The Stranger gets a lot less strange as we learn who August really is

By Hillary Busis
Updated April 30, 2015 at 08:53 PM EDT
Jack Rowand/ABC

Once Upon a Time is normally so overstuffed that recapping any given episode can be a real challenge. But tonight’s installment can be summed up with a few short sentences: August is Pinoccho — commenters, give yourselves a pat on the collective back! — as well as the boy who “found” baby Emma after she traveled out of Fairy Land. Emma still refuses to believe in the curse. And Regina wants to seduce David, for some reason. That’s… basically it, excluding a truly frustrating concluding twist. When will Snow White’s line learn that running away is almost guaranteed to make a problem worse?

It’s a shame that there wasn’t more to “The Stranger,” especially considering we’ve only got two episodes left in Once‘s first season. I’d hoped that by this point, Emma would finally be able to get over her stubborn skepticism. Watching her refuse to believe even after she sees and experiences ridiculous things week after week has gotten as old as seeing Mary Margaret and David have that same “We want to be together but we can’t be together” conversation over and over.

I appreciate the fact that we’ve delved deeply into various characters’ backgrounds, and I understand why Emma’s enlightenment keeps getting delayed. (The series would end awfully quickly if she accepted everything Henry told her from the get-go.) But that doesn’t mean I’m not annoyed by the way Once‘s Storybrooke storylines keep treading water. If the real world stuff is going to be even half as interesting as the Fairy Land stuff, we’ve simply got to get a little more forward momentum. And not the kind that comes from Emma making the dumb decision to, say, kidnap Henry.

Before Emma tries to spirit her son away, she watches August install a “medieval chic” lock on her apartment door. This, hopefully, will keep Regina and her skeleton keys from stashing any more daggers in Mary Margaret’s room. Now that she’s crossed “secure castle” off her to-do list, Emma moves onto the next item: meeting up with Henry at Granny’s. There, the tyke tells his birth mom that somebody’s added a story about Pinocchio to his story book. But who, and why, and was he riding a motorcycle while he did it??

Cut to the story of Pinocchio as it unfolds in Fairy Land. Like Tom Hanks before him, Gepetto is riding a raft in a storm, accompanied only by an inanimate object; unlike Tom Hanks, Gepetto’s companion can actually talk back. He and Pinocchio are being pursued by Monstro, who may or may not have a Storybrooke counterpart in predatory Dr. Whale. Side note: This is definitely the most technically impressive sequence on Once thus far, and I’m loving both how epic the storm is and how realistic Pinocchio himself looks.

The puppet offers to Jack Dawson himself by giving the raft’s only life vest to Gepetto. Though his selflessness immediately results in something like death, that’s remedied when the Blue Fairy appears and turns him into a real boy at last. Man, the Blue Fairy is like the good version of Rumpelstilskin; she has her hands in everything, and her appearance makes viewers cringe. I hope Once‘s costume crew banishes those jellyfish dresses to another dimension in Season 2.

NEXT: August’s true true identity: Long John Silver

After celebrating her innocence at a “Hooray for Not Murdering Anyone (So Far)” party, MM is ready to return to school. Before she heads to class, she runs into Regina… and though the mayor is almost certainly itching for a good old-fashioned Threatdown, Mary Margaret refuses to give her what she wants. Instead, she awesomely forgives the queen and says that she feels sorry for her: “Your life must be filled with such incredible loneliness if your only joy comes from destroying everyone else’s happiness.” Ooo, burn! If there’s anything a villain hates, it’s pity. Then Henry comes along and cheerfully rubs salt in his adoptive mother’s new wound, telling her that no matter what she does, “Snow White will have her happy ending. She and Prince Charming will be together. The curse will end. Good WILL win.” And he’s not going to eat any stupid broccoli at dinner, either!

Though last week he claimed he’d be able to make Emma see the light, August hasn’t made much headway yet. Her preoccupation with winning custody of Henry has made her even less likely to entertain talk of curses. Unfortunately, time is of the essence; because of his various lies and selfish acts, one of the writer’s legs has become solid wood below the knee. (Good thing his top half didn’t start transforming first.) So August heads to Gold’s store, intending to ask the shopkeeper to give Emma a nudge in his direction. There, he gets a jolt: Marco, Gepetto’s Storybrooke alter ego, is examining a Fairy Land-made cuckoo clock that Gold apparently wants him to fix.

There’s some major unspoken “Cat’s in the Cradle” tension. August looks shaken, but he doesn’t say a word to his papa; Marco, of course, doesn’t recognize his timber-toed son and walks right by him. Gold watches it all unfold with an amused look on his face — even though you’d think of everyone in Storybrooke, he might have some sympathy for August. Anyhow, Gold helps August out by telling Emma that he won’t represent her in a custody case against Regina; a desperate sheriff then turns to August, who has promised to show her how to take down the mayor. Within moments, he and Emma are riding out of town — past the car-crash sign! — on a Magical Mystery Tour to parts unknown.

Gepetto and Pinocchio’s father-son Tool Time is interrupted by a visit from — you guessed it — the Blue Fairy, who informs the wood master that Regina has threatened the kingdom with a curse. Their land’s only hope is the unborn child of Snow White and Prince Charming, a Jedi knight Chosen One who’s destined to destroy Regina 28 years from now. (Saviors have a long incubation period.)

The fairy leads Gepetto, Pinocchio, and Jiminy Cricket to an enchanted tree — the realm’s last — and tells Gepetto that to save Fairy Land, he’ll have to carve a vessel. Such a device will contain enough magic to transport two people away from their world, meaning that a pregnant Snow and her prince will be taken to a land without magic, where they’ll raise Emma until her 28th year comes. But suddenly, the artisan starts worrying about what’ll happen to his son when the curse strikes. He fears that it may cause Pinocchio to revert back to his wooden form; since Jiminy didn’t stay a cricket, I guess it’s safe to say that Gepetto needn’t have fretted. But in any case, he tells the fairy that he’ll build a wardrobe for Snow on one condition: That Pinocchio gets its second slot.

NEXT: The lyin’, the hitch, and the wardrobe

Though neither the fairy nor Jiminy — who does his best to persuade Gepetto to change his mind — is on board with this, Blue finally agrees to Gepetto’s terms. She tells the Justice League of Fairy Land that Gepetto’s wardrobe will only be able to transport one person to the other world. And even though her nonexistent pants are on fire, nobody but Gepetto knows the truth.

Regina’s Evil Agenda is looking particularly light today, so she decides to avenge Mary Margaret’s pity by making a move on her true love. She activates David’s Damsel in Distress signal by pretending to have car trouble; soon enough, her Knight in Practical Flannel is carrying groceries into her mansion. Regina then manipulates David further by pretending to read a note from Henry indicating that he’s having dinner with Dr. Hopper; “Lately it seems like he’d do anything to avoid spending time with me,” she tells him, which is at least true.

Thus David ends up sitting around for what’s presumably a long time — lasagna is a labor-intensive dish, guys! — before polishing off a big plate of layered pasta with Regina. This is the mayor’s cue to go in for the kill. She tells David the story of how she rescued him on a cold winter’s night, then brought his comatose form to the hospital. But despite this mood-setting tale, David pulls back when Regina tries to kiss him. At least somebody’s not as easily influenced as Sidney Glass! After he gently turns her down and leaves, Regina angrily breaks a mirror — maybe hearkening back to a time when her seductive powers were strong enough to get a genie to murder her husband, then transform himself into a looking glass so he could be with her always. And she didn’t even have to cook that guy dinner!

Another flashback to a scene we’ve seen before: Snow’s going into labor early, meaning that the wardrobe plan will have to be reevaluated. The Blue Fairy tells Gepetto that he has to let snow go through with her daughter. But Gepetto is single-minded in his determination to save his son. He tells the young boy that taking care of Emma — and eventually teaching her about her destiny — will now have to be his job. But don’t worry, no pressure, Pinoch. With a simple close of the wardrobe door, Pinocchio is immediately transported to some woods near I-95, circa 1983. He pokes his head out of a tree, looking for all the world like a lost Weasley sibling dressed as a Keebler Elf. Emma, swaddled in her baby blanket, soon follows. I hope they can make camp in an abandoned boxcar or something.

NEXT: “I’m not sure I became the man my father wanted me to be, mostly because I may be turning into a puppet”

August brings Emma to a diner near that very spot and begins trying to convince her that his crazy story is true. He tells her that he was the boy who found her 28 years ago — and that, furthermore, he discovered her near a tree, not on the side of the road. Even after being taken to said tree, Emma’s not budging in her disbelief. August tells her he knows what her baby blanket looked like, and that he realized when she decided to stay in Storybrooke (8:15pm, Lost fans!) because his leg started to hurt; still, Emma is unmoved.

In fact, Emma’s denial is so strong that even when August lifts up his pant leg, she can’t see the wooden limb hiding beneath. But a desperate clinging to logic is only half the story — the real reason Emma keeps rejecting August’s assertions is because she doesn’t want or feel like she can handle the responsibility of being an entire world’s savior. August doesn’t sympathize; “You’re our only hope,” he tells her. “Then you’re all screwed,” she answers before turning to walk away.

If Emma had the capacity to remember being a baby, she might be even less inclined to trust August. Not long after the two of them were placed in foster care, young Pinocchio — no word on what he had Earth-people call him at that point — skipped town with a group of other kids, guiltily leaving Emma behind. Best part of this scene: When the ringleader kid told Pinoch, “If you want to stay here the rest of your life, be my guest.” If wishes really came true, this would have immediately segued into a full-throttle musical sequence.

Get out the tissues: It’s time for tonight’s most emotionally resonant scene. Though August has failed to convince Emma, he figures he can at least try to reconnect with his dad. After traveling out to Marco’s shop, he tells the old man how to fix that pesky cuckoo clock; when an impressed Marco asks who taught him to fix things like that, August answers, “My father.” And then he volunteers to be Marco’s unpaid assistant. Aww! I hope this blossoms into a non-dysfunctional parent-child relationship.

Oh hey, but you know what — or who — is dysfunctional? Emma, who decides that the best way to win an upcoming custody battle is by stealing away with Henry in the dead of night. Judging from next week’s preview, she doesn’t get too far — but even so, come on, Emma.

NEXT: Tasty, nutritious Breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs

– Where did August learn to be so handy? “Wood shop, 8th grade,” he cracks.

– Speaking of, now that we know his true identity, does it make sense to keep calling this character by his assumed name? Should we switch to using Pinocchio? Or is there some sort of August/Pinocchio portmanteau that might work here?

– Drinking game for tonight: Imbibe whenever someone mentions “faith.” Better yet, play this game while watching some selections from Season 3 of Buffy.

– The virtues Pinocchio must abide by are carried over from the 1940 Disney movie: bravery, truthfulness, and selflessness. Though August has never seemed particularly cowardly, he’s doing pretty poorly on the other two fronts.

– Considering her true nature, Regina is awfully patient with Henry when he blows up at her.

– Pre-Earth Pinocchio has a bit of a sadistic streak; after trussing up crickets, the next logical step is pulling the wings off flies. From there, it’s a short trip to Dexter-town.

– When Jiminy tells Gepetto that he’s just trying to help him, Gepetto has an awesome retort at the ready: “Help? Like you helped my parents?”

– Another Lostian touch: When he’s first arrived on Earth, little Pinocchio is startled by a plane flying overhead. Update: Damn my not-HD-enough TV! Commenters say that this flight was actually Oceanic 815. Watch out, some island off the coast of Maine.

– August tells Emma that when his leg first started hurting, he was on Phuket, “this beautiful, amazing island full of pleasures.” In case your Pinocchio knowledge is rusty, that’s a reference to this. (Side note: Who else was absolutely terrified by this scene when they saw Pinocchio as a child? Is it more or less terrifying than Dumbo‘s pink elephant sequence?)

We’re ramping up to what should be a kickass finale in two weeks — but in the meantime, was “The Stranger” everything you were hoping for? Did you enjoy watching August’s secrets be revealed, even if you had guessed his identity long ago?And have you lost patience with Emma? Don’t lie to me, Oncelers — I’ll be able to see your noses grow.

Hillary on Twitter

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