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Title Operation Mongoose Part 1/Operation Mongoose Part 2 (4.21/4.22)
Written By Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz
Two-Sentence Summary When Henry finds a way into Isaac’s new story and alternate reality, he has to help Regina find her happy ending before it’s too late. Meanwhile, the threat of the Dark One’s curse leaving Rumplestiltskin’s body grows stronger.
Game-Changing Moment There was more than one game-changing moment in this finale—from Henry becoming the Author (and then possibly eliminating the role of Author altogether by breaking the pen) to Rumplestiltskin ending the episode in a state of suspended animation as we wait to find out who he will be with a heart no longer held by dark forces. However, no moment changed the game like Emma sacrificing herself to the power of the Dark One. With her powerful light magic now existing in the same body as powerful dark magic, she will most likely be a version of the Dark One unlike any we’ve ever seen. Her new state of being will also change things for the characters who care about her, and the quest to destroy the darkness in her (and to destroy the Dark One curse altogether) will be a strong focus for Season Five. None of the main characters on this show can go back to normal after Emma’s sacrifice, and it will be wonderful to watch these people fight to save the savior after she fought so hard for all of them to be happy. I’ve never been this excited about a new season of Once Upon a Time before. That’s the power of a great, game-changing cliffhanger.
Finale M.V.P. It seems like Emma Swan goes through the emotional wringer in every Once Upon a Time season finale, and while that isn’t always easy to watch as a fan of the character (who just wants her to be happy for five minutes), it’s wonderful to watch as a fan of Jennifer Morrison as an actress. In “Operation Mongoose,” Morrison was asked to play so many different emotions, and she made each one ring true, painting perhaps the most well-rounded portrait of Emma Swan we’ve ever seen.
Emma has grown so much throughout this fourth season, and this finale was a chance for Morrison to show this character at her most emotionally open, while still keeping every display of emotion true to who we know Emma to be. More than any other actor in what was really an actor’s showcase of a finale, Morrison made me feel everything Emma was feeling—from her radiant joy at seeing both Henry and Hook again in the alternate universe to her deep sense of determination and love when she made her sacrifice. And when her two biggest emotional moments came—telling Regina how much she loves Hook and then telling Hook before the darkness took her—Morrison delivered with the trademark emotional honesty that has always made her work as Emma so compelling.
“Operation Mongoose” was a turning point for Emma Swan as a character in so many ways. It focused on her bravery not just in terms of wielding a sword but also in terms of opening her heart and believing in the power of hope and love with more intensity than she ever has before. In order for her sacrifice to resonate, this episode needed to make us care about Emma’s heart more than ever before, and Morrison did that through showing just how strong and open Emma’s heart has grown, which made its fate even more devastating.
Most Memorable Line “You taught me how to be a hero. You taught me how to believe in hope. And I do. And now I need you to believe in it, too.” (Emma, to Snow and Charming)
What Didn’t Work I wanted to care about Isaac; I really did. I just didn’t find his backstory compelling at all. His rationale for wanting to give villains a happy ending (“a bad boss,” as Charming put it) was pretty weak, and I was honestly expecting something a little meatier in terms of his motivations. That was probably my only real disappointment in this finale.
The only other thing I had trouble buying in this episode could turn out to be something I enjoy depending on how it plays out next season, and that’s Rumplestiltskin’s fate. In the moment, it seemed unfair to be able to take the darkness out of his body and then give him a clean slate and a blank heart to begin again. After two hours of watching him be a hero under false pretenses and ultimately choose to be a villain again—ready to kill Henry because he was afraid to go back to reality and pay the price for his darkness, it felt frustrating to see him get what looks like a fresh start. It’s almost too easy, which is why I have to imagine something is going to go wrong with the Apprentice’s plan. And that’s why I’m going to wait until next season to judge how this all plays out.
What Worked/Finale Analysis This was my favorite Once Upon a Time finale yet because it honored the heart and soul of this show in every character’s story, every relationship development, and every plot twist. This is a show about family and love, a show about hope and belief, and a show about what it truly means to be brave. And this episode spent quality time on each of those themes, while still providing plenty of fairytale fun along the way.
Like last season’s finale, “Operation Mongoose” was simply a thoroughly entertaining two hours of television. I loved the gorgeous costumes (especially Emma’s pirate outfit and all of Snow’s costumes). I loved the little nerdy jokes sprinkled throughout, especially the “Wookie prisoner trick,” because I am always a sucker for a good Star Wars reference. I thought Isaac’s flashback taking place right around the time of Walt Disney’s death was a great nod to the show’s earlier statement that Disney was also an Author. And I thought the little wink to the show’s impassioned fandom at Isaac’s book signing was fun, too.
It was also a blast to watch these actors in different roles, which they were clearly enjoying getting to play. From Robert Carlyle’s smile when he first took off his knight’s helmet to Ginnifer Goodwin’s delightfully sinister take on Snow White, you could feel how much fun the actors were having, and that translated into fun for the audience, too. Goodwin was a particular standout in this alternate universe, and it was great to see her and Josh Dallas (complete with his very own guyliner) really sinking their teeth into the twisted new dynamic between Snow and Charming. Another one of my favorite performances in this episode was Colin O’Donoghue’s timid take on Hook—rum allergy and all. There was an innocence to this version of Hook that reminded me of Lieutenant Killian Jones in the flashbacks in Season Three’s “Good Form,” and I loved it. In fact, watching this version of Hook fall for Emma was even better than watching Hook’s past self fall for her in last season’s finale. Something about the Author not being able to change Hook’s inherent sincerity worked really well for me. (And Hook fumbling with his sword in the background as Emma tried to talk to her parents might have been the cutest thing in the entire two-hour episode.)
I think what I loved the most about Hook’s story was what I loved the most about Regina’s story, and Robin’s, and even Rumplestiltskin’s: Free will ultimately won the day. Isaac wrote who he wanted these characters to be, but they all made choices that showed their true colors in the end. They all found their true selves, for better (Hook finding his backbone to save Henry and Emma) or worse (Zelena turning green when Robin made the choice to stay by Regina’s side). It was so powerful to see that no amount of outside manipulation could keep these characters from defining themselves on their own terms when the stakes were at their highest. In the end, “Operation Mongoose” was all about agency, and it sent a powerful message about reclaiming our stories through the choices we make.
In order to reclaim our stories, we need to believe in ourselves. And sometimes in order to do that, we need the help of someone who believes in us. Once Upon a Time has always been a show about the power of belief—in magic but, more importantly, in other people. And that’s why I was thrilled to see Henry, who has the Heart of the Truest Believer, play such an integral role in this finale. It was his belief in both Regina and Hook that helped them reclaim the parts of themselves Isaac tried to wipe away. I loved seeing Henry trying to explain to Regina who she really is and what she needed to do to save everyone, because it was such a fantastic parallel to what he did with Emma in Season One. It was so moving to see Henry believe so fervently in his mother, especially given where there relationship was when the show began. It was also incredibly moving to see Henry believe in Hook when Hook had no confidence in himself. When Henry told Hook he had a great sailing teacher, I had tears in my eyes, because you could feel the deep respect he has for Hook. I really love the dynamic between O’Donoghue and Jared Gilmore, and this episode gave me high hopes for seeing more interaction between them next season.
Henry and Hook’s rescue mission to save Emma was where the episode really picked up steam, and it was because Henry finally found another person who remembered. When Emma looked up at her son with such joy, I actually fist-pumped on my couch because I was so happy for both of them; that’s when you know an episode has you invested. And once Emma met Hook in that world, my investment only grew more intense.
One of my favorite things about “Operation Mongoose” was the way it showed that love can transcend versions of reality. There’s no better example of that than every single “first meeting” between Emma and Hook. No matter what realm or time they’re in or who remembers and who doesn’t, they have a connection from the start. And they’re always shot in those first meetings in a way that suggests Emma bringing light into his life, which is so symbolic of their entire relationship. This first meeting might have been my favorite, though, simply because Emma looked so happy to be back in his arms, while Hook looked so adorably taken aback by her. (His expression was also perfectly reminiscent of his face immediately following their first kiss.)
The chemistry between Morrison and O’Donoghue made those scenes between Emma and this new version of Hook really sparkle. I loved the familiarity in their body language in the scene where she taught him to use his sword, because it was such a great way to show that sword fighting wasn’t the only thing he was picking up quickly thanks to muscle memory. He was drawn to her without fully understanding why, and I always enjoy those kinds of stories (see everything involving Mary Margaret and David in Season One). And if I’m being honest, it was just a really sexy moment between two characters who haven’t had a lot of chances to have those kinds of moments lately.
The same could be said of the chemistry between Lana Parrilla and Sean Maguire. The scene between Regina and Robin in the bar showed off their chemistry so well that I completely believed why Regina would be so sure he was her happy ending after only one real meeting. Memories and identities might have been blurred in this universe, but True Loves always find each other. It’s one of the rules of Once Upon a Time.
But just because True Loves always find each other, it doesn’t mean they always stay together—that’s true of both romantic partners and parents and children. The most heartbreaking part of the alternate universe storyline was watching both Hook and Regina sacrifice themselves for the people they loved. Hook believed in Emma so much that he found the bravery Isaac tried to take from him in order to fight to keep her and Henry safe. Love is strength, and it makes people brave. Hook’s bravery has always been driven by devotion to those he loves, and it was wonderful to see him reconnect with that part of himself before he died. But it was devastating to see Emma reeling from his sacrifice. His bravery made her ashamed of her own cowardice when it came to telling him she loved him, and her speech to Regina about how much she loved Hook was one of the finale’s most powerful moments. It was Emma at her most open, which then inspired Regina to be brave and open when it came to her feelings for Robin. It took Emma so long to accept that romantic love could be a part of her happy ending, and I loved seeing her use the growth she experienced to help Regina believe that for herself, too.
However, Regina’s bravery didn’t just come from opening her heart to the possibility of love with Robin; it came from defending her son from a man who now seems incapable of being brave—even when he was written that way. Hook and Regina did the brave thing by giving up their lives for the people they loved; Rumplestiltskin did the cowardly thing by hurting others in order to save his own life. Regina chose Henry instead of the happy ending she thought she was supposed to find with Robin, while Rumplestiltskin continued to choose power over his family. And in that moment, with Rumplestiltskin delivering a fatal blow to Regina as she sacrificed herself for Henry, the show’s definition of heroism never seemed clearer. Heroes make sacrifices for the people they love; villains always choose themselves. Regina was as true a hero in that moment as she’s ever been, and that’s what made her the savior in that reality; her sacrifice was enacted out of True Love. It reminded me of Emma breaking the Dark Curse in Season One; a mother’s love for her son was strong enough to save everyone. That’s what sets the stories on Once Upon a Time apart from so many others: They’re often stories about the powerful love between parents and their children, which isn’t often put into the spotlight in such a prominent way.
Regina’s savior blood made the ink, but only a true Author could pick up the pen and write their way out of the mess they were in. Luckily for everyone, Henry proved to be a worthy Author, which was such a triumphant moment. I’ve been hoping for a long time that Henry was going to be an Author; it seemed fitting given his connection to the book and his ability to believe. So Henry’s new role was a fantastic way to cap what might have been that character’s best episode to date. Gilmore proved he was up to the challenge, too, which was nice to see from a teenage actor trying to figure out his place beyond being the “cute little kid” on the show. I especially loved the simple, unforced longing in his plea to the Apprentice to bring back his father. And his decision to break the pen so no one could do what Isaac had done reminded me in the best way of Harry Potter snapping the Elder Wand because no one should wield that kind of power. I was so proud of Henry for choosing to avoid the temptation to use magic to change events, because this episode served as a reminder of the dangers of that kind of absolute power. Although I’m sure that Henry will be wishing he wasn’t so hasty to snap that pen when he realizes what’s happened to his mother.
The ending of this episode was all about the contrasts between Emma and Rumplestiltskin—even if the latter spent all of it near death or in a kind of magical coma. It built on the episode’s main themes of bravery, belief, and sacrifice in such a strong way. While those themes were important in the alternate universe, it was also easy to view the stakes as being low because it was clear they were going to get back to reality eventually. However, the stakes at the end of the episode were at an all-time high. And how Emma dealt with those stakes showed just how far she’s come, highlighting the growth of this character and the depth of the relationships she’s a part of in a way that took this episode from good to great.
Even upon returning from the alternate reality, Emma was still not her bravest self. Yes, her reunion with Hook was adorable (The giggles! The bed tackle! The face-touching!), but it was frustrating to see her once again stop short of saying she loved him. However, it was perfectly believable. Her parents were downstairs, the feeling of almost losing him was making her afraid to make it real (because then losing him would be even worse), and I think this was one moment where Emma’s newfound sense of hope worked against her. She probably thought she had all the time in the world to completely get over her fear and tell him in the perfect, quiet moment. But I think we all knew after this failed attempt that she was going to tell him under much more stressful circumstances.
Little did anyone know just how stressful those circumstances would be. I thought the darkness that came out of Rumplestiltskin was visually perfect; it reminded me of the Venom symbiote in the Spider-Man universe. And as soon as Emma was able to drive the darkness out of the Apprentice with her light magic, I knew she was going to become its host. There’s too much potential for compelling storytelling with such strong light magic working in the same body as such great darkness. And if that moment with the Apprentice is any indication, I have no doubt that the light magic will eventually win out, but I’m sure it won’t be easy.
However, Emma’s circumstances upon becoming the Dark One are so vastly different from Rumplestiltskin’s that I don’t think anyone can accurately predict what’s going to happen. This episode reminded us that Rumplestiltskin is a coward who would rather change the past than face the consequences of his dark actions. Emma, however, followed in Regina and Hook’s footsteps; she chose to make a brave sacrifice for the people she loves. She chose to save her friend because she felt Regina had come too far to lose herself and her happiness again, and when I think about how much those two women have grown since Season One, I find myself completely in awe of the character development that took them from fighting in a hospital supply closet to fighting for each other’s happiness.
As a baby, Emma’s parents forced the darkness out of her and into Lily, but now Emma chose to save Regina (and everyone else) by absorbing that darkness into her own heart. And she was able to find the strength to do it because she believed—in herself and in the people she loves. And that belief made her brave. Rumplestiltskin became the Dark One because he felt hopeless and weak. Emma, however, became the Dark One because she was motivated by the hope and strength that comes from feeling loved and being brave enough to love others. Before the darkness overtook her, she told her parents to be heroes this time and drive the darkness out of her the right way. In the alternate universe, she begged her parents to remember the hope they inspired in her, and that hope is what she’s counting on now. Emma believes in her parents’ ability to save her from darkness, and that kind of belief takes courage.
And Emma also believes in the strength of the love between herself and Hook. While taking on the darkness was a true act of bravery, it was matched by the bravery of using her last words before it took over to tell Hook she loves him when she was so scared to do it before. And then she held his hand over her heart, which I took as a lovely reminder of his promise to protect her heart and to always see the best in her. Those three words and that hand over her heart represented Emma’s hope that love will save her from the darkness. In that moment, her heart was as strong as it’s ever been, and it needed to be to face what’s coming.
As the darkness enveloped her, I was struck by the beautiful symmetry of Emma spending her last moments looking at Hook just like he spent his last moments looking at her before he died in the alternate universe. While every kind of love in Emma’s life played an important role in this episode and will play an important role in saving her heart from darkness in the future, there’s something poetic about Hook being the last person she wanted to see before the darkness took over. We first met Hook at the height of his quest to kill the Dark One, who took his love from him. Now, the Dark One took his love from him again, but this time his mission is going to be to save the person burdened with this dark curse instead of killing them. I’m sure the rules are going to change (because otherwise Henry could kiss Emma as soon as they find her), but Hook destroying the Dark One not by killing Rumplestiltskin but by giving Emma True Love’s Kiss would be such a beautiful story. No matter what, I’m excited to see everyone Emma loves working hard to prove that her faith in them isn’t in vain. It took real bravery for a woman who’s used to doing things on her own to have faith that her loves ones will drive out this darkness (with Merlin’s help, of course. Who else was excited to hear him named as the Sorcerer?).
The final shot of the season was absolutely gripping: the Dark One’s dagger slowly revealing the name “Emma Swan” written across it. I spent so long being afraid that a storyline dealing with Emma giving in to darkness would be too bleak. However, the way this was set up was brilliant. It still managed to make me feel hopeful, proud of Emma, and excited about where all of this could lead. And as a fan of Emma Swan and all the characters who love her, I cannot wait to see what next season has in store.
Questions to Keep Us Guessing All Summer Is Henry still the Author even though he broke the pen? Can Emma be summoned, and if so, who’s going to summon her? Will the darkness affect her differently because she took on the curse out of bravery and love instead of a need for power? Where is Merlin? How will Emma be freed from the darkness? Who’s Lily’s father (maybe a certain mythical man with the surname Pendragon)? And, most importantly, will Morrison have to wear the creepy makeup and contacts Carlyle wore in Dark One flashbacks?
Finale Grade A. “Operation Mongoose” is what Once Upon a Time looks like when it’s firing on all cylinders and touching on every theme that makes this show something special. It was entertaining, emotional, surprising, and thought-provoking. And it made me long for September in a way that only the best finales can.