Burning questions are answered, storylines are resolved, and Fairy Land is left behind in Once's winter finale
Once Upon A Time
Credit: ABC

Did Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz consult a checklist of Unsolved Once Mysteries while writing “The Queen of Hearts?” It sure felt that way as the episode trundled along, resolving question after question. What happened to Cora after Regina pushed her through that looking glass? She traveled to Wonderland, naturally, and soon schemed her way to a throne. Why did part of Fairy Land remain unchanged when Regina’s curse hit? Because Cora conjured a Bio-Dome bubble that enveloped Snow White and Charming’s kingdom, protecting it from the spell’s ravaging. How did Hook manage to rip out Aurora’s heart when he’s never shown magical acumen before? Because Regina enchanted his appendage so that he could remove just one heart — and though she intended that heart to be Cora’s, Hook didn’t use his gift until after he had gone to Wonderland.

And so on, and so forth — in fact, by the episode’s end, the only really big question left danging is “What the hell happened to Baelfire?” (Okay, one more: And Pinocchio! Where is that hunka hunka lying wood?) I’m glad that Kitsis and Horowitz tied up so many loose ends in tonight’s winter finale, since season 1 was hurt by storylines that dragged on far longer than they should have. At the same time, I wonder if Cora and Hook’s arrival in Storybrooke is really enough of a cliffhanger — especially since it wasn’t really surprising that they found their way to the “Land Without Magic” after all. Sure, “The Queen of Hearts” was a game-changer — it just wasn’t as much of a game-changer as I was expecting it to be.

Tonight’s fairybacks focus on how Hook and Cora became a dastardly duo. It all begins when Hook-of-the-past, who’s evidently found a way out of Neverland, storms Regina’s castle. The captain is hoping that Regina’s prisoner — a lady who loves books and monsters, and not necessarily in that order — can give him the inside scoop on how to cut down Rumpelstiltskin. Belle can’t help the pirate — but Belle’s captor claims that she can. It must be said that eeevil Regina has never looked better than she does in these flashbacks, clad in a gloriously blingy gown as she explains her plans to Hook.

At this point in the timeline, Regina is just about ready to curse Fairy Land into Kingdom Come, or at least Maine. There’s just one problem: She doesn’t want her mother mucking everything up by following the gang to Storybrooke. The solution? She tasks Hook with killing Cora in the most poetic way possible: by ripping out the heart of the universe’s foremost Heart-Ripper-Outer. In return, Regina will bring Hook to the land without magic, where she says that Rump will be powerless — and the captain can finally kill his enemy once and for all. Beware extravagantly-dressed witches bearing gifts, Killian!

Present-day Regina isn’t feeling quite so bloodthirsty. Rumpelstiltskin tells her that the two of them should prepare for Cora’s arrival in Storybrooke, just in case Snow and Emma can’t defeat her. Regina is reluctant at first, since she’s really, honestly trying hard to change her wicked, wicked ways. But all it takes is some talk of Henry’s well-being — love is weakness, dearie! — to convince Regina to go with Rump into the mines, where he uses Cinderella’s dearly departed Fairy Godmother’s wand to suck up every last magic diamond. Hi ho, hi ho, to to the wishing well they go.

NEXT: The missing ink (that is extremely easy to find)

The stress of this quest is really starting to get to the Femme Four. There’s no other explanation for what happens when they reach Rumpelstiltskin’s old cell: Everyone is frantically wondering where that mysterious squid ink might be hiding, even after Aurora discovers a scrap of parchment covered by letters very clearly written in black squid ink. Perhaps they’re just distracted by the creepy nature of said parchment — the only word on it is Emma’s name, penned over and over again in Rump’s neat script. (No TV and no beer make the Dark One something something.)

Soon, the ladies have bigger problems than their lack of observance. Aurora triggers a whatchamajigger that causes the cell’s bars to slam shut, trapping the team — and leaving them at the mercy of Hook and Cora, who have appeared just outside. With a flick of her magical wrist, the compass is now in Cora’s possession. It’s only now that the foursome realize that Sleeping Beauty II has been under Cora’s control since she returned to them. Because they still don’t understand that the friggin’ ink is almost literally under their noses, they’re helpless as Cora and Hook waltz away.

And speaking of that beautiful friendship: Fairyback Hook uses Jefferson’s old hat to travel to Wonderland, where he’s soon escorted to the Queen of Hearts herself. The red ruler is, of course, actually Cora, as most of you probably guessed long ago. The world’s worst mother isn’t as impressed by Hook as her daughter was; she rightfully snarks that his nickname could be a bit more clever. But Hook does get her attention when he reveals that he’s looking for a lady named Cora — then tries to remove her most vital organ, only to discover that it’s not in her chest. Says Cora: “I’m the Queen of Hearts! Did you really think I’d keep mine where everyone else does?” Excellent. She would be literally heartless.

Hook must really love getting between two feisty women. After Cora explains that Regina was playing him — if he went to Storybrooke with the rest of the cursed folk, he’d lose his memory and therefore forget his vendetta against Rumpelstiltskin — the pirate agrees to join Cora’s service. Once more, he goes through a portal with a secret agenda. But this time, he’s bringing mother to daughter so that mommie dearest can kill her baby all by herself. Folks who were driven crazy by their families this Thanksgiving are cheering Cora on.

Come ON, Formerly Fab Four, do you seriously still not get that that parchment holds the key to escaping your cell? While everyone but Snow throws a personal pity party, Cora and Hook are headed to Lake Nostos, the dried-out plain where Snow regained her fertility once upon a time. Hook dryly — pun! — notes that lakes generally have water in them. Cora, who grows more awesome by the minute, simply rolls her eyes and does a few finger swirls, revealing the gushing spring still beneath the lake’s arid surface. Oo, can she also make Ariel appear?

NEXT: Fight! Fight! Fight!

A fairyback mother and child reunion is bittersweet, as mother is (apparently) dead as a doornail and child is the one who ordered a hit on her. Regina’s Maleficent headpiece must be making her feel sentimental. After Hook delivers Cora’s “corpse,” Regina reveals to the body that she still cares about her Mommie Dearest. In fact, she had her killed specifically because she didn’t want her love for Cora to weaken her power in Storybrooke. Well, that explains why poor abused puppy Regina blames all her issues on Snow White instead of Cora.

Her confession is enough to convince Cora not to pull a Medea after all. Instead, she lets Regina live, then creates that shield spell so that she, Hook, and Fairy Land can stick around until the curse is broken — damnit, Mom, why do you always assume I’m going to fail?! — at which point she can help Regina “pick up the pieces.” Very interesting: Cora doesn’t want to go to Storybrooke so that she can give her daughter what’s coming to her. She intends to travel to the land without magic so that she can help her daughter in her time of need. How… sweet?

Emma snarks that the scroll won’t magically open the door for them. Everyone in the audience groans and does a facepalm. Finally, Snow has a eureka moment and blows on the ink, causing the spell to drift toward the bars and free the gals. Good thing it only took 35 minutes! Aurora volunteers to be left behind so that she can’t be used against her friends — as if she’d be any help in a fight — and Mulan, Emma, and Snow set off to find Cora and Hook. How do they know to go to Lake Nostos, and how the hell do they get there so fast? Who cares: battle scene!

The Fearsome Threesome arrive just in time, right before Cora and Hook jump into the portal they’ve created with the wardrobe ashes and the lake’s magic waters. Emma and the pirate begin to sword fight, and no, that’s not a euphemism (though there’s enough subtext and quippery to make their duel feel like a single entendre.) During the fray, Aurora’s heart almost gets sucked away; Hook saves it at the last moment and delivers it to Mulan, because Kitsis and Horowitz needed a way to get her offscreen.

Emma eventually secures the compass and knocks Hook out cold, leaving Cora her only obstacle. Too bad Cora might be the show’s most powerful sorceress — and she proves it by lunging for Snow’s heart without even breaking a sweat. At the last moment, Emma pushes her mother out of the way, leaving her vulnerable to Cora’s grasp. Is this law enforcer about to meet the same end that befell Sheriff Skinnyjeans in last year’s winter finale?

NEXT: No. Duh.

Of course not! Cora roots around in Emma’s chest, taunting her: “Oh, you foolish girl. Don’t you know love is weakness?” And that’s when she realizes that there’s something screwy going on. Try as she might, Cora can’t get a grip on the savior’s ticker. Emma understands what’s happening — “No. It’s strength” — just as a blast of lovenergy neutralizes Cora. How very Lily Potter of you, Ems! The skeptic is flabbergasted. What just happened? “That is a great subject for discussion when we get home!” says Snow as she and Emma take the compass and jump into the portal.

What they don’t know is that Regina and Rump are waiting on the other side, casting a spell on Storybrooke’s wishing well so that anyone who tries to world-jump through it will be killed. Regina’s going along with Rumpelstiltskin’s plan reluctantly — and she gets even more hesitant when Henry shows up, urging her to call the whole thing off. After a few dramatic scenes of begging intercut with the Fairy Land battle, Regina finally decides to have faith in her son. She approaches the well, striking a crucifixion pose and drawing all of the spell’s power into herself. Good thing that “magical rehab” thing didn’t really stick.

Finally, the spell is gone, and Regina seems completely unharmed. Even better, a hand soon sticks out of the well — it’s Emma’s! She and Snow have made it home, partially thanks to Regina’s uncharacteristic selflessness. Before long, Snow is off to the pawn shop, where she and Charming reenact Once Upon a Time‘s first scene in reverse. This time, she’s the one administering a kiss as the dwarfs watch — seriously, guys, give a lady some privacy! Charming awakens, and there is much rejoicing… for everyone but Regina, who isn’t invited to the gang’s celebratory meal at Granny’s. Cue a sad Charlie Brown walk back to her lonely, lonely mansion.

Before she tucks into a juicy plate of chimera — er, a burger — Emma confronts Rumpelstiltskin about the ink in his cell. She’s the only character who has realized that if he had ink in there, he could have escaped Snow and Charming’s prison at any time. Clearly, he’s been rigging nearly everything that’s happened on the show, manipulating events to serve his own purposes. Is Emma only pawn in game of life? Well, sort of, says Rump — but he has nothing to do with her new-found magic powers, which are a symptom of being the product of Twue Wuv. Emma’s still not into the idea of being able to do magic — she can’t bring herself to admit that she even did magic back in Fairy Land — but her eventual mastery of it may well be a focal point of season 2, part 2.

So the lovers have been reunited, Henry has been proven right, and everyone but Regina is happy. Fade to black, right?

NEXT: Wrong!

Of course things aren’t going to be wrapped up quite so easily. Hook still has the dried-up magic bean he acquired from Hurley the Giant — and after being dipped in Lake Nostos’s water, its powers are restored. The episode ends with Cora and Hook slowly approaching Storybrooke via pirate ship, proving that that golden compass was about as necessary in the grand scheme of things as Chris Weitz’s film adaptation of The Golden Compass. So much for a happy ending.


– Hook’s harsh assessment of Belle: She’s pretty, but useless. Little does he know how many more Once characters he’s describing (coughCHARMINGcough).

– Regina knows who the captain is, and that he has a bone to pick with Rumpelstiltskin. Think we’ll learn more about that — and how he got from Never Land to Fairy Land — in a fairyback, or is this just one of those throwaway things?

– I’m surprised that tonight’s first Henry scene didn’t show the kid furiously kissing David, trying to wake him from the sleeping curse the same way Emma woke Henry up from his own curse.

– Another question: Where is Cora’s heart? Maybe she’s concealing it in a diary, or a giant snake?

– Hook killed a minion of Regina called Claude. His name could be a reference to Claude Frollo, the gypsy-sex-obsessed villain of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

– I love how Once‘s version of Wonderland is pretty much just Eyes Wide Shut with brighter colors.

– According to Grumpy, “Nobody steals from a dwarf!” Yes, but how does he feel about tossing?

– So much snark on the show tonight! Which line was your favorite: “I may be a simple pirate, but I know one thing — lakes have water,” or, “Yeah. Isn’t that what a spell book is? A book that has spells in it?” Clearly, Emma and Hook are a match made in heaven, or possibly an Internet comment board.

– How kind of Regina to place a perfect red Gaston on her mother’s lifeless body.

– Snow recalls watching Cora practice magic in her chamber, which made me wonder — how long did Cora and Regina live with Snow and King Leopold before Regina and the king got married?

– Hook tells Ems as he’s pinning her that he’d prefer to do “other, more enjoyable activities with a woman on her back;” the audience swoons. Eat your heart out, Hookers.

– And speaking of the fans: That scene where Aurora breathlessly asks “Have you done this before?” to Mulan before the latter tenderly replaces her heart was such shipper bait. These two are now going off on a quest to find Prince Phillip’s soul, which, eh; call me when you’re fighting zombies again.

This is where I leave you until January 6, when Once returns with all new episodes. Until then, I bid you adieu — and recommend taking a sleeping potion so that the wait goes by in the blink of an eye. [Disappears in a puff of purple smoke.]

Episode Recaps

Once Upon a Time

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

  • TV Show
  • 7
stream service