Everything's turned topsy-turvy in a two-parter that sees heroes and villains switching roles.

By Hillary Busis
May 12, 2015 at 01:59 AM EDT
Credit: Jack Rowand/ABC

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!

Henry’s next stop is Bizarro Regina’s forest hidey-hole. (She inherited Snow’s backstory and huntress-chic clothes, but fortunately not her awful wig.) His adoptive mom is understandably skeptical when Henry gives her a rundown of what’s happened—”I’m supposed to live in a place called Maine?”—and makes the boneheaded decision to burn Henry’s only copy of Heroes and Villains, a move that doesn’t end up being as important to the plot as you might think it would. Still, Henry—who’s nothing if not persistent—keeps at it, telling Regina that she might be able to get them out of the book if she finds and kisses her true love, Robin Hood. (But wait—if Regina isn’t evil in this version of the story, doesn’t that mean Daniel might still be alive? Eh, maybe Noah Bean wasn’t available.)

Meanwhile, Isaac is captured by the Bizarro Dwarfs and delivered directly to this realm’s big bad: Snow Dark, decked out in glorious Evil Queen drag. Ginnifer Goodwin’s wicked monarch is so different from Lana Parrilla’s—she’s more quietly confident in her malevolence than openly campy, the sort of HBIC who would rather whisper than shout to make a point. I’m digging her enough that I wish we’d get more than two hours with her; unfortunately (er, spoiler alert?), we won’t. Snow’s accomplice is Bizarro Charming, her Huntsman equivalent; Snow literally holds his heart in her hands, using it to give him commands such as “please cake on the man-makeup.” Isaac gives both of them a SparkNotes explanation of what’s going down, the bottom line being that Snow will have to kill both Henry and Regina if she wants to keep up the status quo. Snow’s into the idea—and she would’ve gotten away with murdering her nemesis in the woods, too, if it hadn’t been for that meddling Robin Hood.

So yeah: Robin and Regina’s big meet-cute comes when he snatches her out of Snow Dark’s clutches, then takes her to the Enchanted Forest’s only tavern to recuperate. There’s a little bit of initial friction—after all, he’s her chief competition in the field of banditry—but Regina can also feel some real chemistry with her fellow thief. At least, until he ruins it by telling her he’s engaged. Aw, man; we couldn’t leave the Marian problem back in Storybrooke? Ah, but here’s the twist: His fiancée isn’t Marian. Instead, it’s none other than an un-green Zelena. Huh! So her happy ending has nothing to do with ruling Oz, or reuniting with her mother, or opening the realm’s preeminent flying monkey reserve? Methinks Isaac’s writing skills might not be all he’s cracked them up to be.

Regina is discouraged enough by this revelation to despair of ever reaching her happy ending. (Which… wait—isn’t she entitled to it, given the rules of Heroes and Villains? Or is Isaac simply giving every other villain a happy ending to spite Regina? Can’t a lady get hers in at least one parallel universe?) Henry, who’s been secretly tracking his mother and waiting for her to smooch Robin, much like any red-blooded 13-year-old kid would, is disappointed too—especially when he surmises that Robin and Zelena’s wedding will mark the end of the story, i.e. the point of no return. He bucks up, though, when Regina tells him that Isaac was lying about Emma: She is, in fact, present in Bizarro World, albeit trapped both in Azkaban on an “impenetrable” island fortress and inside a massive dress.

You know what islands are surrounded with? Water. You know what travels over water? Ships. Enter Bizarro Hook, who, for the purposes of this story, is officially a hero—i.e. a timid, deferential deck-swabber for Captain Black Beard, a victim of his old rival’s happy ending. No matter; with the help of Henry and the sword the kid just happened to find near a thatched-roof cottage (you just know some poor blacksmith’s wife has been telling her sons over and over again not to leave their weapons lying around in the yard), the other captain is knocked unconscious, and before you can say “guyliner” Henry and Hook have set sail for Snow Dark’s supposedly impregnable prison.

NEXT: Spoiler alert: It’s pregnable.

Impregnable, by the way, means “like, a few minutes away by boat, and also guarded by a single knight.” (Told you Isaac wasn’t much of a writer.) It’s a hop, skip, and a jump before Henry’s liberating Emma—only to discover, to his delight, that she remembers him, as well as everything else that happened before Isaac set pen to paper. Phew! I’ve gotta say, I hope in the future Once gets away from plots that revolve around Character One trying to get Character Two to believe something the audience already knows to be true.

Henry, Hook, Emma, and Emma’s enormous hair escape the island just as easily, even when we learn that there’s a reason it’s guarded by exactly one person: said knight is actually Lily, who briefly gives chase in dragon form before Emma and co. down her with a cannonball. Afterward, Bizarro Hook offers Emma a celebratory sip from his flask, which contains… goat milk. He is officially the Hugo Peabody of Bizarro World. In return, she offers to teach him how to fight. She’d better be quick; it’s a short voyage.

He’ll need those skills sooner rather than later—because shortly after docking, our heroes are accosted by Bizarro Grumpy, Bizarro Lily (looking no worse for wear, considering she was almost drowned a few minutes ago), Bizarro Charming, and Snow Dark, fresh off the murder of poor Bizarro Doc. That hasn’t sated her blood-lust, though: “I am going to enjoy watching [Henry] die in front of his mother,” the queen smirks. Instead of, say, just incinerating the lot of them with one of the fireballs she now has the power to create, Snow steps aside to let Charming fight Hook—who turns out to be a natural swordsman even in this realm. Unfortunately, he’s not quite good enough; while he’s marveling at his newfound abilities, Charming stabs Hook in the back. Emma knows that he won’t stay dead, so long as she and Henry stop Robin’s wedding in time—but that doesn’t make his demise any easier for her to watch.

It does, however, give Emma a nice bit of leverage when she and Henry head back to Regina’s hidey-hole, where they make one last-ditch effort to get her to help them crash Robin and Zelena’s nuptials. Emma plays her guilt-inducing trump card, telling Reg that she just watched the man she loves die—before she ever got to tell him that she loves him. “My only chance with him is if you don’t make the same mistake I did,” she urges her onetime rival. Yeah; you’d have to be a real jerk to skip town after hearing that one.

So it’s time for our endgame: Henry and his two mommies go to the Enchanted Forest’s only church, where R&Z’s mawwage is already underway. There’s nothing to stop them now… until Rumplestiltskin shows up. Yes, in this universe, he’s a hero—but one who’s still susceptible to the siren song of the Author, who made a special trip to Rumple’s cottage (shared, naturally, with Belle; Rump’s deepest desire apparently is to see her absent-mindedly rocking their new baby while wearing a ball gown) in order to inform the “Light One” that he’ll lose his happy ending unless he stops Regina and Henry.

Clearly, still heroic waters don’t run that deep in Rumple, even in his Bizarro form. He tosses Emma aside with magic and is about to finally murder his grandson… until Regina steps away from the church and in front of Henry at the last moment, taking the force of Rumple’s blow. The Light One disappears; Henry is fine, but Regina’s quickly losing blood. Oh, and the wedding bells are ringing, signifying that they’ve reached the end of the book without getting things back to normal. When Robin and Zelena exit the church, the noble thief instantly goes to Regina, perhaps feeling the weight of having made the wrong choice… but it seems we’ve gone too far for that to make any difference. So much for Operation Mongoose!

Until, that is, Isaac exits the church himself—and Emma promptly punches him in the face, causing him to drop his writing implements. Henry goes to pick up the quill… and the Once equivalent of this happens. That’s right: The wand has chosen the wizard, as it were. In other words, Henry is officially the new Author. (Get ready for a lot of stories about hot cocoa next season.)

A little paper, a little ink imbued with the essence of a light savior—i.e. Regina’s heroic, self-sacrificing blood—and Henry has just the tools he needs to bring an end to Isaac’s alternate reality. “Thanks to the hero Regina’s sacrifice, Isaac’s villainous work was undone,” he scribbles. With that, everyone awakens in Storybrooke, exactly where they were when Isaac’s spell was cast—and in the same condition, meaning Regina’s not dying after all. We’re officially back to business as usual, right down to Emma chickening out when given the chance to tell a revived Hook that she loves him. Oh, and after history’s shortest manhunt, the Author is in Snow and Charming’s custody. That’s the end of that chapter!

NEXT: Juuuuuust kidding!

You may have noticed, however, that the episode isn’t done yet. That’s because there’s still the small matter of Rumplestiltskin, who’s this close to losing his last lingering shred of humanity.

You might think a smooch from Belle could save him, given the oft-discussed power of True Love’s Kiss… but for some reason, she doesn’t even attempt one. Instead, she interrupts the victory party at Granny’s to deliver the bad news. It’s a good thing the good guys have the Apprentice on their side now, because he has an idea that just might save Storybrooke from a full-on wicked Dark One: He’s going to perform an evil-ectomy on Rump, pulling the darkness out of him and storing it within the Sorcerer’s hat. What could possibly go wrong?

The answer: Nothing, at least at first. A whole lot of black goo goes from Rumple’s heart to the hat; the spinner is left with a semi-transparent ticker that’ll presumably turn healthy red once he’s had some time to recuperate. For now, the Apprentice puts him in the magical equivalent of an induced coma; they’ll have to wait and see if his body rejects his lightened heart.

There’s no time for that now, though—because no hat could contain all that darkness, not even this one. The black goo comes flying out like Hexxus from Ferngully, briefly infecting the Apprentice before flying off into the night. It’s more than the old guy can bear, though he does get out a few important bits of exposition before croaking. First: The Sorcerer originally conquered the darkness by tethering it to a human soul, creating the first-ever Dark One. Second: The Sorcerer may be the only person powerful enough to destroy the darkness once and for all. Third: The Sorcerer is still around, but apparently “far, far from here.” (Real helpful, Apprentice.) Fourth: The Sorcerer’s name… is Merlin. Interesting! Maybe season 5B is all about him teaching the rest of the Once cast how to pack.

And now it’s time to reach the conclusion you probably saw coming—especially after Rumple’s de-darkification. The darkness almost consumes Regina, trying to snuff out her hard-earned light; Emma grabs the now nameless dagger, knowing what she has to do. She tells her parents that they’ll just have to figure out how to undarken her one more time; she tells Hook, finally, that she loves him. And then she pushes him aside and holds out the knife, sucking every bit of black goo up. The last thing we see before the screen goes dark is the dagger, clattering to the ground… with “Emma Swan” engraved into the blade. At least they spelled it right this time.

Super-Sized Finale Breadcrumbs

  • The episode begins with a quick bit of Isaac backstory built to confuse Mad Men fans, because the man who would be Author is basically Jimmy Barrett—except as a frustrated writer/salesman rather than a comedian. He gets his authorial powers when the Apprentice contacts him and administers a test, presenting a selection of pens to Isaac and exhorting him to pick the magic one. (Needless to say, he chooses correctly.) It’s all very Richard Alpert.
  • Interesting to note how in Once-land, most villains don’t see limitless power as a happy ending—they just want to switch places with the good guys. And even in Bizarro Land, Snow Dark is evil only because she lost her true love (David’s meaner twin brother, James) at a young age—indicating that she, too, could have been put on the path to redemption at some point.
  • I wonder how Bizarro Regina accidentally contributed to James’ death; it’s not explicit, though she does protest to Snow that she was a child when it happened. (We can probably assume it was the mirror image of Snow and Regina’s original grudge.)
  • Another difference: As a concession to Rumple, Isaac rewrites his story so that in this version, Bae died as a child in the Ogre Wars despite Rump’s best efforts to save him.
  • Bizarro Regina, not understanding how siblings work: “My mother abandoned me when I was a baby. I don’t have a sister.”
  • Regina: “My happy ending isn’t a man.” Emma: “Of course. But love is a part of all happiness, and you have to be open to that.” Meaning… her happy ending… is a man?
  • The New York Ledger, which lists Isaac’s book as a best seller, has a long and storied history as one of TV’s favorite fake newspapers.
  • After being tempted to try to bring Baelfire back to life—and being told, gently, by the Apprentice that even Authors can’t do that—Henry elects to break his new magic quill in half, declaring that no one kid should have all that power. So… is he still the Author, then? Is anyone?
  • Meanwhile, preggo Zelena is still languishing beneath the hospital. Wonder how the show’s going to deal with her next season; it seems Regina and Robin, at least, won’t let her and the kid get between them again.
  • Another plot thread left dangling: Before Emma’s Darkening, Lily tells her that her treasured necklace is actually a piece of the egg from which she was hatched—and that it’s the only clue she has about who her father might be. She plans to spend at least part of next season finding him. Any guesses at the guy’s identity? (Merlin again?)
  • My happy ending? Finding out what the hell happened to Mulan.

Follow Hillary on Twitter: @hillibusterr

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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