When we last left Emma (and Regina), they were watching their one chance to go back to the world they belong in disappear, and they were confronted with ghosts of the past – in the form of Robin. But, of course, since this is Once Upon A Time, their one chance wasn’t one chance, and the ghost turned out to be pretty opinionated for a guy who didn’t know Regina from the next person.
All in all, however, the episode, despite requiring the usual suspension of disbelief, was much more effective – both in the narrative sense and characterization wise, than the midseason finale, as well as much more emotional. It also seems to set the stage for a battle that, this time, might not pit the citizens of Storybrooke against each other, which is always a good thing.
So, let’s go into what worked and what didn’t on the mid-season premiere of Once Upon A Time, aptly titled “Tougher than the Rest.”
Part of the reason the episode worked so well is because there was a narrative thread connecting it all, a journey that we could follow from the few flashbacks of Emma as a kid, and the present Emma trying to fight her way out of the perpetual state of fear her vision had left her in.
The message – the lesson – Emma had to learn was about fate, and about the fact that we are never truly tied to a predetermined destiny. We all have the power to change our fate. It all ties back to an interpretation of the Ugly Duckling (where Emma got the name Swan from) that I find kind of uplifting and is a perfect example of what made people fall in love with this world, this show.
You see, I’ve always thought of it like young Emma did – the ugly duckling was always a swan. He was always going to turn into one. But that takes the matter of choice out of the equation, and this message, this lesson, is all about choice. So, from now on I’m going to see the story the way Once Upon A Time has presented it to me – as a choice. The Ugly Duckling chose to become a swan, as did Emma. And she found her way in life, even when she was alone. Even when she felt abandoned.
Which brings us to now, and Emma finding her way, her strength. Her father is there, her son, the love of her life, but Emma’s strength isn’t other people – they’re, if anything, her inspiration, her comfort, her home. Her strength was always inside her, she just needed to believe in herself enough to realize that this was possible. She needed to choose her fate the same way she chose her name.
This is parallels the whole Robin thing and Emma’s message to Regina: Make your own destiny, take a chance. It’s not about the feather or whether Emma truly believes Robin’s soul is in this Robin, it’s about inspiring her friend to reach the same conclusion she has – that you can’t let others define your life. You gotta do that for yourself.
And, at the end of the episode, in the arms of the people she loves the most (minus Snow – when are we fixing this silly curse?), and after having defeated Gideon, Emma seemed ready to take this future by the horns, so to speak. To create her own destiny. So, that just means it’s time for the ring, right? Right?
Get on it, Killian. Your love is finally ready.
EVIL FOR GOOD REASON IS STILL EVIL
Let’s dispense with the notion that Gideon is a good guy, he’s not. Evil for “good reason” is still evil. And yet, the fact that he’s clearly misguided (and Belle and Rumple’s son) adds an element of uncertainty to the equation. Do you go for the kill or try to convince him that he’s wrong?
Emma could have ended him. She didn’t. Part of it was that Rumple and Belle were right there, of course, and Emma is not a soulless killer, but part of it was also that …Emma is the savior. She might have reneged against the title, she might sometimes feel like the burden of it is too much, but at this point savior is not a job …it’s who she is. And how much of a savior would she be if she just killed him without even trying – or giving his parents a chance to try.
Of course, it’s not as easy as wanting to “save” Gideon. It’s imperative to make him see the truth. He doesn’t think he’s evil – perspective is a funny thing, and as much as Gideon might say that he’s his mother’s son, fact is, his upbringing have made him very clearly his father’s son first and foremost. Yes, he wants to do a good thing, but he’s willing to do anything and everything to get it.
Belle has never been a the end justifies the means type. That’s all Rumple.
The thing Gideon fails to understand, however, is not just that savior is not a job that’s passed down the same way as dark one, but that it’s a calling to do good, to be good, to be selfless and strong and brave. Emma Swan is not all those things because she’s the savior – she’s the savior because she’s all of those things. And no one else can take her place.
NOT GOOD ENOUGH – IF YOU BELIEVE
August has never been one of my favorite characters – he abandoned Emma just as much as Neal, and the fact that no one has ever truly called him out on it in a satisfactory way only adds to my annoyance, but his journey in this episode is still somewhat effective, even if he’s wearing the face of the man who, once we get down to it, was as responsible for Emma feeling like an orphan as anyone else.
Still, he’s an integral part in Emma’s journey, and in a way, Emma is an integral part in his. August’s problem was always more complicated than cowardice. He didn’t abandon Emma just because he was scared; he did it because he honestly thought she’d be better off without him. And that speaks to a level of self-hatred that goes way deeper than cursory glance would indicate.
August’s belief that she could become a swan, that she could be strong, helped set Emma in the path towards the person she was always meant to be, and her belief that he could live up to his father helped wish-realm August finally achieve his potential. Belief is a powerful thing in Once Upon A Time land, and though August never truly did right by Emma, was never the support she deserved, that doesn’t mean he didn’t care and, in a way, didn’t try to help. It just meant that he needed Emma as much as she needed him, and he just couldn’t handle that fact.
Do I like August more after this episode? Debatable. Intentions aside, his past actions are hard to forget and I’d almost say impossible to forgive. Do I understand him better? Yes, and I guess that’s about all the show can hope for in regards to him.
STOP HIM OR AID HIM
Who would have thought, Once Upon A Time has actually managed to get the story-line to a point where it makes sense for Rumple and Belle to find some common ground. Not romantically, no – for me that’s pretty much over and done with – but as two people who, despite all they’ve hurt each other, have one thing in common they are both willing to sacrifice everything for: Gideon.
Maybe it’s just me, but there’s a vibe here, a vibe to this episode, maybe a vibe to this season. Rumbelle has been killed and revived so many times that at this point the relationship is like an extra in Shaun of the Dead, but this, what they’re doing right now with Rumple and Belle, the path they’re putting them on, it doesn’t feel like a path to reconciliation – it feels like closure.
Like maybe Rumple can do one good thing before the end (his end). Like maybe he can help his son. Like maybe that was always meant to be his redemption.
And though I’m not here for any more of this dysfunctional romance, I am here for the rest – for the family, for the getting Gideon back, for Belle’s realization that, for a son, you’d do anything and everything. I’m here for something greater than Rumbelle. Please give it to me.
IS HE BETTER OFF WITHOUT ME
Of all the characters that have appeared in Once Upon A Time, regular, recurring and guest stars alike; you could make the argument that Robin Hood got the short end of the stick more than anyone else. His characterization and his arc were always defined by his relationship with Regina, and he never got a chance to become a fully realized character.
And then, of course, they killed him, and that was that.
Robin is back in this episode – and though his return feels temporary, the character and the actor make the best of the time they have and, in the process, manage to make me feel more about the character – and the relationship, than I’ve felt in a long time.
Maybe it’s because Robin’s attitude in regards to his death is precisely the thing we’d all want to hear from loved ones gone too soon, maybe because it was a nice callback to Season 3, back when the relationship was new, exciting and filled with possibilities. Or maybe because, in a way that I hadn’t realized before, I really want this show about hope and fairy tales to include a bit of that for all characters.
Either way, this Robin and Regina are essentially on two different journeys in this episode. He’s looking for meaning in his life, she’s looking for absolution. Robin’s journey is easier, and more straightforward – when you have nothing it’s easier to take a chance on something new.
Regina’s path, however, is more muddled. The single-mindedness in which she goes after Robin speaks of a journey that’s still very much unfinished. Redemption, happiness, whatever it is that this show wants as endgame for this woman …she’s just not there. She blames herself for too much, and she allows that blame to rule her, that blame to distract her from what she still has – Henry, and family, maybe not in blood, but in name.
Can Regina ever truly stop feeling guilty? I’d wager that the answer to that is always going to be no – she’s done too much for peace of mind. And yet, we can hope that one day, she won’t let herself be ruled by that guilt, that she’ll accept that the only way forward is trying to be better every day, not because she has to make up for how she was before (in reality, she never could), but because that’s the right thing to do.
That’s my wish for Regina. My wish for Robin? That would have involved much more character development that he can get at this point, and a storyline of his own, but since we’re far too late for that, I’ll settle for meaning. Don’t let his return be a gimmick and for all that it is about Regina, don’t let it be all about Regina. That’s how you lost me the first time.
I REALLY NEED TO GET HOME (GET SOMEONE OFF THE RUM, AND THE DESSERT)
If I could have written the wish-realm, I would, of course, have chosen a different scenario for Captain Swan. It wouldn’t have made sense, some would have cried, but this is Once Upon A Time. It’s possible to make just about everything make sense. However, though me – and you, probably – would have been happier with what we got in the wish-realm had I been the writer, making Killian Jones too similar to the Killian Jones at home would have removed some of the urgency to Emma’s desire to go home.
And, if just for that, I’m going to choose to see the best in the version of Killian Jones we got – the version without Emma. Sure, he had a bit of a belly, and he was older, but to be honest, he was still extremely attractive (curse you Colin, for never looking bad) and just plain …well, fun. There was a Jack Sparrow vibe about him that made every second he was on screen a hoot.
Of course, he was not the best version of himself – we already know the best version of him is the one with Emma Swan. And in a way, that was precisely the point. Killian and Emma are better when they’re together, not because they need each other to be good, no, but because support and love and someplace – someone – to call your own always makes the rest seem easier.
I don’t need to be rescued, Emma says, and she doesn’t, not in the wish-realm, not in real life. That’s not what Captain Swan is about, it’s never been about that. Killian can rescue Emma, yes, just as she can rescue him, but he understands that she’s perfectly capable of taking care of herself, and not only that, she’s better than him at many things. And on the flip side, Emma trusts Killian to take care of himself, and, if necessary, of others.
And funny thing is, for all that Killian Jones is over three hundred years old; he’s never been the stereotypical macho male. He’s always been ready and willing to be Emma’s support, her sounding board, her home.
Emma knows this. Emma wants to get back to that. And so she stands there and looks at this man who she loves and yet, who isn’t the guy she fell for, and she’s …amused. Awed, in a way, by what she rightfully perceives as her importance in his life. She’s not mocking, she’s not disgusted …she’s just focused on getting back to her life, to her Killian.
And when she does – when she defeats Gideon and gets to hug her family, her boys, the Emma Swan that stands there with them is a different Emma Swan than the one that left them. This Emma Swan has fought to be there, this Emma Swan wants the life that she sees ahead for her. And this Emma Swan is going to fight for it – tooth and nail, because this Emma Swan finally, finally believes she can have it all.
THINGS THAT DO NOT MAKE SENSE, A LIST
- Gideon has magic. Why? The DO powers are not supposed to be hereditary. Or is it something to do with the fairy blood? Because that did not help Rumple before he became the DO.
- Moving between worlds seems to be as easy and/or as complicated as the plot dictates.
- Since when is Savior a whoever-kills-the-savior kinda deal? I thought that was the Dark One.
- There’s no way that woodcarver thing should have broken that easily.
- Where in the world could Nottingham have to go that was more important than keeping an eye on the prisoner he’d so desperately wanted to catch AND the Evil Queen who he KNOWS has magic?
- The whole tree? The whole thing? How long did that take – 3 weeks? A couple of months? What was Regina doing in the meantime? Off on a rendezvous with Robin? IN THE SAME CLOTHES?
- Is that it, she asks, AS IF SHE’D NEVER SEEN THE WARDROBE BEFORE.
- I remember the good old days when that tree only had enough magic to transport one tiny baby – now it’s suddenly powerful enough to transport everyone!
- Where in the world was Henry while BOTH his mothers were in another realm? He clearly wasn’t with Snow OR Charming/Hook. Was he having sleepovers with Violet? Did anyone give him the talk? Was it Hook? Can we see it?
- What kind of magic breaks a sword like that? No, seriously? What kind of magic?
- How could Rumple speak when he was supposedly paralyzed? Was he even paralyzed? If he wasn’t, why didn’t he try to help?
OTHER THINGS TO NOTE
- For all that Emma turned into a cynic, little Emma was rather trusting.
- Was Regina’s necklace even on or did she just have it hanging around without a clasp in case Robin showed up to rob her?
- It’s the little things. THE LITTLE THINGS.
- I know we’ve seen the actual Black Fairy and everything, but nothing will convince me Blue is not shady. NOTHING.
- She’s gotta be in league with the Black Fairy. Nothing else makes sense.
- Henry, for the love of all that’s holy, LOOK BEHIND THE FALLEN TREE. That’s just basic.
- “Kiss Snow back in” – LOL.
- The whole Charming and Hook team up feels like the blind leading the blind.
- Regina sure wrote that note fast. Did she use magic for that too?
- Also, you’re the Evil Queen, Regina, or at least you look exactly like her. Please keep that in mind while you walk around the realm.
- Why didn’t Robin run from the Evil Queen like everyone else? Why?
- I feel so cheated that we only got the Sheriff of Nottingham in a wish-real and for 0.2 seconds.
- “Leave the daring rescue to the professionals” – so, is that what Captain Hook does in this realm? Rescue damsels in distress?
- “To stop him or aid him” – GOOD QUESTION, HOOK. GOOD QUESTION.
- Through a tree? Really?
- Regina, when Emma says stay back and she looks like she’s about to die, DO NOT STAY BACK FOR CRYING OUT LOUD.
- When Emma says they’re going to switch to water, Killian legit looks at Charming like, save me, mate.
- Emma and her true loves in that 3 way hug: All I never knew I needed.
- Good message and all, August, but did you have to leave?
Once Upon A Time airs Sundays at 8/7c on ABC.