Two-Sentence Summary When Emma and Regina return to Storybrooke with Lily and Zelena (and Robin and Roland), Regina makes a decision to team up with the Author to finally get him to write her a happy ending, but she first needs to get blood filled with the savior’s darkness to activate the magical ink. In flashbacks, we see another attempt by Regina to control how her story ends after Cora returns to the Enchanted Forest with plans to help her find love.
Zelena: Another woman defining her happiness relative to the love of a man—sad, really.
Regina: Robin isn’t my happy ending. My happy ending is finally feeling at home in the world. Robin’s just a part of that world.
My Thoughts One of my favorite things about Once Upon a Time is that it’s a story primarily about women. It’s a show where the women are heroes, villains, rulers, and saviors. And it’s also a show where almost all of these fierce, flawed, interesting women are also mothers. On so many shows, motherhood seems to render characters less interesting than they were before. On Once Upon a Time, the opposite is true. Motherhood adds even more layers, nuances, strengths, and weaknesses to these female characters. As such, it seems fitting that an episode entitled “Mother” would be one of the most satisfying episodes of the season (and perhaps the series) in terms of the growth and depth shown by Once Upon a Time’s impressive variety of female characters.
It’s also fitting that this episode was written by Jane Espenson, whose ability to weave a cohesive theme through multiple storylines has made her one of my personal favorite Once Upon a Time writers. “Mother” benefitted strongly from Espenson’s sense of thematic cohesion. Not only did each storyline (except Rumplestiltskin’s) deal with the relationships between mothers and daughters, they also all explored the idea that happy endings can be achieved by choosing to be happy with what you have and letting go of anger and resentment. As such, this episode gave me exactly what I’d been hoping to see since this “Operation Mongoose” storyline began: the realization that you don’t need an Author to write your happy ending for you; you have the power to create your own happiness. A “happy ending” isn’t a “perfect ending.” It’s simply a decision to let yourself be happy instead of focusing on emotions that make you feel miserable and dark. Emma, Regina, and Lily spent so long blocking their own paths to happiness by letting themselves believe they were destined to be unhappy. And in this episode, all three women took huge strides toward their own happy endings by letting love fill their hearts instead of hopelessness. It takes real maturity to move beyond wanting to hurt those who hurt you, and all three women grew up in a big way in “Mother.”
Lily started this episode with one goal: to get her revenge against Snow and Charming. She believed it was their fault that she was destined to live a life of darkness and loneliness. And while Lily’s anger was justified, it was blinding her to the fact that her mother was finally there, reaching out to her and offering her a chance at real happiness for the first time in her life. Lily’s rejection of Maleficent broke my heart because it was downright mean. (I also feel like Agnes Bruckner is still a little stiff in this role, but she got better as the episode went on.) For as much as Charming tried to relate Lily to Emma, Lily’s rejection of Maleficent was much more brutal than Emma’s initial reaction to learning the true identity of her parents. However, both women felt the same sense of bitterness that—no matter how much they were told their parents wanted to fight for them—they ended up alone for their entire lives. That’s not a feeling that goes away immediately. Emma is still dealing with it. Lily just so happens to have a lot more darkness working against her process of acceptance.
But Lily isn’t alone anymore. She has a mother who loves her and wants to help her be her best self. I love Once Upon a Time’s version of Maleficent. Kristen Bauer van Straten is so good in this role—so open and wise and vulnerable without it coming across as sappy. There’s a grace to Maleficent that sets her apart. And it was with true grace that she uttered the most important line in this episode:
We can be happy in the future, or we can be angry about the past.
Maleficent doesn’t want to waste any more time being angry. She’s chosen to be happy with her daughter instead of dwelling on punishing the people who kept them apart. That enlightenment inspired Lily to attempt to do the same at the end of the episode—to focus on making the best of what she has right now instead of dwelling on what happened to her long ago. Maleficent helped her daughter be a better version of herself not just by helping her move beyond her need for vengeance but also by helping her feel loved for exactly who she is. Darkness doesn’t scare Maleficent, and I loved that she told Lily that. Maleficent and Lily aren’t perfect. They’ll never have a perfect relationship. But what they can have is a good one, a happy one. And I want that for both of these women—but especially for Maleficent, whom I have grown to love beyond anything I was expecting when this half-season began.
Maleficent was someone who once lost herself to darkness and the belief that happiness could only come from causing others pain. (Although I still don’t know if I buy Chernabog pointing her out as having the greatest potential for darkness when Cruella was in the same cave.) But the love she felt for her daughter inspired her to move beyond her anger and choose a better path for herself. That same journey from darkness to inspiring enlightenment was taken by Hook after realizing his quest for vengeance against Rumplestiltskin wasn’t going to make him happy and after finding hope for happiness with Emma. I thought the parallels between Maleficent and Hook were very smartly written in this episode. Both characters reached out to the women they love who were so consumed by a desire to punish Snow and Charming for their actions in the past that they were hurting themselves in the present.
True love on Once Upon a Time is the kind of love that inspires a person to be their best self. It’s a kind of love that believes in the best a person can be while also accepting that no one can be their best self all the time. As such, it’s also a kind of love that offers support during those times when characters are struggling. Emma and Hook may not have had a True Love’s Kiss (yet), but this episode showed that their love has grown into something I believe is true enough to break a curse should the situation ever arise.
Hook makes Emma happy. That was as clear as it’s ever been when she hugged him upon her return to Storybrooke. I thought Jennifer Morrison did a great job of showing in that embrace that Emma felt a real sense of comfort and safety in that moment after being tested and tempted by darkness during her time away. But Hook’s not the only one who makes Emma happy (and that’s a good thing). I loved seeing Emma hug Henry, too, but it was painful to watch her walk past Snow and Charming—because in punishing them for what they did, she’s punishing herself by shutting out the parents she grew to love and want in her life.
While Hook and Emma’s hug was a sweet moment, the scene that best showcased the strength of their relationship was the one that took place by the docks. The emotional intimacy and openness between them was beautiful. It was lovely to see Emma tell Hook she likes when people find their good hearts, because it was so clear she was talking about him. But it was even lovelier to see Hook so focused on Emma’s happiness beyond just their relationship. His happy ending isn’t just being with Emma; it’s helping Emma to be happy, too. And he understands Emma can never be truly happy if she can’t forgive her parents.
Hook’s advice to Emma was about as perfect as it gets. It was delivered with the kind of gentle sincerity that Colin O’Donoghue has in spades, as well as with the kind of experience a character like Hook has after living in darkness for 300 years. Not only does he understand Emma’s anger; he understands Snow and Charming’s shame, which allowed him to offer a different perspective on their actions than Emma had previously considered.
Hook’s words helped inspire Emma to take that final step and forgive her parents—especially her mother—for what they did. Did the actual moment of forgiveness feel a little rushed for something that festered for over three episodes? Yes. But I’ll let it slide because the resolution was still emotionally satisfying. I actually cried when Emma told Snow what she did in the past doesn’t change the fact the she’s her mom. In this episode, both Emma and Lily had to face the idea that, as we become adults, we learn our parents are real people with both light and dark sides. Lily was disappointed that Maleficent wasn’t as evil as she wanted her to be, and Emma was disappointed that Snow wasn’t as good as she thought she was. No one can match an idealized image of a person—not even moms. By accepting Snow’s flaws and Snow’s love, Emma could finally come to a place of true forgiveness. And that’s where real happiness starts.
The look Emma and Hook shared when she finally forgave her mother was genuinely moving, and it was only topped by the look Hook and Charming shared as they watched the women they love embrace. Hook’s job is to protect Emma’s heart, which means helping that heart be as light and bright as possible by inspiring Emma to be her best and strongest self. Emma has done that for him for so long, and it was wonderful to see him get the chance to inspire her like she’s inspired him. And with Hook’s encouragement, Emma was able to finally choose to let herself be happy once again with her entire family—Henry, Hook, and her parents—as well as with herself. And that’s exactly what I want for Emma as a character: to accept that she can be happy and loved after so many years spent letting herself believe happiness and love weren’t in the cards for her.
Regina is another character who let herself fall into the trap of believing she could never be happy or loved without having the Author change her story. And Zelena’s pregnancy only seemed to offer further proof of that. It was sad to see Regina in “desperation mode” upon returning to Storybrooke, focusing once again on doing whatever it took to get her happy ending from Isaac. I did appreciate her ability to come up with another plan to get dark savior blood without turning Emma dark (pragmatic Regina strikes again), but she didn’t think of the consequences of riling up a woman with a family history of turning into a dragon (or she thought of it and didn’t care). She also didn’t think about the consequences of giving Isaac the quill and ink (which reminded me of Emma not thinking about the consequences of bringing Marian back in last season’s finale).
Like Emma and Lily, Regina was letting her inability let go of anger stand in the way of her happiness. All three women were justified in their feelings; they had reasons to be reluctant to forgive. But that doesn’t mean it’s healthy to keep holding on to bitterness.
I love when the flashbacks in an episode don’t feel like filler. The flashbacks in “Mother” brought back Cora and gave us that brilliant scene of Regina lashing out at the unbelievably sexist Sherriff of Nottingham. But what they really did was further explore another mother-daughter relationship and present a dark counterbalance to the happy resolutions for the stories of Maleficent/Lily and Emma/Snow. Regina was so damaged by what her mother did to her that she was willing to do anything to feel like she had some control in her life. If that meant rendering herself infertile, then that was a price worth paying.
I thought the infertility twist was marvelous. It helped explain so much about Regina’s reaction not just to Zelena’s pregnancy but also to Emma and Henry’s relationship as far back as Season One. (I am so happy Regina was still able to have a chance to be a mother, too.) However, I do think Cora believed she was helping Regina. It’s just that—without her heart—she was never able to understand the difference between helping her daughter gain power and destroying her daughter’s spirit in the process.
Cora messed up both of her daughters: one through abandonment and one through abusive levels of control. And once Regina understood that, she was finally able to let go of her need to punish Zelena and see that she was, once again, hurting herself in the process. Regina’s true happy ending wasn’t about a man; it was about feeling at home. And that meant feeling at home in a group of people (which she has with Robin, Henry, and the Charmings) and also in her own skin. That’s why accepting happiness without Isaac’s help was so important to her overall growth. It meant that she was finally starting to believe she could be happy in both her relationships with others and with herself. Both needed to happen in order for her to be truly happy, which is why no ending Isaac wrote could have ever been as happy as the one she chose for herself.
Robin isn’t the entirety of Regina’s happy ending, but he is a part of it. And I love that Once Upon a Time acknowledged that romantic love shouldn’t be the only thing that makes a person happy, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to have it as part of your happy ending. What matters the most is believing in your own ability to choose to be happy, especially when things look bleak. Happy endings aren’t created by outside forces; they’re chosen by people who look for the good moments—the happy moments—even in the darkest times. And the only way that’s possible is by letting go of self-destructive emotions, which Regina was finally able to do all on her own.
However, Regina’s initial doubts about her happy ending are going to come back to bite everyone, as Isaac is now free to start writing new stories, and he teamed up once again with Rumplestiltskin in order to do so at the end of the episode. Unlike the ladies of Once Upon a Time (and Hook), Rumplestiltskin never learned to let go of his self-destructive emotions and let happiness in. When he had happiness in his grasp (with Bae and with Belle), he continued to let fear control him. And the end result of all of those years of holding on to negative emotions is his dying heart. With all that darkness threatening to destroy him, his hopelessness drove him to get Isaac to write a new story in which villains and heroes have their roles reversed.
I thought that Isaac writing “Once upon a time…” in the new book was the perfect way to pique my interest for what’s sure to be an epic finale next week. I’m so intrigued by all the alternate versions of the characters we’re going to see. I also want to know what role Henry is going to play in this story, and if Hook’s taunting of Rumplestiltskin and Isaac at Granny’s means he’s going to have an even more painful fate in this new universe than he would have had before. I can’t wait to see how everyone rediscovers their true selves (because we all know they will), and I also can’t wait to see how these characters will grow from their experiences. If nothing else, it’s sure to be a wild ride!