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!