The best thing about a show as inconsistent as Once Upon A Time is that it’s easy to be surprised because you never know what the quality is going to be from episode to episode. After a genuinely moving installment last week, imagine my shock when I found myself enthralled by “Welcome To Storybrooke,” a Regina-centric episode that tells of the early days after the casting of the Dark Curse. The flashback begins right after Regina turns the fairy tale kingdom into a quaint New England suburb, discovering the new world she’s created along with new desires now that she has everything she wanted. We know that time was wonky in Storybrooke up until Emma showed up, and it turns out that all of the town is on a Groundhog Day time loop that only Regina is aware of. She goes through her days telling people what to do and having sex with the oh-so-smoldering Sheriff Graham, but she’s not happy until she meets a little boy who has wandered into town with his father during a camping trip. Also, it’s 1983.
Once Upon A Time is at its best when it humanizes Regina, a villain who is often as cartoonish and one-dimensional as her animated counterpart. Her experience with Kurt Flynn and his son Owen shows how she has yet to shed her Evil Queen persona in this different environment, but it also shows Regina in an early moment of weakness during a time when she has complete control. Kurt and Owen are camping when the Dark Curse hits, and they decide to explore this new town that drops in the middle of the Maine forest. The time lapse in Storybrooke poses some interesting questions that I’m not going to spend much time on, like do Kurt and Owen experience the same repetition of time as Regina? What about Henry when he arrives? That last question will probably be addressed in a different flashback, but the first one is a pretty big plot hole.
Kurt and Owen make themselves comfortable in town while their car is being worked on, and Regina befriends them in an effort to give herself the family she desperately wants. Regina goes to Mr. Gold to talk to him about the curse and how unhappy she is now that everyone just obeys her without question, but he pretends that he has no idea what she’s talking about. Owen is someone that will talk back to Regina, and she realizes that she wants the love of a child who has a choice whether or not to love its parent. A mayor’s subjects will always try to remain in her good favor, but a child doesn’t have those same considerations. Owen will sit in Regina’s seat at Regina’s diner, and he won’t get up when she tells him; that’s what makes it all the more satisfying when he gives up the seat willingly. She’ll do anything to get Owen to want her, and she’ll do anything to keep him when his father decides that he wants to go back to their old life in Jersey rather than starting a new one in a strange town that appeared out of thin air.
In present day Storybrooke, Regina continues to go to insane measures to get small boys to like her, discovering a scroll in her mother’s old gown that outlines the Curse of the Empty-Hearted, which creates the illusion of love by killing a person that is deeply hated. If Regina takes Snow White’s heart, she can use it to cast the curse on Henry. When Rumpelstiltskin shares this information, Henry runs off to destroy magic in Storybrooke by blowing up the wishing well, giving Jared Gilmore way too much to do. This show actually has pretty good luck with child actors except for the one that is in the regular cast, and Benjamin Stockham is great as Owen in the flashback. He’s adorable but is also relaxed on camera, with a natural line delivery that puts Gilmore to shame. It’s understandable why Henry is so moody, considering the circumstances of his life, but all of his emotions are obviously performed rather than realistically lived. He’s just not a good actor, and everyone else on this show is undeniably talented, even if they don’t get the best material sometimes.
This episode is a spotlight for Lana Parilla and Ginnifer Goodwin, showing how their characters have changed since arriving in Storybrooke. Mary Margaret was a schoolteacher who talked to birds and brought a comatose man flowers every day, but Snow White is a queen who has had to make increasingly tough decisions for her kingdom. Right now she’s curled up in bed, depressed after killing Cora. Regina is dealing with the death of her mother in her own way, plotting to kill Snow and gain Henry’s love despite Rumpelstiltskin reminding her that she can’t have everything. Rumpelstiltskin is the voice of reason, and as someone who has recently seen what magic can do to parent-child relations, he’s a smart voice on the subject. When Regina finds Henry at the Wishing Well, she makes the dynamite disappear and has a conversation with her son that is a long time coming. Listening to Henry tell her that using magic for his affection is not actually love is what ultimately changes Regina’s mind, and she burns her mother’s curse in an attempt to gain a little bit of Henry’s trust. So now we’re back at Regina giving up magic in exchange for Henry’s approval. Been there, done that.
Parilla and Goodwin have a great moment when Snow shows up at Regina’s house and tells her to just kill her because she can’t live with the guilt of her actions. Regina says Henry would never forgive her, but she pulls out Snow’s heart and shows her the dark spot that has grown since she killed Cora, telling her, “I don’t need to destroy you; you’re doing it yourself.” I still hate the stupid plastic hearts on this show, but the two actresses make a genuine connection in the scene. I’m enjoying the character arc of Snow, and the writers have found a way to make her darker without forcing it like in season one’s murder mystery storyline. She’s been forced into some really ugly situations in life, and she’s embraced that ugliness in order to survive.
Those little plastic hearts come into play at the end of the flashback when Regina uses Graham’s heart to make him arrest Kurt Flynn for driving under the influence. The man is able to escape, igniting an intense car chase through Storybrooke that ends with Kurt in handcuffs as his son runs off for help. Owen comes back with police officers, but they can’t see anything past the town border, including Regina standing creepily on the other side. Once Ethan Embry shows up in the present day sequence, it becomes pretty obvious that Owen is actually this show’s mysterious Greg Mendell. Sure enough, “Welcome To Storybrooke” ends with Greg getting into his car after filming Regina pulling out Snow’s heart, starting the vehicle with a key that has the lanyard Owen’s father gave him on it. We finally get some motivation for this character’s shadowy actions, and it turns out to be a captivating plot with roots in Storybrooke’s past. After two strong episodes, it’s beginning to seem like Once Upon A Time is preparing to end the season on a high note, but things can fall apart at any instant. And that’s the big problem with shows as inconsistent as this one.
- This adorable video by Jon Cozart is tailor-made for Once Upon A Time fans:
- Why is no one dressed like it is 1983? Good thing the Dark Curse knew to fill everyone’s closet with fashions that would be hip for 30 years.
- Next week features the return of an all-wooden August, and judging by the preview, it looks to be a mess of bad CGI.
- “Green and red. Like Luke and Darth’s lightsabers.” Once Upon A Time continues to be at the forefront of the Disney acquisition of Lucasfilm.
- “When I put over easy on the menu, I was talking about the eggs.”
- “If you love them and they love you, they will always find you.”
- “Is she back in New Jersey… with The Boss?”