For two years now, Once Upon a Time has adhered to the same formula: bifurcated seasons, with each half focused on taking down a new baddie (or three). By the final episode of every arc, that villain has been soundly defeated, making room for the next one to enter the picture—preferably via a teaser that comes at the end of that episode.
Tonight’s two-hour finale, though, indicates that Once is stepping away from that formula. Next season won’t center on our heroes rallying together to defeat some flashy, newly introduced foe based on a classic Disney villain. Instead, it’ll focus on a search for the Sorcerer, a.k.a. Merlin—and, more importantly, the consequences of Emma becoming the new Dark One. (Psst: Feel free to pat yourself on the back if you saw that twist coming.)
From where I’m sitting, that’s a positive step. The last thing Once ever needs is more characters, and Merlin notwithstanding, tonight’s cliffhangers indicate a show that’s trying to get back to basics. Expect to spend the bulk of next season—or at least its first half—with the show’s main ensemble, rather than a new batch of screen-time-hogging allies and antagonists. (Well, unless everyone ends up taking an extended trip to Camelot.)
That course correction is the focus of “Operation Mongoose” itself, a two-parter devoted almost entirely to longtime Once regulars. The Queens of Darkness, so heavily advertised in the walkup to this half-season, had nothing to do with its endgame; Ursula left town just four episodes into season 4B and never returned, Cruella died weeks ago, and Maleficent didn’t even appear onscreen in the finale. Instead, the only character introduced in season 4 to play a major role in the closer is eyebrow monster Isaac Heller, better known ’round these parts as the Author.
Most of the finale takes place within the alternate reality that Isaac created at the end of last week’s episode. Theoretically, it’s a universe in which heroes lose and villains win. In practice, it’s a universe where heroes and villains simply switch places—Regina is a crafty outlaw pitted against Queen Snow Dark; Rumple is a valiant, ogre-slaying knight—except when they don’t (Robin Hood is the same old Robin Hood). Everyone in town is transported into this Bizarro Enchanted Forest the moment Isaac writes “The End” in his new magic book, with two exceptions: Isaac himself, who loves room service and indoor plumbing too much to commit to an eternity of medieval living, and Henry, the only kid around who was born in the Real World. Well, besides Little Neal. And Cinderella’s kid. And Aurora’s not-a-flying-monkey baby. Unless Storybrooke births don’t count, somehow? Even though Cinderella’s daughter was born before magic technically returned to Storybrooke? This show makes my head hurt.
Anyway! Henry is left alone after the Great Book Migration. Luckily, he’s got a powerful tool at his disposal: the magic key that set Isaac free from his printed prison in the first place. According to the Apprentice—freed from the Sorcerer’s Hat moments before everybody was sucked into Opposite Land—he’ll be able to trap Isaac once again with the key and the painted door. First, though, he’ll have to find Isaac. Which, as it turns out, isn’t too hard to do, because our ever-humble Author has seized the opportunity to turn himself into this universe’s answer to George R. R. Martin. (Albeit one who spends less time describing his characters’ nipples, probably.)
So Henry somehow drives himself to an event on Isaac’s book tour without being arrested—guess Charming was a better teacher than we thought!—and confronts the Author there, demanding to know what he’s done with Henry’s family. The Author helpfully explains that they’re all trapped inside his best-selling book, a story in which, get this, heroes are villains and villains are heroes. (Which seems a lot less interesting than a nuanced universe that doesn’t adhere to Manichean ideals of “good” and “evil,” or so Bizarro Hillary might say in Weekly Entertainment‘s review of said book.)
Anyway, yada yada yada, Henry opens up Heroes and Villains with his magic key, falling inside—and taking Isaac along for good measure. Please let there be a Pagemaster cameo. Please let there be a Pagemaster cameo.
Alas, this particular bit of cross-promotion isn’t meant to be. Instead, we get a few further bits of exposition—they’re in the last chapter of Isaac’s story; Emma isn’t there, because “there was no room for a savior in my world”; if Henry can’t set things right before the book ends, everyone will be be stuck inside this reality forever because… reasons—before Isaac skedaddles, leaving Henry to nearly die at the hands of a nasty ogre before he’s saved by Bizarro Rumplestiltskin, in this world a gallant white knight known as the Light One.
NEXT: Snow Dark, you magnificent bitch!