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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Once Upon A Time: “The Queen Is Dead”

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This past weekend, Jack The Giant Slayer opened in theaters to weak reception, raking in only $28 million when its budget was nearly $200 million. It’s the latest fairy tale reimagining to be a critical and commercial disappointment (this year has already brought us Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters), and it’s starting to look like the movie-going public is getting tired of these updated takes on fairy tales that put style over substance. Yet that doesn’t seem to be the case on television. Both Grimm and Once Upon A Time are ratings success stories for their networks, and I wonder why that is. Is it because people don’t have to pay to watch them? Maybe it’s that both shows combine multiple fairy tales, allowing people to watch familiar characters in new situations?

Once Upon A Time is lucky to have the Disney connection, which puts the story in a context that the series' target audience knows very well, and the writers take advantage of the thrill viewers get when they see their favorite cartoon characters brought into three dimensions. This season started by introducing Mulan and Sleeping Beauty, but has since slowed down with the Disney character introductions. Now, it’s time to work with the characters that are already on the board, and “The Queen Is Dead” does strong work building up character motivations and moving pieces in place as the season nears its conclusion. It’s a Snow White-centric episode with a fairyback that looks at her mother’s final days; both Bailee Madison and Ginnifer Goodwin give genuine, emotional performances that make Snow seem like a real human being, largely thanks to their chemistry with new character/cannon fodder Johanna.

Lesley Nicol, a.k.a. Downton Abbey’s Mrs. Patmore, guest stars this week as Johanna, Snow White’s beloved childhood servant that helps her cope with her mother’s death. The fairyback opens with Snow berating Johanna for trying on the tiara she is going to wear at her upcoming birthday celebration, but her mother stops her and tells her that they are not about anyone because of their nobility and that everyone deserves their love. She tells Snow that the tiara is surprisingly heavy, then keels over in pain for maximum storytelling effect. It’s good that Snow White’s mother chose that time to impart a bunch of wisdom to her daughter, moments before collapsing from an unexplained illness. Johanna tells Snow White that the Blue Fairy might be able to help her with magic where medicine is failing, so Snow goes out to find the sprite, instead finding Cora in disguise. She offers Snow a candle that will save her mother’s life if she sacrifices another soul in return, but the morality that Snow’s mother fostered in her prevents her from taking the remedy.

Cora puts Snow in a similar position in Storybrooke when Snow and Charming find the location of Rumpelstiltskin’s dagger but are then forced to choose between Johanna’s life or giving up the Dark One’s weapon. As frustrating as Regina’s character has become, especially after her chat with Snow earlier telling her how she’s actually the good one in their ongoing feud, the scene works because Daniel T. Thomsen and David H. Goodman do good work building up Snow and Johanna’s relationship at the start of the episode. The scene of the two of them reminiscing about Snow’s mother is an emotional moment between two talented actresses who are able to share in something real and recognizable. They’re not crying because an ogre stomped on their house or their magical snow globe was stolen; they’re crying because they’re remembering someone they loved who isn’t with them anymore.

In the Storybrooke clock tower, Snow learns the horrible truth about Cora’s role in her mother’s death, and when she gives up the dagger to save Johanna’s life, Cora ends up throwing the woman out the window once she gets what she wants. It’s the last straw for Snow White, and the episode ends with some great Snow moments as she realizes how much Regina and Cora have hurt her and her family and decides that it’s no longer the time for justice, but vengeance. She’s always expected the villains to change, but she asks herself, “What if I’m the one who has to change?” That’s when she decides that she’s going to kill Cora, which I think is definitely the correct course of action for this series to take. Cora’s really messed with Snow’s life, and she should be the one to finally rid the world of Cora’s evil.

Good lord, the Rumpelstiltskin versus Henry storyline is going to make me hurt my beautiful plasma screen, and I know my roommate would not be happy with that. It’s a clumsily shoe-horned attempt to add extra conflict when there’s already plenty to begin with, and it puts more focus on Jared Gilmore when he needs less. He’s just a disingenuous actor that makes everything sound like a line-reading rather than actual dialogue, which makes his continued anger at his mother ring false on screen. Rumpelstiltskin wants Emma to convince Neal that he should come to Storybrooke, and when she talks to her baby daddy, all he can tell is that it’s complicated. “Complicated” means that he has a fiancée, because of course he does. Once Upon A Time loves repeating itself, so now we’ll get to watch this show repeat the first season’s Mary-David-Kathryn storyline. Whee.


Neal is going back to Storybrooke, and the way the writers make that happen is by having Captain Hook randomly appear in New York City, come charging into Neal’s apartment building and stab Rumpelstiltskin in the chest, leaving him poisoned with a toxin that can only be healed by the magic in Storybrooke. Hook charging in during Emma and Rumpelstiltskin’s low-key conversation is a great WTF moment, even if he does come out of nowhere. He sailed his pirate ship to New York City, and Neal is going to sail it back to Storybrooke because he has a familiarity with pirate ships. As Neal drops hints about his past, you can see the Baelfire fairyback episode forming before your very eyes. I wouldn’t be surprised if we got an in-depth look at Neal/Baelfire’s history before this season was up, especially considering the writers are running out of significant moments to spotlight from these characters’ fairy tale lives.

Stray observations:

  • Regina has to do her mom’s bitch work shoveling for Rumpelstiltskin’s dagger. Can’t they just use magic? Oh wait, Cora probably wants Regina to be doing unnecessary physical labor because she’s just that kind of bitch.
  • Wow, that Bailee Madison sure can turn on the waterworks when she has to.
  • Hook needs to learn that less talking, more stabbing will get the job done without giving Emma enough time to get up and knock him out.
  • I thought for sure Neal’s fiancée would be Tiana from The Princess And The Frog, but it turns out her name is Tamara. She could still be Tiana in the fairybacks, though…
  • “It’s delicious, cheesy, and doesn’t lie.” Henry is horrible.
  • “I was always the Queen. It you who added ‘evil’ to my name.”
  • “She was right. It is heavy.”
  • “You see where good gets you?” Uh, didn’t you just say you were the good one, Regina?