Two-Sentence Summary Through flashbacks to Zelena’s life in Oz, we see her initially embrace a new family with a group of sister witches, but her envy takes over once again after Dorothy’s arrival causes her to believe she has no choice but to be evil. The choice between good and evil comes into play in the present as Regina chooses to believe she can be good again, which allows her to wield light magic and defeat Zelena (because Emma lost her magic saving Hook’s life), but Regina’s decision to spare Zelena’s life falls on deaf ears for Rumplestiltskin, who kills her with his dagger.
Regina: Heroes don’t kill.
Zelena: So now you’re a hero?
Regina: Today I am.
My Thoughts Once Upon a Time is a show about choices in a world—the world of fairytales—that so often seems to be about fate and destiny. You have to choose to love someone (and they have to choose to love you too) for true love’s kiss to work. Dark magic comes from a series of dark choices, and light magic comes from choosing to use magic for good and selfless reasons. Evil is not born; it’s made. And now we know that the same can be said for goodness, for heroism. The reason Zelena never felt like a sympathetic character to me was because she chose time and again to give in to her envy instead of choosing to move on. And the reason Regina’s arc this season has been such a joy to watch is because it was about a woman choosing to be better than who she was, choosing to believe in the goodness Snow White has always seen in her, and choosing to accept that she can both love and be loved—and draw powerful magic from that love. Choosing to be your best self isn’t the stuff traditional fairytales spend a lot of time discussing, but it’s the kind of human drama that makes Once Upon a Time so compelling.
Zelena’s flashbacks didn’t do much to make her a more interesting character, but at this point I’m not sure anything would. She was basically a glorified plot device to bring about character development for many of the show’s main characters and to jumpstart the adventure of the season finale, so she never had the depth I wanted her to have. However, I appreciated the comparison between Zelena believing she had to be evil and Regina choosing to believe she could be good. Both Regina and Zelena were faced with another woman whose presence as a “savior” and champion of goodness presented them with a choice: Accept that there must always be one good person and one evil person, or decide to change that story and fight alongside the one you’re supposed to fight against. Zelena believed she had no choice but to be evil, but Regina knew better. There’s always a choice, and she chose to change her path, as we saw her sister continue down her road to darkness.
I appreciated the little twist on the most unbelievable part Oz mythology: the melting of the Wicked Witch. Both Wicked and Once Upon a Time turned the melting into a way to show just how clever the Wicked Witch is, and that made me happy to see. And I loved watching Zelena in all her campy, evil glory after Glinda thought she was talking to the Wizard. I may not have cared about Zelena’s backstory beyond its parallels with Regina (and Emma’s in terms of the “abandoned little girl deals with being abandoned” angle), but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy watching Rebecca Mader have so much obvious fun with the role.
Ultimately, what seemed to be an episode about Regina and Zelena was actually an episode that focused on the parallel arcs of Emma and Regina. Once Upon a Time has always had fun playing with the idea of these two women as two sides of the same coin, and it was more apparent than ever in “Kansas.” Their character arcs in this half of Season Three have been building to almost the same point: the realization that they don’t have to be defined by their past; they can choose to stop running from happiness and embrace the best versions of themselves, including the idea that people beyond just their son can love them. It was fascinating to watch Regina’s arc reach such a triumphant high point in an episode where Emma’s arc hit what may be an all-time low. We saw Regina at her most self-aware in an episode that saw Emma at her most delusional. We saw Regina at her most accepting of herself and others in an episode that saw Emma at her most dismissive. And we saw Regina at her strongest in terms of harnessing the power of love in an episode where we saw Emma at her weakest—both in terms of her magical powers and her belief in love.
It’s easy to dismiss Emma’s attitude in this episode as harsh, selfish, and downright unrealistic—because it was. But it was also completely true to who she is as a character, especially considering the events of the previous episode: Henry’s life was put in grave danger, and she learned that Hook was keeping things from her and making decisions (however well-intentioned) about her son’s life behind her back. She also had to give up being the only family in Henry’s life and watch Regina break the curse when she failed to. All of those things were weighing on her throughout the episode, so it made sense to have her revert to the emotional state that comes easiest to her: cold detachment.
By the end of “Going Home,” it had seemed like Emma had started accepting her place in her family, her place with Hook, and her role as the savior. But then she was torn away from it all and given a happy life for an entire year with Henry in New York. And while it may be one of the most frustrating things on Earth to hear Emma tell everyone about how much happier she was in New York (just buy an “I Love N.Y.” t-shirt at this point, Emma), her time in Storybrooke was really only a little longer than her time in New York. And New York was safer—on more levels than just the physical (minus the whole flying monkey thing, which she keeps forgetting). Emma Swan is a woman who is afraid to commit to anything because happiness for her has always been something that gets yanked away. She’s a woman who never stayed in one place for longer than two years, who only had one-night stands after Neal left, and who took a whole TV season to openly admit she loved her son. Wanting to run away to New York is Emma’s way of taking the easy way out, of returning to who she was instead of embracing who she can be. Loving Henry is beautiful but safe: He’s her child; he loves her unconditionally and still needs her. She still fears that her family and Hook can leave at any moment because that’s all anyone has ever done to her. So going back to New York is Emma’s way of taking some of her power back in a very misguided way: She wants to leave before she gets left behind again.
It was hard to watch Emma go from the woman who was so happy with her magic and with Hook in “Bleeding Through” to this woman who was happy to leave her magic behind and quite unnecessarily harsh to a man she knows cares for her deeply. But this episode was about bringing Emma to rock bottom. Happiness—real, genuine happiness—terrifies Emma because life has taught her that the moment she’s truly happy she’ll lose that happiness. And life has taught her that opening herself up to romantic love will only bring pain.
It was nice to see Charming so quick to trust Hook again. I knew his reaction was brought on more by the stress of the moment than any actual hard feelings towards Hook. (I may have yelled, “The bromance is back!” at my TV, but I’m far too professional to admit that.) And although he probably chose the worst person to send with Emma given the circumstances, it was still nice to see someone supporting Hook when Emma was being so dismissive. (Her flippant comment about him being basically useless because of his one hand was a low blow.) And I found it very symbolic that the episode opened with Emma thinking she had to do everything alone, but Hook ended up going with her.
Even though it was far from happy, I loved the way Hook and Emma’s dynamic was handled in this episode. It was honest. And that’s what love should be. Hook showed some serious backbone as he called Emma out on her selfish reasons for taking Henry away from Storybrooke. Because Henry isn’t a baby; he’s a young man whose home and family are in Storybrooke (hence that very sweet scene with him and the ever-adorable Archie). Emma wasn’t thinking of Henry; she was thinking of herself, and Hook wasn’t afraid to tell her that. Emma has always been an open book to Hook, and I liked seeing flashes of that again. He reads her fears and insecurities better than anyone, and he can understand when no one else can that her desire to leave Storybrooke stems from a fear of happiness and a fear of getting too comfortable with a future that seems—for this often abandoned orphan, this lost girl—too good to be true. So while Emma may get defensive and downright mean (because don’t we all get that way when someone strikes a nerve and sees through our defenses when we don’t want them to?) he’s not giving up on showing her that she’s not being her best self. She’s pushing him to see if he’ll turn and walk away like she expects him to, but he pushes right back. True love on this show is having someone who helps you to be your best self, and that’s what Hook is doing for Emma by telling her in no uncertain terms that she’s not being her best self by wanting to take Henry and run.
When Zelena had Rumplestiltskin drown Hook (because even Emma’s magic is no match for his), I think we all knew what was coming: Emma was going to sacrifice her magic to save his life. Jennifer Morrison’s performance in that moment was so desperate, but there was something so gentle about the way she touched his face and whispered “Come back to me.” That line meant so much—beyond just the parallel to Mary Margaret and David in Season One’s “Snow Falls.” Emma has seen too many people die in her arms; she’s been left behind too many times. But Hook has always been the one who comes back. He’s the only one who keeps coming back to her, and she needed him to do that one more time.
The end of this episode saw Emma at a crossroads: She knew she was getting too attached to both Hook and her family, so she became more determined than ever to leave. Her happiness with Hook (and his love of seeing that happiness) was tempered with the realization that she was so happy because she believed she could leave with fewer repercussions now: Her parents have their new baby, she’s no longer the only one with light magic, and she doesn’t have to be the savior. There was a lightness to her that was nice but felt somewhat off, similar to her personality in the beginning of “New York City Serenade,” and that’s a testament to Morrison’s great understand of this character and her nuances. Part of me is actually wondering if Emma is lying. Does she have her magic now that Zelena has been defeated but wants everyone to believe she doesn’t to make leaving easier?
Leaving can never be easy, though, because her family won’t let her go without a fight. Henry’s whole world is in Storybrooke, including his other mother. And Charming and Snow won’t lose another baby—no matter how old she is. It broke my heart to see them fight for their son in an episode where their daughter was planning to leave them behind. Snow is a woman who only gets moments of happiness with her children before they’re taken away (but what a beautiful moment it was—kudos to Josh Dallas and Ginnifer Goodwin for making me cry once again). Goodwin played Snow’s sense of grief and helplessness so perfectly. And nobody plays a determined daddy like Josh Dallas. His fierce performance as he charged out of the hospital room was only bested by his gorgeously moving performance when he returned to his wife with their son safely in his arms.
Regina’s role in saving Snow and Charming’s son helped her character come full-circle from the woman who ensured that they would lose their daughter. It all happened because Regina found the one thing Emma is still struggling with: belief. Regina was like Emma for so long—afraid of happiness, damaged by a past that controlled her, and using her son’s wellbeing as an excuse for doing things that were selfish. But this season has been about both women choosing to be truly happy; Regina just got there first. (Because Emma is the main character, so for purely plot reasons her character arc needs to come to a head in the big finale instead of the penultimate episode.)
Regina’s arc was about embracing the love inside of her—even without her heart. She can love both Henry and Robin from her soul, but I loved that her light magic was more about Henry’s belief in her than it was about Robin. Henry’s belief has always given Emma strength, so it’s lovely to see it do the same for Regina, especially considering that he used to believe she was only the Evil Queen.
Magic—like love—is about choice. Light magic doesn’t just make itself known to people who are predestined to be good. It makes itself known to people who use magic for good, to people who choose to reach for the light instead of the darkness. Regina reached for the light, and it made her stronger than ever. I loved that she was the one to defeat her sister. As much as I love Emma, this was Regina’s battle to fight. Regina chose to be a hero, which meant choosing to put aside vengeance and spare Zelena’s life. Regina knows she’s not perfect, and it wouldn’t be fun to watch her always act as righteously as the Charmings. But the important thing is she knows she has a choice, and she chose in that moment to be better than she once was, to embrace her best self.
Regina’s best self is one that is aware of the mistakes and damage she caused in the past, and looking at Zelena in the prison cell was all about Regina facing who she once was. Season Three has been the season of Regina becoming more self-aware, and Lana Parrilla plays that new sense of self-awareness so brilliantly, giving Regina a new maturity.
Once Upon a Time has always been adamant about showing the audience that evil is not born; it’s made. But now it’s adamant on showing that goodness is also something that is made instead of predetermined. Yes, some might be predisposed to one or the other, but evil and goodness are formed by our choices rather than a fate we cannot change. Regina chose to embrace her most evil self because she was broken and encouraged by Rumplestiltskin to channel that brokenness into dark magic. But now she chose to embrace goodness (with encouragement from Henry, Robin, and Emma) because she wants to be good; she wants to channel the happiness she’s finally accepted into light magic.
Regina’s arc reached its peak in “Kansas.” She proved that she was strong enough to see another path for herself—a lighter path—and to finally take it. It was her choice that saved the day. It had to be Regina. Emma couldn’t believe in the power of love the way Regina could at this point. But she’ll get there, and she’ll get there soon. That’s what this big finale is going to be all about. Emma has to learn what Regina learned: You can’t run from happiness just because you’ve been hurt; you have to choose a path that may not be easy or safe but will lead you where you need to be—to your best self, your second chance at love, and your real home.
Another character who seems to struggle with which path to take is Rumplestiltskin. I was so happy to see him give Belle his dagger and to promise her everything after all of the pain that relationship has been through. (Is the big wedding really going to be theirs?) But it did feel too easy. This is a man who has gone through serious psychological torment and is still mourning the son he created the Dark Curse for. So I was both surprised and not surprised at all when he revealed that he had the real dagger and had fooled Belle. In an episode that saw Regina actively choose to be good, it made sense to show that one of the show’s two original antagonists might never really be able to be on the side of the “good guys.” And as much as it hurt me to see him take advantage of his true love’s trust the way he did, a part of me was excited to see him essentially walk away from redemption—because Rumplestiltskin is always more compelling to watch when he’s in the darker waters of moral ambiguity instead of trying too hard to be good.
Zelena’s death was shocking—I didn’t expect her to die before the finale. But it definitely left me with more questions than answers. What the heck happened to her magic after she died? Did it seek out its last mission, and that’s why the time travel spell seemed to be activated? Did it need to return to the stone in Regina’s vault but got swept up in the spell Zelena started along the way? Did it create a portal to try to return to the place where it was born (aka where Zelena was born)? Did Zelena getting stabbed with the Dark One dagger act as an essential part of the plan for setting up the time travel spell?
I’m sure (or at least I’m hopeful) next week’s two-hour finale will give us that answer along with many more. But I’m even more excited to see what will happen in terms of Emma’s character development. Regina’s development was handled so beautifully, but now it’s time for Emma to take center stage. I’m ready for fairytale dresses, time traveling adventures, and Hook and Emma proving themselves to be quite the team again. But all I really want is for Emma Swan to believe that people can love her for all she is and not leave her behind, and for her to believe that home and happiness are things she can actually have after so many years of being afraid to want them.