TV Time: Once Upon a Time 2.21

Title Second Star to the Right

Two-Sentence Summary After Regina is kidnapped by Tamara and Greg, Emma, Neal, Snow, and Charming begin searching for her—and discover the truth about Tamara in the process. In flashbacks to Bae’s life after falling through the portal, we see him living with the Darling family and allowing himself to be kidnapped and taken to Neverland in the place of one of the Darling boys—a sacrifice later paralleled by his descent into a portal Tamara created after shooting him in order to keep Henry from losing both his mother and father.

Favorite Line
“Henry needs you. He can’t lose both of us. Don’t make him grow up like we did.” (Neal)

My Thoughts When I first started watching Once Upon a Time, I fell in love with the creative twists on fairytales that I grew up with, the emotional moments that built characters and relationships better than any other show I was watching, and the gorgeously complicated dynamics between characters who were family even though they didn’t know that yet. Somewhere along the way, those things got lost this season with the introduction of more new characters than the show knew what to do with, a revolving door of villains, and a plot-heavy/emotionally-lacking style of storytelling. Thankfully, “Second Star to the Right” proved to be a return to many of those first-season elements that made the show so compelling and moving. This episode was an excellent setup for next week’s season finale because it proved that the stakes aren’t just high in terms of the plot; they’re high for almost every character on an emotional level.

Before I go any further into my review, I have to ask: Is this the darkest and scariest episode this show has ever aired? For being an 8 p.m. network drama often billed as a family show, this episode was quite disturbing—from the “death” of a major character to the decision to turn Peter Pan into a child-stealing shadow to Regina’s electroshock torture. I know that you have to sometimes go to a very bleak place in order to set up a season finale (like Henry eating the turnover last season), but this was almost oppressively bleak at times.

One of my favorite parts of this episode was the flashback storyline. I find young Bae incredibly compelling as a character because he’s so earnest and yet so broken at such a young age. The actor who plays him really does a fantastic job. I thought his rapport with Wendy was adorable, and his panic in the face of magic was heartbreakingly believable. I really enjoyed the darker take on the Peter Pan story that was told here because there really is something unsettling under the innocence of the original story. Not growing up may seem like a fun concept for a little while, but being stuck in a world without your family where you never mature or grow doesn’t exactly sound like a fate I’d want for myself. And that’s what made Bae’s sacrifice all the more noble. To willingly go back to a world ruled by (presumably) dark magic when you’ve lost everything trying to escape that fate just to save a family from being torn apart is a heroic act of the highest degree.

Seeing young Bae be so selfless, brave, and true (pun intended) made all of Neal’s big moments in this episode (and there were several) feel like they were coming from a genuine place. This is a man who has always wanted to do the right thing, but it keeps costing him. He’s been through so much and has been broken and emotionally damaged in ways not even Emma can comprehend. But in this episode we see him trying to right his wrongs, and I found myself rooting for him more than ever before (and I say that as someone who’s loved Neal since “Tallahassee”—before we even knew who he really was).

When Neal apologized to Emma, I truly believed that he spent every day regretting what he did to her—and so much of that comes from the raw and real chemistry between Jennifer Morrison and Michael Raymond-James. What I love about their scenes is that it always feels like two real adults interacting—theirs is a very messy, very damaged love story in a world where they’re surrounded by magical examples  of “true love.” But their love has never felt any less true than Snow and Charming’s or Rumplestiltskin and Belle’s—at least not to me. It’s true in a way that’s right for the world they grew up and fell in love in: a world without magic. It’s true in a way that hurts, but this episode showed that it’s also true in a way that heals.

Emma and Neal have always represented human drama in the midst of the supernatural—that’s why I loved “Manhattan” so deeply. They’re two people whose lives were destroyed by dark magic but somehow found in each other a very human and very tangible kind of magic. These are two characters who have suffered so much. All magic comes with a price, and too often that price has been their happiness. That’s what hurt so much about this episode. Once again, Neal is faced with sacrificing himself to the whims of dark magic, but this time it’s to save his own family. And once again, Emma has someone she loves—some hope for happiness and family—ripped away because of magic. Neal has spent so much of his life trying to keep himself from committing the sins of his father, so he chose to be brave and fall through the portal to keep his son from growing up an orphan. But that choice came with its own price, which was reflected so heartbreakingly on Emma’s face after the portal closed. Each one of her sobs hit me like a punch to the gut. These two characters have been through so much already: their profession of love as Neal prepared to fall to his (believed) demise was one of the most heartbreaking moments in a show full of heartbreaking moments.

Morrison was painfully realistic in her grief. That small moment on the stairs between Emma and Charming was everything I’d been hoping for since the beginning of this season. I loved that her biggest concern was telling Henry, and I loved the way Morrison’s voice was completely flat and exhausted as she delivered that line. But most of all, I loved the way she leaned into the kiss Charming placed on her head. In that moment, Emma needed her father’s strength, the strength of the man who fought to the death with his baby daughter in his arms. For the first time in such a long time, Emma allowed herself to be broken and vulnerable, and I love that it was with her father.

Emma was the true highlight of this episode for me. I loved that she was allowed to be smart, strong, observant, and RIGHT. I was almost giddy with excitement when her theories about Tamara were revealed to everyone else as the truth. It’s about time they let Emma win (although they let her have that victory only for her to lose Neal moments later). Her fight with Tamara was my favorite moment in the episode—probably because it was one of my favorite characters taking down a character I don’t like at all. When she tossed Tamara into the ground, I may have burst into spontaneous applause on my couch.

When this episode wasn’t focusing on Emma and Neal, it faced a lot of the same issues that have plagued the show for more than a few episodes. While I loved Regina’s brutally cold reveal of what happened to Greg’s father, I found myself not as moved by her plight as I thought I’d be. Perhaps that was because I was annoyed with Snow and Charming’s stupidity throughout most of this part of the plot. (Yes, I love both characters, but even I had to admit they were both pretty incompetent in this episode—besides Charming shooting the electroshock machine and looking extra-handsome while doing so.) I still don’t understand Snow’s extreme guilt over killing Cora, and I hated that she had to be subjected to Regina’s pain in order to find her (almost as much as I hated Charming calling her “Mary Margaret” once again). When will the heroes stop being brutally punished for having one dark moment? And when can Charming start calling her Snow again?

Rumplestiltskin’s plot also had issues of its own in this episode. I loved Neal for brining up what we all want to know: Why did he stop trying to have a relationship with his son, a relationship he wanted so badly he was willing to curse a whole land to find him? It bothered me that his relationship with Lacey now trumps his relationship with Neal—because it makes no sense. Plus, his relationship with Lacey gives me really strange vibes. It’s too dark and twisted for my liking. And I just really miss Belle. This is not what I meant when I said I wanted more development for her and for her relationship with Rumplestiltskin.

I don’t even want to talk about Greg and Tamara because I’m just going to get annoyed. Are they religious zealots with their talk of the “unholy” nature of magic? Are they scientists? What exactly is the home office? I should care about the answers to these questions, but I don’t. Instead, I just want to see them move the plot along next week like we know they will and then die for their cause. The idea of an agency working to rid the world of magic is eye-roll-inducing to me on so many levels, and I don’t want to think that’s where this story is going in Season Three. They did their job to set up a great cliffhanger for the finale (but how did the home office know what the self-destruct mechanism in the curse was all about?), but I’m hoping their story will be over by this time next week.

While they were still some frustrating moments this week, “Second Star to the Right” was a huge step in the right direction as Once Upon a Time heads into its finale. The majority of the episode focused on compelling characters we’ve come to care about and the complex relationships between them. That’s the recipe for a solid Once Upon a Time episode, and it’s also the recipe for an episode that will have me reaching for tissues by the end. For the first time in a long time, Once Upon a Time made me cry, and that’s exactly when I love this show the most.

 

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4 thoughts on “TV Time: Once Upon a Time 2.21

  1. I agree that the focus on Neal and Emma highlighted all that makes this show interesting and unique. I also think the confession on the beach provided a really interesting parallel for Snow and Charming around the show’s commentary on true love, especially given that Neal and Emma’s was born without knowledge of her connection to magic. I absolutely adored the idea of turning Peter Pan on it’s head and making him ‘the shadow’. Aside from it being an interesting plot device it absolutely supports our continued liking (and rooting for) Hook. I also believe it lays the foundation for an interesting set of flashbacks for Never Never Land and quite possibly making Hook’s backstory vastly more complex then first believed. What struck me in the episode was Bae’s travelogue. Bae has spent his life trying to escape magic and attempting to use portals to preserve/save his idea/hope for what a family really is. At the same time Emma has been a victim of circumstance around the portals – as a baby and when she got sent to Fairytale Land and Snow went after her. I think it is fitting to have them land at the end of this episode with Neal/Bae once again hanging on between worlds and once again desperate to preserve his family from magic – only this time he has the power to do so by letting go of Emma’s hand. It is an act of nobility (it’s something Charming would have done) and it absolutely ‘right’s the wrong’ of his father, because Bae choses his son, he choses his family over himself. He’s not anything like his father who chose magic. I think Bae having been in Neverland and falling under the wing of Hook sets up an interesting triangle for him Hook and Gold, especially because that history is yet to be told from Bae’s point of view and we only know Hook and Rumple’s history.

    Now for a set of housekeeping items/predictions. I think the Gold/Lacey set up continues to be problematic storytelling. It’s flat and reads a bit false. I also think they may be setting up Lacey to make a play for the Dark One’s magic (a la Cora). I will be curious to how we get back to Belle because I can’t imagine she’s gone for good, but I hope it is soon. I think good and evil coming together in Storybrooke will make for a great finale and I think the portal will land Neal in Fairytale Land.

    Oh and while Neal and Emma’s exchange on the beach was the pure gut punch of the episode (if not the season) I have to admit one of my favorite exchanges was Gold and Mary Margaret’s:
    Gold: Never underestimate the power of a guilty conscience.
    MM: What is that?
    Gold: One of Regina’s tears.
    MM: Why do you have one of Regina’s tears?
    Gold: Because I do.

    • You leave the best comments because I find myself nodding along with every word. I love what you said about the “shadow” adding dimension and depth to Hook’s story and possibly (probably) allowing him to remain and complex figure of moral ambiguity rather than an all-out villain. I’m so interested to see if he ever finds out that the boy on his boat is the son of Rumplestiltskin and Milah.

      And I also love the parallel you made between Neal and Charming doing the noble, selfless thing for their families. Charming was willing to die to see his daughter to safety and to get her through a portal in the pilot, and Neal was willing to die to go through a portal himself to keep Emma and their son safe in this episode. I love that Neal/Bae is ultimately more like Emma’s father than his own. (Maybe because I love Charming so deeply.)

  2. I’m glad I’m not the only one who hates Tamara and Greg’s story. I love that it seems to set up a temporary alliance between Regina and the Charmings but that’s where my enjoyment ends.

    Basically, as usual, I agree 100% with everything you said in this review. I’m glad I waited to watch this episode until today because I wouldn’t have wanted to wait a week to see the finale!

    • Tamara and Greg annoy me to no end. I’m hoping all of their talk about the “home office” doesn’t mean they’re part of a bigger plot for next season. I’d like for tonight to be the end of any kind of “anti-magic conspiracy” plots.

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