Title Rocky Road
Two-Sentence Summary In flashbacks, Elsa and Kristoff work together to eliminate a threat posed by Hans and his brothers, which leads them to the urn that will later be used to imprison Elsa and was also used to imprison a woman claiming to be her aunt, who also has freezing powers. In Storybrooke, that same woman freezes Marian in an attempt to turn the townspeople against Elsa, but her villainous identity is uncovered by Hook and Elsa (after Hook blackmails Rumplestiltskin) and Will Scarlet (after Emma and Charming discover him in the woods).
Favorite Line “Hey, Dairy Queen!” (Emma)
My Thoughts The first two episodes of Once Upon a Time’s fourth season were very strong, but I think we can all admit they were a bit imbalanced. The season premiere was fairly heavy on the plot, while “White Out” favored focused character development over really moving the plot forward for a variety of characters (which I didn’t mind one bit but I know was an issue for some). “Rocky Road,” however, struck a really lovely balance between plot progression and character growth for the entire main cast.
What made “Rocky Road” work despite the sheer number of storylines was its thematic cohesion, which was my favorite part of “White Out,” but was even more impressive in this episode because of the broader scope of its storytelling. Despite the sheer number of stories being told, each one was—at its core—the same: a story of a person who believes they are fated to be unhappy and alone struggling to let themselves hope that their fate can be changed.
Regina’s story this season seems to be the most literal interpretation of that overarching theme. When it comes to the “changing the book” plot, I’ll admit to still being very confused by the details. I was always under the impression that the book ended with the casting of Regina’s curse, so I don’t know what exactly she’s planning to have them change in order to get her happy ending. Does she simply want the book to reflect her point of view as well as that of the heroes, or does she actually want to change the events of the past so she looks less villainous? Because she may be changing in the present and may not a villain anymore, but it’s not incorrect to say she was a villain in the past. I was hoping Henry would ask for more clarification, but I think he was so happy to be spending time with her again that he just went along with it. It was cute to see him excited to embark on “Operation Mongoose.” Also, did anyone else notice that Regina’s name was a subtle—but very in-character—dig at “Operation Cobra?” (Google “mongoose versus snake” if you need proof.)
What I find the most interesting about Regina’s story so far is that she’s already changing her fate without changing the book, simply by being a better person. It makes sense for Regina to feel as if she needs the validation of the book claiming she deserves a happy ending, but I hope she comes to earn that happy ending by continuing to do the right thing in Storybrooke. I loved her choices with Marian in this episode because they were so selfless. There was a part of her that did it for Robin (because true love is selfless love), but there was also a part of her that seemed to want to do the right thing simply because it’s right.
I love the way these past two seasons have used Regina holding hearts in her hands as a symbol of how much she has grown. Last season, she held Snow’s heart in her hands and used it to save a life instead of destroying the woman she hated for so long. And in “Rocky Road,” she held the heart of a woman who was standing in the way of her happy ending, and she chose to protect it without ever once seeming tempted to crush it. It’s actions like that which make me—and will make the characters—see Regina as a woman worthy of a happy ending, not her quest to change the book. When Robin said he was in love with someone else and Regina smiled that gloriously hopeful smile, that moment was earned (if a bit awkwardly staged with Marian lying lifeless right next to them). While I still feel like the depth of their feelings are a bit rushed, both Lana Parrilla and Sean Maguire sell that depth so well that all I want is to hug both of them because they’re both trying to do the right thing despite knowing that the right thing will keep them from the person they love.
Speaking of characters I want to hug, Snow’s little side plot broke my heart in this episode. At first, I found it somewhat strange that she wouldn’t even pass Neal off to Charming during the fireside chat. But it all made so much sense after her scene with Archie. (How perfect was Snow saying that she didn’t remember scheduling a session?) Snow is a woman who lost both of her children. She lost Neal for a few hours, but she lost Emma for 28 years. She’s still living with the effects of what losing Emma did to both her daughter and herself, and she doesn’t ever want to suffer through that again or have her son suffer like Emma did. That guilt and fear are two things I’ve always wanted them to address with Snow, and the show did it in such a believable, honest way. Snow must feel like she’s fated to always lose her children, and she wants to do everything in her power to change that fate, even if that means holding her son a little closer than she should. Yes, she needs to learn to let go a little bit, but I completely understand her reluctance to do so.
Another character who is constantly struggling with letting go is Rumplestiltskin. His story has always been focused on the idea of whether or not we can control our fate. He might be telling everyone he’s turned over a new leaf thanks to his marriage and his son’s death, but we know he’s still the same man, desperate for a sense of control. He’s also a man who believes more than perhaps any other character that he’s not truly meant to have a happy ending, so I think that, by keeping his secret from Belle, he’s subconsciously sabotaging his happiness because he doesn’t think he’s supposed to have it.
And if anyone can understand the psychology of Rumplestiltskin, it’s the man who spent hundreds of years planning to kill him. I loved that Hook was the one who saw straight through Rumplestiltskin because, as he told Emma, he’s “actually quite perceptive.” And, for as much as Hook has changed for the better, it was great seeing him use his pirate side again—and using it for good. Robert Carlyle and Colin O’Donoghue are fantastic scene partners. That moment in the pawnshop was filled with such delicious tension and a deep sense of history between those two characters. I know this won’t end well for Hook (because when does anyone end up on the winning side of a conflict with the Dark One?), but it’s going to be fun for those of us who love great acting while it lasts. And if Hook ends up being the one to reveal to Belle that she’s being played by her husband, I am more than okay with that. She needs to know, and she needs to know soon.
Hook/Rumplestiltskin was just one of the many combinations of characters I enjoyed seeing in this episode. Hook/Elsa was another. I liked how their dynamic mirrored hers with Kristoff in the flashbacks; you could see her trying to relate to both men because she knows they’re important to people she’s come to care about (Emma and Anna). And while the advice she gave Hook about why Emma is avoiding him may not have been true for Emma, it showed the potential for a nice relationship to form between these two characters in addition to the friendship we see strengthening between Elsa and Emma. (I especially loved Emma defending Elsa to Regina.) And on a lighter note, how cute was Hook trying to explain a phone to Elsa? I don’t know what I loved more: O’Donoghue’s exasperated facial expressions, the fact that he only knows how to work the phone in relation to “the Emma button,” or his frustrated voicemail. How is it possible for this character to be threatening Rumplestiltskin with complete conviction in one scene and then be downright adorable trying to call Emma in the next scene? It’s a testament to O’Donoghue’s impressive versatility.
Another dynamic that has the potential to be a lot of fun is Emma and Will Scarlet. I didn’t religiously watch Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, but when I did watch, I always loved Michael Socha and what he brought to this character. His charisma is a welcome addition to this show, and I think Socha is a great match for Jennifer Morrison in terms of the dry sense of humor they both bring to their characters. I’m not sure how well he’ll continue to work within the main stories of these episodes, but I liked that his thievery was the key to discovering the Snow Queen. (Side note: This is what I’m calling that character until she’s proven to be someone else or is given a name.) Between Hook’s blackmail and Will’s larceny, I liked that this mystery was solved by less than 100% noble methods. And who else is super excited for those two charming British rogues to meet?
While Emma and Will showed potential to make good scene partners, this was another episode that focused on Emma’s relationships with her father and with Hook. Through both of those relationships, we were able to see Emma start to live out that theme of changing the way you feel your life is fated to go. Emma started this episode in a bit of a slump. She let Regina get into her head with her comments about not being much of a savior, and she told her father that she felt like a failure after the snow monster and ice wall debacles. But Charming, ever the supportive father, encouraged her to believe that just because it felt like she wasn’t meant to succeed, that wasn’t the way it had to be. After the last episode, it was nice to see Charming continue to inspire people not to give up on themselves, because now we know where he got it from. And I always love watching Josh Dallas deliver encouraging little pep talks because he puts such sincerity into every line reading.
Of course, Charming was right. Emma may have felt like people were seeing her as a failure of a savior, but she changed that perception pretty quickly when her father and Hook were in danger. All magic is emotion, and Emma’s magic always seems to be its strongest when she’s protecting people she loves. In this case, she didn’t even have to take time to summon her magic or control it; she unleashed it with incredibly powerful results. It was a nice victory for a character who’s been struggling with a series of magical failures, and it was especially nice to see the strength of how much she cares for both Hook and Charming after we saw how much they cared for her when she was in danger in “White Out.”
At first, Emma’s interactions with Hook in this episode might have given you a sense of tonal whiplash after how open and vulnerable she was with him at the end of “White Out.” But I think between her own brush with death and seeing Robin struggling with Marian’s curse, Emma had mortality on the brain. This made her suddenly very forceful in her attempts to keep Hook safe and in her frustration with him when he ended up in a life-threatening situation. However, Hook did what he does so wonderfully where Emma is concerned: He made her stop running (literally and figuratively). He voiced the same concern we saw him state in the first episode of the season: She’s avoiding him, and he wants to know why. And this time, she actually told him. In the course of two episodes, their relationship has grown so much, and I loved that the physical intimacy shown in their closeness in “White Out” gave way to the emotional intimacy of Emma finally being honest about why she’s been holding back with Hook. I adore when characters are allowed to talk through their issues like real adults, and that’s one of my favorite things about Hook and Emma’s dynamic: He makes her feel safe enough to open up to him about emotional things she probably wouldn’t share with anyone else.
That openness, which is so rare for Emma Swan as a character, comes from a fact that was explicitly stated in this scene: She trusts him. For so long, Emma Swan was afraid to trust anyone after what Neal did to her; it was the reason she said she wore the keychain he gave her as a necklace—to remind her never to trust anyone. Emma chained Hook up to the beanstalk when they first met because she was afraid to trust him, and her trust issues only got worse after what she went through with Walsh. Knowing her history made this admission of trust so huge for Emma as a character. I loved the way Morrison delivered this line, like it was such a basic fact. It only served to highlight just how much her relationship with Hook has helped her heal from the damage she suffered in past relationships; she doesn’t even think twice about trusting him now.
Because Emma trusts Hook, she could open up to him about why she’s so afraid to fully dive into their relationship. Before their kiss in the Season Three finale, Emma was afraid that he would hurt her, but those fears were put to rest, allowing her to embark on this relationship. However, she was still afraid, only it wasn’t a fear of him intentionally hurting her anymore; it was a fear of him leaving her through death.
That confession broke my heart, and it was all because of how Morrison delivered it. To hear her tearfully list of all the people Emma cared for and lost made her fears so understandable. Emma believes it’s her fate to be alone, to go without romantic love, because she’s never known a love that survives. But perhaps the most beautiful part of that confession was the moment she looked at Hook and told him, “I can’t lose you, too.” The fact that she said “can’t” instead of “don’t want to” is so important. Emma has lost so many people, but Hook is the one man she feels like she can’t lose. For her to be so open about what was probably her biggest fear and most vulnerable part of her heart was monumental for this character. The way Morrison delivered that line with such sincerity was truly beautiful. It was one of the biggest moments of character growth for Emma to date, and she gave it the weight it needed.
And then we have O’Donoghue, whose reaction to Morrison’s emotional honesty was just as beautiful as the words she’d just said. These two actors work so well together because they can make the shortest lines and quietest moments resonate with chemistry and depth. The little smile he gave before he started to talk spoke volumes about Hook’s understanding of this woman he loves so much. His expression was so soft and almost awestruck, and it was because Hook understood that she was finally telling him she cares about him as much as he cares about her. He doesn’t have to guess at her feelings anymore or worry they’re not on the same page. He knows exactly what it’s like to lose everyone you love, so he knows how much it took for Emma to tell him she can’t lose him—because that’s how he feels about her. To be able to convey all of that in one smile speaks to just how much O’Donoghue brings to this dynamic.
Hook followed that soft smile with exactly the reassurance Emma needed. He’s good at surviving, and the way O’Donoghue delivered that line was like a promise; he’s not going anywhere. That line was once used by Hook as a threat, but now it’s a romantic vow. Emma’s not the only one who’s grown incredibly through this relationship.
The moments after Hook promises Emma that he’s good at surviving were my favorites in the whole episode. When the camera paned back to Emma, Morrison had a look on her face that was so beautiful I could spend another thousand words talking about it. It was hope—pure and simple. There was the slightest hint of a smile on her lips and determination in her eyes, and you could see the exact moment she chooses to stop believing that she’s fated to lose everyone and chooses to start believing she can have the love and happiness she’s always wanted. Hope is such a powerful emotion on Once Upon a Time, and it was at the center of this powerful scene. And that same hope is reflected in Hook’s eyes and in his kiss. For the first time, Hook initiated a kiss between them, and it was because he finally had hope that she feels as strongly for him as he feels for her. There was so much confidence in that kiss, and I loved it. For the first time, neither was holding back, and it made for one heck of a romantic moment.
While Emma and Hook made me feel the most strongly in this episode, it was the Snow Queen who kept me up until 2 a.m. thinking. Elizabeth Mitchell was such a phenomenal casting choice for this role. Her ability to make you question everything about her motives was the hallmark of her time on Lost and was used perfectly here as well. She’s so subtle and controlled, which is a nice change from Zelena’s campy presence last season. And she projects a warmth and kindness that makes you completely understand why no one suspected her and why Elsa trusted her so easily.
Elsa also struggled in the flashbacks with feeling fated to always be alone and misunderstood. Yes, her bonding with Kristoff was nice (Scott Michael Foster was great at taking Kristoff’s sass from the movie to another level.), but she immediately opened up to this woman because for the first time she felt completely understood. It broke my heart to know that this woman wasn’t worthy of Elsa’s beautiful openness (and it made me appreciate her friendship with Emma even more). I do believe the Snow Queen is her aunt, but the thing with Mitchell is you can never tell when her character is telling the truth. She might just have been preying on Elsa’s desire for family.
The real question, though, isn’t how the Snow Queen knows Elsa but how she knows Emma. Mitchell played that moment of recognition with such complexity that I am baffled by what these two characters could mean to each other. There was surprise there and an unexpected kind of tenderness. Could she have been one of Emma’s foster mothers (or the mother who gave her up when she was three), altering Emma’s memory in the same way she seems to have altered Elsa’s? How does her obvious past with Emma fit into her belief that people with magic will always be feared and oppressed by people without it? (This reminded me of Magneto from X-Men, and I loved it.) And what kind of history does she have with Rumplestiltskin? (Please let it mean more scenes between Mitchell and Carlyle, because the one we got was perfection.) I haven’t been this excited to see the outcome of a mystery on this show since its earliest days.