Title White Out
Two-Sentence Summary In her desperation to find Anna, Elsa creates an ice cave that knocks out Storybrooke’s power (which Snow is left to fix) and traps Emma in fatally freezing temperatures. To help free his daughter, Charming digs into his past and a life-altering meeting with Anna to inspire Elsa to control her magic, but there are more sinister forces than Elsa afoot, as we meet a Storybrooke resident with her own chilling set of powers.
Emma: Aren’t you cold? I’m freezing.
Elsa: It’s never bothered me.
My Thoughts I love Once Upon a Time. I love its ability to be a little bit ridiculous and not take itself seriously all the time—this is a show about fairytales, after all. I love its unashamed optimism and the fact that it wears its heart so blatantly on its sleeve. I love its focus on love—between friends, romantic partners, and family members. And, more than anything, I love that it makes me feel. “White Out” was an episode that highlighted all of those things that I love about Once Upon a Time, and it did so by focusing on the family that was the reason I fell in love with this show in the first place and the sisters that had me so captivated in last week’s season premiere.
I was a little apprehensive after “A Tale of Two Sisters” about the sheer number of storylines being set up for this season and how that would affect the time spent developing the characters and relationships on the show. Thankfully, this episode chose to focus its attention on one angle—the Frozen arc and its connection to Emma and her family—instead of trying to cram too much in. For Rumplestiltskin and Regina fans, I’m sure it was a bit disappointing to see so little of your favorites. (Although both did have good moments.) However, I’m sure their time will come to take center stage again, and I for one really enjoyed this episode’s sense of focus, especially given how broad the scope of the premiere was. (But I’ll admit that my bias towards all things “Charming Family” probably helped with my enjoyment of this episode.)
When I saw that “White Out” was a Jane Espenson-penned episode, I knew we were in for a treat in terms of self-aware humor because she’s the best at weaving in funny and genre-savvy details throughout her episodes. From Emma making a “cool” pun with Elsa to Henry’s little comment about how Google doesn’t have answers for what to do when your mom has a breakup like Regina’s, I thought “White Out” had just the right amount of humor to balance out its emotional depth. And Bo Peep as an evil warlord was the kind of campy perfection you just have to embrace as a fan of this show. It was ridiculous, but that’s why it worked—kind of like Josh Dallas’s Fabio/80s hair band/Beyoncé wig. And it gave us the perfect detail of Bo Peep working at a butcher shop in Storybrooke. Between that and “Any Given Sundae,” it was nice to have some fun new details emerge about how Enchanted Forest personas transferred over to Storybrooke.
Also, you can’t talk about fun details in “White Out” and not talk about the plethora of perfect Frozen references. There was the cold not bothering Elsa (“Let It Go”), Anna loving sandwiches (“Love Is an Open Door”), and Anna’s alias being Joan (“Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?”). Each one made me smile.
Not only were the little nods to Frozen fun, the time spent further developing Anna and Elsa in this episode proved to me that these writers understand the core of these characters so well. The more time we spend with Anna, the more I’m convinced that Elizabeth Lail was born to play her. Her first encounter with Charming was perfect, although I am a little confused as to how he knows Kristoff. (I’m hoping that will be explained later.) But what really worked for me was the way this episode once again focused on Anna’s strength. She’s so much more than “adorkable.” Anna believes in people, and she believes in standing and fighting instead of running away. That’s not just a plot device to make her work with Charming’s story; that’s the center of her character in Frozen. Anna is driven by optimism and hope, and although it burned her before, she never let what happened with Hans (or almost dying from Elsa freezing her heart) destroy that ability to see the best in people. She’s a lot like Snow in that way, so it made sense that she and Charming would connect so easily. (Also, I love that Charming has a history of forming good friendships with strong women, like Anna and Red.)
Anna taught Charming so much more than just how to wield a sword (and twirl it—a moment that had me freaking out with joy from my couch). She taught him about the kind of bravery that was always inside him but just needed a spark to catch fire. Even as a shepherd, Charming wanted to do the right thing for his family, and now we know why that is. I’ve been waiting so long to find out what makes Charming tick, and, like many characters on this show, it turns out it was the loss of a loved one. Charming’s father being an alcoholic who died from the result of his drinking was one of those pieces of backstory that made perfect sense but I never would have guessed it beforehand. Charming’s desire to be the best father he can be, his fears about letting his children down in last season’s “The Tower,” and his desire to do the honorable thing all stem from trying to be better than his own father. His success as being a vastly different man than his father is an interesting counterpoint to the “sins of the father” motif we saw last season with the men on Rumplestiltskin’s side of Henry’s family tree.
Anna and Charming’s story was—like so many Once Upon a Time stories—a story of belief and a story of choosing to define yourself on your own terms. Anna helped Charming see who he wanted to be—a man who never gives up and fights for what matters to him. Anna has a kind of bravery that is vastly underrated. She lives her life with an open heart because she knows that’s the only way to truly live and not just survive. She doesn’t run from her problems or hide from them because she’s afraid, and she uses that bravery to inspire the people around her. Yes, it was cool to see her use a sword, but her real strength has always been in the way she faces life with openness and hope. And Lail captured that strength perfectly.
The themes set up in the flashbacks—never giving up on yourself or the people you love and the bravery that it takes to stop being afraid and start living—were woven beautifully throughout the present-day portion of this episode. In what was one of the show’s best uses of Snow in quite some time, her side plot was all about not giving up on yourself. Kudos to Ginnifer Goodwin for channeling what I’m sure is plenty of real-life new mommy exhaustion into her instant-classic tirade against Grumpy, Granny, and Co. It was funny, it was honest, and it was the most gumption Snow has shown in Storybrooke in ages. I was so proud of her for figuring out how to turn the generator on, and the “baby high five” was so cute I’m smiling just thinking about it.
My only complaint was in how removed Snow felt from what was going on with her own daughter. I know it was just a product of the different stories being told, but could no one get in touch with her to say Emma was dying? And why did she look so unconcerned when she saw Emma in such bad shape back at the loft? (I’m willing to believe Charming called her and filled her in on the Emma part—but not the Elsa part—before she got home.)
For as much as I would have liked to see Snow fussing over her daughter, one of the best things about this episode was that it showed us just how many people Emma has in her life who care about her and won’t give up on her, which is so important for a woman with a fear of abandonment as strong as Emma’s. And it was also important for Elsa to see that this group of people—this family—can be trusted not just because Charming knew Anna but because they’re so much like Anna in the way they love, support, and fight for a woman who Elsa is starting to see as a kindred spirit.
Emma and Elsa’s fast friendship was wonderful. I always want to see more female friendships on television, and this one has the potential to be so great for both characters. Elsa has never met anyone else with magic, and Emma has never met anyone else who doesn’t know what to do with the magic they were born with. They feel burdened with responsibilities they didn’t ask for as well as magic they struggle to control, and you could see both of these women—who are traditionally very reserved—soften immediately in the presence of someone who finally understands. Georgina Haig and Jennifer Morrison clicked immediately in this episode, and I think they’re going to continue to make great scene partners. I was especially impressed with Haig’s performance as Elsa saw Emma beginning to lose consciousness. She was so gentle and protective (channeling the “older sister” side of Elsa) as well as genuinely sorry for hurting another person who was only trying to help her.
Elsa and Emma share another trait beyond magic: They both spent so many years surviving but not living a full life because they thought it was safer to be alone. The “ice wall” symbol wasn’t the subtlest (but when has Once Upon a Time ever really been subtle in its metaphors?), but it was effective. It may have been a little heavy-handed to show Hook literally trying to chip away at the wall, but Colin O’Donoghue made it work. I believed Hook’s desperation, and my heart broke for him as he was once again rendered powerless to stop someone he loved from dying.
However, the mere memory of Anna was enough to get Elsa to melt part of the wall—because love thaws. And as soon as Emma got out of the makeshift ice palace, we saw her own walls melting more than perhaps ever before in the face of the love she was met with from both her father and Hook on the other side of the ice.
Emma has been slowly working on bringing her walls down, and she’s already so much more open than she was when we first met her. She wants Henry to hug her, she calls Charming “Dad,” and she’s honest with Elsa from the start about who she really is (the savior) and how she feels about that (completely unsure). However, we saw in the season premiere that she still has things to work through before those last walls can come down and she can be as open with Hook as she seems to genuinely want to be. But it appears that her near-death experience helped Emma embrace her father’s words and start living her life to the fullest instead of just surviving and hiding from things that scare her, which in this case means letting herself be vulnerable with Hook.
When I say Emma “embraced” her father’s words, I mean that quite literally. Her hug with Hook was a standout moment in an episode I loved from start to finish because of the total commitment both actors showed. O’Donoghue’s face was the picture of relief, and Morrison showed in such a visceral way how unguarded Emma was in that moment. All that mattered to both of them was holding on to each other and reassuring the other that they weren’t going anywhere, which is a big deal for two people who’ve lost so much and are so afraid to lose again.
Throughout “White Out,” we were reminded in plenty of ways that Hook has become a character worthy of the unprecedented vulnerability Emma showed him in this episode. His talk with Charming highlighted the idea that Emma isn’t a prize to him, and the progression of their relationship is about her choices and not just his feelings. And when they hugged, it was clear that Emma had chosen to do what Hook was doing when he called their adventures their dates: living and loving through the crises instead of just surviving each crisis alone.
I love a good hug, so to say that moment moved me is the understatement of the week. I also love little background moments of intimacy that develop a relationship in the details, so everything that happened between Emma and Hook back at the loft was perfect for me as a fan of subtle and realistic relationship progression. In fact, it might be my new favorite scene between those characters.
It was so sweet to see all of the most important men in Emma’s life, along her new friend Elsa, working to help get her warm. (Henry with the cocoa and Hook with the space heater were especially adorable.) And then as the scene progressed, it was beautiful to watch what Morrison and O’Donoghue were doing in the background—the way his hand never left her back or her shoulder, the way she leaned into him, the attentive way he looked at her. In those small details, we were able to see just how much Emma was opening herself up to being vulnerable with him and how much Hook treasured the moments she was giving him to show her how much he loves her.
Perhaps the sweetest little detail was when the camera lingered on their hands, and we saw Emma move to intertwine her fingers with Hook’s—initiating a new level of intimacy yet again. In that one small gesture, she reassured him that she wasn’t going anywhere, and she silently asked him not to go anywhere, either. It was another way for her to show she wasn’t going to push him away anymore; she was holding on tighter than ever. Emma shows her feelings in actions rather than words, and this action was so small but so monumental for a woman who still isn’t used to the kind of intimacy that she’s diving into with him.
When I think about why I loved seeing Hook take care of Emma at the end of this episode, I think about Emma’s past. She had a hard and lonely life, and I’m sure that meant not having many people dote on her when she was sick or hurt. So she learned to take care of herself, and that made her unsure of how to accept people wanting to take care of her (like when she shrugged off her mother wiping away her tears in Season Two’s “Lady of the Lake”). But in those moments with Hook, she let herself be completely taken care of and loved. She leaned into him and not away; she locked her fingers through his instead of brushing him off. It was the most open they’ve been with each other. Hook showed the full extent of his devotion (just look at his face when Charming talks about not giving up—he’s part of the family now). And Emma showed him how much she trusts him and wants him by her side, even when she’s in a position of total vulnerability. It was a beautifully simple moment of comfort and contentment (and character growth) amid the craziness, and that’s why it was so special.
Emma wasn’t the only one of Henry’s moms opening herself up to someone who isn’t giving up on her. I loved that this episode also showed Henry following in his family’s footsteps and not giving up on Regina. Their reunion was a genuinely sweet moment between mother and son, and I can’t wait to see how Henry’s support of Regina helps her as she works through her emotions as the season progresses.
The episode ended with a couple of good reveals. First of all, was anyone surprised that Rumplestiltskin obviously had a hand in what happened to Anna? He was acting very suspiciously when Charming and Hook came to him in his shop. And second, who else screamed and jumped off their couch as soon as they saw Elizabeth Mitchell? I knew she was joining the cast, but I didn’t expect to see her so soon. As a fan of hers from back in the days of Lost, I am so excited to see what she’ll do with his villainous role. Her exciting appearance was the perfect way to end a very strong episode.