Title A Bitter Draught
Two-Sentence Summary When the Count of Monte Cristo shows up in Storybrooke, he tries to finish the job Regina gave him years ago—killing Snow and Charming. As the Count’s plan begins to unfold, Regina discovers that the Evil Queen is not only still alive, she’s planning a twisted game to prove to Regina that she still has darkness inside of her.
Favorite Line “I have a long road to travel before I can be someone I can be proud of. Despite the forgiveness of others, I must forgive myself, and I’m not there yet.” (Killian)
My Thoughts Sometimes thinking about the future is exciting, but sometimes it’s terrifying. Sometimes it feels easier to hide from a future that could end in pain, and sometimes it feels easier to ignore or push down the things we’re afraid of rather than facing them. Fear is a powerful motivating factor, but there is something more powerful: hope. As such, it seems fitting that this season of Once Upon a Time seems poised to address that universal conflict between fear and hope in a number of major storylines.
On the most obvious level, that conflict was addressed immediately upon finding out what the Land of Untold Stories really was. It was a land people escaped to when they were afraid of finding out how their stories would end. It was a place they ran to out of fear and hopelessness, thinking it was better to have no story than to have a story that could end badly.
That’s where Operation Cobra Part 2 came in. The original Operation Cobra was about restoring happy endings for people who’d forgotten their stories, but, as Henry so astutely pointed out at the end of this episode, the sequel is going to be a lot more complicated. From what we know so far, these people actively chose not to have a story; their lives weren’t put on pause by a force beyond their control. So it’s going to take more work to get them to believe in their own ability to have a story that ends happily. But if anyone can do it, it’s Henry. As the Truest Believer and the Author, he has the unique ability to help people believe their stories are worth living out. And not only do the citizens of the Land of Untold Stories need that hope, Henry’s mothers need it, too.
Right now, Emma is afraid of her story—and not just the story her visions are telling her. Although I still wish she would tell her parents and Killian about those vision, it was nice to see her tell Archie about them. I’m thrilled that the show is featuring scenes of her getting help from Archie because it helps normalize therapy and mental health care. Emma is not depicted as weak or any less heroic because she is seeking help; in fact, her session with Archie was shown to be something that could make her stronger, as long as she is open to his help. And I’m equally thrilled to see that she and Killian are at least talking openly about her sessions with Archie. His sincere support of her seeking help was such a great thing to see because there can never be enough portrayals in the media of people getting encouragement from their loved ones as they seek help for mental/emotional health issues. And in her sessions with Archie, Emma discovered something she wouldn’t have without his help: This is about so much more than a vision. This is about how she defines herself. This is about her story.
Emma is the Savior. That’s how she defines herself. She puts others’ happiness before hers. She risks her life for other people’s happy endings. And when Archie suggested that she take a moment off from being the Savior in order to protect herself, she freaked out because she’s afraid of who she is if she’s not being the Savior. She didn’t particularly like herself before she was the Savior; she didn’t like the lonely life she was living. Being the Savior has given her something to be proud of and something that can make others proud of her. If she asks for help and stops acting like the Savior for a moment, would she be letting people down? We know the answer is no, but unconditional love is still something Emma is learning how to accept. Saving people makes her feel like she can earn the love she’s been given, and it breaks my heart to think that she’s afraid that she wouldn’t be worthy of that love if she was anything less than the Savior.
Emma seems to feel as if she has to be perfect, selfless, and brave all the time, and that is no way to live. It fosters a crippling fear of failure, and that fear gets even worse because it’s often a fear you keep to yourself. When you place unrealistic expectations on yourself and feel as if those expectations are reinforced by your role in the world around you, you never want to share those moments when you don’t feel like you can live up to them—not even with those closest to you. So instead of opening up to her family about her visions, Emma continued to hide them, thus continuing to spiral deeper into the feeling that her story is no longer hers to write. Trying to be the Savior all the time has given her a false sense of control, when all she’s doing is defining herself by who others need her to be rather than who she needs to be for herself. And as that false sense of control slips away with these visions and tremors, she needs the help of her loved ones to accept the fact that she deserves a happy ending—not because she’s a Savior but because she’s Emma Swan.
At the heart of Emma’s fears right now is the sense that her story has already been written and she can’t escape her fate, and that same fear is creeping into Regina’s story this season. Like Emma, Regina believed she was destined to be unhappy because of who she was, and she was afraid of watching that story play out. As long as the Evil Queen was still part of her, she believed she would always live her life afraid of slipping back into that dark place. So she forcibly removed that part of her, but this episode made her come face to face with the realization that you can never truly escape your worst self.
For as frustrated as I can get with the talk of separating Regina and the Evil Queen—especially when Emma and Snow do it—I understand it. Don’t we all have parts of ourselves that we treat as separate entities when we don’t want to face who we are at our worst? Personally, there have been more than a few times in my life when I’ve treated “Anxious Katie” like my own “Evil Queen” persona, something I can distance myself from and separate from “who I really am.” But the truth is “Anxious Katie” is a part of me—just like the “Evil Queen” is part of Regina. It’s brutally realistic to watch people try to excuse away the worst in others and themselves as the behavior a separate entity, and it’s setting up a powerful moment of realization this season, as these characters come to accept that they are the sum of all their parts and not just one aspect of themselves—no matter how much others want to define them by that one aspect.
For Regina, that moment of realization is going to come after a long battle with her worst self. It was fun to watch Lana Parrilla play both sides of Regina and wear those amazing costumes again, even if I did find some of the Evil Queen’s scenes to be a little too far on the “campy” side for me. (Also, what was up with her and Rumplestiltskin? I’m not here for that happening. I always loved that their dynamic has managed to avoid becoming romantic, because I feel like that made it so much more unique and unexpected.) If this whole season is going to consist of Regina working to right the wrongs she committed when she was at her worst—while also discovering that some things simply can’t be fixed—then I am going to love it.
In this episode, Regina was left to fix the metaphorical poison she let seep into the life of the Count of Monte Cristo when she fanned the flames of his vengeance. I thought his inclusion in the show was a fun surprise, especially because so many characters—Regina included—have been driven by vengeance throughout the last six seasons. The Count was living in a hopeless place until he was tasked with killing Snow and Charming. They reawakened his humanity and reminded him that some people are truly good. And they also introduced him to Charlotte, Snow’s handmaid, who he ended up finding the hope of a romantic connection with. As such, when the time came to poison them in order to obtain Regina’s list of names that he needed to exact his revenge, he couldn’t do it. He came to learn that maybe there was more to life than vengeance, which is one of the central themes of this show.
Watching the Count open his heart to the possibility of a life filled with hope and not vengeance made it even harder to see it all fall apart when Rumplestiltskin poisoned Charlotte. In order to keep her story from playing out in the fatal way it was destined to, the Count traveled to the Land of Untold Stories. Hopelessness set in again, and it made him run away from his story and her story rather than finding another way for it to end.
In Storybrooke, the Count still didn’t have control over his story. He was being controlled by the Evil Queen, who had his heart. It was painful to watch him fight Snow and Charming, knowing that none of them truly wanted things to come to that. (Although it was anything but painful to watch Snow and Charming be a badass team together again. I have hope that this scene was a sign of good things to come this season for the two of them.) And it was even more painful to see Regina feel as if she had no choice but to kill him in order to save Snow and Charming.
We’ve watched heroes go through this before—Emma with Cruella, Snow with Cora. Sometimes heroes kill, even when they could find another way. Those actions don’t have to be the start of a descent into darkness; they don’t have to mean a character is irredeemably evil or dictate how their story ends. But the Evil Queen wants Regina to believe otherwise; she wants Regina to abandon all hope for herself. The Evil Queen knows better than anyone what Regina can become when she feels hopeless, so her goal is to bring Regina back to that dark place to validate her own existence. And she is doing that by making Regina afraid of herself, afraid of her story, and afraid of how her story might end.
The Evil Queen’s speech to Regina reminded me of Emma’s confrontation with Nimue last season. Unlike Emma, though, Regina was hearing all these terrible things about herself from herself. And that is a powerful, heartbreaking visual: a person’s worst self telling them that all it takes is one slip for them to start back down a dark path.
The Evil Queen is telling Regina how her story is going to end, but this entire season seems to be centered around the idea that no one can tell you how your story is going to end. Only you have the power to choose how your story plays out. But before you can choose your ending, you have to choose to live out your story and not live in fear of it. I believe that both Emma and Regina will learn that they are the only ones who get to decide their fate, and it is my greatest hope that they decide to embrace the fate that comes from living a life of acceptance. Regina needs to accept that she will always have darkness inside of her; she can’t rip out who she once was, but she can choose to be better than that version of herself. And Emma needs to accept that she is more than just a Savior; she can’t define herself by that one facet of her identity. They can’t take the shortcuts to self-acceptance that they want to take right now. Both women seem to be consumed with parts of their identity that have more to do with that they’ve done to and for others rather than who they are at their core, and I can’t wait for them to accept every part of what makes them the multifaceted characters that have captivated viewers for years.
If Emma and Regina are looking for an example to follow, they don’t have to look too far. “A Bitter Draught” did a beautiful job of showing that there is one character who has learned that the only way you can take control of your story is to take ownership of every part of who you are and accept that you can choose a new path for yourself, and that character is Killian Jones. Killian has always been one of the most self-aware characters in this world, and that continued in this episode. His friendship with Belle has always been a meaningful one, but this episode took it to a new level of depth. I was deeply moved by his admission that he is consumed with guilt for having laid a hand on her and shooting her while he was blinded by his need for revenge. This was one case where it was better to “tell” than “show”—and not just because it allowed Colin O’Donoghue to stun us all with his sincerity once again. It allowed Killian to acknowledge the terrible things he’s done and openly voice his remorse concerning them, which is the most believable way to allow characters to grow after they’ve done terrible things. Killian has never tried to separate Captain Hook from Killian Jones. He accepts what he has done as his actions and his alone, he openly seeks forgiveness for his wrongdoings, and he works to be better—in this case, by offering Belle his ship for shelter from Rumplestiltskin. (I guess we can all assume he’s officially living with Emma now since he doesn’t need his ship.)
Killian is still working to forgive himself and accept the good parts of him as well as the dark parts, but his openness and honesty is a treasure on a show that is often filled with secrets and dark deeds that are forgotten very easily. His journey has provided the roadmap for true character growth, and it continues to be a pleasure to watch him progress toward the best version of himself. He has a sense of hope now that comes with finding True Love, a family who cares about him, and a second chance at life after dying. It is this hope that has allowed him to believe that—with hard work and learning to forgive himself—he can have a truly happy ending. I want him to share that sense of hope with Emma, and I even more desperately want him to share that sense of hope with Regina.
Everyone on this show has parts of themselves that they’re afraid of, destinies they fear fulfilling. The end of this episode hinted that Charming is about to head down a dangerous path in search of a missing part of his identity—his father’s true story. And he will surely not be the only character working through untold parts of their own stories this season. But I can sense the overarching theme for all these arcs establishing itself now: There are times when we are afraid of how our stories will end, but with the support of those who love us and the strength that comes from self-acceptance, we will be able to live out our story with the belief that we can write our own happy ending.
• I’d love some more scenes like the one in this episode with Snow, Emma, and Regina doing nothing but sharing drinks and talking. This show began with those three women and their relationships with one another as the main focus, and I always love when those relationships are brought to the forefront—especially now that all three women so openly support and lean on each other.
• Granny’s line about not having Monte Cristo sandwiches on her menu because she doesn’t like the “eggy bread” made my entire night.
• Does anyone else just want to move Zelena as far away from the Evil Queen as possible? She was doing so well before she showed up!
• I’m looking forward to the inevitable showdown when Rumplestiltskin confronts Killian about Belle living on the Jolly Roger. I need some new scenes between O’Donoghue and Robert Carlyle in my life.
• Who do I have to pay to actually see Henry and Killian have that movie night?