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TV Review: Once Upon a Time – “Tallahassee”

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Until now, we’ve known very few details of Emma Swan’s (Jennifer Morrison) past. In this week’s new Once Upon a Time episode “Tallahassee” we learn how she ended up pregnant and in jail, but perhaps just as importantly, we discover why she has such profound trust issues and has learned to read people incredibly well. 

Still in the Fairytale Land wastelands and accompanied by Snow (Ginnifer Goodwin), Mulan, Sleeping Beauty (Sarah Bolger), and now Hook (Colin O’Donoghue), Emma seeks a compass that will be key to getting them back home. The compass, however, is in the possession of a certain giant (Lost‘s Jorge Garcia) that lives atop a beanstalk.

Although she’s wary of Hook (and with good reason — the pirate is an, albeit charming, creep) Emma has no choice but to trust him, at least as far as she must. Her only apparent sympathy for him comes from her belief that he had not only lost his hand, but his true love, to Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle). Of course, as we know, that’s not exactly the truth. 

We learn that Emma had been a thief 11 years before she arrives in Storybrooke, and involved with another thief who abandons her, leaving her literally holding the bag when the cops arrive. She had after many years learned to trust and in the end is betrayed by one of the few people she’s ever loved. 

We learn, however, that August (Eion Bailey) is manipulating events, and to “protect” Emma and preserve her for fulfilling her destiny in breaking the curse, August convinces Neal Cassady (Michael Raymond James) that the right thing to do is to leave Emma and let her go to prison. Promising to let Cassady know when he can again contact Emma, August says he’ll send a postcard. And, indeed, in the opening episode of season two, we see Cassady in New York with the promised post card — now that Emma has broken the curse. 

The retelling of “Jack and the Beanstalk” is clever, suggesting that the giant is the last of his kind, the remainder murdered by humans. Explaining that the “victors get to tell the story,” he holds human is little regard, assuming that they are only out to harm him. When Emma doesn’t, the giant is surprised and grants Emma not only the prize she seeks (the needed compass), but also Hook’s life.

With the compass in hand, Emma needs only the ashes remaining from the armoire to transport herself along with Snow and the rest of the crew back to Storybrooke. Her immediate quest seems now in reach. But who will get transported along with their small party? Will Hook traverse into our world? What about Cora (Barbara Hershey)? I have a feeling that Hook and Cora provide a more sinister menace than Rumple and Regina (Lana Parrilla). Both Regina and Rumple are driven by love and loss, and I’m not entirely sure that Hook is driven by anything other than ego and wounded pride. He’d humiliated Rumple for no other reason than he had been a defenseless and more vulnerable opponent. And Cora seems driven only by power. 

And what of this dream that both Sleeping Beauty and Henry have? A red room of flame and fire with no doors or windows — an adversary with fearsome eyes. Maleficent? It would make sense that Sleeping Beauty would have nightmares of her Evil Witch — but Henry? What is their connection? Any ideas? It is clearly important, but how?

I keep coming back to the Giant’s words, “the victors tell the tale.” It is so true of history, going back through the centuries in all of civilization. It is the victor that gets to tell the tales, to write the history books. And so often that history is revised to rationalize, frame or spin the story so the outcome creates the illusion that the victors were right, were the good guys, were the valorous ones saving humanity from the giants, ogres and oppressors, when it might just as easily have been the other way around.

These are highly significant words for Once Upon a Time‘s narrative. In traditional fairy tales, the victors are the “good guys,” and from within the story, they are the ones to have the final say. But the series has turned traditional narrative on its head, providing alternative explanations — alternate histories for all of the fairy tale characters. Maybe the good guys aren’t necessarily quite as good as they’d have us believe, and the “bad guys” not quite as evil (or at least without provocation or reason.

I really enjoyed getting Emma’s backstory. In addition to filling in how she came to be in prison — and pregnant, it also explains how Mr. Gold had known where to locate Henry. We know that Mr. Gold had never met August, which is why he had been so easily fooled into thinking he was his long-missing son. But, we also now know that August had arranged for Emma’s incarceration likely because it had been easier to keep tabs on her in prison than if she had been out on the road with Neal Cassady. I imagine that after Emma’s baby had been born, August dropped an anonymous note to one Mr. Gold.

I’m intrigued that the writers (Jane Espenson and Christine Boylan) chose to name Emma’s love Neal Cassady. As you may know, the real Neal Cassady was a prominent figure of the Beat Generation and part of Ken Kesey’s circle of friends who personified the tune in, turn on, drop out movement of the ’60s. Long before that, Cassady served 11 months in prison for receiving stolen goods, closely paralleling Emma’s story in “Tallahassee.” But where the connection goes from there will, I suppose, remain to be seen. 

Tomorrow night at 9:00 p.m. ET, Once Upon a Time writer-consulting producer Jane Espenson will join me on Let’s Talk TV Live on BlogTalkRadio to talk about tonight’s episode and the series in general. In the second half hour her Husbands‘ cohorts Brad “Cheeks” Bell and Sean Hemeon will stop by to talk about the new Husbands comic book, and a special event in Salt Lake City taking place November 11. So be sure to stop by. Jane and Team Husbands will be taking calls during the show, so try to stop by and listen live (or join the chat room).

Once Upon a Time airs Sunday nights at 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)."
  • WML

    Barbara, I wonder if the writers and show creators anticipated that the most popular couple in the show would be Rumple and Belle (and I assume that the popularity margin is wider than a mile). With Neal and Emma, the dynamic is really quite interesting – it’s two similiar people finding each other and finding that kindred souls really do match well. With Rumpbelle, it is that great unexpected joy that everyone longs for but seldom get (at least to the depth that the characters seem to experience). And the Regina/Henry love story is evolving into something special as well. It is a tribute to the overall excellence of the cast and writing staff that people are rooting for these people, for redemption, etc. We don’t want to just be told stories – we somehow really root for many of them to do things and experience things that we ourselves want to do and experience. A hallmark of great creativity and great writing.

    As a sidenote, my favorite TV hours came from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The two episodes, “The Inner Light” and “Darmok” present such an exploration of the human spirit, exquisitely written and fantastically acted. I think that in Robert Carlyle, we have an actor that has the same ability to captivate an audience as Patrick Stewart.

  • Sherry and WML, I think you are both right. If you haven’t, you should have a listen to what Jane Espenson had to say about the episode in my radio interview with her earlier this week.

  • WML

    One would think that if Neal Cassady didn’t mean much to Emma that she would have gottern rid of the one tangible thing that reminds her of him – the yellow bug. Much like Rumple holds on to the chipped cup, Emma holds on to the car. What words cannot utter, the heart will always find a way to tell the story.

  • Neal mentioned he was having nightmares as well. I have to think it’s connected – even though it was 11 years before! I still think he may be Bae – maybe he as amnesia. Since he was having bad dreams I assumed he is connected to Storybrooke and Fairytale land somehow.

  • WML

    Some of the other online sites are pointing to a future episode where Regina and Mr. Gold are planning to kill anyone who goes through the portal. What would make these two “competitors” stand united against a common foe – perhaps it is their love for the same person. And that person would be… I don’t know if Bae and Ned are one and the same, but….

  • WML–now that would only be too funny to bring in The Doctor travelling through time and space! It would be as ironic as Rumple refusing to go through a time/space portal, given Robert Carlyle’s previous role as Dr. Nicholas Rush who opened a long-elusive portal into an Ancient (ancient) spaceship in Stargate Universe! Talk about worlds colliding!

  • WML

    This is the second episode with Hook in which he was basically the worst thing on the set, so to speak. I don’t think it’s the dialogue. He was okay with RC, but ever since then, the character has been hallow, shallow, pretty much unlikeable. When an ogre is more interesting than a supposed major character, that may be a problem.

    If Ned is not Baelfire, then the rumors of another 30-something character going to Storybrooke may point the way to Baelfire. And maybe give some credence to the Peter Pan is Baelfire rumors being bandied about. I still say bring David Tennant to OUAT. He’s not only an outstanding actor, but he’ll have a Scottish brogue to go along with Rumple’s.

  • Pixie Michele

    Smarmy just for now hopefully. I trust Hook’s and Cora’s pasts, when revealed, to show much more and deepen their motivations. After all, the writing for Emma’s backstory filled in spaces so neatly. I also adore how “what’s in August’s box?” is repeating in season two.
    My nightmare guess for Henry and Aurora is it’s a premonition. If they’re in the same room, that’s the portal. They both mentioned curtains, which have already been shown in “Hat Trick” as an entry to another world. Hope Oz comes soon.
    Trouble is the “on fire” part probably means closing portal. Season two began with that. Will it end with it? I love the Malificent possibility for that fire!

  • Barbara Barnett

    Smarmy is the right word.

  • WML

    I really enjoyed the Emma backstory. I really enjoyed Emma interact with the three musketeers from ye Olde FTL. I was hoping she’d leave Hook under the rubble without negotiating his release from the giant. Hook isn’t dashing. He’s smarmy. ANd they made this guy a series regular? I guess if you want to put someone in the show as the one everyone can hate, the showrunners have done a great job.

  • Nancy

    Seem to recall Henry being shown as Regina’s father. Bizarre that the StoryBrooke folk tend to gloss over that. Emma could have been pregnant when she met Neal. Could Henry and Aurora have gotten trapped by Cora?

  • E

    I think they are connected because both Sleeping Beauty and Henry were under sleeping spells. Aurora slept for years and Henry ate Regina’s poison apple. I think they could have seen seen each other in the dream because Aurora said “he” and Henry said “she,” but we will have to wait and see.