The Once team sure loves an antepenultimate episode that neatly wraps up a half season’s-worth of story arcs, then pivots at the last second to pave the way for a two-hour finale that’s meant to feel like its own semi-standalone movie—don’t they?
That strategy makes sense, of course; if you’re going to spend the last two hours of a season writing alt-universe fanfiction about your own alt-universe fanfiction, you may as well make sure that it won’t get bogged down with resolving issues like Emma’s relationship with her parents and Maleficent’s relationship with her daughter and Regina’s relationship with her sister. (Pattern alert!) Getting all those things out of the way means that next week’s mega-sized blowout will be free to follow its own path, maybe even without having to waste time on a fairyback. Unfortunately, it also meant that this week’s hour felt more like table setting than a main course.
Let’s begin with a fairyback that covered well-trodden ground: Regina’s relationship with her mother. (This pattern goes all the way to the top!) Sometime after the queen goes full evil, but before Snow goes full outlaw, Regina finds that Cora has schemed her way out of Wonderland and back into her daughter’s life. Her stated purpose: A little fairy (Tink, natch) told her that Regina has a second true love out there somewhere, and Cora wants to find him. Typical mom move—crossing from realm to realm just to set her daughter up with a nice boy. (Not stated, but you know Cora’s thinking it: “Maybe he’s a doctor!”)
Regina is naturally suspicious of her mother’s motives; you would be too if your mom had murdered your last boyfriend. From what we can see, though, Cora seems genuine. She swans over to a local tavern in her finest Bob Mackie gown—a great way to blend in!—and promptly finds a cub in search of a cougar: the Sheriff of Nottingham. And wouldn’t you know it, the guy happens to know just the lion-tattooed True Love Cora’s looking for. Success!
Or so you might think, if you forgot that Robin and Regina never formally met in the Enchanted Forest. Instead of using Nottingham’s intel to track down Regina’s true true love, Cora whips up some henna ink and introduces her daughter to Nottingham—billing himself as the man the queen is destined to be with. The ruse almost works… until Nottingham makes the mistake of saying something that sounds like Cora’s words (“You can let me be strong so you can be weak when you want to”). A furious Regina realizes she’s been had and transforms his fake tattoo into a very tiny, very angry lion, in one of the show’s best uses of special effects to date. It tortures Nottingham long enough for him to admit that Cora convinced him to pretend to be Regina’s True Love because she wants Regina to have a child; Regina responds by magicking him into her dungeon. All in all, not a terrible first date.
An understandably paranoid, rage-filled Regina assumes that Cora must want a grandchild so that she can kill off Regina, then step in to act as the tiny monarch’s queen regent. The Queen of Hearts has her daughter so far down the rabbit hole that Regina conjures up a potion that’ll render her unable to have children—then drinks it just to spite her mother as Cora watches. That’ll really stick it to her! Except, whoops: In retrospect, the magical hysterectomy may have been a bit of an overreaction. “If I wanted to take your power, I’d find a much more direct way,” Cora tells Regina, revealing that she just wanted her to have a child because she thought a kid might make her daughter happy… oh, and she set Regina up with Nottingham because Cora thought he seemed like a better fit for her daughter than drippy do-gooder Robin Hood. Sucks to think someone’s a brilliant ,evil tactician when really she’s just a pushy mom.
The fairyback ties into the episode’s present-set action, but more thematically than literally. In current-day Storybrooke, two more daughters are grappling with their own difficult mothers: Emma’s still smarting from Snow White and Charming’s betrayal (though mostly, she seems angry with Snow; guess now’s as good a time as any to get in all that angry mother/daughter clashing they missed out on when Emma was a teenager), while Lily’s dealing with meeting Maleficent for the first time… and learning that the woman she thought would be a bloodthirsty HDIC (that’s Head Dragon in Charge) is actually a big ol’ softie.
Oh, and lest we forget, the two arrive in Storybrooke with an expectant mother in tow: Zelena, who could probably power Emma’s car with her smugness. No, it doesn’t seem like the best move to bring an extraordinarily powerful witch into the one place on Earth (supposedly) where she can use magic; yes, the show addresses this pretty quickly by having Regina slap one of those anti-magic cuffs on her sister; yes, considering we’re talking about a woman who wouldn’t let death stand in the way of her petty revenge, that cuff hardly seems like adequate protection.
Anyway. While Regina is escorting Zelena to her new home—a lovely one-bedroom… cell below the hospital—and Lily is refusing to bond with Mal, Rumple is finding himself close to the end of the proverbial hourglass. His quickly blackening heart is down to its last patch of glowing plastic red—which, as he reveals, means bad stuff’s ahead for pretty much everyone. Because when Rumplestiltskin’s heart goes black, it won’t mean the death of the Dark One—it’ll mean the obliteration of his human side. Somehow, though, learning this fact doesn’t deter Regina. After imprisoning the Wicked Witch, she practically skips to the pawn shop, where she takes a break to taunt her old magic teacher—then plucks the magic quill from the Dark One’s hands and absconds with it and the Author, leaving Rump all alone.
NEXT: Lily was a woman! She was a dragon-woman! Or maybe she was just a dragon![pagebreak]
In fact, Regina’s in such a good mood that she hardly furrows her brow when the Author informs her that Operation Happy Ending has hit a snag: Turns out he and Rumple needed Emma to go bad because Dark Savior blood is his magical ink’s mysterious secret ingredient. (It’s best served alongside a big bowl of Dr. Vink’s dangerous soup.) Perhaps Regina’s still feeling so positive because she knows that a powerful reserve of Riled-Up Savior-Brand Darkness can be found elsewhere in town: namely, in Lily, who’s currently making the mistake of believing that she might be able to catch a bus out of this place.
The good news (for Regina): It’s beyond easy to stab Lily just a little bit and get the drop of bloody darkness (ew) she needs to complete the Author’s ink. The bad news (for everyone else): You know how you’re not supposed to tickle a sleeping dragon? Well, it turns out stabbing a dormant weredragon is even worse.
Sorta. Dragonified Lily doesn’t exactly burninate the countryside, but she does manage to track down her mother—who just so happens to be searching for Lily alongside Snow and Charming, of all people. (The so-called Mistress of All Evil went to the royals for help partially because she wants to give them a chance to make up for stealing Lily in the first place, and partially because these three being together facilitates what happens next.) In this form, Lily is a lot of sound and fury, ultimately signifying nothing… until a weaponless Snow bumrushes her (why? Come on, Snow, you’re supposed to be the smart one!) and Lily blows the princess backwards, causing her to hit her head on a rock. Oh no! Is Snow dead?!
Of course she’s not; this isn’t Grey’s Anatomy. She is, however, badly hurt… until her own daughter appears on the scene in the nick of time. Emma wastes no time in healing Snow—and letting her know that, after having a heart to heart with Hook, she’s finally decided to forgive her parents for the darkness-transfer and eggnapping Lily. What’s more, a shaken and re-human-ified Lily has decided it might be nice to get to know her mother after all; she and Mal decide that she’ll stick around Storybrooke for one week, so Momleficent can teach her about being a “scary dragon bitch.” Welp, that’s two plots to check off the list.
All that’s left, really, is Regina’s thread. Ink, quill, and author in hand, she waltzes into Zelena’s cell and announces that she’s going to have the Author write her sister out of the story entirely, making it so that it’s like Zelena never existed. (Something tells me plenty of viewers could get behind this plan.) Unfortunately for Regina, her older sis isn’t as dim as the Charmings. She knows how to hit Regina right where it hurts: by comparing her to their mother, saying that Regina’s every bit as cruel and ruthless as Cora was.
With that, Regina has a change of heart. She decides she doesn’t want the Author to do anything after all; “I already have everything I need,” she says, finally ready to stop making excuses and start taking control of her own destiny. Good for you, Regina! Be your own windkeeper! It’s a powerful culmination to her arc of self-discovery… at least, until the Author decides that it’s a boring ending and writes his own instead. He scribbles his way out of the cell, races back to Rumple, and gets started on a new story altogether—one called Heroes and Villains. His opening words? “Once upon a time…”
— Considering she must’ve shrank him, kidnapped him, and spirited him to Wonderland not long ago, you think Regina’s father, Henry, might act a little more afraid of Cora and a little less gently befuddled.
— Zelena smugs that Regina can’t kill her because if she does, Robin will always think of her as the person who murdered the mother of his child. Somehow, Regina doesn’t shoot back that in the show’s original timeline, she already was the person who murdered the mother of Robin’s child—and it seems like he’s forgiven her just fine.
— Nice of that opening scene—in which Regina murders a man on his wedding day, just ’cause—to remind us once more that she has killed a lot of people.
— Did we know before tonight that Regina couldn’t have kids? It’s a piece of information that helps to explain several of her actions, including adopting Henry—I’m sort of surprised it took four seasons for us to learn it.
— Unresolved questions from tonight: The Author says that illustration of Regina and Robin came “from a little experimental writing I did, for another book that I never got the chance to write.” Which… what? He also tells Regina that the possibility of achieving her happy ending suggests “something is looking out for her.” Something like what? The Sorcerer, perhaps?
— Lily and Mal fight; cue the first time anyone has ever referred to Maleficent as a pushover.
— Zelena sniffs that Regina’s just “another woman defining her happiness relative to the love of a man.” Regina counters that her happy ending is “finally feeling at home in the world,” not getting together with Robin. Is the implication that she’s just now realizing this has been true all along… or that Once‘s writers are trying to defend themselves from fans who would echo Zelena’s point?
— Totally Crazy, Probably Completely Off-Base Finale Theory: Emma’s going to end up being the new Dark One. Somehow. And when she does, her hair will be terrible and glorious to behold.