past and create the family he always wanted. The person that stands in the way is Captain Hook, who attacks Belle in her recently reopened library and steals Baelfire’s cloak from Rumpelstiltskin’s store, taking the man’s hope that he’ll be able to leave Storybrooke and find his son.
One thing this show has done exceptionally well is turn the classic Disney princesses into characters that are far more independent and capable of handling themselves in dangerous situations. Snow White is the most badass of the group, but Belle proves herself a force to be reckoned with this week as she helps Mulan track the Yaoguai that threatens her village and faces down a murderous Captain Hook in the present. Belle shows her cunning when dealing with rival monster hunters and her clumsiness when she steps on a stick and awakens the Yaoguai, but that gives Mulan the opportunity to rescue her, taking the first steps to building a mutually beneficial relationship. When those same hunters threaten to throw Belle into a well for misleading them, Mulan returns to fight them off but is injured in the process, forcing Belle to take the lead in hunting the Yaoguai after a pep talk from her wounded partner.
Belle’s hunting skills come back into play in Storybrooke when she finds a knot that Hook dropped in the library when she dumped a rack of books on him, and she finds his ship at the Storybrooke harbor along with a captured Archie in its brig. Hook tries to break Belle’s faith in Rumpelstiltskin by telling her about what he did to his ex-wife, but she understands that her man was a total shithead in the past and decides to bash Hook in the face with a wooden pole, running for her life but foolishly leaving the gun Rumpelstiltskin gave her for protection in Hook’s hand. Up on deck, Rumpelstiltskin is waiting to beat the crap out of Hook with his cane, but Belle is able to stop him, reminding him that they have Baelfire’s cloak and that they have the opportunity to move past all this now.
Many shows expand their casts in the second season, and Once Upon A Time has brought in a slew of new fairy tale characters while giving added attention to characters that were largely in the background last year. Expansion isn’t always a good thing, though, and the first half of this season showed how adding in a bunch of new stuff can pull a show off-track. Writers Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg understand how to bring in new story elements without pulling focus from the characters, and this week’s episode brings back Mulan for her best use on the show yet. When Belle doubts her ability to hunt the Yaoguai, Mulan tells her a bit about her own history, saying how people thought that she didn’t have what it took, but she proved them wrong by showing them her warrior spirit. Let’s all pause and remember that warrior spirit for a moment:
Belle faces down the Yaoguai and extinguishes its flames; in its weakened state, the beast writes a message on the ground, asking Belle to save him. She uses the fairy dust given to her by Dreamy, transforming the creature into Prince Philip, who was turned into a flaming dog by Maleficent in her continuing attempts to keep him away from Princess Aurora. Hurray for the return of the extremely cute Julian Morris, who died far too prematurely on this show. Belle brings Philip to Mulan and then makes her way to find Rumpelstiltskin but encounters Regina along the way, who kidnaps her and throws her in her tower, effectively closing the book on Belle’s fairyback story. Belle’s story might be ending in Storybrooke too, as she’s shot in the back by Hook and thrown over the town border after Rumpelstiltskin makes it across with his memory intact. Before Rumpelstiltskin can get revenge on his enemy, a car comes barreling through the border and crashes into Hook, and the episode ends with the arrival of an outsider that will pose new problems for the town moving forward.
One thing that the first season of Once Upon A Time did well was contrast fairy tale expectations with real world circumstances, showing how the past fantasy lives of these characters couldn’t be translated into the nonmagical environment of Storybrooke. In this episode, that juxtaposition rises in the situation faced by Snow, Charming, Emma, and Henry, who are starting to find their new family dynamic a bit crowded. Snow wants to find a new place with her husband while her husband wants to find a way back to the Enchanted Forest, especially now that ogres and Cora’s evil magic have overrun their homeworld. Much of Storybrooke agrees with their king, and the new visitor that arrives at the end of this episode is likely to motivate them to head back to their fairy tale homes even sooner.
- That whole Archie being dead thing sure did get resolved really quickly, didn’t it? Granted, it’s probably better than having the writers drag it out for way too long and force us to watch Henry call his therapist’s phone line all day.
- Why would Belle lock herself in an elevator instead of running out into the town street in broad daylight when Hook shows up in the library? I hate horror movie logic.
- This show needs to stop using CGI environments, because they always look incredibly fake. But the Yaoguai doesn’t look too horrible (at least from far away).
- The costuming in the fairy backs is really sharp this week, especially Regina’s awesome equestrian outfit. Sometimes the clothes do more to emphasize her bitchy character than the acting.
- “But I just imagined a bigger roof. With turrets.”
- “I know this ship like the back of my…well, you know.” Hand joke!