Once Upon A Time: “The Stranger”
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Once Upon A Time: “The Stranger”

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Once Upon A Time

“The Stranger”

Season 1, Episode 20

Jennifer Morrison is a completely capable actress, but Emma Swan is quickly becoming the major problem with Once Upon A Time. When she decides to follow up on her threat from last week and begins her efforts to regain custody of her son, she gets closer to the truth about Storybrooke than ever before. Unfortunately, her fear of responsibility, combined with the power of Regina’s magic, prevent Emma from seeing the evidence right in front of her eyes. Evidence like August’s wooden leg, because he’s Pinocchio.

We finally get a definitive answer to August’s fairy tale identity, and it’s one of the most satisfying fairybacks of the season. “The Stranger” would be the best episode of the entire series if it weren’t for some of the final scenes, when the story gets all anti-foster care and Emma starts acting stupid. This episode answers all the big August questions: Who is he? Why is he in Storybrooke? What did he do to Henry’s book? What’s up with his leg?

It turns out August was sent through the enchanted wardrobe before Emma and teleported to the real world, where he was supposed to watch over her and ensure that when she comes to the magically predetermined age of 28, she’ll believe in the fairy tale world. Ridiculous? Yes. But the story from Ian Goldberg and Andrew Chambliss is surprisingly heartfelt while finally moving the story forward. The fairybacks begin with Geppetto and Pinocchio on the raging sea just after escaping the whale, a scene that shows how much the special effects have improved on this show since the early episodes. The storm and the whale are huge, and the wooden Pinocchio is impressively emotive.

Pinocchio tells his father to take the only life vest because he’s made of wood and will float, but when they wash on shore, Geppetto is the only one left alive. It can’t be easy to convincingly portray grief over a dead puppet, but Tony Amendola delivers this episode, bringing real emotions to all his scenes with his son. When the Blue Fairy saves the day by turning Pinocchio into a real boy, she tells him: “Be brave, truthful, and unselfish. So long as you do that, you will always remain a real boy.” That might explain why August has been having some stiffness in his leg.

August manipulates Emma into coming to him for help by deceiving her and asking others to lie for him, actions that literally make him less human. Emma turns to Mr. Gold for help in getting Henry back, but he tells her that a drawn-out legal battle will hurt Henry more than help him and advises her to seek assistance elsewhere. I’m not sure why Emma makes the immediate connection to go to August, but she does, and she orders him to tell her the big picture.

The internal conflict that the writers have set up for Emma is pretty fascinating when you break it down, but from a story perspective, it’s prevented this show from moving forward. Emma already knows the big picture because she’s read Henry’s book. She knows the truth, but what Henry and August are trying to do is get her to believe. In the real world, it would be pretty much impossible to convince anyone that they’re the offspring of Snow White and Prince Charming, but this isn’t the real world; it’s the TV world, and characters need to accept their circumstances in order to evolve within them.

Emma chooses not to believe August’s story because that means that she becomes responsible for the lives of everyone in Storybrooke, and she can barely take responsibility for herself. She reverts back to the fragile girl she was when she gave up Henry, forgetting all the growth she’s made by taking on a bigger part in his life. After she finally confronts these fears with August in the woods, standing next to the magical tree that she was teleported through, Emma continues to react like a scared young adult, grabs Henry and flees Storybrooke. That’s gonna be hard to explain at the custody hearings. Granted, it’s not like Regina has her life together or anything.

Everyone except Henry is being inexplicably nice to Regina this episode, but they ultimately kill her with kindness and give Lana Parilla the chance to really camp it up this week. After installing a custom lock on her front door, Mary Margaret forgives Regina for being so desperately lonely that she has to ruin everyone else’s lives. After Henry lashes out at her, Regina’s car battery dies, but David comes to her rescue and pities her for being such a miserable person. He offers Regina a ride home, and she invites him in for dinner, an invitation he declines until she reads a note from Henry saying that he won’t be joining her. Except the note is completely blank, The dead car battery was probably staged too.

I’ve been waiting for the writers to give Regina a reason to hate Mary Margaret, and having her be attracted to David is the easiest way. In this soapy show, it’s a fairly obvious direction, but it finally gives Regina some added emotional stakes. Mary Margaret’s loneliness comment cuts Regina deep, and she tries to prove to herself that she can have whatever Mary Margaret wants by seducing David. It’s the same strategy that Regina used when she was sleeping with Sheriff Graham to get at Emma. She tells David the moving “true” story about when she first found him, and tries to convince him that their meeting was some sort of cosmic event, but when she goes in for the kiss, he shoots her down. Go, David!

David tells Regina that he likes their friendship where it is, and doesn’t want to compromise that, and when he leaves, Regina furiously hurls her glass of wine into the mirror conveniently in front of her. Breaking mirrors is such a gloriously campy action, and I hope it becomes a recurring part of Regina’s character. She can hire Sidney as her broken mirror-sweeper, and he can just follow her around and pick up the pieces of shattered glass every time Regina has a personal crisis.

Between the final fairyback that finds August ditching baby Emma to get away from evil foster parents and the cliffhanger of Emma driving off with Henry, there’s a beautiful scene between August and Marco, the Storybrooke incarnation of his fairy tale father. August works through his daddy issues and earns a job working in Marco’s woodshop, finally returning to the life they shared in the old world. It is a scene that shows that happily ever after still exists; it just looks a lot different when you’re all grown-up.

Stray observations:

  • The 28th year is such a random number for Emma’s destiny age.
  • They got the cutest baby ever to play lil’ Emma.
  • Explicit Lost reference: Emma decided to stay in Storybrooke at 8:15. I wonder if Flight 815 is the plane Pinocchio sees when he first appears in the real world?
  • “Thank you for being my knight in shining armor.” GROAN. “More like flannel, but you’re welcome.” DOUBLE GROAN.
  • August: “You’re our only hope.” Emma: “Then you’re all screwed.”