Superhero franchises tend to follow a familiar, tried-and-true pattern. They launch with origin stories catalyzed by personal tragedy; they feature love interests who are pert and plucky and not granted very much screen time; they increasingly focus on quests to snatch an All-Powerful Glowing Thingie from the bad guy who wants to use it to take over the world, at least if they take place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They also tend to make one assumption as they age: The more villains that can be crammed into a sequel, the better.
Often, but not always, this is a strategy that reaches its apotheosis in the franchise’s threequel. Spider-Man 3 didn’t think Harry Osborn breaking bad would be enough to sustain an entire story, so it also threw in Venom and Sandman for good measure. (The movie was not very good.) X-Men: The Last Stand crammed in a whole legion of brand-new bad guys, including The Juggernaut, Multiple Man, and Quill. (Everyone involved with X-Men likes to pretend this movie never happened.) The Dark Knight Rises couldn’t make do with Bane and a semi-evil Catwoman alone, so it tossed Talia al Ghul into the mix as well. (Nobody liked the movie as much as The Dark Knight.) Superman III provided a shaky blueprint for all of those films, mucking things up by forcing the Man of Steel to contend with not only the villainous Ross Webster, but also his own evil double. (It wasn’t as poorly received as Superman IV, but it didn’t exactly garner rave reviews.) Other franchises—think The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Iron Man 2—play the Too Many Villains card earlier, usually to just as mixed results; still more franchises don’t really go nuts until the fourquel (i.e. Batman and Robin, which is a mess for many reasons, but mostly because the titular heroes have to contend with Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy and Bane and a Batsuit with nipples).
But despite all those cautionary tales, Villain Creep continues to plague cinemas—maybe because franchises naturally tend toward excess as they age, maybe because a good bad guy is often more fun to watch than a good good guy… so it naturally follows that two good bad guys should be twice as fun. Mostly, though, Villain Creep probably persists because storytellers worry that sequels won’t pack the same punch as their predecessors unless they raise the stakes, and adding multiple antagonists is the easiest way to up a story’s ante.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that, after multiple arcs that have focused on taking down one major baddie—Cora, Peter Pan, Zelena, the Snow Queen—Once Upon a Time too has decided that a single Big Bad (in addition to shades of grey like Regina, Rumplestiltskin, and Hook) just won’t do. Enter season 4B’s trio of terror: Kristin Bauer von Stratten’s Maleficent, Merrin Dungey’s Ursula, and Victoria Smurfit’s Cruella de Vil.
On one hand, it’s exciting to see the show get back to its roots by introducing characters from stories older than the year 2013. On the other, Once has never exactly suffered from a dearth of characters, and it seems like it’ll be impossible to give each of these ladies the attention they deserve when they’re all constantly fighting against one another—not to mention the billions of other personalities already in Once‘s Disney vault—for screen time.
We’ll put an evil pin in that thought for now, though—because tonight’s midseason premiere is all about simply getting its wicked ducks in a row, poised for future mayhem. The fairyback explains how the Mistress of All Evil, a mysteriously be-legged sea witch, and a Gatsby theme party reject came to know each other in the first place; the present-day story line focuses on how two of them find their way to Storybrooke. And naturally, both plotlines hinge on string-pulling courtesy of Once‘s chief meddler: Rumplestiltskin.
The Dark One is, of course, the one who first calls Cruella, Maleficent, and Ursula together for a Random Villain Caucus. (Timeline nerds: This fairyback apparently takes place earlier than episode 411’s fairyback.) As Rumple reveals, he needs their particular set of skills to help him secure a dark curse. What’s in it for them? He promises said curse will help each of the three ladies achieve their own personal happy endings. (If you drank every time someone said “happy endings” tonight, I’m assuming you’re reading this recap from a hospital bed.) As of now, it’s unclear whether the hex they’re stealing is the same Dark Curse Regina will eventually use to create Storybrooke—didn’t Rumple create that one himself?—but either way, the spell is currently being hidden
deep below Hogwarts in the Cave of Wonders inside of a place called Bald Mountain, guarded by a series of “lethal magic obstacles.”
Those obstacles, in order, are: some bugs that Cruella disperses via magical halitosis (sick superpower, De Vil), a ring of dragon fire Maleficent sucks up with her staff, and… a short distance. (Ursula foils that one by reaching across it with one of her tentacles.) Um, maybe “lethal” means something different in the Enchanted Forest than it does here. Also, Rump: You, uh, couldn’t just do any of this yourself?
There is, however, one more thing protecting the curse Ursula has just handed over to Rump: the Chernabog, a.k.a. the winged hellspawn first introduced in this utterly traumatizing Fantasia segment.
Fun fact: According to the Disney wiki, Walt himself thought this guy was “the most horrible Disney villain.” How horrible? “If all the Disney villains held a contest to see which was the most truly, purely, evil, Chernabog would just throw them into the fires of hell.” Now I’m a little bummed Once didn’t keep him around longer, revealing in three episodes or so that Chern’s only aggressive because of his strained relationship with his father. In this scenario, his father is Shere Khan.
NEXT: Evil takes the front door