Gather your tissues, kids, because this is the last chapter of Once Upon a Time. Are you ready? Can you ever be? This show has been such a weird little nugget of television that dared to try to reinvent all the classic fairy tales we grew up reading and put them into a modern, albeit at times messy, new narrative.
For better and for worse, the show has been nothing if not ambitious, and tonight, we get to see the culmination of everything in one sublimely sweet final scene. But before we get to that, let’s talk about everything that leads us to it, shall we?
If Alice and Robin were expecting some hero’s welcome when they arrived to Storybrooke, they are sorely mistaken. Leroy might be whistling “hi-ho” while it’s off to work he goes, but when she barrels in and almost runs him over with Tiana’s food truck — costing him his prized lunch from Granny’s no less — the good mood is ruined. The girls try to recover by explaining where (and, more importantly, when) they’re from, but they’re quickly marked as intruders and chased away into hiding.
Meanwhile, Henry Mills is able to get Lucy and Ella into a warm house, but they still can’t escape the eventual fate of the place. Hook refuses to give up, however. Although Gold has been stripped of his powers and his immortality (a blessing in disguise, no doubt), they can still at least try to muscle up and fight their way out of this death sentence.
The other Henry Mills is also trapped but in a very different sense. His rage for the Evil Queen means he will not, can not, see any humanity or redemption in Regina. Despite an impassioned plea for her forgiveness, with the promise that she didn’t mean to kill his grandparents and that she’s a changed person and his mother now, he gives her a warning slice to preview what he plans to do with her the next day in front of the whole kingdom. “Consider that a reminder that in this realm, stories are written in blood and tears, and now they’ll be written in yours,” he warns. “We fight tomorrow, and I’ll finally have my happy ending: Your death.”
It’s not all bad news for Regina, however. While she’s locked away in the cave awaiting her execution she gets a fever dream visit from the O.G. Robin Hood whose tangible, very real presence brings a glaze to her eyes right away. She fills him in on her plight — her own son thinks she’s evil and wants her dead, basically — but he reminds her that once upon a time, he saw the good in her when it was very out of focus as well. “Your life is proof that no one’s path is set,” he tells her. The two then lament how short, but still epic their story was and seal the moment with a kiss before she wakes up to her dirty confines.
Speaking of trapped, Hook and Gold’s attempt to break free of the snow globe is, predictably, a mess. They’re more likely to freeze to death than to make it out alive. But there’s hope yet. See, Alice and Robin’s Storybrooke adventure wasn’t all bad; Robin actually ran into her mother (and, erm, herself) and asked her for help. Although Zelena was freaked out at first by the idea of the strangers knowing so much about her and her kid, she’s obviously come to accept the story — hey, she’s definitely heard weirder — and pitched in to help them access a magic bean to make a hook that could help Hook break the snow globe. But not before he and Gold have a quick aside about how they’re really the two best friends that anyone could have in a circumstance like this. D’aw. (And also, hello, foreshadowing.)
Upon making their great escape, though, the work is hardly done. Henry’s still intent on making an example of the Evil Queen by way of a public execution, and Rumple has even more nefarious plans for Regina and all her magic pals. Thanks to Henry’s astute observation that the queen’s blood can sub in for magic ink, all Henry needs to do to become Rumple’s author-slash-hitman du jour is to kill her and use her blood to sign off on the pages of all the books he’s pre-written to isolate and torture everyone we’ve come to know and love in this story. He brings in a fairy to make an example of her and, using Regina’s blood from his dagger, casts her away to who knows where just like that.
On the other side of the crocodile coin, however, is a man who’s just as determined to do right by the world, for once. Looking into a dreamcatcher, he remembers a precious moment from his history with Belle and makes peace with the idea that he may never get to share one of those with her again, but he’s ready to accept that now.
First, though, there’s the small matter of springing Regina from her cage, and it’s everyone else who attends to that. Hook and Robin spearhead the effort to distract the guards at the castle gates, and as Hook prepares to storm the group, he fields a very important question from Robin: “Can I have your blessing to marry Alice?” The timing may seem strange, but his nearness to Alice is causing his heart to fail him, so it’s understandable that she’d want to secure his good favor for their proposal and probable nuptials (which, sadly, we do not get to see) now, rather than risk missing out on it altogether. He is, of course, more than approving of their relationship and even agrees to try to make it through this whole ordeal long enough to walk his daughter down the aisle. Gulp.
He takes whatever gushy sentiments he’s now filled with and charges the knights ahead as Henry sneaks into Regina’s keeping below grounds to sneak her out. He almost has the keys to free her before one loose guard arrives and gives him a struggle. Thankfully, Alice and Robin’s word spread far and wide enough back in Storybrooke that Snow and Charming got wind of it and arrive just in time to help their grandson (nevermind that he looks their same age) get the woman who once killed them but is now reformed out of jail. Yes, the ham-handed nature of this show does live on to the end, but would we have it any other way?
Snow and Charming lead a rousing roundtable discussion about how to defeat Rumple. They’ve done it before, even if the list of allies and enemies has flip-flopped considerably since then. “What hasn’t changed is that we’re on the side of right,” they explain. They give themselves the job of keeping the kingdom abreast of what’s going on and positive about the happy ending ahead (in other words, limiting the actors’ screen time for the episode because these are still just cameos, guys), while Gold sniffs out a real solution to their issue: some hidden magic. He sprinkles his hand with it and decides that if he can get close enough to Rumple to rip out his heart, that’ll end the crocodile once and for all.
But he may be too late…
Regina also has to face the demon of her own making by trying to convince the young fairy tale version of Henry that she loves him and is therefore capable of love and goodness. He doesn’t want to hear it, much less believe it, and challenges her to a duel to the death. While this is happening, Rumple arrives to treat the heroes (minus Snow and Charming, of course) to opened portals that aim to take them to their isolated story realms of sadness. Alice’s very nearly claims her before Hook jeopardizes himself to save his daughter, as one does. His heart is bursting with the green glow of pain, but he refuses to let her go.
Regina does arm and defend herself once Henry’s sword starts swinging, and Rumple is just giddy watching the heroes struggle in conjunction with her. Once Henry is able to disarm Regina and get her into the death stance, though, she surrenders and says she’s willing to lay down her own life if it means he’ll know he’s loved by someone, anyone, and doesn’t need Rumple’s toxicity to give him a life worth leading. With that, he drops his blade and accepts her hug.
The heroes’ hellholes disappear right away, and everyone’s saved, except for Hook. His sacrifice has brought him to the edge of death, and Rumple’s delighted to see at least someone suffering. But Gold’s hand is still filled with magic, so since he can’t get close to his worser half, he’s got a backup plan in mind: Instead of ripping out Rumple’s heart, he rips out his own and gives it to Hook, who can now embrace his daughter without killing himself. Gold knows this won’t bring him back to Belle, but he wisely notes, “You don’t do the right thing for a reward; you do it because it’s right.” With that, his body falls limp and Rumple does his own version of the “I don’t feel so good, Mr. Stark” meme, and it’s over. The Dark One is done, once and for all.
Regina arrives just in time to give Gold a sappy send-off, wishing him the peace no one knows he can have.
But, happy endings being what they are in situations like this, Rumple/Gold finds himself in a foggy beyond, greeted by his one and only who’s just delighted to see him and knew he’d find a way back. She’s even wearing her iconic yellow dress for good measure. The two kiss, and it’s the culmination of so many wishes and hopes that it’s hard to believe it’s finally happened, and yet … it had to. If nothing else, Gold has proven himself through and through since her passing, and never more so than when he gave up his chance at eternal happiness for Hook’s.
Speaking of happy endings, Regina doesn’t want to call hers that exactly, but it’s hard to characterize it as anything else. She’s treated to a surprise from both versions of Henry (the youngest one came around quick, then, didn’t he?), who accompany her to a secret party which turns out to be her coronation.
Regina’s good deed in the wake of Gold’s sacrifice was to unite all of the storybook kingdoms into one peaceful unit of people (and other creatures) so that no one will ever be alone, as Rumple envisioned it. These realms might have had their own monarchs, but they want to unite under one crown, and they’ve decided to elect her the Good Queen. (Cersei Lannister wishes.)
She accepts their honor and her crown and even gets to have Emma and her new baby Hope in the crowd (arriving late, in a leather jacket, of course) for one good send-off, and it’s exactly the kind of gooey, romantic version of this that we’ve been waiting for. “I thought my story came to an end a long time ago, and then you people came into my life, people who gave me a second chance. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for me next, or for everyone,” she tells the crowd, over a montage of all the magic moments we’ve experienced on this show. “I refuse to believe there won’t be more adventures, more love, more family, and yes, there will be more loss. Because that’s just a part of life. And in the end, we can get past it all. With hope.”
That right there is a Dark One dagger to the heart, y’all. And here we are: The End.