Retro Review: Once Upon a Time, Season One: Episodes 18-22

I’ve now come to the last few episodes of Once Upon a Time’s first season. As with the rest of the series to date, they’re a mixed bag, but the good tends to outweigh the bad.

The logo for Once Upon a Time“The Stable Boy”:

As we near the end of the first season, we finally learn a key piece of the backstory to Once Upon a Time: the source of Regina’s enmity towards Snow White.

It all happened when Snow White was a little girl. Regina entrusted her with the secret of her affair with a stable boy, but Regina’s mother, a cruel dark sorceress, was able to pry the truth from Snow, with terrible consequences.

Meanwhile, in Storybrook, Emma continues to try to exonerate Mary Margaret and continues to fail miserably, and August continues to be all mysterious and vaguely creepy.

I found this episode slightly unsatisfying, though I’m not sure why. It hits a good balance of giving Regina a good reason to be angry without compromising Snow’s identity as a person of pure heart.

I guess after all the build-up around Regina and Snow’s rivalry, there was no way the truth would live up to the hype. That’s the danger in delaying these things too long.

Regina and her lover, Daniel, in Once Upon a TimeThe ending is a bit interesting, but it also threatens to resolve the Mary Margaret situation through a deus ex machina, which isn’t the best solution.

Overall rating: 6.7/10

“The Return”:

At last, we get some attention toward Storybrook’s mysterious newcomer, August. It’s overdue.

All indications are that he is in fact Rumpelstiltskin’s son, who came to our world long before the curse. However, the truth may be more complicated.

This is a hard episode to rate. On the one hand, lots of Robert Carlyle, and we finally understand why Rumpelstiltskin forged the curse in the first place. I also like the twist that August isn’t his son after all, because that was feeling a little too obvious.

However, I’m also disappointed that we still haven’t figure out who August actually is. It’s starting to feel a bit like being strung along. Clearly he’s from the fantasy world, or at least somehow gained knowledge of it. The fact he’s immune to the curse seems important.

Overall rating: 7.8/10

“The Stranger”:

August/Pinocchio in Once Upon a TimeHere’s another of one of those times when I have really conflicted feelings on Once Upon a Time.

I didn’t have to deal with my disappoint over the continued mystery of August’s identity for long. He was Pinocchio, and like Emma, he managed to escape the curse before it consumed the land. Now, the curse has disrupted his own magic (or something like that), and he’s turning back into wood.

His only hope is to convince Emma to embrace her destiny… but this is Emma we’re talking about.

Meanwhile, Regina once again tries to get to Snow/Mary Margaret, this time through David/Charming.

There’s a lot to like about this episode. It answers a lot of questions, and it’s one of the times where Once Upon a Time manages to be quite emotional without laying it on too thick. Pinocchio’s story is very touching, a tale of flawed people trying to do their best and not always succeeding.

They managed to erase about ten episodes worth of dislike for August/Pinocchio and actually make me like him, which is no mean feat. I also really enjoyed Tony Amendola’s performance as Geppetto; dude’s got some acting chops.

But there are two blemishes on this otherwise fine episode.

Jennifer Morrison as Emma Swan in Once Upon a TimeThe first, as usual, is Emma. Her continued and utter denial of all evidence of her fantastical origins is getting downright torturous. Maybe it is realistic — I don’t even care at this point. The fact is we as viewers have known she’s wrong for a very long time, and we know she’s going to find out at some point. Stop stringing us along and get to the point already.

The other is David once again proving himself to be an utter and complete schmuck. I guess I know where Emma gets it from.

Overall rating: 7.9/10 The good outweighs the bad.

“An Apple Red as Blood”:

We’re now in the final two episodes of the first season, and these are both episodes that I’d seen before.

As one would expect, events are coming to a head. In the fantasy world, Snow White calls upon all her allies — the Seven Dwarfs, Red, Granny, and the Blue Fairy — to launch a daring strike to rescue Prince Charming… only to find Regina once again one step ahead. This allows Regina to carry out her ultimate revenge on Snow.

In Storybrook, Regina is growing increasingly desperate to find a solution to the Emma situation. She forms a plan with Jefferson the Mad Hatter to use her last scrap of magic to defeat Emma once and for all, taking her past plan to deal with Snow White as inspiration.

Lana Parilla as Regina Mills in Once Upon a TimeI think I actually liked this episode better when I didn’t have the context for everything, though it’s still pretty good.

The main problem is that — now that I know the full story — Regina’s desperate fear of Emma seems oddly baseless. She’s defeated Emma at every turn, to the point where Emma is pretty much giving up at this point, and it’s now painfully clear Emma wouldn’t believe in the curse or try to fight it if it clubbed her over the head.

That niggle aside, “An Apple Red as Blood” is pretty solid. The fantasy side of the story is swashbuckling fun, and the Storybrook side sets the stage for the finale quite well. Emma has finally been forced to confront the curse — she wouldn’t believe if it clubbed her over the head, but now that it’s clubbed Henry over the head, she has no choice.

Overall rating: 7.8/10

“A Land Without Magic” (season finale):

And so we come to the end of the first season of Once Upon a Time. It’s been a somewhat mixed ride, but it ends on a mostly strong note.

Henry has fallen into a deathly coma, forcing Emma and Regina to work together just as they hate each other more than ever.

Snow White and Prince Charming in Once Upon a TimeRumpelstiltskin, of course, has the answer. He secreted away a bottle of potent magic that can save Henry.

In a dragon.

So that’s fun.

But Rumpelstiltskin has an ulterior motive, as always, and it will change Storybrook irrevocably.

This is a very good ending to the first season. It resolves the issue of the curse, at least partially, while providing a cliffhanger that promises new challenges down the line. I did really enjoy seeing the characters reawaken to their true selves. And we got lots of Rumpelstiltskin, so that’s always good.

It is now clear that everything since before the casting of the curse has been part of some elaborate scheme of Rumpelstiltskin’s, but his purpose remains unclear. He wanted to create the curse so it could be broken? Seems a little convoluted. I’d say it was a scheme to get Belle back, but he seemed genuinely surprised to learn she was still alive — which was another good scene.

I guess it will all be explained at some point.

Something else I greatly appreciated was Regina’s performance in this episode. Her grief over what happened to Henry was quite moving, and it was great to once again see her human side. When I first saw this episode, that level of nuance to Regina’s character was one of the things that got me interested in Once Upon a Time.

Mr. Gold/Rumpelstiltskin brings magic to Storybrook in Once Upon a Time's first season finaleMy only major complaint, once again, comes from Emma, and I remember ranting about it back when I first saw the show — I think it may have been the origin for my low opinion of her.

If you are fighting a dragon, and your choices of weapons are a legendary sword from an enchanted kingdom and an ordinary pistol, why would you choose the pistol?

On the plus side, that foolishness aside, Emma actually puts on a rare good performance in this episode. Her rage toward Regina is quite a thing to see.

Overall rating: 8/10

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