Mermaids, pixie dust, a storm that doubles as a metaphor -- yep, Once is back!

By Hillary Busis
April 30, 2015 at 08:44 PM EDT
Jack Rowand/ABC

I know a place where dreams are born

And time is never planned

It’s not on any chart

You must find it with your heart

Never Never Land

Er… actually, not so much. As tonight’s season premiere confirmed, Once Upon a Time‘s version of J. M. Barrie’s fantasy island isn’t exactly dreamy. Instead, it’s a nightmarescape overrun with creepy manchildren, murdeous merfolk, and merciless shadow-stealing shadows — and ruled by an imperious leader who’s cruel in the way that only an overly powerful child could be. See also: godlike 6-year-old Anthony in The Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life” and King Joffrey from Game of Thrones.

Speaking of GoT: It’s a shame Storybrooke doesn’t get HBO. If Henry had paid attention to Theon’s story in the season 3 episode “And Now His Watch is Ended” (or read George R. R. Martin’s books, for that matter), he might have been a bit more reluctant to trust the kid who conveniently showed up right after the Lost Boys took out Greg and Tamara — a kid who, to nobody’s surprise but Henry’s, turns out to be Peter Pan himself. That’s what you get for having the Heart of the Truest Believer, kid!

Of course, Henry isn’t the only person in peril. As tonight’s episode opens, the Jolly Roger’s not-so-jolly crew members are already facing their greatest challenge: Not killing each other before they even reach Neverland’s spooky shores. Snow hates Regina; Charming hates Hook; Emma is mad at both her parents; Rumpelstiltskin isn’t angry at Emma, exactly, but he does think she’s doomed to failure because after two seasons, she still hasn’t learned to just believe in magic. Sorry, Em, but he’s got a point.

After a few last sneers and a costume change, Rumpel disappears — taking the Neverland Six’s number down to five, but hardly relieving the tension on the boat. At least everybody isn’t angry at everybody else; Emma and Hook even approach something like friendship when he tries to comfort her about Baelfire’s supposed death. Hook hands over a sword that once belonged to Rumpel’s son and even offers the Savior a much-needed drink. (Yo ho ho and a shot of rum?)

The moment is ruined, though, when the ship starts a-rockin’. Are they being attacked by sharks? Whales? A Kraken? The monstrous sea creature Scylla? Ursula?! Nope: It’s a school of angry, squealing mermaids. And instead of wanting to be where the people are, these aquatic adversaries want to drown the people. What, did Hook steal all their dinglehoppers?

NEXT: A brain… a criminal… a basket case…

Battle stations, everyone! Charming fires a wee little canon at the sirens. Regina hurls a fireball at them, which… doesn’t seem the most effective way to fight a ocean-based opponent. (Maybe they hate being in hot water.) Either way, Regina’s spell seems to drive the horde away — though one of the maids has been hauled onto the boat. I hope Emma and Snow remember to ask her if there’s a store in Neverland where they can get matching mother-daughter seashell bras.

Alas, shopping tips aren’t in the cards. The mermaid has brought with her a conch shell, into which she blows ominously. And suddenly, the waters around the Jolly Roger seem a whole lot choppier. The quarrelsome quintet hardly notices the winds over the sound of their own arguing voices. Snow yells at Regina for threatening their mer-captive. Regina almost goads Charming into slitting the fishlady’s throat. Hook matter-of-factly shouts “All mermaids are liars!” while keeping a straight face.

Then, with one whoosh of her hand, a fed-up Regina transforms the mermaid into a freestanding figurehead. The shouts get louder; the waves get higher. It’s only after fists begin to fly — Snow vs. Regina! Charming vs. Hook! — that Emma finally realizes what’s happening: The mermaid cast a spell that links the Jolly Roger crew to the storm. The more they fight, the worse it gets. Thankfully, she quickly comes up with a solution: risking her own life so that the remaining four must band together to save her. Kids, please don’t try this at home.

Finally, the gang lands on Neverish shores and takes stock. Emma gives a rousing speech, telling the others that even though they’re nothing alike, they have to work as a team — and use their own individual strengths — if they’ve got any hope of saving Henry. They’re basically the magical Breakfast Club! Snow is the athlete, Charming is the princess, Regina is the basket case, Hook is the criminal… which, hmm, leaves Emma to be the brain. Hopefully her Henry-hunting is better than her police work.

As his ex-comrades fight and bite and fight and bite and fight, Rumpelstiltskin explores the Neverland forest — soon arriving at the site of Tamara, Greg/Owen, and Henry’s altercation with the Lost Boys. Pan’s shadow has forcibly removed Growen’s own shadow, leaving the duplicitous dude apparently dead. (Does shadow removal kill a person, or turn them into a zombie, or what? Maybe shadow extraction is how Disneyland creates new animatronic It’s a Small World dolls!)

But even though she’s taken an arrow to the back, Tamara is still alive. Rumpel heals her wounds, hears what she has to say about Henry’s whereabouts (hint: not much)… then pulls out her heart and crushes it into dust. Ding-dong, Nikki and Paulo — er, Growen and Tamara — are gone! Be honest: Did you cheer?

Unfortunately, Rumpel’s moment of grim triumph is short-lived. Not long after Tamara’s death, he has an encounter with the Lost Boy leader that Once calls Felix — but I still want to call Rufio. (More on that later.) For the sake of clarity, maybe I should stick with his official name. Anyhow, the Boy threatens Rumpel, saying he certainly won’t come out of a fight with Pan alive — and surprise surprise, Rumpel agrees. The real question, the Dark One says, isn’t whether he’ll survive, “because we both know I won’t” — instead, it’s “how many of you I take with me.” Shiver.

NEXT: Little does he know — his son is Bae-okay!

For now, Pan and the boys are going to let Rumpel live. But in the meantime, Felix is happy to engage in some psychological torture — by presenting the Dark One with a straw doll that must have been Bae’s when he was trapped in Neverland. The “gift” is enough to make Rumpel weep… and this time, they’re not crocodile tears.

If only Rumpel knew that his only son is alive and well and living in the Enchanted Forest! Bae’s thoughts of home led him here while he was falling through that portal, and Mulan, Aurora, and Prince Phillip (remember him?) have managed to patch up his nasty bullet wound. Before long, Aurora realizes that their scruffy guest must be Henry’s father — and lucky for him, she’s still got passage to the dream world inhabited by victims of the Sleeping Curse.

Unfortunately, Henry’s too busy fleeing in terror to catch any shut-eye at the moment. It’s time to turn to Plan B: crossing all the way from Aurora’s kingdom to the Dark One’s castle, where Bae believes Rumpel has hidden something that will allow him to find his way back to Storybrooke. Tiny quibble: How does Bae even know his father has a castle? The ‘Stiltskins weren’t living there yet when Bae was initially transported to Neverland. (A commenter points out that Bae has read Henry’s storybook; good point, commenter!)

Evidently, the Enchanted Forest isn’t all that big; in no time, Bae and Mulan have arrived at Rumpelstiltskin’s CGI Castle of Doom, which seems to have fallen into disrepair. All the same, Bae deduces — by dipping his finger into a goblet, then licking it; gross, dude! — that someone else must be there. By Sherwood Forest, he’s right: The squatter is none other than Robin Hood, the lovable rogue we met in a fairyback last season. The curse seems to have given him a brand new face. (This year, British actor Sean Maguire is taking over for Tom Ellis.)

There’s no time for pleasantries; Bae has magic to do, just for himself. Waving a humble cane creates a door in the wall, which hides Rumpelstitskin’s very own Broom Closet of Wonders. There, Bae discovers a crystal ball… and just by thinking about Emma, he wills his lost love to appear. Cool; could he send flying monkeys after her as well? There’s just one problem with what Bae sees: Emma clearly isn’t in Storybrooke anymore. Here’s hoping Rumpel’s utility space also holds enough pixie dust to get a world-weary thief and a brusque warrior maiden to Neverland. (Aurora and Phillip can come too… I guess.)

NEXT: This season’s inaugural, seaweed-and-strife flavored breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs

– In tonight’s cold open, we witness a young Emma giving birth to Henry… at precisely 8:15. Lost references are like a little black dress: always in style.

– Henry tells Tamara “my mom’s coming to get me — both of them.” Aww, Henry has two mommies! Something tells me Swan Queen enthusiasts have already written a fanfic with that title.

– Regina to Hook: “Greg Mendel said something funny to me. He said I’m a villain, and that villains don’t get happy endings. Do you believe that?” Good lord, do we really have to go over this again?

– On a similar note, tonight’s Clumsy Exposition Award goes to Emma: “Ever since you remembered that you’re Snow White and Prince Charming, your lives, they’ve sucked!”

– I sense that Growen and Tamara’s story could be over for good, but still, I wonder: How exactly did Pan rope them into doing his bidding?

– Bae tells Mulan everyone in the “real world” thinks the inhabitants of other universes are just fictional characters. Mulan: “I’m in a story?” Bae: “Yeah. They made a movie about you. It’s actually pretty good.” Mulan, after a beat: “What’s a movie?”

– Regina is at her most wicked when she’s trying to make Snow’s prince assassiner le poisson: “That’s more like it, Charming — fillet the bitch.” Yowza! It’s always a shock to hear quasi-swears on this show.

– Speaking of Regina, this line was also classic: She spits that Snow wants to win the mermaid over with “rainbow kisses and unicorn stickers.” Be more specific, Queen: Lisa Frank unicorn stickers?

– “I’d bow, but this quiver’s rather tight.” Robin Hood seems like he’ll be jolly good fun if he sticks around.

– Henry’s flight over Neverland just happens to coincide with his fractured family’s debarkation. This whole storyline could have been cut short if they had just looked up!

– Harsh truth time, guys: Despite what Internet rumors may have led you to believe, there almost certainly won’t be a character named Rufio on Once this season. “Rufio belongs to another take on the Pan thing,” Adam Horowitz told TV Guide this summer. (Maybe that name was just a code for when they were casting Pan?) Still, Horowitz added, “We’re not using that character that was created by another world, but we are making a loving nod towards a movie and a mythology that we enjoy.” Colored goop for everyone! You can find more Kitsis/Horowitz goodies in EW’s own postmortem of tonight’s premiere.

– Speaking of the one and only Peter Pan: Did you know that Pan actor Robbie Kay played Pinocchio in an eponymous 2008 miniseries?

– Finally, why do you suppose Pan wants Henry’s juicy juicy heart? And finally finally, why is even Rumpelstiltskin no match for the kid?

– Did that unnamed mermaid make you wonder when we’ll finally meet Joanna Garcia Swisher’s highly-anticipated Ariel? Alas, it won’t be until episode 6 — which is, appropriately enough, titled “Ariel.”

– Other upcoming episode titles, in order: “Lost Girl,” “Quite a Common Fairy” (TINK!), “Nasty Habits,” and “Good Form” (Hook origin story, anyone?).

– A group of unicorns is called a “glory” — so what’s the name for a group of mermaids? Sure, “school” works… but I might prefer “dinglehopper.”

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