Title Our Decay
Two-Sentence Summary When Hades gets Rumplestiltskin to open a portal between Storybrooke and the Underworld, Zelena, her daughter, and Belle are all brought to the realm of the dead, leading to revelations for both Rumplestiltskin and Belle and Hades and Zelena. The latter pair of characters is the focus of the flashbacks, which reveal Hades own plan for vengeance against a sibling and the love that made him reconsider his plans.
Zelena: Who the hell are you?
Hades: Who the hell am I? That question is more appropriate than you think.
My Thoughts Well that episode was just full of surprises, wasn’t it?
At a time when spoilers are readily available and episodes seem to be discussed and analyzed in intricate detail long before they actually air, it’s nice to still be surprised sometimes. And it’s nice to know that after five seasons, Once Upon a Time can still surprise me—not just by the twists and turns of its plot but by the unexpected emotional reactions I end up having.
“Our Decay” was a surprising episode on all fronts. But it wasn’t an out-of-character episode for this show. In fact, its surprises came from the way it took many of the show’s most important themes—self-definition, choice, love vs. power, family (specifically motherhood), and hope—and reflected them through new lenses.
Each storyline in this episode was connected through the theme of selfless love. True Love isn’t selfish. It’s the recognition that sometimes you have to sacrifice what you want for what the person you love needs; it’s the belief that the person you love always deserves their best chance, even if that’s not with you and even if you have to go to great lengths to secure that best chance. And that’s never more evident on this show than it is in the relationships between parents and children.
One of the biggest surprises of this episode was the way it made us truly care about Zelena as a mother. Before “Our Decay,” I never really believed that she actually cared about her baby beyond her daughter’s potential to love her (which was a selfish way of looking at parenthood rather than a selfless way of viewing it, though it made sense considering her history of abandonment and her deep-rooted mommy issues). And even at times in this episode, I found myself rooting against her and hoping Regina and Robin would get the baby away from her. However, through an amazing performance by Rebecca Mader and smart writing that paralleled some of this show’s most poignant scenes, it became clear to me that Zelena does truly love her daughter.
The pain in Zelena’s body language when she realized she hurt her daughter with her unpredictable magic was visceral. Mader was at her absolute best in this episode, and that moment was one of her strongest in an episode full of highlights. But even that moment couldn’t compare to the pain that was to come.
The scene in which Zelena gave her daughter back to Robin and Regina made me cry—and we’re talking ugly crying. It was a stunningly executed parallel to the other mothers on this show who we’ve seen do the same thing: Snow in the pilot, Emma in the flashbacks to start Season Three, and Regina at the town line in “Going Home.” In all of those moments, we saw mothers make the heartbreaking choice to give their child their best chance, even though they knew it wasn’t with them. And those moments were all in direct contrast to Cora, who—as this episode reminded us—abandoned Zelena in order to give herself her best chance. In Snow, Emma, Regina, and now Zelena, we’re given examples of mothers who loved their children enough to do what they believed was best and safest for their children, even when it broke them to do it.
Zelena’s case was an especially powerful one because she wasn’t just entrusting her baby to another’s care; she was entrusting her to the care of two people she’s been trying to keep her daughter away from. It reminded me of how important it was for Regina’s growth in “Going Home” for her to give Henry his best chance with Emma, the woman she’d fought for so long to get out of Henry’s life. In “Our Decay,” Zelena knew her daughter was safer with Robin and Regina, so, despite the fact that she’d spent part of the episode actively trying to keep her from them, she ended up leaving her with them. It was such a big moment for both sisters, and I loved that it was treated with such care by all involved—from the writers to the actors. Mader’s performance made me feel so deeply for this woman whose love for her daughter led to what might have been the first truly selfless act of her life and the first step on the road to becoming her best self.
Motherhood awakened Zelena’s humanity and her ability to love selflessly, putting another’s needs above her own. It’s just another way Cora’s daughters are similar. Loving Henry was the first step on Regina’s own path toward becoming the best version of herself, and family continues to be at the center of her growth. In this episode, I loved seeing her reach out to Zelena, encouraging her to accept that she could have a family and a support system if she wanted it. Regina knows better than anyone that love is a more fulfilling goal than vengeance. In choosing love and family over revenge, Regina has grown to become someone who offers the promise of hope to others. And it was beautiful to see her offer hope to her sister, especially considering their turbulent history.
Zelena isn’t quite ready to accept Regina’s offer yet, but all hope isn’t lost. She was willing to set aside her bitterness and her desire to rely only on herself in order to do the right thing for her daughter. But it’s not quite as easy to do it for herself. And that’s a common theme on this show: It’s hard to choose love over revenge. Love requires trust, and that’s not easy for many of these characters. It also requires a belief that you deserve love, which is even harder. That struggle has been at the center of both Killian and Regina’s character arcs, and we saw that conflict once again in both Hades and Zelena’s arcs in “Our Decay.”
Just like I was surprised by my emotional reaction to Zelena’s role as a mother, I was also shocked by how quickly I came to care about Zelena’s relationship with Hades. Did it develop almost impossibly fast? Yes. But this is a show about fairytales. (It’s also a show where its central couple fell in love over the course of one episode.) I’m willing to suspend my disbelief over how quickly its romantic relationships develop. What matters to me is that I believe it when I’m watching it, and Mader and Greg Germann made me believe it. Their chemistry was excellent, and I was especially struck by how well Germann made Hades fit into one of my favorite character archetypes on this show—a sincere man who loves, supports, and encourages a strong woman—without ever making him lose his devilish charm.
True Love on Once Upon a Time does many things: It makes people happy. It awakens hope where it once was lost. It shows itself in belief and support. It honors the other person’s choices. And it lasts—no matter what obstacles it faces—because it’s not just a feeling; it’s a choice made between two people who understand that love is scary but would rather face that vulnerability together than acquire all the power they can alone.
So do I think Hades truly loves Zelena? Call me crazy, but I do. Their joy on that bike ride was contagious. (I loved Zelena’s very familiar cackling.) Hades supported her and told her she was strong, powerful, and smart enough to do anything (even if that meant something as bad as taking the Tin Man’s brain—because he may be nice to her but he’s still not the nicest guy overall). It was strangely sweet to see the Lord of the Underworld so smitten in the past, and his interactions with Zelena in the present that sold me on his true feelings.
All this time, Hades has loved Zelena. He built an Underworld that looked like the world Regina got to rule over just so Zelena could feel like she was her sister’s equal or better. I thought it was actually kind of adorable and surprisingly sad when he talked about how he tried his best to make it look like Storybrooke but things don’t grow in the Underworld. He tried to get her daughter away from the heroes for her and not to spite her (which is going to make things interesting now that Zelena doesn’t feels she needs Regina and Robin to protect her baby). And—the emotional kicker for me—he told Zelena her birthday, which she never knew before. Germann’s sincerity came through beautifully in that moment. I truly believed that Zelena represents his first spark of hope since his brother condemned him to the Underworld and stopped his heart.
The thing I loved most about Hades and his love for Zelena, though, was his respect for her choices. True Love has to be chosen by both parties, and Hades knows that. It made me so happy to hear him say that he knows Zelena doesn’t need him, because the healthiest kind of love is one chosen with the knowledge that you can stand on your own but you don’t have to. Hades loves Zelena for her independence, but he also knows the truth of what Regina told her so beautifully earlier in the episode: Lasting happiness doesn’t come from exacting revenge; it comes from love. So he gave her options but not an ultimatum, respecting her agency in a way I was not expecting. And now I’m left hoping these two crazy kids will work things out so they can get a happy ending. How does this show always manage to make me root for people I wasn’t trying to root for?
But before there can be any more talk of True Love’s Kiss, hearts starting, and hope for the Lord of the Underworld, Zelena has to learn to accept that she’s not better off alone. This episode strongly paralleled Regina and Zelena in that regard, but it also strongly paralleled Zelena and Emma. Not so long ago, Emma was also determined to take her kid away from the rest of his family and do everything on her own—because that was the life she was comfortable living. Zelena blowing out a candle on a cupcake wasn’t just some happy coincidence on the show’s part; it was a deliberate parallel between two lost girls who grew up believing they were abandoned.
But Emma wasn’t really abandoned. While she still bears some of the scars from thinking that for so many years, the truth has given her a sense of peace Zelena still doesn’t have. And that peace has allowed Emma to live without the kind of frightening resentment Zelena feels for the sibling who got to grow up with the life she never had. Does Emma still have some unresolved issues about her lost childhood? Yes—I think that’s what the pieces from her nursery sitting in her Underworld home represent. But she’s a grown woman, and, as such, has handled the difference between her and her baby sibling a lot better than Zelena or Hades.
I really loved the moments between Emma and her parents concerning her brother in this episode—especially because so much of the rest of the plot focused on people who hated their siblings for getting things they wanted. Emma’s beautiful empathy was put on display once again when Snow told her she and Charming wanted to talk to Neal. Jennifer Morrison did such a great job of showing the momentary pain flash across Emma’s features when Snow asked if it would have made a difference to know someone loved her, because of course it would have. Knowing someone loves you—believing you’re not alone—is the key to strength on this show. But then she smiled softly when she realized her brother could have what she never did: the knowledge that people are out there trying to get back to him. It was a small moment, but it said so much.
Snow and Charming’s quest to talk to Neal represented the idea that parents will do anything to make sure their children get their best chance to be happy. That includes haunting. There was some fun humor found in the haunting stuff, but there was also real pathos. I was especially moved by the man who wanted to believe he was getting through to his loved ones because he’s been trying for 30 years.
Belief matters on Once Upon a Time. Charming and Snow needed to believe they could reach their son. And who helped them see that their belief wasn’t in vain? The truest believer, of course. It made me so happy to see Henry get a win and help his family after he seemed to be struggling earlier in the episode. It was sweet to see Emma and Regina working together as mothers to give their son the encouragement they thought he needed (while Killian and Robin exchanged perfect smirks at Henry’s very teenage reaction). But it was even better to see Henry do something more important than describing Snow’s breakfast order. By sharing the story of Neal hearing Snow and Charming’s voices, Henry restored hope when his family needed it most. He gave his grandparents the ammunition needed to keep fighting. And it seemed especially fitting that his grandmother was the most affected by it, because she was the first person to give Henry real hope through that storybook.
That scene with all the heroes around the table in the Charmings’ Underworld loft highlighted the fact that this unconventional little family has grown from individuals who once fought against each other to a group of people who would do anything for each other. They support each other, fight beside each other, and choose each other. And in that dynamic, they’ve all found the strength only love can provide, the strength that’s going to get them home.
Standing outside of that warm, happy dynamic is Rumplestiltskin. Time and again, he’s been given the choice between love and power, and he’s chosen power. He still can’t believe—even after all these years—that love is the only power he needs, and that’s because he still refuses to believe that he’s good enough exactly as he is.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in “Our Decay” involved Rumplestiltskin and his relationship with Belle. When Belle got to the Underworld, I thought it would take at least an episode before she was reunited with her husband and probably another long stretch of episodes before she found out the truth about his Dark One status and his deal concerning their baby. So imagine my shock when all of those things were dealt with in one powerful scene that finally laid all of Rumplestiltskin’s cards on the table before Belle, giving her the ability to make a fully informed choice, which is so important on this show.
Emilie de Ravin was excellent in that scene (especially her shift from radiant joy upon learning she was pregnant to devastation upon learning that baby was promised to Hades), but it belonged to Robert Carlyle. I was left with my mouth open in awe at the fact that Rumplestiltskin was actually saying the things he said in that scene with the ease with which he said them. For so long, all I’ve wanted was for this character to own his truth, especially to his wife. The fact that Belle has been kept in the dark so often has done her character and this show in general a disservice, so I’m excited to see what’s going to happen now that there are no false impressions of who Rumplestiltskin is and who he might someday be.
This moment was Rumplestiltskin’s twisted interpretation of Emma’s, “No, this is who I am” speech from Season One. This was Rumplestiltskin defining himself on his own terms and letting his wife know who he’s chosen to be. And unlike the other characters who’ve gone through this process of self-definition, the person he’s chosen to be is far from his best self. He’s not choosing to be a hero or choosing to define himself by love; he’s choosing power—he’ll always choose power.
The writing of that scene was incredible. It was such a stunning examination of the truth of this character and of a relationship that has always felt uneven. But now there’s no more questioning if Belle can change Rumplestiltskin or bring out the man behind the beast. Because Rumplestiltskin doesn’t want to change. He wants both love and power—to be both the man and the beast. But power always comes first, which is why he spoke so lovingly about the dagger. He’s craved power his whole life, but unlike other characters who’ve also craved power or vengeance or control, he has made a conscious choice to never let go of it—not even for love.
Rumplestiltskin made his choice, and he gave Belle the tools to do the same. There are no more lies or insincere promises of change; he outright stated that if she wants him to change, he won’t do it. So now it’s up to Belle, but she’s still in an awful position. Rumplestiltskin and Hades technically control her right to her own child, and it seems clear that Rumplestiltskin isn’t going to try to give up his addiction to power for that child. For as much as I would have liked Belle to immediately choose to walk away and not look back, I understood why she said she’s not choosing anything when you think about what she’s dealing with. But I’m still hoping the result of this scene is Belle eventually choosing to leave him for good and raise her baby without him. Whatever happens, though, it’s good to know that her choice will be made with full knowledge of what she’s getting herself into. I’ll feel proud of her for leaving if she does, but if she chooses to stay with him, I can feel justified in not feeling bad for her this time.
No matter what, it’s clear that, right now, Rumplestiltskin is incapable of True Love, and it was his choice to close himself off to it by choosing power over love. He might think he can have both, but no one really can. And he has yet to figure out that the strength that comes from True Love is so much more valuable than the strength that comes from the Dark One’s dagger. I’ll be surprised if he ever does figure that out, but if this episode taught me anything, it’s that this show can still surprise me.
• Does Hades still want to enact a time-travel spell, and is that why he wants Rumplestiltskin’s baby so badly? And if so, do Snow, Regina, and Emma represent the three other ingredients needed for the spell (heart, brains, and courage)?
• Is that how being the Author really works, or is it supposed to be strange that the stories are writing themselves without Henry knowing it’s happening?
• Where did Regina’s hat come from while she and Robin were walking through the forest?
• Is everyone living in the loft, or are Emma and Killian living in her house?
• Nothing good can come from Robin going into the woods alone with the baby, right?
• What does everyone think the baby’s name will be?