Welcome (or welcome back), friends, to my Once Upon a Time reviews! I’ve been looking forward to writing this since the Season Three finale aired in May, so let the fun (and the discussion) begin!
Title A Tale of Two Sisters
Two-Sentence Summary As Elsa finds herself in Storybrooke, flashbacks show what happened when she discovered a journal that revealed her parents’ fatal journey was undertaken to figure out how to deal with their magical daughter—a journey that Anna decides to retrace, leading her to the Enchanted Forest. Elsa isn’t the only new arrival from Emma and Hook’s trip to the past to cause problems in Storybrooke; Marian’s presence forces Regina to confront whether or not she can ever have a happy ending and whether or not she’s still the “monster” she once was.
Emma: Want to go home and see what’s on Netflix?
Hook: I don’t know what that is, but sure!
My Thoughts Remember when last season ended and I was worried about how the Frozen storyline was going to be handled on Once Upon a Time? It’s amazing how great casting can make all the difference in the world. I know it’s only been one episode, but the Frozen characters were some of my favorite parts of this Once Upon a Time premiere. That might also be because so much was going on in Storybrooke that the Frozen flashbacks gave me a chance to breathe in the middle of the present-day chaos and revolving door of new plot developments.
Don’t get me wrong; one of this episode’s biggest strengths was the way it laid a solid foundation for all of the major storylines to come this season (or at least in this half of the season). It served as a great introduction for people tuning in for the first time because of the Frozen hype, and it attempted to quell some of the unrest surrounding both the Neverland and Wicked Witch arcs last season—sometimes it felt like the characters were going in circles (on occasion, quite literally) with only one major conflict to deal with.
However, anyone who’s familiar with my feelings about Once Upon a Time knows that I would rather have a hundred episodes of characters walking through the Neverland jungle—doing little to advance the plot but growing tremendously as characters—instead of a repeat of Season Two’s plot-heavy mess. I’ll withhold my judgment on the sheer number of major stories introduced in this premiere until I see if they turn out as disjointed as they could be or as connected as I hope they will be. If nothing else, they made for a fast-paced premiere filled with plenty of new mysteries to uncover—one of which I’ve been waiting for since I first saw the pilot.
The Frozen flashbacks also have their own central mystery: Who were Anna and Elsa’s parents going to see in Misthaven (or is it Mist Haven?)—aka the Enchanted Forest? My guess is Rumplestiltskin, and that’s where all the trouble will come with Elsa ending up in his vault and Anna’s necklace being in Mr. Gold’s shop. I liked that these flashbacks did what Once Upon a Time does best; they showed what happens after the story as we know it ends, making Anna and Elsa feel like real people and not just fairytale princesses (or a princess and a queen if we’re being technical).
I was most impressed with how faithful the writers and actors were not just to the details of Frozen but to the very essence of what makes these characters so unique. Of course, it was fun to see the nods to the film in everything from the beautiful costumes and the surprisingly good CGI for Grand Pabbie to the perfection that was Sven (Who knew a real reindeer could be so sassy?). But what I loved the most was the care taken to get Anna and Elsa (and Kristoff, too, in the little we saw of him) just right.
Elizabeth Lail was the perfecting casting choice for Anna. She was suitably adorable and slightly awkward, but where she really excelled was showing Anna’s unfailing optimism and belief in the good in people—especially her sister. There’s real strength to be found in optimism, and Once Upon a Time has always celebrated that. So it shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did that Anna would undertake this quest by herself out of love for and belief in her sister. It was a heroic act, and it was treated as such. Many people look at Anna in the film and want to only focus on her comedic side. However, what I love most about Anna is her belief that no one—especially not her sister—should have to suffer and struggle alone. That made her choice to leave Kristoff with Elsa as she made the journey alone so powerful; it was a choice to put Elsa before herself, and that’s the truest kind of love there is.
I’m excited to see what Anna leaving Kristoff behind means for his relationship with Elsa, because it was fun to see how strained and imperfect it is so far. It was also fun to see that Kristoff has grown into even more of a perfect match for Anna—someone who believes in her strength completely while most people write her off as flighty, and we all know that true love on this show is true belief in a person’s best self.
In that same vein, it will also be interesting to see how Elsa handles not having Anna near her to remind her of her best self. I loved that Elsa was still working to accept herself and that she still struggled with both seeing herself as a monster and with pushing away her sister’s encouragement and love. Anna was right; having a sister means you’re not alone. But it was nice to see that, just because Elsa had accepted that she didn’t have to be alone, it wasn’t always easy for her to believe it; it made her feel more realistic.
I’d never heard of Georgina Haig before she was cast as Elsa, but now I feel like one of her biggest fans because she was incredible. So much of this Frozen story was riding on having the right Elsa, and Haig was phenomenal from the start. I loved the warm but still reserved tone in her flashback scenes because I thought they channeled Elsa’s movie characterization brilliantly. But I was most impressed with the silently stunning work she did in Elsa’s moments in Storybrooke.
Elsa’s magic becomes uncontrollable when she’s afraid, and it could be easy for an actor to overplay the “fear” aspect of this character. But Haig made Elsa’s fear feel like real anxiety, which is what this character is all about. Elsa is a woman who lives in a constant state of worry that something will make her so afraid that she’ll lose control again, and that’s something people with anxiety can strongly relate to. It’s also something Haig captured perfectly—that fear of yourself and who you are when your anxiety is at its worst. From her shaking hands and her tight fists as she struggled to control her magic just walking down the street to her struggle to control her breathing as she hid, the physical details of her anxiety were heartbreaking. I just wanted someone to hug her, and that’s a high compliment for Haig. This was the most immediately attached I’ve ever felt to a new character on Once Upon a Time, and it left me more excited than ever for her to interact with the main cast starting next week.
That main cast had plenty to do in this episode without actually meeting Elsa, although they did get acquainted with her snow monster. (Thanks to another warning from everyone’s favorite town crier, Grumpy.) It seems that Elsa is now on a mission to find Rumplestiltskin, but he was a little busy in this episode. I’m still so frustrated with him for lying to Belle; even secretly giving her the real dagger did little to make me happy because she still doesn’t know what he did to Zelena (or that their marriage was based on a lie). And it didn’t help that he used it again anyway at the end of the episode to reveal a classic piece of Disney lore (the sorcerer’s hat!), which had me clapping in my seat while simultaneously wondering where this will fit into the stories being told this season (especially since I would have thought he was the sorcerer if anyone was going to be).
However, I’d be lying if I said two of the most beautiful moments this week weren’t courtesy of Robert Carlyle. The story he told at Neal’s grave about the only time he felt like a man who could keep his son safe broke my heart. I’m now more certain than ever that a monologue delivered by Carlyle will almost always be an episode highlight for me. (Although did anyone else get momentarily distracted by the fact that Neal’s headstone only said “son” and not “father,” too?) And, of course, no matter how annoyed I am with his lying to Belle, that dance was beautiful. Between the lovely way Frozen was handled so far, the hat, and this dance, “A Tale of Two Sisters” was a Disney fan’s dream. As soon as the first notes of “Beauty and the Beast,” started, I lost it from the sheer force of nostalgia alone. That movie and that scene in particular were formative for me and so many in my generation, and it was wonderful to see it given such special treatment on the show.
Rumplestiltskin’s constant dance of one step forward, two steps back with his inner demons had me very worried that Regina would follow a similar pattern in this premiere. It was a fear echoed by Henry, whose concern for his mother was believable; he’s seen her darkness, so it was understandable that he would be worried about her growth being set back by her pain. It was also sweet to see him understand that Emma wouldn’t be able to get through to Regina, but he might have a chance.
Regina’s struggle to decide whether or not she’s a monster was a nice parallel with Elsa fearing that she was a monster. And it provided some truly beautiful—but devastating—moments for Lana Parrilla to shine (especially when Robin came to visit her). But for a little while, I was worried that she was going to give in to her darker impulses, especially when she brought Sidney back from the asylum. It’s always a pleasure to see Giancarlo Esposito again, and his “I can probably tell you that you’re wearing too much eye makeup” was one of my favorite lines in the episode. But his return was meant to show us that Regina was about to go back down the path to being the Evil Queen, so I couldn’t be too happy to see him.
However, Regina has come so far since she last saw Sidney. She’s known true love, she’s wielded light magic, and she’s grown so much. I think we all knew that she couldn’t let Marian die. That’s not who she is anymore. She may not be perfect, but she’s not a monster anymore. Heroes don’t kill, and while she may not feel like a hero all the time, that lesson seems to have stuck with her. If she’s going to find a happy ending, she knew it couldn’t be that way.
Regina’s plan for finding a happy ending seems very convoluted, but I’m hoping it ends up being a plan that doesn’t really pan out. Changing the book shouldn’t be the point; it should be about changing yourself to be a better person. Regina needs to learn that a happy ending isn’t something that comes easy after doing a few heroic deeds; it’s something even the most heroic on this show fight for every day. I feel that Regina’s arc this season will be about discovering that you can’t forcibly change fate; you can only change yourself and your own choices. Therefore, I don’t think her plan to change the book will succeed (Although it might change as she changes.), but I am excited to explore more of this area of the show’s mythology. I’ve been eager to know who wrote the book since we first saw it.
Regina shut everyone out as she dealt with her problems in this episode, which was a very Elsa-like move. Luckily for her, she had her own Anna to remind her that everyone deserves to be happy. The fact that Emma was the Anna to Regina’s Elsa showed just how far Emma has come. That final scene between Emma and Regina, with the door separating them, was such a beautiful nod to Frozen’s “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?” scene. What I loved the most was the way it showcased Emma’s empathy, which is an underrated part of her character. Emma knows what it’s like to push people away because you’re hurting, and she knows how hard it can be to face challenges on your own. She also knows now how much better things can be when you have people to lean on. That scene could have only happened after the stability last season’s finale gave Emma. She’s not pushing people away anymore; she’s actually reaching out to help.
Emma’s parallels with Anna in this episode extended to her sacrificing some romantic moments to help Regina, much like Anna did by putting her marriage on hold to go on her journey. But, as is usually the case with Emma, it’s more complicated than her simply needing time to help Regina at the expense of spending time with Hook.
This is all new for Emma, as was shown in her nice little moment of girl talk with her mom (much more of this, please!). Just like I loved the fact that Elsa’s fears about herself and her magic didn’t immediately go away, I loved that one genuine kiss between Emma and Hook didn’t magically erase all of Emma’s fears and insecurities. Opening your heart to love isn’t done in one moment; it’s a process, and it’s one I’m eager to watch both Emma and Hook go through this season. I’m especially eager to see Hook fight for Emma’s happiness the way Emma is fighting for Regina’s (and everyone else’s). His annoyance with Emma’s “there’s a crisis” deflection was a perfect echo of what her father told her last season (and what he helped her mother discover before she was born); you can’t put your happiness on hold until there are no more crises.
Emma is still the woman who said that the life she wanted (a happy, peaceful life with a stable relationship) wasn’t in the cards for the savior. She needs someone like Hook to remind her that she can be the savior and have a life full of love and happiness. Her job is to fight for everyone to have their happy endings, and his job seems to be to remind her to fight for her own, too—even if that happiness is just a night in watching Netflix. He may not know what that is yet, but one look at his smile proved that all he needed to know was that it was a chance to spend time with Emma. Emma needs that as much as she needs his support of her magic. She needs someone who loves seeing her embrace her magical side but also simply wants to spend time with her as Emma.
Hook isn’t afraid to be honest with Emma, and his openness has made her more open in return. It was nice to see them talk through the issue of Emma avoiding him instead of just letting it fester. What I loved most about that little moment in the woods was the fact that Emma didn’t run away from him when things got too deep like she used to do. In fact, she smiled at him when he called her out for avoiding him (another lovely moment of subtle acting by Jennifer Morrison) instead of rolling her eyes or stiffening up like she used to. She was honest with him about her guilt over Regina, but, of course, Hook read her like an open book and knew there was more.
In the past, Hook being able to see right through her defenses would have freaked Emma out; it would have made her push him away or just turn and walk away from him without another word. However, this isn’t the same Emma. She may still have things to work through emotionally before she can let herself completely dive into this relationship, but she’s trying. And she wanted him to know that. So she did the only thing she could do to prove that the other reason she was avoiding him wasn’t because she didn’t want him; she kissed him. Once again, it was Emma initiating a kiss between them, making the choice to show him that she does want to make this work, even if she still has things to work though.
Then, Emma told him two words that are so important for her character growth: “Be patient.” Like her saying “Good” in “Going Home,” this was Emma giving Hook the most she could give at that time. She may not be ready to tell him exactly what’s holding her back, but she wants him to know that she’s hopeful she’ll overcome it and be able to give him the love he deserves. Emma was once someone who tried to push people away because she feared they would leave anyway. But she’s not that woman anymore. Instead, she’s trying to be more open, and she needed Hook to know that she wants whatever they have and could have. It was also nice to see that the one thing she asked of him—patience—is the one thing we know he has in spades. (And if we didn’t know that, he admitted it right after.)
It was fun to watch Emma smile so much in this episode after a season that saw very little happiness for her (until the very end). At the end of last season, all I really wanted in Season Four was for Regina to keep from backsliding completely, the Frozen story to be handled with care, and more happiness and growth for Emma. I’m a happy woman today because “A Tale of Two Sisters” gave me all of those things and more. Was it perhaps a little crowded and plot-heavy? Yes. But the character beats it had were strong and emotionally resonant enough to make me excited for everything that’s coming our way this season.