Title Queen of Hearts
Two-Sentence Summary In this season’s winter finale, Emma and Snow go head-to-head with Cora and Hook in order to get back to their loved ones in Storybrooke, and Emma discovers some interesting side-effects of being the product of Snow and Charming’s true love. Before they can get back, though, Henry must convince Regina to undo Rumplestiltskin’s deadly spell on the portal, which is designed to kill Cora and Hook but could end up killing Snow and Emma instead.
Emma: Your mom, she’s…She’s a piece of work, you know?
Regina: Indeed, I do.
My Thoughts This was truly the perfect midseason finale. It left the audience with some excellent new questions, raised the stakes for the second half of the season, and resolved important story arcs with major questions being answered. What I liked the most about it, though, was that it did all of these things in an organic way. Each plot development also came with character development. Though the hour raced along, it was grounded in beautiful interactions between characters we have come to care so much about as well as stunning performances from the leading ladies who make this show so consistently powerful on an emotional level.
One of those leading ladies was Jennifer Morrison, who showcased incredible layers of vulnerability in “Queen of Hearts.” Morrison played Emma’s self-doubt with an understated sadness; when she said that optimism skipped a generation in her family, I felt the broken heart underneath the humor, and that’s when Emma feels her most real.
I also loved Emma’s interactions with Captain Hook. Their dynamic is so interesting because it can go from surprising depth (their interactions in Rumplestiltskin’s cell) to cheeky innuendos (Hook’s sword fighting dialogue) without feeling forced. But my favorite thing about the two of them in this episode had to be the fact Emma bested Hook by taking advantage of his compulsion to turn their fight into a twisted kind of flirting.
I really enjoyed Hook as a character in this episode, especially after worrying that his character would become irredeemable after taking Aurora’s heart. My favorite thing about him so far has been his moral ambiguity, so I didn’t want him to become Cora-like levels of pure evil. The explanation for him being able to take Aurora’s heart was smart; I’m happy that this power is canonically reserved for our three main villains. Also, it felt wrong that Hook would be so willing to take a heart after what happened to Milah, so I really appreciated the writing choice of having him give Aurora her heart back.
Speaking of hearts, Aurora and Mulan finally felt useful and well-written in this episode! Aurora’s selfless streak brings out a strength in her that she didn’t have initially, and even Mulan felt more complex and interesting once she was given more to do as a character. The moment when Mulan put Aurora’s heart back in was surprisingly intimate and lovely, and I found myself hoping that this isn’t the last we see of these two princesses now that their motivations aren’t overshadowed by Emma and Snow’s.
I’ve loved seeing Emma and Snow work as a team so far this season, and that continued in a really beautiful way in this episode. I liked seeing Snow’s knowledge of Fairytale Land come in handy once again when she got them out of the cell (even though I did want to scream, “The ink is on the scroll!” at them for the longest time). But I was most impressed with seeing Emma truly become her mother’s daughter at exactly the right time.
When Cora went to take Snow’s heart, I gasped. I know to expect big twists on this show, but I never saw that coming. And then when Emma stepped in front of her, I found myself getting teary-eyed. This was Emma Swan—the woman who thought she was better off alone, who was angry at her parents for so long, who needed time to accept her family and return their love. This woman was now ready to sacrifice her own heart to save her mother, a selfless act that speaks to the kind of love that runs through her veins; she is the child of true love after all.
I know some people might find it contrived that Emma’s heart is protected by a magic that comes from true love, but I found it brilliant. Snow and Charming’s love is its own kind of pure magic, so it makes sense that the child created from their love would be magical herself. It then also makes sense that Emma’s magic doesn’t show itself except when she’s being selfless: helping the portal work to save Regina in the season premiere and sacrificing herself for Snow in this episode. Love and magic go hand-in-hand on this show, but all we’ve seen so far are people choosing to replace love with magic. I think Emma’s story is going to be about a kind of magic that coexists with love and draws its strength from love. And I’m incredibly excited to see this story unfold.
The conclusion of this episode was a true testament to the many kinds of love that this show is about. You saw platonic love in Red’s reunion with Snow. You saw the love between parent and child in Emma’s reunion with Henry. And you saw romantic love at its deepest in the reunion between Snow and Charming. These last two reunions were incredibly powerful because of the raw performances behind them.
From the moment Henry called Emma “Mom” to the moment Emma rested her head on top of his—needing to hold her son as close as possible—I was a wreck. And then it only got worse (and by “worse” I mean “even more perfect”) with Snow and Charming’s reunion. The parallel between both of them waking from their sleeping curses was perfectly executed, right down to the dwarves surrounding their respective resting places. I was floored by the depth of love in this scene; you could really feel their joy and their longing. There’s a moment when Ginnifer Goodwin sheds a tear while kissing Josh Dallas that brought a level of genuine emotion to this reunion in a way only these two actors with their rare chemistry could accomplish. Another favorite detail of mine: When Goodwin closed her eyes and leaned into Dallas with a look of pure relief and happiness on her face, it was almost as if you could see the weight of their separation finally being lifted from her and replaced with overwhelming relief. I talk a lot about Goodwin’s talents as an actress, and small details like this are the reason why.
Another actress whom I could talk about all day is Lana Parrilla, and she was the driving force behind the emotional power of this episode. She had to run the emotional gamut from deliciously evil to heartbreakingly vulnerable, and she did it flawlessly. It’s always a pleasure to see her in flashbacks as the Evil Queen, if only because it’s so obvious that she enjoys this part of the character so much. There’s a sensuality, a commanding power, and a true presence that she brings to this half of her role. It’s impossible to take your eyes off of her.
For as much as I love the Evil Queen, this episode was all about Regina Mills, and, for the first time, I found myself truly rooting for her. Parrilla finally made me believe that Regina loves Henry enough to change. I felt it in every scene between her and Jared Gilmore, and I also felt that Henry finally believed in her, too. She did what Rumpletsiltskin couldn’t do; she turned away from dark magic—despite the fact that it could save her from Cora—because it was what her son wanted. She selflessly chose to make her son happy. I can’t even begin to describe the way Parrilla made me feel when Regina smiled at Emma and welcomed her back. I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted a character to prove herself as strongly I want Regina to prove herself to Henry.
I know that Regina has done unspeakable things. She’s a killer, a master manipulator, and a woman who’s ruined so many lives for the sake of her own twisted revenge fantasy. However, my heart broke for her when Henry left her to go to dinner with Snow, Charming, and Emma. The fact that I could feel this much sympathy for a “villain” speaks to the power of the writing and Parrilla’s beautiful acting.
The last scene between Regina and Rumplestiltskin crushed me. There Regina was—alone except for a man whose has emotionally manipulated her since she was a young woman. And the way the scene cut to the happy Charming Family left me sad but also kind of awestruck at the talents behind this show. I thought I would be happy seeing my favorite TV family reunited, but instead I felt gutted because Regina was so heartbroken. That’s the mark of a truly great performance. I’m not sure Parrilla has ever been better, and that’s saying something because she is one of the most consistently strong actors on Once Upon a Time.
This was an episode about love being strength rather than weakness. In the jaded world we live in, that’s not the coolest or most forward-thinking idea to put on television, but it’s so beautiful to see a hit network drama so unashamedly embrace the idea that optimism, faith, and love can be more powerful than cynicism. There are so many important things that this show is doing in terms of the message it’s sending to viewers: It’s showing that princesses can save princes, that believing in others isn’t a sign of weakness, and that love is stronger than hate. “Queen of Hearts” wore its heart on its sleeve, and that’s when Once Upon a Time is at its best.