Title Enter the Dragon
Two-Sentence Summary As Regina attempts to gain the trust of the Queens of Darkness in order to go undercover for Snow and Charming, flashbacks show Regina and Maleficent’s first meeting. Meanwhile, Rumplestiltskin uses Hook and Belle’s new friendship in order to get his hands on the Dark One dagger, which he uses to bring back a familiar face.
Favorite Line “For now, Will makes me smile.” (Belle)
My Thoughts “Setup episodes” are a fact of life for TV fans. There are going to be episodes every season on every show where the focus is on establishing plot points and moving pieces into place for overarching storylines rather than on small moments of character interaction and development. Given the choice, I will always take episodes that focus more intensely on characters than plot, but that’s not how TV works. For every “Unforgiven” (where very little actually happened plot-wise), there has to be an “Enter the Dragon,” which put the chess pieces into play for what’s to come this season. And while setup episodes aren’t my favorite episodes on any given TV show, as long as the plot is interesting and seems to be heading in a compelling direction, I can appreciate them. “Enter the Dragon” featured enough fun twists, intriguing developments, and fun character combinations to make for an entertaining hour of Once Upon a Time—even if it was a little light on the emotional beats I love so much.
While this episode wasn’t heavy on the emotional content I crave, it was heavy on something else I love with all my heart: interactions between complex female characters. I love the way the Queens of Darkness are putting a spotlight on the fact that Once Upon a Time has always been a female-focused show. While romantic love obviously plays a huge role in the series, there’s something to be said for the fact that many of the show’s deepest and most compelling relationships are relationships between women—as family members, friends, adversaries, unlikely allies, mentors, and sometimes all of those things wrapped up into one relationship. So many TV shows have trouble writing one interesting relationship between female characters, but Once Upon a Time is brimming with them—especially with the introduction of Maleficent, Cruella, and Ursula.
Throwing Regina into the mix with the Queens of Darkness and spending a lot of time on Emma’s reactions to Regina’s undercover operation highlighted the ways women encourage other women—although that encouragement isn’t always toward a positive end. So often, women in the media are portrayed as always competing for something or tearing each other down, but both Emma/Regina and Regina/Maleficent were shown to be supportive of one another. The difference, though, was the fact that Emma was supporting Regina’s work in the hope that she would be her best self, while Maleficent and Regina were supporting the other’s choice to embrace the strength that comes from darkness. Encouraging relationships don’t always mean healthy relationships—sometimes it can mean enabling each other to be your worst selves. And it was safe to say Regina and Maleficent’s friendship wasn’t exactly a healthy one for either party.
The flashbacks in this episode were focused on Regina encouraging Maleficent to embrace her darkness again. For as much as I love watching Lana Parrilla play young Regina on the brink of becoming the Evil Queen (there were so many layers to her performance in these flashbacks), I wished these scenes would have focused a little more on Maleficent. How did she lose her fire? What motivated her to go after Briar Rose in the first place? How much of her backstory is similar to the movie that came out about the character last summer? That last question was on my mind as Maleficent turned back into a dragon and attacked King Stefan, because I found myself feeling happy that she got her fire back and was able to go after him, which I attributed to leftover anger at Stefan for his treatment of the character in the movie. Or maybe I was just happy to see Maleficent find her strength when Regina needed her to have her back. There are times while watching Once Upon a Time that I find myself rooting for the villains and then questioning how that happened, and watching Maleficent take down King Stefan and his men to protect Regina was one of those How am I rooting for the dragon in this situation? moments. However, my mindset changed again when Maleficent cursed Aurora (who I was so excited to see again!). I went from cheering her victory over Stefan to being horrified at her treatment of such an innocent princess.
I think part of the reason I was so happy to see Maleficent find her inner dragon again was because this show has always portrayed its female characters as being women of action. And in the beginning of the flashbacks, Maleficent wasn’t fitting that mold. Kristin Bauer van Straten did such a great job of playing Maleficent as a shadow of who we know the character to be, and it actually made me sad to see her without the fire we know she has from her scenes in the present. The detail of her basically being a “sleeping curse” junkie was the kind of creative twist only Once Upon a Time could bring to the story, and Bauer van Straten played “hot mess Maleficent” to perfection (complete with the most ridiculously huge hair imaginable). So it felt good momentarily to see Maleficent become an active participant in her own story again, but that good feeling was gone as soon as I remembered that her sense of “active participation” was destructive rather than constructive.
To be honest, I liked these flashbacks, but I would have much rather found out the story around Maleficent’s child and what happened with Snow and Charming (which I’m sure we’ll get in another episode this season). These flashbacks didn’t reveal too much vital information, but they did set up the idea of Regain helping Maleficent embrace who she really is. In the past, Regina helped her use her darkness to grow strong. However, I have a good feeling that this will play out again later this season, with Regina helping Maleficent to embrace her best self instead of her worst and use her power for good instead of evil this time. I think that Maleficent will end this season aligned with the heroes, and I think it will be because Regina will show her that—as Rumplestiltskin said—strength does come from pain, but you can channel that pain into the strength to be a better person instead of your darkest self. That’s what heroes do. They’ve all experienced pain, but the best among them use their difficult pasts to become people who want to keep others from feeling pain—not people who want to cause more destruction.
As of right now, the Queens of Darkness are all about destruction. I found it incredibly entertaining that their idea of an initiation night for Regina involved copious amounts of alcohol, a game of “magical chicken,” and setting stuff on fire. However, this isn’t an entertaining situation for Regina (which is why I was upset with Snow for getting frustrated that Regina didn’t have any real information for her after one night), and the episode ended with an uncomfortable but realistic bit of ambiguity concerning her ability to resist the temptation of finding a new, darker, way to achieve her happy ending.
The danger inherent in Regina’s undercover operation—not just for her safety but for her ability to resist temptation—was acutely sensed by at least one character: Emma. I loved how worried Emma was about Regina because Emma is a person who has devoted so much of her time to protecting people from feeling the pain she felt in her past. Emma spent so much of her life believing no one had her back, and I think it’s such an important part of her character that she is so determined to have Regina’s back when she needs it the most. That kind of positively supportive friendship served as a foil for Maleficent and Regina’s relationship in both the past and present.
I thought Jennifer Morrison made a very specific and important acting choice in this episode to play Emma’s interest in Regina’s mission with more intensity than Emma usually displays. Yes, Emma is a supportive person. But this went deeper than just supportive friendship. I think Emma initially became so invested because she wanted to prove to her parents that they should have chosen her to go undercover. I think it hurt Emma that her parents trusted Regina with an operation that called for skills Emma prided herself on. (Although her tailing Regina and Maleficent so obviously makes me question how good she really is at being stealthy.)
And later on in the episode, Emma herself voiced the real reason why she was so focused on this mission: She feels like everyone is keeping things from her, and helping Regina was a way to take action in a situation where she felt like she was being purposely put on the sidelines. I thought that moment was one of the most important moments in the episode because it showed that Emma’s lie-detecting superpower isn’t missing anything; she knows her parents are lying to her, but she’s choosing to ignore it. She knows Hook is keeping things from her, but thankfully (unlike her parents) he’s at least admitted it. And after Regina lied to her face about her parents keeping things from her, I’m sure she could sense Regina’s involvement in their secret, too. This one piece of dialogue did a great job explaining why Emma seemed so singularly devoted to helping Regina and also did a great job setting up the potential for Emma being more open to the temptation of darkness because she feels betrayed by the people she trusts.
“Enter the Dragon” was a fairly dark episode. And much of that darkness came from the Dark One himself. While I think this was a fantastic episode for Rumplestiltskin’s story in terms of its complexity, I think this might have been the episode that made him as close to irredeemable as possible in my mind. His continued manipulation of Belle is a sin that I’m not sure he can ever come back from—at least for me as a viewer. If nothing else, I know that I’m not sure I could ever root for her to take him back ever again—no matter how much he might change in the future.
While I may have despised Rumplestiltskin’s manipulations, I was fascinated by them at the same time. And it was all because of Colin O’Donoghue. O’Donoghue is so good at playing Rumplestiltskin in Hook’s body that I can’t even blame the writers for wanting to go back down that well in this episode. From the moment Hook slid into the booth next to Will, I could tell from O’Donoghue’s body language that something was off. This wasn’t the same man who seemed so adorably impressed earlier in the episode when telling Emma about Regina’s ability to hold her own after a night drinking with the Queens of Darkness. This was someone darker, harder, and colder. And it just didn’t feel right. That feeling of unease culminated in the brilliant scene where “Hook” told Belle to summon the Dark One if she really was afraid. When Belle asked him to show himself and all the was in front of her was Hook, staring at her with a dark intensity I’ve never seen on his face before, I got the best kind of chills. O’Donoghue channeled the Dark One’s total darkness perfectly, balancing it also with the inherent awkwardness of Rumplestiltskin trying to interact with Belle though the guise of Hook. It was a difficult acting task to say the least, but O’Donoghue proved to be more than up to the challenge.
For as impressed as I was with O’Donoghue’s acting in those scenes, the primary emotion I felt while watching them was disgust—disgust that Rumplestiltskin would turn Hook into a weapon once again, preying on his newfound friendship with Belle, and disgust that he would continue to use Belle without showing any sense of regret or remorse. In fact, when he talked about Will “taking something” that belonged to him, my heart sank. That’s no way to speak about a person. Belle isn’t someone who could be taken—just like Hook never stole Milah. Those women left Rumplestiltskin using their own free will. We know little about Belle and Will’s relationship, but we do know that she appreciates his honesty and the fact that he makes her smile. And that is all I want for Belle—for her to be with an honest man who makes her happy and treats her well. I just hope Rumplestiltskin doesn’t try to harm Will because of it (and please don’t let him disguise himself as Hook again if he’s going to do it—I don’t need Hook to be blamed for more destruction Rumplestiltskin caused).
Using an innocent character for dark purposes was at the heart of another twist in the episode, and it’s that twist that has me feeling the most unsettled. I loved the moment when Rumplestiltskin turned August back into his adult self (mainly because Eion Bailey is so nice to look at), but I didn’t love the chain of events that allowed that twist to take place. I know that Regina was caught between a rock and a hard place with kidnapping Pinocchio, but it made me very uncomfortable to watch her use a child without knowing what would really happen to that child. It also made me uncomfortable to watch Emma go along with it. It seemed to go against a lot of the things we’ve been shown about both women to this point, but I guess this was meant to show that this storyline is bringing out morally gray areas in all the characters. I did appreciate that Regina looked ready to throw a fireball at Rumplestiltskin if he tried to hurt the boy, but I couldn’t shake the bad feeling I got watching her use this child and watching Emma let it happen.
Ultimately, I think I’ll remember “Enter the Dragon” for its twists (both the Hook/Rumplestiltskin twist and the August cliffhanger). It’s been a while since Once Upon a Time genuinely surprised me the way this episode did. And sometimes a good twist is all I need from an episode of television. I love when TV shows make me feel, and surprise is an emotion I want to feel sometimes from a show like this one. And when it came to engaging twists, “Enter the Dragon” didn’t disappoint.