Two-Sentence Summary As Emma and Regina try to find a way back to Storybrooke from the Wish Realm, they encounter various alternate-reality versions of familiar faces. Meanwhile, Charming and Killian team up back in Storybrooke to hunt down Gideon, as his parents try to work together to find a better fate for their son after he reveals his master plan.
Favorite Line “If you believe in something strongly enough, we all have the power to change our fate.” (August)
My Thoughts Once Upon a Time has always been about finding the power to write your own story, to believe that you can change your life for the better by taking the first step and believing good things are possible for you. That entire ethos was summed up all the way back in Season One by Emma Swan’s famous words:
People are gonna tell you who you are your whole life. You just gotta punch back and say, ‘No, this is who I am.’ You want people to look at you differently? Make them. You want to change things, you’re gonna have to go out there and change them yourself…
Part of my problem with this season so far has been that it’s felt like Emma has forgotten her own words at times, buying into the idea of being fated to die protecting her family instead of believing that she has the ability to punch back and change things—change her fate. So imagine my delight when this episode focused on the idea of choosing your own fate and creating your own story right from the very start. As such, it felt like a true return to form for Once Upon a Time.
Any episode that starts with an Emma flashback is bound to be a good one, and this one started with a moment that filled in one of the most prominent gaps in Emma’s story so far: how she got her last name. I think most of us assumed that her last name came from the foster family that sent her back when she was three years old, but it actually feels far more appropriate that she chose her own last name. Even as a little girl (played perfectly by Mckenna Grace, who embodies so many of Jennifer Morrison’s mannerisms and line readings—especially from the show’s first season—that once again I found myself asking what kind of magic is happening in the casting department), Emma fought to create her own identity; she just needed some help creating the right one. She ran away from a bad situation, but young August helped her see that running away wasn’t the only option. She could choose to believe that things would get better.
And so she did. She got off the streets, gave herself a name, and allowed herself to hope that she could become her new namesake—a swan. And although August made a good point about believing you can become a swan making you a swan, I think young Emma was even closer to figuring out the story’s true essence and the heart of her own story: The ugly duckling was always a swan; it just took a while for it to grow into what it was born to be. The same could be said of Emma. She was always a princess, a warrior, a daughter, a Savior; it just took a while for her to find her place in the world and discover her true self. It also took believing that she could be something more than she had been for her to truly embrace the best version of herself—for the ugly duckling to become the swan.
(Side note: Part of me loved that August helped Emma find a little bit of hope, but part of me was mad that he left her again after she got off the streets. His habit of coming in and out of her life—watching her from afar and interfering only at certain times—makes it hard for me to fully forgive him for not allowing Emma to grow up with at least some semblance of family around her.)
The theme of belief ran throughout every storyline in this episode. In the early Storybrooke scenes, Charming needed someone to believe in him as he struggled with his guilt over Emma’s disappearance, and he found that in Killian. Without Snow (and also without Emma), Charming has a tendency to spiral into darker places, so I’m interested to see Killian act as a kind of grounding force for him at a time when he needs it most. Killian isn’t afraid to tell Charming when he thinks he’s doing something potentially dangerous (like letting Belle try to get through to Gideon instead of just trying to stop him), but he’s also someone who believes in Charming as a leader and a father, which Charming needs desperately without the rest of his family around. Their dynamic has always been one of my favorites because I think Josh Dallas and Colin O’Donoghue work incredibly well together, so it was nice to see that on display again.
Speaking of good scene partners, I enjoyed the Emma and August interactions in the Wish Realm and was reminded of how well Jennifer Morrison and Eion Bailey work together. They’ve created a lovely familial feeling between their characters, and it came across well in this episode. I enjoyed seeing Emma help August believe in himself after he spent so long in Season One trying to get her to believe; it was a nice role reversal and showed how far Emma has come since she’s now the one offering hope and belief to others. That’s the essence of being the Savior—that ability to spread hope and to help others find happiness in a way only Emma can because of her personal experiences and the lessons she’s learned. I know there are other Saviors and that the mythology of the Savior has changed over time, but I will always see Emma as someone special because of her empathy and her ability to encourage others to find happiness and fulfillment, which is exactly what she showed when convincing August to believe in himself using the same advice he gave to her in the real world so many years before.
Emma didn’t just help August believe that he could change his fate in the Wish Realm; she helped Regina, too. For as much as I would have loved for Emma and Killian to have taken this journey together (How hilarious was O’Donoghue’s Wish Realm Hook, by the way? I loved how thoroughly committed he was to the ridiculousness, and it reminded me that sometimes this show can be silly and fun; not everything about it has to be serious and deep.), it felt right for it to be Emma and Regina. These two women have been tied to each other’s fate before Emma was even born, but now they’re not tied together as enemies; they’re tied together as friends and as a women who have both struggled to believe they can have a happy ending. And Emma used her personal experiences and deep reserves of empathy once again to help Regina believe that she could change her fate—that she could hold on to happiness instead of always losing it.
Regina went on an emotional rollercoaster in this episode, and I loved every twist and turn. Lana Parrilla brought so much softness and hesitation to this version of her character, which was a lovely change of pace from the over-the-top Evil Queen shenanigans we saw for most of the first half of the season. It broke my heart to see her truly believe that Robin was better off without her. However, she came to see over the course of her time spent with Robin that a life without love had left him cold and lonely, which she understood all too well. Finding each other in this realm ignited something hopeful and good in both characters, and I couldn’t stop smiling at the way Parrilla and Sean Maguire played their interactions; they have such wonderful chemistry, and it was a true joy to see them together again onscreen. We’ve gotten to see so many couples on this show fall in love in different ways in different realms, and this was another lovely version of Robin and Regina’s story—two broken hearts finding a flicker of happiness and hope with each other after suffering too much loss.
Ultimately, it was Emma who convinced Regina to hold on to that hope even when it seemed impossible. She helped Regina believe that she doesn’t have to be fated to be lonely and miserable; as her mother once said, believing in even the possibility of a happy ending is a very powerful thing. Emma knows better than anyone that death doesn’t have to stop True Love; she walked into the Underworld and her True Love was eventually returned to her, so of course she would encourage Regina to at least try to bring Robin back.
Like his feather, Robin represents hope for Regina—hope that she can be happy for the right reasons, like love and family instead of vengeance and destruction. And because this is a show about hope, it always felt wrong for that hope to have been snatched away from Regina in such a cold and cruel way when Robin died. Robin’s death was brutal and bleak, and it made a lot of people question the show’s message of hope and happy endings. So Robin’s return felt like a much-needed reminder that this is a show where believing in good things is rewarded. Regina believed in her own ability to change her fate, and Robin believed in her enough to go with her—and they were both rewarded with his return (albeit, in a somewhat different form) to Storybrooke.
I’m not sure how this is going to play out, and I’m sure it will come with a price because magic always does. (I’m also not sure how all three of them got through the wardrobe—I thought it could only take two.) But for now, I’m choosing to be happy for Regina and happy for fans of her and Robin’s relationship (myself included). Things always felt a little off without Robin, and, although I know this isn’t the same Robin, it’s going to be nice to have him back for whatever amount of time we have him.
When Robin, Regina, and Emma returned to Storybrooke, they found themselves immediately thrust into the middle of a battle they had no idea would be coming so soon. As Emma walked down the darkened main street, I was surprised by how quickly the show was going to have her face Gideon. (I couldn’t have been the only one to notice, though, that Emma was wearing a coat in the scene and a tank top in her vision, so I’m assuming this won’t be their only fight.) Ultimately, though, this moment was less about her facing Gideon and more about her facing her own demons. The fight scene was well choreographed, but the most important part wasn’t the swords clashing; it was the battle going on inside Emma to fight against what she had been told would be her fate. It was time for her to punch back and remind everyone that she gets to decide how her story ends. Her fate is in her hands, and those hands might have been shaking, but they were still powerful enough to punch back against those who want to tell her what her fate is.
Emma was right; she is fated to die—a basic fact of life is that it eventually ends. But that doesn’t mean she has to roll over and let death come for her just because someone told her it had to happen a certain way. With that perfectly delivered, “Not today,” Emma took back her fate, reclaimed her story, and chose to fight for her own destiny instead of one dictated by other forces. Emma Swan is a fighter, and I was so happy to see her fight for herself in addition to fighting for her loved ones. She is worth fighting for; she is worth protecting, and sometimes it’s good to be reminded that fighting for yourself can be just as important and noble as fighting for others.
Fighting Gideon represented Emma fighting her fate for more than just that reason. Gideon is who Emma could have become had she let the trauma she suffered as a child darken her heart. It’s not a coincidence that Gideon returned to Storybrooke at 28 years old after his mother gave him up to give him his best chance; it was just like Emma entering the town back in Season One. Just like Snow and Charming, Belle believed she was doing what she had to do to protect her baby, but that baby grew up in a world of cruelty and mistreatment instead. I’m sure Gideon suffered horrors at the hands of the Black Fairy, but Emma’s life was no picnic, either. (I know Morrison has often said she’s played Emma as having suffered some forms of abuse during her time in the foster system.) Emma, however, still retained just enough hope to wish on that blue star birthday candle. I can’t imagine Gideon having any hope left in him at this point.
What is most fascinating about Gideon, though, is his motivation for killing Emma. It’s the very embodiment of the concept of villains believing they’re the heroes of their stories. He believes he needs to kill Emma to become the Savior of the realm being terrorized by the Black Fairy, which is a fascinating “ends justify the means” debate that made him truly feel like his father’s son. However, I have approximately 9 trillion questions about how that would work. Is “Savior” a role you inherit by killing a previous Savior? I thought it was something Emma was because she was a product of True Love who was written into the Dark Curse as the one who would break it. This season has challenged that idea on a lot of levels, so I’m left feeling completely unsure of what makes someone a Savior and what that job actually entails, which I’m not sure is something I should be feeling about a major piece of the show’s mythology halfway through its sixth season.
Ultimately, though, what matters to me isn’t the exact definition of a “Savior;” it’s the story of the woman who has held that title since the show’s pilot. Plot matters much less to me than characters, so what I loved about “Tougher Than the Rest” is that it reminded me of how much I care about these characters—how deeply I want Regina to be happy, how much I missed Robin, how good it feels to see Emma, Henry, and Killian hug, and how inspired I am by Emma’s journey and her quest to define herself on her own terms—from her name to her ability to be her own Savior.
• When we first met Hook back in Season Two, I said he had a little bit of Jack Sparrow in him, so it was nice to see that brought to the forefront in O’Donoghue’s portrayal of Wish Realm Hook.
• For as sweet as Charming’s bedside speech and forehead kiss to Snow were, I’m really starting to get annoyed by this curse. Dallas and Ginnifer Goodwin are so magical together, and having them separated as scene partners for so long feels cruel. Also, why did the forehead kiss not count as a True Love’s Kiss?
• I thought this episode was shot beautifully. The Enchanted Forest scenes were gorgeous, and all the nighttime Storybrooke stuff was perfectly foreboding.
• I’m completely torn on the topic of Rumplestiltskin and Belle teaming up to help Gideon. On one hand, I want Belle to stay as far away from him as humanly possible and get angry at the mere thought of them getting back together, but on the other hand, I love Robert Carlyle and Emilie de Ravin as scene partners. I also love the idea of Rumplestiltskin and Belle vs. Snow and Charming in this epic battle of protecting their children.
• Carlyle really brought his A-game to this episode. (But when does he not?) The scene in which he slapped Gideon gave me chills.
• I want to reiterate one more time how happy I was to start this half-season off on a mostly optimistic note. Once Upon a Time is a show many people turn to for hope and happiness, and it’s nice when the show actually delivers on those fronts.