Retro Review: Once Upon a Time, Season One: Episodes 6-12

I continue with my binge watch of Once Upon a Time. As usual, expect some spoilers.

The logo for Once Upon a Time“The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter”:

The last few episodes have been mostly about fleshing out the backstories of various cast members, and while that’s valuable, it was getting a bit repetitive.

Now, things are moving.

The focus this time is on Graham, the sheriff, who I had largely ignored up until now. An encounter with Emma grants him shocking visions of another world and another life: His life before Storybrook.

Feverish and panicked, Graham goes all across town and through the woods in a search of answers. With the help of Mary Margaret and Henry, he’s able to put the pieces together.

He was the huntsman sent to kill Snow White. The huntsman who failed, and who was punished severely by the queen. And as his memories return, his rebellion against Regina will earn him a harsher fate still.

This episode seems to mark a turning point. This is the first time the true nature of Storybrook has manifested as more than Henry’s outlandish claims and a series of strange coincidences. If Emma and Mary don’t start suspecting something is up now, I’ll be both surprised and disappointed.

Snow White in Once Upon a TimeThis is also the first time Regina has made good on one of her ominous but vague threats, which is very welcome because she was starting to feel a bit toothless.

Best laugh of the series to date: Mr. Gold — inexplicably in the middle of the forest wearing a leather apron and carrying a shovel — saying he hasn’t seen anything unusual.

Overall rating: 8.1/10

“Desperate Souls”:

This is another “origin story” episode. Rumpelstiltskin, this time.

Back in the land of magic, Rumpelstiltskin — a wretched coward loathed by all — is desperate to prevent his son from being conscripted into the army of a corrupt duke. His only hope is to steal the powers of a terrible dark wizard and claim them for his own.

In Storybrook, an election is held to find a replacement for Graham, and Emma faces off against one of Regina’s puppets. Mr. Gold cuts a deal with her to help her win… by any means necessary.

Robert Carlyle as Rumpelstiltskin in Once Upon a TimeThis is on the whole an unremarkable episode. It’s quite predictable and feels mostly like filler — of course Emma is going to win the election.

It’s also rather disappointing that Emma still doesn’t seem to put any weight into Henry’s ideas even after everything that happened with Graham. I realize it’s far-fetched, but she ought to realize something weird is going on by now.

I am reminded that in my earlier experiences with this show, I thought Emma came across as rather dense. I remember why I felt that way.

However, Robert Carlyle makes it worthwhile. He just oozes sleaziness, and he’s got creepy down to a fine art. This is probably the most attention he’s gotten so far, and that saves an otherwise bland episode.

Overall rating: 7.2/10

“True North”:

Since when do police cars have window controls in the backseat?

Lana Parilla as Regina Mills in Once Upon a TimeThat one little bit of silliness aside, “True North” was a solid episode, though I doubt an important one in the greater scheme of things.

This time, it’s the story of Hansel and Gretel. And it doesn’t really differ that much from the traditional story, aside from a little involvement by Regina.

The Storybrook side of things is a bit more interesting, with the kids as orphans about to be shipped off to foster homes.

Once Upon a Time often treads a fine line between being touching and cloying, but for the most part, this episode stays on the good side of that line. Even Emma manages to put on a decent performance for once.

The only knock against this episode is that it feels very much like filler, doing nothing to advance the main storyline.

Overall rating: 7.4/10

“7:15AM”:

Snow White and Prince Charming in Once Upon a TimeThis episode is a great example of why I usually hate romance stories.

We all know Snow White and Prince Charming are going to be together, in both worlds. That’s blindingly obvious. Yet this episode spends nearly all its time trying desperately to convince us that’s somehow in doubt.

Hint: It isn’t.

It’s a waste of time, plain and simple. There’s no drama, because the outcome isn’t remotely in question. This is a story masturbating.

The only saving grace of this episode is that Grumpy is pretty awesome.

Overall rating: 4/10

“Fruit of the Poisonous Tree”:

It’s time for another origin story. This one is for Sidney, who was Regina’s mirror (“Mirror, mirror, on the wall…”) in the fantasy world. He was originally a Genii who was freed by Regina’s then-husband, but as is always the case when magical wish-granting is involved, things get ugly before too long.

In Storybrook, Emma and a seemingly embittered Sidney go to extreme lengths to discredit Regina.

The magic mirror in Once Upon a TimeMostly, I enjoyed this episode. It was nice to see Sidney get some development, and once again the weaving of different stories and the real world was very clever, particularly the concept of how wishes always go wrong.

It didn’t really advance the story in any meaningful way, though, and the revelation that Sidney is just a sleazy bootlick after all rather invalidated his character development from earlier in the episode.

Overall rating: 7.1/10

“Skin Deep”:

Rumpelstiltskin is easily the best part of this show.

I’m not just saying that because Robert Carlyle is an amazing actor — although he is. Emma aside, there’s a lot of good acting on this show, but he blows everyone else out of the water.

But there’s more than that. Rumpelstiltskin, more than anyone else, embodies the soul of Once Upon a Time’s source material. And I don’t mean old Disney movies.

Belle and Rumpelstiltskin in Once Upon a TimeRumpelstiltskin harkens back to the old days of fairytales, where all magic came at a terrible cost, where dark things stalked the night, and where happy endings were a rarity. He is a chillingly stark yet refreshing contrast to the at-times cloying sweetness of the rest of the show, and this episode is a great example of that.

“Skin Deep,” as you might have guessed, focuses on Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold. It’s a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, with him playing the role of Beast. But this isn’t the story we’re familiar with. There’s no “happily ever after” here. A little interference from Regina coupled with Rumpelstiltskin’s own demons soon shatters his relationship with Belle, and things spiral out of control from there.

This episode goes to some seriously dark places by Once Upon a Time standards, and that brutality contrasts brilliantly with the tenderness of Rumpelstiltskin and Belle’s budding love. It all makes for what is easily the most shocking and powerful episode of the series to date.

On the downside, the parts of “Skin Deep” that didn’t involve Robert Carlyle were quite lame: David and Mary Margaret’s continued time wastery, and a random appearance by Cinderella for some reason. Thankfully, those bits are mercifully brief.

Overall rating: 8.8/10

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