Grading the Season Finales: Once Upon a Time

Title A Land Without Magic (1.22)

Written By Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz

Major Characters Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), Regina Mills/Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla), Mr. Gold/Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle), Henry Mills (Jared Gilmore), Mary Margaret Blanchard/Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), David Nolan/Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), Jefferson/Mad Hatter (Sebastian Stan), Belle (Emilie de Ravin), August W. Booth/Pinocchio (Eion Bailey)

What Happens First, we’ll tackle the Fairytale Land side of this finale…Prince Charming escapes from the Evil Queen’s dungeon with a little help from the Huntsman (Jamie Dornan) and proceeds on his quest to find Snow White. However, the queen transports him to a forest that is impossible to navigate…without a little magical help, of course. That help comes in the form of Rumpelstiltskin, who offers Charming the Fairytale Land equivalent of a GPS device (he’s enchanted a ring given to Charming by his mother to glow brighter as he approaches Snow White). But of course, all magic comes with a price. In this case, Charming has to hide a potion (made from Charming and Snow’s true love) inside the dragon form of Maleficent. After a daring fight with the aforementioned dragon, Charming succeeds, and, as promised, Rumpelstiltskin gives him the ring, telling Charming that he has a vested interest not only in true love but in what true love creates.

What happens next is a second look at the opening scene of the pilot episode, with Charming racing to his beloved Snow White and restoring her to life with true love’s kiss. The finale takes this scene one step further with a marriage proposal and a promise to “take back the kingdom” from the evil forces that are now controlling it (King George, who Charming has to pretend is his father in an elaborate “Prince and the Pauper”-type story from earlier this season, and the Evil Queen).

And now to the events in Storybrooke…After eating a cursed apple turnover meant for Emma at the end of last week’s episode, Henry is rushed to the hospital while a helpless Emma learns from Dr. Whale (David Anders) that there is no explanation for his loss of consciousness. This triggers Emma to finally see that what happened to Henry is “like magic,” and upon holding his storybook, she finally believes everything he had been telling her all season: Storybrooke is a town filled with cursed fairytale characters and she is the daughter of Charming and Snow, the savior meant to break the curse cast upon them by Regina. This is confirmed during a raw, emotional confrontation with Regina, during which Emma (Henry’s birth mother) discovers that Regina (Henry’s adopted mother) can’t bring their son back to life because she used the last of her magic to create the apple turnover that Henry ate.

The two women then go to the only other person in Storybrooke with substantial power, Mr. Gold. He tells Emma that she needs to retrieve the potion that her father hid inside of Maleficent, who is being kept in her dragon form underneath the town. Before she confronts the dragon, Emma goes to see August, only to watch him return to his original form (a wooden puppet) right before her eyes. Emma defeats the dragon, but is tricked into giving up the potion to Mr. Gold, who experiences his own shocking twist when he comes face-to-face with his beloved Belle, who was thought to be dead. She was freed by Jefferson and sent to find Mr. Gold with the message that Regina is the one who had been holding her captive.

The happiness of this moment is soon forgotten when Emma and Regina receive simultaneous phone calls from the hospital: Henry is dead. While Regina looks on, Emma says her final goodbyes to her son, telling him she loves him and kissing his forehead. True love’s kiss proves once again to be strong enough to conquer all, waking Henry and breaking the curse cast upon all of Storybrooke’s residents. With their memories restored, Snow White and Prince Charming have an emotional reunion 28 years in the making – as do Rumpelstiltskin and Belle. However, Rumpelstiltskin has bigger plans than love at the moment, dropping the potion Emma acquired into a well and bringing magic to Storybrooke through what appears to be a purple version of Lost’s infamous smoke monster.

As the one who cast the curse, Regina knows she will have hell to pay and must go into hiding to save herself now that the townspeople remember who they are. Before she leaves the hospital, though, she pleads with Henry to believe that, no matter what anyone tells him, she does love him. Her tears upon entering her son’s empty bedroom fade to a cruel smile, though, as she sees the purple smoke of magic returning to the town, presumably restoring her powers as the clock strikes 8:15, the same time that Storybrooke was frozen at for 28 years before Emma came to the town in the pilot episode.

The Game-Changing Moment Leave it to Kitsis and Horowitz (of Lost fame) to “move the island” in a huge way by changing the entire premise of the show in the first season’s finale. Not only did Emma’s kiss to Henry bring him back to life; it broke the curse upon which the entire show is based. I think many fans were assuming that it would take Emma kissing her son to wake him up (which provides a really nice commentary on parental love being as strong as romantic love), but it was a shock, at least to me, that it broke the curse for all of the residents of Storybrooke. This show is at its best when it focuses the love between parents and children, so it makes sense in retrospect that the biggest moment of the series so far would revolve around the love between a mother and her child.


Finale MVP Besides the genius that is Robert Carlyle, the women of Once Upon a Time carry this show, and that was incredibly evident in this finale. This episode would not have been anywhere near as emotionally affecting as it was without the one-two punch of Lana Parrilla and Jennifer Morrison’s performances. Parrilla has been a consistent force all season (I truly believe her work has been Emmy-nomination worthy), and she brought her work to an even higher level in this episode. She made me truly believe that she loves her son; the scene where she is shown hugging Henry’s pillow while she sobs over losing him to Emma was exquisitely tragic. However, her evil smile at the conclusion of the episode had me wondering once again how much sympathy I’m really supposed to feel for her. I love how conflicted I am over caring about Regina, and none of that emotional investment would be possible without Parrilla’s wonderful work all season and especially in this episode.

It took some time for me to warm up to Jennifer Morrison’s Emma Swan, but in the last few episodes she has delivered amazing performances that sent Emma skyrocketing up my list of favorite television characters for this season. She has never been better than she was in this week’s episode, making Emma a grounding force as the fairytale world swirls around her (I especially loved how she initially used her gun instead of the sword to take on Maleficent). Her devastating grief at Henry’s bedside as they take him off of the monitors was a moment of acting greatness; she truly looked like a woman who has lost everything that has ever mattered to her in her life. Morrison made every single one of Emma’s emotions feel real in this episode, and that’s not an easy task when you’re dealing with something as unrealistic as the premise of this show.

When these two women shared the screen together in this episode, it was – at the risk of sounding cheesy and trite – truly magical. Their honest emotions took what could have been an overwhelming finale in terms of plot development and gave it an emotional weight that made this a viewing experience that exercised the tear ducts as well as the brain.

Most Memorable Line Mr. Gold (speaking about magic): I saved some for a rainy day.

Emma: Well, it’s storming like a bitch. Where is it?

What Didn’t Work This finale suffered from a lack of time to make all of the emotional notes that it had to hit resonate with the audience. Everything worked, but it would have worked on an even deeper level if the episode would have been two hours long instead of one. The restoration of memories and identities to the residents of Storybrooke felt especially rushed. I wanted a bigger moment with Snow White and Prince Charming; what we got was so beautiful that it left me wishing that there could have been more time devoted to their reunion. I felt the same way about the moment Belle got her memories back. The first meeting between Belle and Rumpelstiltskin was exactly what I’d hoped for as a viewer (and as a fan of any moment where Robert Carlyle gets to show his dramatic prowess), but their professions of love fell a little flat for me. I’m sure the show will begin the second season with more interactions between the Storybrooke residents now that they know who they are, but I think devoting more time to a some of those interactions would have made this finale even more emotionally engaging.

What Worked The reason I wanted more time for the character arcs to resonate in this episode and for the emotional moments to have a larger impact is because what we got was so good. The best thing about this finale was the fact that it never became a checklist of hitting one plot point after another, and I think that is due much more to the strength of the performances than to the writing. What could have easily become a tornado of twists and plot-heavy scenes was instead a very moving finale about the strength of love in all its forms. This is largely a credit to the actors, whose nuanced performances are what I took away from this episode more than any big plot revelations. The small character moments are what worked the best in this finale: Rumpelstiltskin’s face crumbling under the weight of his emotions when Belle says, “I was told you’d protect me;” Regina begging Henry to believe that she loves him; Snow White and Prince Charming’s breathless reunion in Storybrooke; and Emma’s body shaking with grief as she brushes Henry’s hair off of his face like the mother she never really got the chance to be. There were some truly transcendent acting moments in this dense and fast-paced episode, and those moments are what took this finale beyond the realm of cool plot twists and into the realm of strong television drama.

The Burning Questions to Keep Us Guessing All Summer What does it mean to have magic come to Storybrooke? Did August turn back into a man once the curse was broken? And will we ever find out who Dr. Whale is in Fairytale Land?

Finale Grade A-. Despite a few rushed moments that left me looking for more, this was an incredibly strong finale. It changed the entire makeup of the show while still allowing for great moments of character-driven drama, which highlighted the talents of this show’s great cast.

6 thoughts on “Grading the Season Finales: Once Upon a Time

  1. I loved this finale so much. There was very, very little I would have changed (except making it 29304930 hours longer, etc.) and I have to say… I kind of love how rushed the lifting of the curse was. It felt very sudden because it was for them. I loved that moment when they all kind of shook awake at once, Ruby and her grandma, Belle, and especially Snow and Charming.

    I’m so hopeful for s2. It looks like (and I hope it will) have a completely different feel from s1. Regina’s smirk at the end when she realized that magic was back in town was so sinister. I’m curious about Mr. Gold and his intentions (as I always am) and if he’s still focused on Bae, and how his magic being back will change things with Belle… I wonder what the price was for this change in Storybrooke. I’m especially excited/nervous to see August’s future. And how they’re going to figure out the dynamic between Henry, Emma and Regina now that Emma wants to be his mom.

    Also more than anything, I want Emma to go find her parents and have a big family reunion. She’s been alone for so long and now she’s got a whole family… parents and her son ❤ I'm really proud of how far she's come and I love how much you value her and relate to her because you're both such strong, beautiful women.

    Lovely recap and review, doll x

    • I’m so happy to see you commenting over here, my dear!

      I totally understand what you’re saying about the lifting of the curse being rushed and sudden. I think my issue was with the “after.” I wanted just another couple of beats/moments to see the emotional impact of the curse being lifted for these people. I know that’s really something for S2, but I’m greedy when it comes to shows this good with casts this adept at tugging at my heartstrings. More than anything, I wanted a Charming Family reunion (or for Snow and Charming to at least say something about realizing who Emma is) and some more Rumpel/Belle because I felt their second scene together was very rushed (which might be because I love when Robert Carlyle gets time to really play in his scenes). My natural impatience is showing itself, I think, because I’m sure all of that is coming next season.

      I echo your thoughts about August. I’m so curious about what happened to him, especially because we didn’t get to see him after the curse was broken. And I’m fascinated by the Regina/Emma dynamic, so I can’t wait for all of those scenes next season.

      You know I love Emma, so I will need a HUGE box of tissues for the season premiere when she reunites with her parents. Jennifer Morrision has done an amazing job with her arc this season, and I’m so eager to learn even more about Emma because we still know so little about her past.


    I was not expecting the curse to be broken this season, so I went from being sad about Henry to overwhelmingly happy when Emma brought him back and then just completely overwhelmed with emotion seeing Snow and Charming reunite.

    I love how much this finale changed what the show was about. All season, I’ve been thinking that the breaking of the curse and the characters going back to Fairytale land and living happily ever after was going to be the finale of the show. I love it when an episode completely changes my idea of what a show is really about. Alias pulls it off a few different times and I can’t wait to see how magic coming to Storybrooke affects the show in season 2.

    • This definitely felt like the best of Alias’s finales. It changed the direction of the entire show in a way that makes me so eager for the next season. I had been thinking and theorizing all season about what it was going to take to break the curse (which I thought was going to happen at the end of S2 for some random reason), and I am so happy that it was a mother’s love for her child. It really made me think about what this show is about, and I’ve come to see that it truly is a show about the love that parents have for their children and the choices they make because of that love. It was such a nice strand of continuity and all-around great writing for the biggest moment in the finale to reflect that.

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