Tonight, Once Upon a Time introduced a new, aquatically-inclined character with an episode that was the narrative equivalent of treading water. How appropriate!
To paraphrase the little mermaid herself, flipping its fins won’t get a show too far — unless there’s some serious forward momentum propelling that paddling. Compare this episode, for example, to what Once was doing at this same point in previous years: Season 1’s sixth episode established David’s backstory and revealed that Sheriff Skinnyjeans was sleeping with Regina. Season 2’s sixth episode illuminated Emma’s past with Nealfire and propelled the “Emma and Snow try to get back to Storybrooke” plotline by giving them a magic compass. (Oh, and coincidence alert — I started that writeup with a brief spoof of “Part of Your World.”)
By contrast, just about diddly squat actually happened in “Ariel,” save the suspiciously easy rescue of Nealfire and the introduction of Ariel herself. According to Regina, the MBC has been tooling around Never Land for a week; viewers, by contrast, have spent six stagnant weeks watching them talk about rescuing Henry. Maybe the new MacGuffin Ariel’s been sent to fetch will have the power to inject some energy into Operation Found Boy; maybe spending next week in Storybrooke will help give season 3 a roundness it’s been sorely lacking. Either way, if the status quo doesn’t change soon, I may go from grumpy to full-on maleficent.
So okay, the merlady that gives “Ariel” its name: In Onceland, she’s still a cheery, redheaded, human-obsessed fishgirl, much like the character who helped to launch the Disney Renaissance back in 1989. (Can you imagine the revolts if Ariel had been given a dark makeover?) Snow White meets her by chance after leaping into the ocean to escape two of the evil queen’s men. Ariel saves Snow from the water, and in no time at all, the two princesses become fast friends. Maybe Ariel can lend Snow a dinglehopper to help her tame that rat’s nest of a wig?
Maybe not: The mermaid is too busy planning for that night’s big Ursula Ball, a shindig thrown each year in honor of a certain sea goddess. The party happens to coincide with the year’s highest tide — a time when the mythical Ursula gives all merfolk a chance to sprout legs for just 12 hours. Ariel’s going to take this opportunity to waltz into the ball and woo one Prince Eric, whom she’s had a thing for ever since saving him from a shipwreck the year before. Man, Snow sure picked a convenient date to take a swim.
NEXT: Legs are required for jumping, dancing
Before you can say “20 thingamabobs,” the princesses have somehow procured fancy ball gowns — how? Where? With what money? — and are standing pretty at the fete. And just as quickly, Ariel and Eric dance, kiss, schmooze,carry on, and go home happy. Fine, not quite — but Eric does invite Ariel to come with him on a trip around the realms, after having known her for approximately 30 seconds. Never let anyone say that Disney perpetuates unrealistic romantic standards! Of course, there’s just one problem: CinderAriella’s legs are about thisclose to turning back into pumpkins.
Snow urges Ariel to just tell the prince that she, you know, normally has a tail. Ariel, though, isn’t so sure about the whole honesty thing. (What, she thinks Eric just isn’t going to notice when her thighs fuse together and get covered in bedazzled scales?) So she walks to the shoreline, seeking advice from the legendary Ursula… and much to her surprise, a sneering octopus woman actually does emerge from the depths of the sea.
Ariel, you poor, unfortunate soul! The tentacled temptress is, of course, Regina, who has been spying on the mermaid and Snow via a well-placed mirror at the ball. In her best Pat Carroll drawl, the wicked queen offers to help Ariel achieve her wildest dreams by handing over a magical bracelet that will allow the mermaid to switch lower halves with a human; she’ll get that person’s legs, while that person in return will get her tail.
This is like shooting fish in a barrel. Ariel clamps the bracelet onto Snow, giving Ms. White a tail that prevents her from fleeing Regina. There are a few seconds of suspense… until Ariel comes to her senses, stabs Regina with that trusty dinglehopper, and removes the bracelet, returning Snow and herself to their original forms. They escape Regina — who can’t swim after them in her Ursula disguise because of… reasons — and part ways. Snow sets off in search of conditioner; Ariel goes back to Eric’s castle, hoping to stop him before he takes off on that grand tour.
Alas, she’s foiled by the Evil Queen, who steals Ariel’s voice out of pure spite. But at least she’s still got her looks! Her pretty face! And don’t underestimate the importance of body language, HAAA! “Time to swim back home… LITTLE MERMAID,” Regina sneers, just in case we’ve spent the last hour believing this episode was Once‘s take on, I don’t know, Oliver and Company.
NEXT: To the Caves of Contrivance!
Ariel will reappear at the episode’s end, summoned to Never Land by Regina — who’s finally decided to ditch the MBC in favor of an alliance with Rumpelstiltskin. See, within Rump’s pawn shop, there’s a magical item imbued with the power to sentence Pan to a “fate worse than death.” Because it just so happens that mermaids can travel between realms without magical sea-wardrobes or ocean beans or anything, Ariel is the perfect delivery girl — once her voice has been restored. What’s more, Regina says, Ariel’s Prince Eric is waiting in Storybrooke… which again prompts the question of exactly how many kingdoms there are/were in the Enchanted Forest.
Next week, then, we’ll follow Ariel back to Maine, hopefully getting a much-needed respite from all the non-action among the Magical Breakfast Club. This week: Remember all the suspense generated by Pan telling Hook that Nealfire was alive and on the island? Yeah, it’s dissipated pretty much immediately; Hook tells the Charmings about Nealfire’s whereabouts, and Snow in turn relays the news to Emma. They set off toward the Caves of Contrivance — sorry, the Echo Caves — where Pan has moved Nealfire’s cage. Hook exposits that this underground chamber is like the geological equivalent of Gretchen Weiners’ hair: It traffics in secrets.
And so after establishing that Nealfire is really and truly alive, the MBC begins assembling a stone bridge by baring their souls. Hook reveals that he never thought he’d be able to let go of Milah until he met Emma. Snow says… that she’s sad about missing Emma’s childhood and wants to have another baby, which doesn’t seem like much of a secret to me, but is apparently enough for the cave. Charming comes clean about the dreamshade arrow and the magic now tying him to Never Land. Finally, Emma tells the father of her child that she was sort of hoping he was actually dead — way harsh! — because mourning him would be easier than having to deal with the pain and heartbreak he makes her feel.
With that, Nealfire is free once more, and the MBC can once again start planning to plan to plan to rescue Henry. There’s just one more wrinkle: Nealfire now knows that Emma never stopped loving him, and he confesses in return that he’s not going to stop fighting for her. Consider this love triangle officially ignited.
NEXT: Breadcrumbs… unda da sea!
– Before ditching the MBC, Regina tries to teach Emma how to spin anger into magic. The Savior’s still not living up to her full potential — but her abilities have to come into play before this interminable Never Land storyline comes to an end, right?
– And on a similar note: It seems safe to guess that Henry won’t be saved at least until episode 9, helpfully titled “Save Henry.” So get ready for two more weeks of this!
– Another hint about Pan and Rumpel’s past: The boy knows the Dark One’s favorite breakfast. Maybe they were both short-order cooks at the same evil cafe.
– Ariel, trying to remember what to call that pesky doo-hickey humans use to shovel food into their mouths: “Mini trident? Salad trident?”
– Regina earns quadruple quintuple points for conclusively proving that Ghost Vision Quest Belle has, in fact, been Pan’s shadow in disguise this whole time.
– Also, for blithely breaking a henchman’s neck after sneering, “No, death looks more like THIS!”
– Maybe the section this week should be renamed ReginaCrumbs, because here’s another tidbit: The queen tells Rumpel that she won’t let him die at anyone’s hands but her own. So comforting!
– Rump, too, got in one awesome line when Regina picked up that conch: “If you think summoning a giant squid is the answer, I’ve already tried that.”
– Think the Once team meant to make the cave rescue scene look just like the opening of Toy Story 2?
– Ursula the Sea Goddess is actually real… and she’s none too pleased with Regina for impersonating her. And she’s also voiced by Community‘s awesome Yvette Nicole Brown! Please, please, please let the real Ursula show up in a future episode. I understand if she doesn’t have time for a cameo, though; after all, she’s a very busy woman.