First of all, I would like to wish a very Happy Birthday to one of my favorite fellow Nerdy Girls, the Ann to my Leslie, Heather!
Two-Sentence Summary Rumplestiltskin finds his son, Emma finds Neal, and Henry finds his dad, while, back in Storybrooke, Regina, Cora, and Hook begin to search for Rumplestiltskin’s dagger—and a way to kill the Charming family without getting blood on Regina’s hands. In flashbacks to Fairytale Land, we discover how a meeting with a seer on the eve of battle turned Rumplestiltskin from a beloved husband to a coward.
Favorite Line “It’s a good thing we don’t have Thanksgiving in our land, because that dinner would suck.” (Charming, talking to Snow about Henry’s complicated family tree)
My Thoughts “Manhattan” was Once Upon a Time at its best. It had truly transcendent moments of acting, brilliant pacing, and a story that’s still haunting me in the best possible way today.
I’ll get this out of the way first: I didn’t care much about what the Storybrooke folk were doing in this episode. I found it incredibly unbelievable that Regina wouldn’t lock the door before using (highly unnecessary) magic to retrieve information from Belle’s purse. I also still don’t care about Greg the way I feel like I’m supposed to. There are so many more interesting things going on right now that are taking my attention away from his parts of the story. I’m sure this won’t always be the case, but right now his story seems kind of tacked-on to the plot in a superfluous way.
Ultimately, this episode wasn’t about Storybrooke. It was about three broken people and a little boy coming together in an apartment in Manhattan. Although the background looked fake at times (especially on the fire escape), there was nothing artificial about the performances each actor brought to this part of the episode. Their interactions crackled with an intensity and a depth not often seen on Once Upon a Time.
Robert Carlyle once again proved that he is the best actor in this talented cast with his work in this episode. Rumplestiltskin broke my heart in the flashback scenes. It was incredibly sad to see him as such an eager, brave young man about to go to war when we know it’s going to end badly.
Sometimes big plot reveals can fall a little short (see August’s box in this episode), but I was shocked in the best possible way by the circumstances surrounding Rumplestiltskin’s “cowardice” in the Ogre War. The seer was terrifying in a way straight out of Pan’s Labyrinth. And I’m still haunted by the questions she raised. Can we escape our fates? Are our lives predetermined, or can we choose? Even with free will, are we destined to go down a certain path?
It was heartbreaking to watch Rumplestiltskin break his own leg in order to escape his “destiny.” I thought that was a brilliant nod to the men who shot themselves in the foot to escape fighting in wars in modern times. It also adds such an important layer to his character when you think about his limp now. It’s the outward symbol of his cowardice, the sign he carries with him literally every step of his life, reminding him that he was unable to escape his fate—that he caused his own suffering in so many ways.
This episode was a great reminder that Rumplestiltskin can be both shockingly kind and shockingly threatening. I thought it was really sweet to see him bond with Henry over the hot dog, especially knowing that he’s bonding with his grandson. But I was also terrified for Emma in the moment when he threatened her for breaking the deal. This is a desperate man, and desperation can make monsters of us all.
Although I will always be impressed with Robert Carlyle, his performance was met in every way by both Jennifer Morrison and Michael Raymond-James. After my initial “I CALLED IT!!!” reaction to the Bae/Neal reveal (but seriously, I did call it), I sat back and let myself get lost in the very real problems of two very real people. Morrison was phenomenal in the scene between them in the bar. You could feel the pain Emma still carries around, and you could see the panic rising in her as she begins to think he was just another part of her life that was predetermined.
Emma and Neal were meant to fall in love—but not even in a predestined kind of way. They needed each other in a way that they could only understand now that their true identities are known. They were both lost children of magic, abandoned and sent into a cold, frightening world. They were a lost princess and a shepherd boy looking for a family—and finding it for a brief moment with each other.
One of the most prominent themes in this episode was the idea of sons becoming their fathers—and the struggle to keep it from happening. It was there in Rumplestilitskin’s fear of turning into the coward his father was, of abandoning his son the way he was abandoned. And it was there in Neal’s decision to return to his apartment to save Emma from his father’s wrath. It was his choice to break the pattern—to be brave, to fight for the person he loves. Because he definitely still loves her—he wouldn’t have come back if he didn’t. He wouldn’t have kept the dreamcatcher.
The scene after Neal comes back to the apartment is quite possibly the best scene this show has ever had. The tension, the acting, the change in dynamics—everything was perfect. When Henry came out of the bathroom, I held my breath, waiting for the realization to come. And when it did, Raymond-James, Morrison, and even young Jared Gilmore acted the hell out of it.
You could see the pain and regret so clearly etched on Neal’s face. In that moment, he became his father in his eyes. He sees 11 lost years with this beautiful little boy, a little boy so much like the innocent child he once was. And he sees a woman in front of him who was so broken by what he did to her that she felt the need to lie to his child, to say that he was dead. It’s like his world crashes around him in one moment, and Raymond-James makes you feel it.
He also makes you feel his disgust with his father. I cringed when Rumplestiltskin offered to turn back time and make him 14 years old again. He still hasn’t learned to stop using magic as a crutch. He’s still so afraid to be just himself—no magic. He’s still making the same mistake after all these years.
They all made mistakes. That’s what I loved about this part of the episode. Nothing was black-and white. Even Henry was at fault with his “You’re no better than Regina” comment to Emma. It reminded me of a line in the song “In My Veins” by Andrew Belle:
Nobody is perfect…But everyone’s to blame.
As Neal told Emma, they’re all messed up. They’re broken, and they’ve broken each other. But that’s what makes them human. That’s what makes this a show worth watching—the fact that these characters feel like real people who are living in shades of gray rather than caricatures of fairytale characters always doing the right thing.
But what also makes this show worth watching is the love that works to heal what’s been broken, repair the damage that’s been done. The mistakes that Neal made with Emma and that Emma made with Henry were done out of love—imperfect, messy, real-world love. And when Neal told Emma that he wanted to keep Henry from being as broken as they are, that’s love, too. That’s a father refusing to commit the sins of his own father, refusing to abandon his son. Neal wants what’s best for Henry, just like Emma does. It was beautiful to watch him on the fire escape with his son, seeing the beauty and innocence that his love for Emma—and hers for him—created, this testament to the fact that something so good could come from the love between two messed up people.
Henry’s innate goodness makes people care for him, draws people to protect him—even those who are unable to care about anyone else. And that’s important. Because Henry is the boy prophesized to be Rumplestiltskin’s undoing, the boy he vowed to kill after taking on the seer’s powers. I think Henry will ultimately be Rumplestiltskin’s undoing by causing him to sacrifice something—his life, his magic—in order to protect his grandson. But he will also be Rumplestiltskin’s salvation. In an episode all about free will and destiny, I was left thinking Rumplestiltskin will finally use his free will to break the cycle of cowardice that’s hung around him his entire life. And maybe—just maybe—he’ll prove that our fates aren’t set in stone, that things can change, that destinies can be rewritten.
I love when TV shows make me think. And I love when TV shows make me feel. This episode of Once Upon a Time did both and did both brilliantly. It raised huge new questions while answering some of the most important ones of the series. And it did all of this in a way that felt organic to the characters, their relationships, and their own individual emotional arcs. If this is what happens when Neal enters the picture, then I hope he never leaves.