Two-Sentence Summary When Regina enlists Cora to help stop Zelena and Hades’ blossoming romance, a major secret is revealed about a lost moment in the sisters’ shared past. Meanwhile, Charming finally comes face-to-face with James, and Rumplestiltskin reunites with a member of his family as he attempts to protect his child.
Favorite Line “You’re stronger than I ever was, and that’s a strength you got from the people you love—not from me.” (Cora, to Regina)
My Thoughts “Sisters” was a very focused hour of Once Upon a Time. It only had an A-story and a B-story, and both of them dealt with the same theme: the relationship between siblings. This was an episode that knew what it wanted to do (add important depth to the relationships between all three Mills women) and what it wanted to say (Love is strength, and only in accepting that can a person truly grow.), and that storytelling confidence from writers David H. Goodman and Brigitte Hales came through in every scene.
This episode’s main storyline (featuring Regina, Zelena, and Cora) was so strong that it could have stood on its own, and the depth and care it was given made the James/Charming showdown feel a little rushed in comparison. However, what that storyline lacked in depth, it made up for in intensity, and that’s all because of Josh Dallas’s performance. What could have been a silly gimmick actually felt tense. When Charming and James faced off, it felt like I was watching two distinct people who just happened to look alike, and that made the stakes feel higher than they would have felt in the hands of a lesser actor.
Dallas always seems to have fun playing James, but what struck me about his performance this time was how genuinely threatening James felt. When he pointed the gun at Robin, I was actually scared. James suddenly became a character to take very seriously rather than just a character playing out what could have been a stereotypical soap opera plot. So when his fight with his brother ended with him in the River of Lost Souls, it actually felt like it mattered because of the threat he posed. Emma was right—some people just can’t move on, and James was one of them. He was so consumed with jealousy that he never stopped to think about the fact that both he and Charming were hurt by what happened to them as babies. Instead of being able to move toward a place of understanding like Regina and Zelena are reaching, he sank deeper into his own darkness, stuck in his ways. So he now remains eternally stuck in that river, and Charming is left trying to process what he had to do.
However, unlike Belle and Rumplestiltskin (who also sent people into that river), Charming has a group of people who can help him as he deals with the repercussions of that fight. I loved seeing Emma lean on her father’s shoulder at the end, offering him comfort with that small gesture of support. And it seemed fitting that the person Charming ran into battle with was Killian, the man who’s become more like family to him than his own brother. This episode reminded us that families can help each other when no one else can, and Charming has a strong support system in his family, which surely factored into the monumental difference between him and his brother.
While the sibling rivalry between Charming and James played a part in this episode, it was a small part compared to the episode’s main event, which was a tale of two other siblings who were separated for most of their lives: Regina and Zelena. Once Upon a Time is at its strongest when it focuses on the complex female characters who have driven the story since the pilot, and “Sisters” was another amazing showcase for the variety of women and relationships between women that populate this world.
It’s also worth noting that Cora, Regina, and Zelena are all mothers now, along with Emma, Snow, and Belle (who’s at least a mother-to-be). I’ve always admired this show for treating mothers as fully-realized women on their own in addition to exploring their relationships with their children, which continued in this episode. In a television climate where female characters are being killed at an alarming rate and female performers are still treated as second-class citizens far too often, it’s nice to have a show—especially a show watched by young people—where female characters aren’t just a part of a man’s story; they’re the heroes (and sometimes the villains) of their own stories, and those stories are given the focus and care they deserve.
The most surprising story being told with focus and care this season is Zelena’s story. I never expected her to be anything more than an antagonist and source of excellently snarky lines. And while she’s still often the latter (I loved her line to Rumplestiltskin about Belle preferring a sleeping curse to being with him.), she’s become so much more than just a character I love to hate. She’s become a character I genuinely believe in. I want the best for her now, which is a testament to the skillful handling of her character during this arc. I can’t imagine this season being anywhere near as good as it’s been without her.
“Sisters” opened with a strong focus on Zelena’s relationship with Hades, which made me nervous because I was ready for that storyline to take a backseat for a little while after getting so much attention lately. However, this episode revealed some important things on that front: Hades is ready to put aside his plans to move to Storybrooke and rule over it with Zelena, but he still needs True Love’s Kiss in order to do that. There’s a part of me that continued to doubt the sincerity of Hades’ desire to abandon all his plans for Zelena, but this episode cemented my belief that he really does love her. I’ll admit to smiling as I watched him prepare the dinner table for her; there’s something so strangely adorable about the Lord of the Underworld dancing around a room because he’s excited for a date.
I also have no doubt that Zelena really does love Hades. But my fear is that her love for him is like Belle’s for Rumplestiltskin: She believes she can change him, which we know doesn’t work. Hades’ promise to make chaos with Zelena seemed to go against the woman Zelena is becoming, which makes for an interesting wrinkle in their budding romance. They might love each other, but love might not be enough to overcome what seem to be increasingly different values and ideas of happiness. But with this show, I’ve learned to never write off the power of love, so I’m still keeping an open mind about how this relationship could progress before the end of this arc.
Zelena’s relationship with Hades turned out to be far less important in this episode than her relationship with her sister and her mother. The development of Regina and Zelena’s relationship has been one of the most pleasant surprises to come out of this arc, and I was so happy to see it continue in this episode. Rebecca Mader and Lana Parrilla have become very natural scene partners, and this was a great showcase for the two of them. They play their scenes together with such delicious complexity. It’s no longer just animosity fueling their interactions; they bring real sincerity and honesty to the table each time they play opposite each other, and that emotional honesty allowed their development in this episode to feel earned and believable.
Adding Cora into the Regina/Zelena mix added the incomparable Barbara Hershey to the dynamic duo of Mader and Parrilla. It also allowed both of Cora’s daughters to deal with their unfinished business with their mother, and it allowed Cora to deal with her own unfinished business. Stories like this one are what this Underworld arc is all about, and I was so happy that these pieces of unfinished business were given the focus they deserve.
Cora hurt both of her daughters, and this episode showed in an unflinching way how deeply she hurt them when they were still young. I thought the flashbacks were handled brilliantly, and they featured another pair of great casting choices. Isabella Blake-Thomas’s eyes look so similar to Mader’s that it was uncanny, and the depth of sadness that could be seen in those eyes perfectly fit Zelena’s lonely history. And Ava Acres said many of her lines with exactly the same inflection as Parrilla. I wanted to hug both girls, and that’s exactly what I should have felt while watching their story unfold.
It killed me to see Cora use Zelena and her magic to heal Regina (which was a nice symbol of the idea of family healing each other in a way no one else can) without ever planning to let the girls know who they really were to each other. But that was nothing compared to the pain I felt when the girls finally discovered the truth of their relationship, only to be torn from each other as soon as they learned they were sisters. Cora’s lack of a heart was never more evident than in the moment she told Regina that she needed to rely only on herself and that Zelena would only stand in the way of her moving up in society. Hearing the girls scream as they were separated physically hurt me, and it showed just how cold Cora was that she remained unaffected by it and kept it a secret for decades after she erased their memories.
The damage Cora inflicted on those little girls continued into their adult relationship. And—with her heart finally back in her chest—Cora finally realized she needed to do everything she could to fix what she’d broken. For as great an episode as this was for Regina and Zelena, it was an even greater episode for Cora. I especially liked that she admitted to Zelena that abandoning her was a choice she made to better her own life, because true forgiveness can only come—and true growth can only happen—if we’re honest with others and ourselves about the things we’ve done. I didn’t realize how much I needed to see this moment between mother and daughter until it happened.
However, my favorite moment of Cora’s came when she addressed Regina. In telling Regina that she was stronger than her because Regina allowed herself to love, Cora showed that she finally got it. She finally understood that love isn’t weakness; it’s strength. And Regina’s ability to love—which Cora always tried to destroy—is actually her greatest power. That moment of acceptance and encouragement between mother and daughter got to the very heart of what this show is all about in such an honest, unforced way. And Parrilla’s performance was an important part of that scene’s emotional resonance. She made Regina look so young, small, and vulnerable, and I wanted to hug her then as much as I wanted to hug her younger self in the flashbacks.
By admitting to Regina that love can be a source of strength, Cora showed Zelena that it’s not too late to grow into a better version of yourself by letting love into your heart. The way Mader showed Zelena’s fear that it’s too late for her to be her best self was heartbreaking, and I continue to be amazed by the depth of her work in this arc. But Cora did what good mothers do; she encouraged her daughter not to give up on herself. She told Zelena in words and showed her in actions that it’s never too late to do the right thing.
Cora’s unfinished business was righting the wrong she committed when her girls were young by bringing them back together instead of tearing them apart. That was shown in a poignant way through the shot of the three of them holding hands. And when Cora did that, she knew it was time to move on. I know I should just expect for every scene that takes place on the bridge to eternity to make me cry, but I was still surprised by how intense my emotional reaction was to Cora’s farewell to both of her daughters. Parrilla’s heartbreaking reaction to Cora finally giving Regina a proper goodbye made me sob, but what wrecked me the most was Cora telling Zelena they barely got to say hello. It was such a simple line, but sometimes the simplest lines are the most powerful.
Cora was finally able to accept the fate that awaited her because she knew she’d done whatever she could to help her daughters be happy, and that was finally enough for her. I loved the little beat where she wiped her tears and steeled herself for what was about to happen to her; it was a great detail from Hershey.
This time, Cora helped the love between sisters grow instead of destroying it, and she helped spread hope instead of despair. That’s what allowed her to move on to a better place instead of a worse one. And in moving into the light, Cora exemplified the idea that it’s never too late to become your best self and find your true happy ending by opening your heart to love. Hope took root in the Underworld once again, and I loved that it came from the most unlikely places: Cora’s love for her daughters and their love for each other.
Regina and Zelena’s hug was such a powerful moment. It took years for them to get to that place, and it felt like the start of something beautiful instead of the end of their story. Parrilla and Mader put so much emotion into that moment that was impossible not to believe that these two sisters might grow to have a love as true as the one they started to develop when they were children. (It was interesting to note that young Regina promised Zelena that she would find her, which is something True Loves often say to each other on this show.)
But before Zelena and Regina’s relationship can grow any more, Regina is going to need to find her sister. It seems Regina wasn’t the only character to reach out to a parent for help in this episode. When Rumplestiltskin showed up with Pan, I was both excited to see Robbie Kay again and terrified of what that meant for Zelena. All I want now is for Regina to find her sister and for Hades to reluctantly team up with the heroes to help save the woman he loves from Rumplestiltskin and Pan.
• Where was Henry for most of this episode?
• Does anyone else get sad every time we see Emma push down her instincts when her superpower goes into overdrive for reasons she doesn’t understand? I just wanted to tell her that she was right about something being off with her dad (or uncle)!
• Who else was making the same disgusted face as Emma when James and Cruella were having their little moment? Also, who else loved Emma’s stone-cold reaction to Cruella’s slap?
• Where do all these anti-magic cuffs come from both in Storybrooke and in the Underworld? And how did James get one?
• Did anyone else’s heart break a little at the sight of Emma looking at a photo of her parents, clearly missing her mom?
• Will Milah ever get freed from the River of Lost Souls? Will anyone at least find out what happened to her?
• When will Rumplestiltskin realize that his way of doing things never works?