Title Best Laid Plans
Two-Sentence Summary When Rumplestiltkin’s plan to turn Emma’s heart dark is revealed, Snow and Charming realize they have to tell their daughter the truth about what they did to ensure she would be born a hero: stealing Maleficent’s child to transfer any of Emma’s future darkness onto the baby, who was then sent into a portal and grew up to be Emma’s childhood friend Lily. With her emotions running high, Emma decides to let the Author out of the book to question him, even though August told her this Author was the only one of the many throughout history who started manipulating events, which led to his imprisonment in the book.
Favorite Line “No one—not Rumplestiltskin or some Author—gets to decide who I am.” (Emma)
My Thoughts “Best Laid Plans” was an episode about free will and the importance of it—but also the uncertainty that it causes. There’s a beautiful freedom in knowing someone can choose to be whoever they want to be, but there’s also a fear of making the wrong choice. What helps abate that fear? Hope. As such, “Best Laid Plans” was also an episode about what happens when we lose hope—in ourselves, in the people we love, and in the ability for good to always defeat evil. On Once Upon a Time, hopelessness often leads to desperation, and desperate people do terrible things. Even good people do dark things when they lose hope, and that was the message at the very heart of “Best Laid Plans.”
It seems desperation is the driving force for Rumplestiltskin’s quest to get his happy ending, and I’m very intrigued by what his conversation with (unconscious) Belle implied about his future. While it made me uncomfortable to see him kiss her hand without her consent (especially knowing she’d never give him that consent at this point had she been awake), it was interesting to see that he needed to confess to someone about his motives and chose her—even if I wish he could be brave enough to tell her while she was awake. His statement that things must happen quickly raised the idea that he feels he’s running out of time. Is he dying? Did his resurrection have a time limit no one knew about? Or was he simply talking about Belle moving on? Whatever is actually going on, this much seems clear now: Rumplestiltskin has become that desperate soul he used to be so good at exploiting. And that makes his increasing darkness feel like it’s coming from a more believable place.
Regina is another character whose desperation for her happy ending has her seeking out the Author to get him to change her fate. However, while her desperation might still be blinding her to the idea of simply changing her fate by her own choices, it’s not pushing her toward darkness the way it’s done to Rumplestiltskin. However, Rumplestiltskin apparently has something up his sleeve that he believes will make her desperate enough to give in to her darkness again. (I’m guessing Robin is in danger, and Rumplestiltskin knows it.)
I have a feeling, though, that Rumplestiltskin is underestimating Regina’s growth. She’s not the same woman who craved darkness after losing the hope of getting Daniel back. Instead, she has people around her who want to keep her from becoming completely hopeless, and at the center of that support system is Henry. I loved the way those two characters were able to read each other in the scene in which Henry gave Regina the fake page. Their relationship has changed so much from its earliest days. And so much of that growth came from Regina letting go of her need to control her son. Regina kept Henry in the dark about everything for so much of his life, but instead of letting that define him and drive him to darkness, he forgave her and grew into a resourceful and genuinely good young man (who actually had some important stuff to do in this episode!). I know that the situations aren’t exactly the same, but if Henry can forgive Regina for making him feel crazy, then it’s not impossible to believe Emma will be able to forgive her parents eventually for their attempt to take away her agency before she was born.
Agency and free will go hand-in-hand. Because we have free will, we’re able to choose the actions we take in our lives, which determine who we are and how our life story plays out. However, “Best Laid Plans” showed us that free will might not always be free for these characters, and even the most innocent can be stripped of their agency by people who think they know what’s best. The philosophical questions raised by the actions of Snow, Charming, and the Author were deep and complex enough for a 50-page college thesis, and the way they were woven into an emotionally honest episode by Jane Espenson and Kalinda Vazquez was no small feat. It was an ambitious bit of storytelling, but it worked because it wasn’t just philosophical; it was deeply personal for these characters.
In “Best Laid Plans,” Snow and Charming were a shining example of the fact that having free will means that, at some point, we will inevitably choose something we shouldn’t have chosen. No one is perfect; even the best people can and will make bad choices. That’s what being human is all about. We all have darkness inside us, and, as much as it scares us to think about it, there will be a time in our lives where we’ll give in to that darkness. For as easy as it is to separate these characters into “heroes” and “villains,” they’re all just people, and they’re so much more complex than those labels could ever imply. If “villains” like Regina are capable of goodness, then “heroes” like Snow and Charming are also capable of darkness.
What was the driving factor in Snow and Charming giving in to that darkness and taking Maleficent’s child? Hopelessness. While Charming saw innocence and goodness when he saw Emma’s future, Snow only saw evil and pain (which I think says a lot about how both parents have approached Emma ever since—with Charming having a less pushy approach to parenting their adult daughter than Snow). And sometimes fear feels much stronger than hope, which is what happened with Snow and Charming. The fear that their child could choose darkness motivated Snow and Charming to take drastic, desperate measures to ensure their child would never even have that choice to make. Instead of having faith that their child would grow up to be good and noble, they gave in to hopelessness, which is a path to darkness.
And when Snow and Charming make a dark choice, they really go for it. I know they didn’t think Maleficent’s offspring would be a baby (and were horrified upon learning it was), but it was still terrible to take a child—human or dragon—from its mother for selfish reasons. They used their narrow-minded idea of darkness being passed from parent to child to rationalize their actions, but in the scene where they stole the egg, we were reminded that even villains aren’t all dark all the time. Cruella and Ursula standing guard at Maleficent’s nest and later trying to save the baby (explaining the presence in our world but not their 30-year aging freeze) proved that these women are loyal, good, and protective friends. And when Maleficent begged for Snow and Charming to spare her child, I actually started to cry. Kristin Bauer van Straten was absolutely heartbreaking in that scene—the best I think she’s been on the show to date. Motherhood has given depth, dimension, and humanity to so many of the female characters on Once Upon a Time, and Maleficent is no exception. Seeing her devastation upon losing her child made me so upset with Snow for being able to turn her back on a fellow mother-to-be.
However, I found myself not as angry with Snow and Charming as I thought I was going to be because they didn’t know Maleficent would lose her child in the process (which didn’t excuse their actions but did make it a little better than them knowingly sending the baby through a portal), and they immediately regretted their actions. They didn’t try to justify it or act as if Maleficent deserved what they did to her; they admitted they’d done something horrible and selfish. They admitted they compromised their values. And they started to work on finding redemption by acting like better people. Because that’s what good people do; they make mistakes, but when they do, they try be better people from that moment on.
It was Snow who reminded Charming of that in the present, and that made me proud of this character, who’s always been one of my favorites. And seeing Ginnifer Goodwin show such strength in this episode made me happy for her to be getting meatier storylines again. Snow knew that—in lying to Emma, pretending that they’d never done anything wrong to Maleficent, and lying to Henry—she and her husband were losing their way again. They were choosing to do the easy thing and not the heroic thing because they were afraid of losing their daughter to darkness like they were so many years before. But this time, they ultimately chose to do the right thing—even if it made Emma hate them in the moment.
And Emma had every right to hate them. While I appreciated the fact that Snow and Charming could admit they’d made mistakes and were working to be better than the bad things they’d done, that doesn’t mean they should be immediately forgiven for doing them. Emma spent so much of her life without agency, and just when she felt like she was finally starting to have some ability to choose her path, she found out that her parents decided the kind of person she would be before she was even born. And it was all because they didn’t believe she would be strong enough to choose good and not darkness. They made the decision for her instead of trusting her to use her free will to choose the right path. And for Emma Swan, that’s an understandably heinous offense.
This episode was structured in such a brilliant way in terms of Emma’s character growth and regression. It started with her as sure of herself as we’ve ever seen her. When Hook revealed Rumplestiltskin’s plan to turn her dark, she was so confident in her ability to remain a good person that it made me emotional. But by the end of the episode, she seemed more uncertain about herself than we’ve seen her in ages. The last shot of her standing in front of the clock tower reminded me of the pilot episode, and I think it was done to show that—just like in the pilot—this is Emma facing a turning point in her story, her journey toward knowing her true self. That’s why she let the Author out; it was another act of desperation in an episode full of them. She was desperate for more answers, and she was willing to let a dangerous man loose in order to get them.
I have a lot of questions about Emma’s free will after learning what Snow and Charming did: Does she really not have any darkness inside her, and does Lily really only have darkness inside her? (How great a reveal was that, by the way?!) It doesn’t seem to be true because we saw Lily be genuinely kind to Emma, and we’ve also seen Emma have moments of darkness. (She didn’t seem to hate life as part of a “Bonnie and Clyde act,” she let Regina rip out the lost boy’s heart, she threatened to kill Regina if Henry died, etc.) So if it’s not true that all of Emma’s darkness is gone, then why didn’t the spell work? Was it because Snow and Charming weren’t there for her formative years her after the Apprentice made a point of saying it was their job to guide her to the light? Or was it because the spell itself was a phony product of the Author’s manipulations and thus didn’t actually do anything but open a portal?
I’m hoping that it’s revealed that, despite what her parents tried to do, Emma has always had the ability to choose either light or darkness. Otherwise, part of the beauty of Emma’s story is lost, which is that she grew up under such horrible circumstances but still ultimately chose to be a good person. Self-definition has always been a part of Emma’s journey (going all the way back to her “People are going to tell you who you are your whole life” speech in Season One), and it would absolutely kill me to see that part of her story taken away because her parents chose who she was going to be before her birth.
I think that anxiety is exactly what we’re supposed to feel. Emma has always been the eyes and emotions through which we discover this world, so we’re supposed to identify with her; we were supposed to be scared and confused and angry along with her in this episode. And Jennifer Morrison did such a great job of grounding Emma once again in very relatable emotions—from her red-rimmed eyes as the episode went on, showing Emma had been crying, to the way she clung to Hook when he held her at the docks. It’s one thing to find out the course of events in your life has been controlled by forces other than you since your birth. That’s difficult, but Emma is learning to accept it. However, it’s an entirely different thing to find out that the kind of person you are might not even be in your control.
Despite Emma’s very understandable sense of self-doubt by the end this episode, I have something a lot of the characters don’t seem to have right now: hope. It’s my hope that Emma’s words at the beginning of this episode will prove to always be true: Nobody gets to tell her who she is. I don’t think it was a coincidence that she said this when Hook voiced doubts about darkness sneaking up on her. That moment was the entire episode in microcosm. Hook had good reasons to grow momentarily hopeless about the Dark One harming another woman he loves; he knows the power of darkness, but he let his fear of Emma turning dark cloud his belief in Emma’s strength. But in the face of that worry, Emma was there to reassure him that he wasn’t about to lose her to darkness. She believed she could choose the right path, and I hope she is able to convince herself of that as strongly as she was able to convince him.
Seeing Emma comfort and reassure Hook with such tenderness and then seeing her emphasize that Hook didn’t have to worry about August reminded me of the fact that Emma might feel like she hasn’t been able to choose a lot of things for herself, but there’s one choice no one made for her: to open her heart to Hook. And that choice is going to be so important for her during this time of self-doubt. We saw the first signs of it in the scene between them at the docks, as Hook was able to talk to her when her parents couldn’t. There was a sweet little moment before they hugged in which Emma took his hand and looked into his eyes, and Morrison was able to convey so much in that look. Hook is one of the few people Emma is still choosing to trust. And it’s because she still feels hopeful with Hook; she still believes he won’t let her down. Whether it’s a gentle embrace or a desperate one in the midst of a new storm, both of these characters have chosen to lean on each other and draw strength and reassurance from each other. And in an episode all about the choices we make and the choices we’re robbed of, Emma’s choice to still lean on Hook after her world was shaken was beautiful.
Every character’s world was shaken by the revelation that there were many Authors (including a guy named Walt—don’t think I didn’t notice that perfect nod to Mr. Disney), but the Author trapped in the book was given that fate because he began manipulating stories. I wonder if he only manipulated one moment, or if it will be discovered that he actually played a role in a lot of the stories we saw. I’m hoping he’s not as meddlesome as he seems to be because I still think it’s important to show characters being responsible for their own actions. And sticking with that line of thinking, I believe Emma is going to try to take responsibility for her parents’ actions by finding Maleficent’s daughter, which is going to make for an interesting reunion between Emma and Lily.
Right now, Emma might think she needs the Author to help her figure out her story, but I hope that it becomes clear to everyone—including Emma—that nobody (including her parents) gets to tell her who she’s going to be.