Two-Sentence Summary After Hook reveals that Neal is alive in Neverland, he joins Emma, Snow, and Charming on a mission to rescue him, but, in order to do that, each of them must reveal their darkest secret. Believing that rescuing Neal is a distraction from their real mission, Regina teams up with Rumplestiltskin, and her relationship with Ariel—as shown in flashbacks to Fairytale Land—proves to be an important part of the puzzle to overpowering Peter Pan and saving Henry.
Favorite Line “My secret is I never thought I’d be capable of letting go of my first love—of my Milah—to believe that I could find someone else. That is, until I met you.” (Hook, to Emma)
My Thoughts Well that one hurt.
No matter which characters you love or hate, sympathize with or wish would get their hearts crushed, “Ariel” was painful. No character got away unscathed; everyone ended up hurt and everyone took part in the hurting, too. Yes, there were victories, and there were even moments of gleeful camp and villainy, but, ultimately this episode was about the very human struggles of people who just happen to be fairytale characters—and we all know that’s when Once Upon a Time is at its most compelling.
Let’s start with those much-needed moments of fun before we move on to the heartbreak, shall we? I knew that the Ariel backstory episode was going to be a great one for Regina from the second I found out that she would be channeling Ursula in the flashbacks. Lana Parrilla has made no secret of the fact that Ursula is her favorite Disney villain, and you could see just how much pure fun she was having every second she spent channeling Disney’s animated version of the sea witch. It was a joy to watch an actress so clearly loving her job and doing such a great job honoring a classic Disney character in the process.
What I liked most about the flashbacks in this episode was the way its emotional impact snuck up on me. For most of the episode, I didn’t really care about Ariel or Eric, if I’m being honest. I thought Joanna Garcia Swisher was a great casting choice, but I thought most of the story itself (and the characterization of Eric) was sadly one-dimensional, especially when juxtaposed with the incredibly complex emotions happening in the Neverland storyline.
But just when I was ready to write off this flashback as a cute but empty trip into the realm of another beloved Disney princess, Ariel stabbed Regina with her
dinglehopper salad trident fork. That show of friendship, courage, and ingenuity made me love this little mermaid—and it made what happened to her even more horrible. I was not expecting to be so affected by the scene of Ariel losing her voice, but I think my reaction spoke to the power of surprise that Once Upon a Time invokes so well. I should have seen it coming, but I’m glad that I didn’t. Because it hit like me like a sucker punch (I’m still getting emotional over how well Garcia Swisher sold Ariel’s desperation), and sometimes I love being blindsided by my emotions.
Something that didn’t really surprise me was Ariel being used to help Rumplestiltskin and Regina get something from Storybrooke. As soon as we learned mermaids can travel between realms, I knew she would factor into Operation Henry somehow. But I loved the way the end of this episode set up a great storyline for Ariel next week, and I’m looking forward to seeing her reunion with Eric. Also, any scene that features Regina sassing Rumplestiltskin about ordering calamari is going to be a favorite scene for me.
Most of Regina’s scenes in this episode were favorites for me, to be honest. I liked her teaching Emma how to use magic, and I thought it was important to hear Emma calling her a monster because their relationship will never be completely devoid of antagonism—as it should be. And I loved her decision to skip out on Operation Henry when it turned into Operation Neal. If I were Regina, I would have done the same thing. The only thing she cares about is getting Henry back; she has no tie to Neal to make her want to help. Plus, that decision put the dream team of Regina and Rumplestiltskin back together. Whenever Parrilla and Robert Carlyle share a scene, I’m like a kid on the Fourth of July—just watching the fireworks. Those two are incredible together, and watching Regina snap him out of his pity party with plenty of sass and common sense was everything I never knew I always wanted.
I love the Regina we’ve been given this season, and I hope she never goes away. And if it means keeping Robbie Kay around longer to be the show’s central antagonist, then that’s even better. His “Breakfast with Rumple” scene was another moment for his growing highlight reel. Regina, Rumplestiltskin, and Pan were a trifecta of awesome antagonists who provided a strange kind of light at the end of some very dark tunnels (or Echo Caves) throughout the rest of this episode.
I would like to take a second and give the writers so much credit for not dragging out the “Will Hook tell?” drama at all. If there’s one thing these episodes are proving, it’s that Hook in regaining his lost sense of honor through putting Emma’s happiness above any thought of his own. I was so happy he chose to tell Charming first; it was a nice way to continue to build on the trust and openness we’ve been watching develop between them so far this season. To watch them act as a united front against Snow was a great way to make explicit the similarities between these two men and how they view honor, nobility, and love.
Jennifer Morrison played Emma’s suppressed fear of seeing Neal again perfectly. I loved the tension in the scene between Emma and Snow when Snow talked about Emma’s happy ending. You could tell that Emma wanted so badly to tell her mother about all the ways Neal destroyed her ability to hope for so long, but she kept it to herself. I don’t think Snow has any real idea about Emma and Neal’s history, just like I think she has no real concept of a love that can exist after first love. For Snow, “true love” and “first love” have always been synonymous, and she thinks that’s the way it’s going to be for her daughter as well. But every character on this show is growing and learning through the trials of Neverland, and I think part of Snow’s journey is coming to terms with having a daughter whose experiences are so different from hers, both in life and in love.
Secrets about life, love, hope, and second chances are at the center of this episode, coming to a head in the brilliantly acted sequence of confessions inside the echo caves. As Snow told Ariel in the flashbacks, love demands honesty, and “even if you get hurt, you’ll know you tried.” Love is what makes these confessions so powerful, and it’s also what makes them so painful. Because each secret revealed is done with the knowledge that the character is going to hurt someone they love, someone they never want to hurt. And you could feel how much each of these secrets hurt the character telling it, too.
I was shocked when Hook became the first one to tell his secret. He had nothing to gain by sharing his secret at all, let alone going first. But he knew that in order for Emma to get to Neal—to the man Hook thinks is her happiness—he had to prove that this was how the cave worked, so he did the honorable thing—and he did it for her happiness. Colin O’Donoghue was excellent once again in this episode, especially in the smallest details, such as the way he seemed to steel himself before sharing his secret, knowing he’s about to make himself as vulnerable as he’s been in 300 years for a woman he thinks could never love him back now that Neal is alive.
Episode after episode this season, Hook has completely floored me with his sincerity, but nothing he’s done so far—not his “Perhaps I would;” not even his reaction to Emma’s kiss—prepared me for the intimate honesty of his confession to Emma. He loved Milah for 300 years, and he lost hope of ever escaping the darkness her death draped around his heart. Until he met Emma. Now, he sees Milah as his first love because he knows Emma is his second chance at love—his second chance at a life worthy of love. Emma is his source of hope after three lifetimes spent without it, and for a show that equates true love with hope on almost a weekly basis, that’s a powerful statement to make.
While Hook’s words were beautiful, what moved me the most were O’Donoghue, Morrison, and Ginnifer Goodwin’s reactions in that moment. O’Donoghue’s line reading was full of so much unforced emotion. This is Hook’s darkest secret not only because he was scared to move on from Milah but because he never wanted to burden Emma with his feelings while Henry was still her priority. O’Donoghue’s reading of Hook’s “Until I met you” had almost an apologetic tone to it, knowing that what he was saying was going to make Emma’s life more complicated when all he’s wanted to do since he came back to Storybrooke is make her happy. But Morrison’s reaction also spoke volumes; Emma is unsure of how to handle both his sincerity and his selflessness. This is a woman who has said she’s not used to anybody putting her first, and that’s what this moment is all about. You can see the fear but also the smallest flicker of understanding cross her features. And Goodwin showed in such a subtly powerful way that Snow is beginning to realize that maybe all first loves aren’t true loves. Snow is the great champion of hope, and she sees that Emma is Hook’s hope. And maybe what she believed about true love is wrong because she can’t deny that this man loves her daughter the way her husband loves her and the way she loves her husband—with selflessness, with honor, and with hope.
Goodwin continued to blow me away as Snow shared her secret with Emma and Charming: She wants another chance at being a mother because, while she loves Emma, this isn’t the relationship she wanted with her daughter. That moment physically hurt me as a fan of Snow and Emma’s relationship since the pilot episode, but it was a beautiful kind of pain. Even as Snow was complimenting Emma, Morrison expertly played her reaction as waiting for the other shoe to drop, and the horrible thing about Emma’s life has been that the other shoe always drops. Neither Snow nor Emma is to blame here, both women understand how much they love each other, but both women also understand that they will never have a real mother-daughter relationship. So it’s right for Snow to want another baby; it’s something she deserves. But that doesn’t mean my heart didn’t break for both women, and that’s how it should be. Kudos to Goodwin for absolutely destroying me with her vulnerability in that scene. And kudos to Josh Dallas for following up that gripping moment of emotional honesty with his own confession that finally ended the “Charming’s secret” plot while simultaneously making me cry because he won’t be able to give his wife the family she so desperately wants.
And then there was Emma’s secret. I thought it was going to be that she never stopped loving Neal, but I was so unprepared for the revelation that she wished he was dead so she could finally move on from all of the pain wrapped up in their relationship. Emma and Neal’s relationship has always been fraught with tragically human moments, but this may have been the best of them all. Never has Morrison been better; I grow more in awe of her talent every week. Emma is a woman who is so damaged by her past, so broken by her abandonments and her fears of more of them that she would rather believe the father of her son is dead than have to face the pain he caused her again. That’s not a fairytale story; that’s real, human drama. That’s a woman trying desperately to move on even as she understands a part of her will always love this man. That’s emotional honesty at its most poignant, and that’s Once Upon a Time at its best.
Neal knows that he hurt Emma, and he’s not making excuses for it anymore, which is a huge step in the right direction for this character. However, it’s hard for me not to root for the idea of Emma getting a second chance at love with Hook right now. O’Donoghue broke my heart in those final scenes as Hook watched the woman he loves reunite with the man he thinks she’ll choose over him. I can’t help but root for this pirate to get his chance at a happy ending, and I can’t help but root for Emma to have a chance at her happy ending with someone who loves her so selflessly and sincerely. Emma helped Hook find the hope he needed to move on from the pain of Milah’s death; perhaps he can be the hope she needs to move on from Neal the way she seems to desperately want to. But I also want a happy ending for Neal because we’ve seen just how broken he is, too.
I’m not usually supportive of “love triangles,” but I can understand this one because all of the actors involved are excellent and the characters have genuine motivations. Also, I don’t fear it taking over the plot; there’s still a little boy to find and a way home to secure, and that’s what Emma cares about most right now. Emma’s emotional journey just makes that story all the more interesting, engaging, and emotional. And I am incredibly thankful that the writers seem to have remembered that again this season. It’s making each episode even better than the last.