How I love that feeling of breathless anticipation as I impatiently await the show to recommence after a commercial break. It’s that sense of anticipation that tells me I’m watching a truly fabulous episode, no matter the series. This week’s Once Upon a Time episode “Queen of Hearts” certainly falls into that category, and a great way for the series to gracefully take its bow until after the New Year holiday.
Earlier today on my personal blog (you can find the link in my bio), I criticized the series for (among other things) dragging on the Mulan/Aurora/Ruined Fairytale Land story arc a bit too long. And doing it at the expense of several other significant storylines. Some of that criticism still stands (for example, after bringing Emilie de Ravin (Belle) into the regular series cast, they’ve terribly underused her, neglecting the lovely bittersweet “Rumbelle” storyline).
But there is no denying that “Queen of Hearts” is a fantastic episode, tying together several story threads extremely well while plucking several new ones (and perhaps conjuring a Pandora’s Box for Regina and Rumple, played exquisitely by Lana Parrilla and Robert Carlyle, respectively). That potential Pandora’s box comes in the guise of Cora (Barbara Hershey) and the notorious and nefarious Captain Hook (Colin O’Donoghue).
But “Queen of Hearts” is less about the conflict between Storybrooke’s antiheroes and the truly evil Cora and Hook, and so much more about the value, virtue, and power of love. Love is one of the series’ most important themes, and “Queen of Hearts” explores it from the distinct and diametrically opposed vantages of Once‘s two most powerful sorcerers — Cora and Rumple.
To Cora, “love is weakness.” It is something to be exploited, and the Queen of Hearts has no equal exploiting feelings of the heart, especially since she has no heart (or it’s safely buried in a tightly locked safe). Rumple believes strongly that “true love is the most powerful magic.” As powerful as he is, and as much as he has manipulated the entire world in which they all dwell, he did not make Emma (Jennifer Morrison) who she is, with the power she now seems to have. That, he tells her, is because she is the product of true love.
But I have to wonder if he had known, or at least had suspected? The curse he created, borne of the true love between Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) — just as Emma had — might have given Emma heroic superpowers. Another side effect of the curse being broken? Perhaps. And what will Emma do with her magic, if indeed it’s there?
But Cora is also right; love also can be a weakness. Rumple’s love for Belle is his weakness (and, of course, his love and regret over his son Baelfire). And if she is exploited by Cora or threatened by Hook, Rumple likely will be pretty vulnerable, despite his power. Henry is Regina’s weakness (and Emma’s), and while his influence on her (like Belle’s on Rumple) is a force for good, he can also be used against her. And now that Cora and Hook are on their way to Storybrooke, both Regina and Rumple have much to fear.
So, Cora’s desire is be needed by her daughter. She wants to destroy everything Regina has so that she can “pick up the pieces.” How different is that than Regina’s desire for Henry to need her? Neither of them can command the love of the one from whom they most want it, so needing to be needed is perhaps the consolation prize to be gained by whatever means.
Adam Horowitz and Eddy Kitsis’ wonderful script weaves together many of the dangling threads of the Once Upon a Time narrative. It’s a real treat!
We circle back to Rumple’s imprisonment to learn that he could have escaped his cell at any time. Many suspected even as far back as “Price of Gold” that Rumple walked into Cinderella’s (Jessy Schram) trap with his eyes wide open (and one very wide pair of eyes, has our Rumple!), even reveling in the “trap” set by Cinderella, Snow and Charming.
Sitting in his cell and biding his time, Rumple had written Emma’s name over and over, yet it had not been the ravings of a man made insane by his isolation (although from his appearance in the Pilot, his imprisonment has taken its toll), but a way to conceal a vital bit of magic in the hopes that Emma one day might find it if needed. Does that mean that Rumple had foreseen Emma getting back into Fairytale Land and needing the magic ink? I don’t think so. I believe the writing of her name over and over, as Rumple explains, had been his way of making sure he remembered her name, allowing it to trigger his memory upon hearing it in the Pilot (very cool little detail, Adam and Eddy!)
We also learn, going back as well to “Price of Gold,” why Rumple wanted to acquire the Fairy Godmother’s wand. Another small piece of the puzzle.
And finally, we’ve again returned to Lake Nostos, a place of temptation for Charming in “Whatever Happened to Fredrick.” Here, the Homeric reference takes on new meaning as it is the portal for Emma and Snow’s journey home. For Odysseus, Lake Nostos had been, as for Charming, an obstacle to his safe journey as he had been tempted by sirens. In “Queen of Hearts,” it is the pathway home, truly the portal to return return things that are lost.
“Queen of Hearts” happily brings back to the fore the central narrative of the show. All of the key characters are front and center where they should be (most of the time, anyway!): Emma, Snow (and by extension Charming), Henry, Regina, and Rumple. Each plays a critical role in the episode, driving the story to its intense conclusion, setting up the narrative for the chapter of season two with Hook and Cora poised to make their entrance into Storybrooke — not through the Lake Nostos portal, but by sea.
What will the future hold? Well, we have more than a month to speculate! Let’s start tomorrow night on Let’s Talk TV. Unlike the series, I will not be going on hiatus, but will use the break to post several new articles that dive a little deeper between the lines of the Once Upon a Time narrative and characters. So stay tuned!
NOTE: Congratulations to Robert Carlyle on the critical success of his new movie California Solo, which opened in New York Friday. It opens December 7 in Los Angeles at the Nuart, and Carlyle will be appearing at a Q/A panel following the movie. My review and its accompanying one-on-one interview with director Marshall Lewy was published Friday by Blogcritics Friday.