Far-off places, daring sword fights, magic spells, a Chinese warrior maiden in disguise -- welcome back, Once Upon a Time
Once Recap
Credit: Jack Rowand/ABC
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Reason #1 I had a feeling season 2’s premiere, “Broken,” would be a slam dunk: I knew that this episode would introduce a Once-ified Mulan, and Mulan, as we all know, is the best.

Reason #2: The advanced screener of the episode I watched began with this message: “As always, we kindly ask that you not reveal major plot points to your readers [before the premiere airs], and please do not reveal the ending of the episode or Regina will find you and curse you.”

Yes, OUAT is back in a big way. The stakes are higher, the special effects are more special, and the issues that plagued last season — repetitive plot lines, Storybrooke never being nearly as interesting as Fairy Land — have largely been dealt with. Sure, there are still a few flies in the love potion; the show seems to change the rules of how magic works whenever it’s convenient, and characterization can still be more than a little inconsistent. (Wait, so Henry really does love Regina? Since… when?) Regardless, the Once that returned tonight is a stronger, better show than it was in season 1, and I’m very excited to see where things go from here. Especially since my prediction that a group of characters would end up being trapped in Fairy Land came true — albeit an episode after I thought it would.

After a mysterious cold open — more on that later — we spy two warriors riding across what appears to be the Dothraki Sea. Who knew one of those doors in Jefferson’s portal central led to Westeros? Anyhow, Renly and Brienne — er, Prince Phillip and his unnamed companion, who, spoiler alert, is totally Mulan — are headed to an abandoned castle, where Companion stands back sullenly as Phillip cuts through some briars and awakens his somnolent true love, Aurora. Accent watch: She’s American; he’s British. Their glorious reunion is interrupted when a Dementor — no, wait, a ringwraith — er, actually, just a regular wraith — bursts out of the floor, spooks the trio, then flies away, leaving behind a pendant embellished with an extra-fancy yen sign. “What was that thing?” asks Aurora breathlessly. “Something bad,” Phillip answers. I hope he and his Brave Companion brought some fortifying chocolate in their Questing Satchels.

Back in Storybrooke, various fairy tale figures have exuberant reunions as they celebrate regaining their memories. In the interest of clarity, I’m going to refer to everyone by his or her fairy tale name; after all, their Storybrooke identities no longer really exist. Snow and Charming finally face their grown-up daughter and pull her into a three-way hug — but the moment isn’t entirely ebullient. Snow looks deliriously happy. Charming looks wistful, as though mourning the years they’ve lost. Emma looks like she ate some bad shellfish. But understanding why Emma isn’t jumping for joy will have to wait. First, the gang has to question Rumpelstiltskin about double-crossing Emma and bringing magic back to Storybrooke. They’re sidetracked, though, when Jiminy Human rushes up and begs them to stop an angry mob that’s determined to kill Regina. Hey, remember when Regina had a dream that predicted this very incident?

NEXT: You’ve got Whale, whoever he is

The mob is led by Dr. Whale, a man whose fairy tale identity is still a mystery. (More on that later too.) He pounds on Regina’s door and tells the wicked one that he and his crew are going to kill her — but not until after making her suffer. Hey, which fairy figure is an unapologetic sadist? (Besides, er, most of them.) But Regina is unimpressed by his bravado. “Listening to you has been enough suffering for all of us,” she smirks. “You wanted to see your queen? Well, here… she… is!” she says, waving her arms and preparing to cast a giant spell. Except… nothing happens. Uh oh — has the Evil Queen been brought down to normal?

Just as Whale makes a move to start wringing her neck — oh, I know, he’s the Scranton Strangler! — Emma and the Charming Brigade appear to save the Mayor’s life. Why? Because Emma’s still sheriff, even though her instincts rival Mr. Magoo’s. And, according to Snow, nothing Regina did can justify murdering her. Snow might change her tune if she knew about all the people Regina has murdered, both directly and indirectly.

Emma and her parents lock R in the cell that once held Mary Margaret/Snow and demand to know why Storybrooke’s residents weren’t swept away to Fairy Land as soon as the curse was broken. According to Regina, it’s because there’s no Fairy Land for them to go back to: “That world is gone,” she says, meaning that it ceased to exist when the curse went into effect. And though Rumpelstiltskin will momentarily accuse the queen of being an awful liar, the Charming crew accepts Regina’s explanation. Viewers, however, shouldn’t be so trusting, since Regina couldn’t have retrieved that poisoned apple if this were true. Then again, if a dimension stops existing, does that necessarily mean one can’t open a portal to a time in which it still existed? Where’s Doc Jensen when you need him?

The trio heads off to seek answers from the Dark One. They somehow don’t notice that Rump is actually already in the sheriff’s office, lurking in a doorway and waiting for his chance to confront Regina. Rump hasn’t transformed back into his gold-skinned, dentally-challenged Fairy Land self — but even so, he’s plenty malevolent. Especially now that he knows Regina captured his Twue Wuv Belle and locked her up with Nurse Ratched for 28 years. Though the imp has promised Belle he won’t kill Regina himself, he tells the queen with glee that he has a fate worse than death in store for her — then produces the same pendant the wraith left behind in Fairy Land.

So, what exactly is that creature and its pendant? According to Phillip’s not-so-masked companion — who, yup, is Mulan, everyone gets a cookie — it’s a guishen, which behaves an awful lot like a Dementor. (I deciphered the beast’s Chinese name by using my intricate knowledge of traditional Far Eastern philosophy the Google. Update: Or maybe she said “qishen,” which a Twitter follower tells me means “energy spirit.” Consensus, Chinese speakers?) These wraiths mark their prey with their pendant, then don’t rest until they’ve sucked away said prey’s soul. They fear light and Patronus charms, but are otherwise basically unstoppable. And, uh oh, Prince Phillip has the mark of the damned on his palm — as does Regina, who kinda sorta definitely deserves it.

NEXT: They’ve got magic to do — just for you

Phil’s no dummy, despite that “something bad” crack. Though he hasn’t revealed his fatal new tattoo to his companions, the prince knows that this blemish means he’s all but done for. So once he, Mulan, and Aurora leave the abandoned palace and find a spot to hunker down for the night, he tells the gals he’s headed off in search of firewood, spends about ten full seconds sloppily making out with Sleeping Beauty, then heads off to face his sorry destiny. As poor Mulan tries not to watch their farewell kiss, she notices how in the rain, the pavement shines like silver and all the lights are misty in the river. The forest goes to bed! And she can live insiiiiide… her head.

Rumpelstiltskin’s pouring a steaming cuppa from the mouth of Mrs. Potts when Emma, Charming, and Snow barge into his shop. Emma wants answers, then decides that she’d settle for just punching Rump in the Belle kisser. But according to the pawn shop owner, she and her family have no reason to complain — the curse is broken, Henry is alive, and Emma has finally been reunited with her parents. Instead of an uppercut to the jaw, she should give him a ticker-tape parade! Oh, there is also the matter of the magic he brought to Storybrooke… but a well-timed earthquake shudder saves Rump from having to explain it. All he’ll say is that the force will take care of Regina; the Charming crew subsequently take off to help the queen, because if her soul were sucked away, Once would be a much more boring show.

Belle, looking spiffy and less like a squirrel baby enthusiast thanks to an offscreen makeover, is disappointed that Rumpel is still a dirty rotten scoundrel. “I thought you’d changed,” she says Australianly. “In the hour you’ve known me?” Rump replies awesomely. She runs off, but don’t worry — soon enough, she returns and tells her beast that she has to stay with him because he’s a monster. That’s right, ladies: If you find a man who’s creepy and demonstrably evil and a few hundred years older than you, but he owns a sweet pawn shop and kept a cup you dropped in another dimension, stick it out. You can change him!

In less psychologically problematic news, the wraith has come to Storybrooke’s Azkaban to claim Regina’s soul, which probably tastes like cardiac ashes and rotten apples. Before it can suck her dead, the Charming crew scares it off. Fire good! Regina exposits that the thing can’t be killed, but it can be sent somewhere else — like, say, the empty void supposedly located where Fairy Land once existed. Cut to Regina’s Cruella de Vil office, where she whips out Jefferson’s magic hat. Jefferson himself is supposed to show up in next week’s episode, by the way, which is good because my television has been suffering from a severe handsomeness deficiency.

NEXT: Twist!!

And just as season 1’s finale showed alternating footage of Emma and Charming fighting the same dragon, tonight’s episode cuts between scenes of the Charming crew trying to draw the wraith into a portal and Prince Phillip going to meet the wraith on the field of battle. Poor Phillip loses his fight; Mulan and Aurora track him down just in time to see the wraith suck the prince dry. Before he dies, he turns to the women and says, “I love you.” I’d say it’s unclear who, precisely, he was talking to, but it’s almost certain that he meant Aurora. Cheer up, Mulan; you haven’t met Shang yet.

The Storybrooke wraith campaign is more successful — to a point. Regina can’t get the hat to do its magic until Emma touches her. Then the portal appears and sucks in the wraith — along with Emma and Snow, who dives in after her daughter. Charming tries to follow as well, but he ends up being stuck in Maine like so many Kennebunkport townies. He turns to Regina, ready to finally kill her… only to learn that her magical powers aren’t exactly depleted after all. Did she have them all along, or did Emma’s touch revive them? Either way, Regina’s wallpaper comes alive, ensnaring Charming in vines that try to strangle him just as Dr. Whale tried to strangle her. The prince is saved when Henry and Red barge in; the kid with the world’s most confusing family tree tells Regina that he wants nothing to do with her until she gets Emma and Snow White back to Storybrooke. I see a lot more hat tricks in our future.

Back in Fairy Land, a morose Aurora and Mulan lay Prince Phillip on the bier where Sleeping Beauty once dozed. They don’t have much time to mourn, though — as Mulan explains, things have changed since Aurora went to sleep. It seems as though all of Fairy Land’s residents weren’t transported to Storybrooke when Regina’s curse went into effect after all; a small swath of folk were simply frozen in place for 28 years, then gained the ability to move again around the time that Emma appeared in Maine. (So time in Storybrooke and time in Fairy Land does pass at the same rate? Is that consistent with what we’ve seen on this show so far?)

Mulan tells the princess that the two of them have to head to a safe haven, and they’re about to take off when they hear a noise from beneath some rubble. Mulan realizes that the debris is hiding the beings who brought the wraith to Fairy Land, meaning that they’re responsible for Phillip’s death. And which kooky mother-daughter pair does she then discover? That’s right: Emma and Snow, who aren’t suspended in the Great Nothing after all. Good thing the sheriff wore her good red leather jacket today!

NEXT: The triumphant return of Breadcrumbs

Phew — so the fairybacks are now sideways-world-fairybacks, at least tonight. That’s tasty, but not as tasty as the various Breadcrumbs strewn throughout tonight’s premiere. Such as:

– Let’s talk about that opening scene, in which a mysterious stranger living in Manhattan receives word via carrier pigeon that Storybrooke’s curse has been broken. The guy is played by Michael Raymond-James, late of True Blood. Who could he be — Baelfire, all grown up? Henry’s father? Both? Neither? Jack Sprat?! For what it’s worth, the song that plays when we meet him is “Charley’s Girl” by Lou Reed; the lyrics aren’t particularly fairy tale-ish, but nothing on Once is an accident.

– And, on a similar note: Who the heck is Dr. Whale, if not Pinocchio‘s Monstro? He can’t be intimately involved in Snow White’s back story, since Charming clearly doesn’t know Whale’s fairy tale identity. Internet theories guess that in Fairy Land, Whale could have been everyone from Peter Pan to Dr. Frankenstein. His nautically themed last name must be a clue, though — maybe he’s Smee? (Joking, guys. Though Captain Hook will show up later this season.)

– How does this extension of the Sleeping Beauty story jibe with what Maleficent told Regina way back in Episode 2? I think the writers might have some retconning to do.

– Unnecessary Henry line of the night: “[Emma] did it. She saved you.”

– Snow desperately wants to catch up with her daughter. Emma would like to wait until later, when they can chat over “a glass of wine… or several. Bottles.”

– Emma’s standoffishness drives Snow to babble about how she and her daughter have already talked about things they shouldn’t have discussed, “one-night stands and the like.” Since Charming’s standing right next to her, Snow must then admit that she and Dr. Whale had a thing: “We were cursed! That is neither here nor there.” The episode’s funniest moment?

– Oh, also: Emma still owes Rumpelstiltskin a favor. This ought to be good.

– You just know that a ton of people are rooting for Aurora and Mulan to get over Phillip by hooking up with each other. I hereby dub this ship Mulora.

Next week’s episode will reveal how Regina and Rumpelstiltskin first met — and it was written by the great Jane Espenson, to whom all praise is due. But before we look ahead, let’s discuss what we just saw. Did “Broken” meet your expectations? And what can’t you wait to see in season 2?

Episode Recaps

Once Upon a Time

Everything you’ve ever read about fairy tales is true—the residents of Storybrooke are living proof.

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