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TV Review: Once Upon a Time – “The Stranger”

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Raise your hand if you guessed that August (Eion Bailey), Storybrooke’s motorbike riding stranger, is actually Pinocchio. That is but one mystery revealed in this week’s episode of ABC’s Once Upon a Time, “The Stranger.” But just what is his role in the grand scheme of things?

Photo Courtesy ABC Medianet

So often, it seems, Once Upon a Time touches on the relationship between parents and children. What will parents do to protect the life of their child? Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle) seems to have manipulated the entire curse into his quest to find his son Baelfire (Dylan Schmid); the undoing of the curse is dependent upon Emma’s (Jennifer Morrison) instinctive love for her son Henry (Jared Gilmore). And this week we learn that August’s role in the story—and the curse’s undoing—has to do with Geppetto’s (Tony Amendola) actions to protect Pinocchio. Protecting Emma and ultimately breaking the curse is the only way for Pinocchio and Geppetto to reunite. And then there is the question as to whether Regina loves Henry or sees him merely as a possession? Is it even possible for the borderline psychopathic Regina to love—anyone?

The old woodworker agrees to create the magical wardrobe into which Emma will be placed only on the condition that his son, who might be turned back into wood by the curse, is allowed to join Emma in the wardrobe and escape into the Land Without Magic. Pinocchio is told to protect the precious Emma, but finds he is unable to fulfill Geppetto’s request.

And it is not until years later—when Emma finally reaches the age of 28 years—that August remembers what he’s really supposed to be doing, which is finishing their story. By then, Henry had been born, but with Emma far away, all would have been lost in Storybrooke. I wonder if the reason Mr. Gold procured Henry for Regina (Lana Parrilla) several years earlier had been as a contingency to ensure Emma’s travel to Storybrooke. Perhaps he hadn’t known of Geppetto’s actions—or that Pinocchio had traveled with Emma through the portal.

Now August needs desperately to put it all to rights—for his own sake, and to fulfill the promise made both to his father and the Blue Fairy (Keegan Connor Tracy). But he is thwarted by Emma’s increasing desire to win back Henry from the evil, manipulative Mayor Regina Mills. It will be impossible to make her understand her destiny while she is so distracted.

With Emma convinced that Regina is to blame for framing Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin), she is more determined than ever to take back her son. She calls upon Mr. Gold to represent her in her efforts to regain legal custody of Henry, but August has gotten to him earlier. Asking him to intervene and not let her get distracted in fulfilling her destiny as Fairy Tale Land’s savior, Gold refuses to help, subtly sending her off into the August’s waiting hands.

August is less interested in helping Emma and Henry reunite than he is in convincing Emma that they are all part of a fairy tale originating in another place and another time. Except, she’s not buying.

Part of the reason Emma is reluctant to believe is that she doesn’t want to believe. She has no interest in being anyone’s savior—except maybe Henry’s. She’s has no desire for the type of responsibility that role would place on her shoulders. So her instinct is to run away, as she likely has so many times before in her difficult life—run from responsibility, run from her destiny. She was probably so effective as a bail-bondswoman before she came to Storybrooke because she’s not very different from the people she pursued. And here she is, once again, preparing to run. But this time, she plans on taking her son with her, kidnapped and sneaking away in the night. I doubt she’ll get very far, don’t you?

It’s appropriate that the Storybrooke version of Pinocchio is a writer—at weaver of stories. After all, Pinocchio told stories—lied—to Geppetto; he created fantasies and fabrications, exactly what a storyteller does.

I really like the uneasy alliance that seems to be forging between August and Mr. Gold. Gold understands August’s importance in the story; it is his destiny, after all, to convince Emma of her role in breaking the Evil Queen’s curse. And Gold has a personal stake in putting things back the way they were. He has not found Baelfire in Storybrooke; yes, he has been transported to a “land without magic” but is it this land? All this time and he’s not found his son. He must go back to Fairy Tale Land to find his happy (or at least happier) ending. As must they all.

I wonder too if Gold is curious about how much August knows—and how he found out. Has August come across Baelfire in his travels? Or were they friends back in Fairy Tale Land?

It is an interesting little dig that Gold delivers to August, making certain that his father is in the shop when he arrives. August had cruelly fooled Gold into believing he was Baelfire—only to break that fantasy quickly. Now Gold shows August his real father—but August cannot let him know of their true connection. It’s an equally cruel act—but not undeserved.

I had wondered after last week’s episode why August, if he’s not Baelfire, had reacted so emotionally to Gold’s words of remorse and regret. He seems deeply touched by the emotion of the non-reunion. But I get it now.

Of course August had been thinking of his exile from his own father—and the remorse he feels for having let him down. Gold’s emotions—his sincerity and vulnerability in that instant—really resonates with August’s own feelings for his father. It was, for me this week, another “aha” moment.

And then there’s the queen…er…Regina. With Mary Margaret exonerated for Kathryn’s non-death, she has to find another way to keep true love apart. What to do? What to do? What better way than to seduce David (Josh Dallas) and charm the pants off Prince Charming. But for all her own shallow charms and smarmy damsel-in-distress act, Regina can’t win David from his true love—not for all the sycophantic mirrors in Storybrooke! So it’s back to the drawing board for her. She really is a black widow spider, isn’t she?

So what is to come next? There are only two episodes remaining to this season and many loose ends to tie up. And like a good novel, the end of this season is something I both anticipate and lament.

Once Upon a Time airs Sundays, 8:00 p.m. ET on ABC.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • Bryce

    I just saw a detail that was so small, and also very interesting. If you watch the part where Pinocchio is on the raft with his father (at the beginning) he says something like “we can both survive”. So he dives in the water, assuming he’d float, and saves Gepetto. Then when Gepetto finds the puppet “dead” on the beach, Pinnochio’s nose is very long, showing that he lied about their dual survival. I absoultely love this show, you can tell they put everything in for a reason and every time I rewatch an episode, I catch something else!

  • Action Kate

    I’m glad you reminded us that Emma has spent most of her life running, because I was screaming and throwing things at the TV when she booked off with Henry.

    It frustrates me no end that Emma refuses to think about potential drawbacks to her actions. She steals the blueprints from Regina and then confronts her about it… in public… without reading the damn blueprints first. She decides that she’s not going to play Regina’s game, and that she wants custody of Henry… so she tells Regina to her face what she’s going to do, revealing her hand. She takes Henry and runs off in the middle of the night, blatantly kidnapping him. It’s like the Idiot Ball has been grafted to her chest.

    I guess she’s consistent in that responsibility makes her run, but when she’s so together for almost every other part of the show and her character, this glaring flaw is really painful. She’s not like Starbuck from BSG2K, who was an amazing fighter pilot and a screwup in everything else. Maybe she should be less competent, and I’d be less apoplectic about this idiotic behavior.

    I do like the show… really! 🙂

  • TRS

    Like you, I can’t wait for the next episodes, but I don’t think I can stand to wait all Summer for next season!!!

  • kathy

    I think the fact that Emma took Henry and left StoreyBrooke is tantamount to her admitting in the curse. Some part of her believes that no one from that city can really leave. If she and Henry can leave StoreyBrooke then maybe she thinks she will be successful. After all if the curse is real no one can come after her.

  • Linda

    At First thank you for your nice review. I occasionaly read them but again i have to say you have a rather cold view on Emma and it leads that you underestimate the complexity of her character and the role she plays in this story.
    August told or tried to convince her that she is their only Hope and her answer was then you are all screwed.
    That line resonated with me…and again i conclude: Emma strikes me as not just a loner but likely as someone with low self-esteem. By her own recounting of her history, she’s made a lot of bad mistakes, had some really ugly interactions with other people and never had a single meaningful relationship until she came to Storybrooke. That has to be hell on a person’s self worth, and would probably make the curse all the more difficult for her to accept. To accept the story, she has to not just believe in something that would be laughable to all of us in the real real world but also in the possibility that she, Emma, is special, Powerful, Capable of great things. If she doesn’t have faith in herself in the real world, how can she see herself in the stories she’s told? It has to fly in the face of not just everything she believes about the world in general, but about what she believes about herself. And that kind of doubt is often the hardest type to overcome. Emma may believe but she is just not ready to save everyone. That helped me feel for her. She keeps losing to the queen so why should she think that she can succeed?
    Taking Henry and leaving Storybrooke is an act of desperation and it can`t end well of course.
    Emmas scene in the woods was some powerful stuff and Jennifer Morrison did a fantastic job here.