Somebody call Valerie Cherish, because the subtitle of tonight’s Once may as well have been “The Comeback.” The hour saw three—count ’em!—big resurgences, two in the main storyline and one in the fairyback… all of which involved villains, or at least morally ambiguous figures. (Remember when August tried to convince Rumple that he was actually Baelfire? Doesn’t that seem like it happened 75 years ago?)
Much as the episode’s actual title implies, the fairyback focused on the Enchanted Forest’s most draconian scoundrel: Maleficent herself. Though she’s not all that draconian the first time Past Mal appears onscreen.
Regina discovers this for herself when she takes a Rumple-assisted jaunt over to the wasteland surrounding Forbidden Mountain, where Mal’s castle looms. The future Evil Queen is on hand because she’s hoping the Mistress of All Evil may be able to help push along her magical studies, getting her that much closer to exacting her revenge on Snow White. Unfortunately, when she arrives, she finds Mal to be less willing teacher and more magically hopped-up floozy, a snarky, Sleeping-Curse-doped-up shadow of her former self. Why? Because King Stefan defeated her years ago, using True Love’s kiss to awaken the princess Briar Rose—and in the years since, Mal has decidedly lost her groove. She can’t even shape-shift into a dragon anymore! She can, however, shape-shift her hair into looking like Christina Aguilera’s in the “Lady Marmalade” video, so all hope is not lost.
There’s also the matter of a certain burning bush—er, tree. It’s been aflame ever since Mal, in dragon form, laid waste to the lands around her castle half a lifetime earlier—and Regina, newly incensed after learning that Briar Rose’s daughter Aurora is about to get her own happy ending, believes if the evil fairy can extract that fire back into herself, it’ll spark the embers of magic still within her. Or something. You’d think Mal may have had this idea herself over the past few decades, but whatever; she doesn’t fight Regina, instead heading toward the tree.
I half expect to hear Val Kilmer’s voice gently encouraging Mal as she holds out her arms and breathes deeply, inhaling all the tree’s burn-y goodness. The bad ladies can’t tell, at first, if their plan has worked, but before long they get a chance to find out—because King Stefan’s arrived to ensure that Mal doesn’t get in the way of his daughter’s special day. It’s showtime. She’s just gotta ignite… the light… and let… it shiiiiiiiiine…
Except, whoops, the dragon transformation ends up being a bust. Ah well! To the gallows Mal and Regina go! (Although: Isn’t Regina… a queen? Does Stefan really have jurisdiction over her? How do the principalities of the Enchanted Forest and the surrounding environs work, especially in relation to one another? These are the thoughts that keep me up at night.)
It looks like all is lost for our fair not-heroines—until Regina refuses to go down without a fight. She burns through the ropes Stefan’s goons have tied around her wrists, and gives Mal a shortened version of Jack Shephard’s old tried-and-true “live together, die alone” speech. It’s enough to re-reignite the dragon fire within Mal—and soon enough, she’s making like Drogon, or at least a version of Drogon as animated by the best computer programs of 1997.
And so begins Mal and Regina’s beautiful friendship. Regina accompanies Mal to Princess Aurora’s bedchamber, where the fairy lays down a wicked sleeping curse; Regina returns to her actual magic tutor, Rumple, with a newfound zeal for learning and a nifty draught of sleeping potion. No wonder present-day Maleficent seems compelled to believe present-day Regina when she waltzes over to the Queens of Darkness and lies that she wants in on their secret circle; these two obviously go way back, even if Regina did break up with her best pal by imprisoning her beneath a library for decades.
Before the Evil Pink Ladies will allow Mayor Mills to join the most exclusive club in town, though, she’s going to have to prove her mettle by doing some normal things: drinking heavily, getting into a vehicle with a bunch of smug costume party refugees who have also been drinking heavily, not blinking in the wake of an oncoming train (coming from where? Going to where? How does Storybrooke’s magical isolation accommodate a frickin’ enormous train?), wrecking a car. Beyond the whole train thing—it’s a game of Chicken Regina loses, but only just—she seems to be passing their tests with flying colors. Soon, she tells the heroes, she’ll know exactly what the Queens of Darkness are plotting.
NEXT: But when are they gonna invite Regina to join them for Jingle Bell Rock?
Except that Regina hasn’t been counting on one thing: The Queens know exactly what her game is, and with Rumple’s help, they’re planning to transform her into a fully bad triple-agent. Or would that just make her a single agent again? In any case: Looks like these guys are sharper than the average villain. Good for them!
And so, in the next phase of the plan, Maleficent tells Regina what she and her pals are “really” up to—they, too, are in search of the Author. She also convinces Regina to come along and steal a magical object that’ll help with their search. Wait, did I say object? Because I meant “onetime object turned living puppet/donkey/real boy/full-grown leather-clad man/real boy again.” In other words: They’re gonna kidnap Pinocchio.
Emma—who, bless her heart, actually believes she’s been totally incognito while trailing Regina under the auspices of having the queen’s back—thinks this is an absolutely awful idea, and fully expects Regina to abort. But Mills slips through Swan’s grasp, absconding with the kid and leaving behind her Blackberry (so Emma can’t track her) bearing a simple message: “I got this.”
But does she? Because when Regina arrives at Evil Headquarters, a.k.a. Rumplestiltskin’s cabin (how many pieces of property does this guy own, anyway?), she discovers the truth: The magic the Queens want to use to find the Author is none other than that of The Dark One, alive and well and living once again in Storybrooke. Oh, and one more thing: He’s got his dagger back.
Wait—how? By employing a ruse that’s particularly clever, even for Rumple: Earlier in the night, we see Hook approach Belle and warn her that the Queens’ appearance could somehow be tied to the Dark One. He urges her to consider digging up the dagger, wherever it may be buried, and giving it to him so that he can stow it somewhere even safer—and Belle agrees, bringing Hook along when she unearths the knife. Just to be safe, Hook suggests she command the Dark One to show himself if he is, indeed, back in town. Belle does just that, telling her invisible ex, “If you’re here, come and face me now.”
When the words escape her lips, Hook turns his head toward hers. But Rumple doesn’t manifest, so Belle figures she’s safe and hands the dagger over, then leaves… only for Hook to dissolve into a cloud of smoke, revealing that “he” was actually Rumple all along. Tricky tricky!
So: The Dark One has risen once more, and he’s playing a long game where Regina is concerned. For now, though, he’s pretending to believe her when she says she’s gone back to the dark side… and he’s planning to test that via what happens next. See, everyone knows that Young Pinocchio can’t help the Evil Cabal locate the Author because his adult memories were erased when he was transformed into a child. There is, however, someone else who can help: Full-Grown Augustocchio. And it just so happens that Rump has the power to embiggen the kid, turning him back into a scruffy ne’er do well… leather jacket and all. Can’t wait to see how Real Hook responds to this.
— One mystery solved: That ending explains why the show’s editors thought Regina snarling “You wore leather!” was important enough to include in tonight’s “previously, on Once” montage.
— Again—how can a train pass in and out of the town line surrounding Storybrooke? My head hurts.
— Mal’s got enough style that I’m sorta surprised to see her wearing Zelena’s hand-me-downs.
— As the fairybacks proved, she’s also the ultimate close-talker. Shipper bait, anyone?
— Henry’s single line tonight: “I think the door somehow has something to do with the Author.” Slow down, kid—you’re gonna be as good a detective as your grandfather someday.
— Regina, resenting those who don’t know how to stay incognito: “I see you’ve brought the entire Charming softball team, and their pirate mascot.” Ain’t nothing wrong with a pirate mascot, especially in the form of a pierogi.
— Rump-as-Hook talks to Belle about Will Scarlet; she confirms that while she isn’t over her husband, she and Will are pretty happy together. This is not going to end well for the Knave, is it?
— Emma complains that her lie-detection “superpower” is going haywire. And it only took her four seasons to realize!
Follow Hillary on Twitter: @hillibusterr