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TV Review: Once Upon a Time – “Welcome to Storybrooke”

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“Once you blacken your heart it only grows darker.” So at the end of this week’s Once Upon a Time, “Welcome to Storybrooke,” the evil queen (Lana Parrilla) believes her revenge on Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) has ironically been set in motion, not by her own hand, but by Snow’s own. And who knows better than Regina about taking the dark path through life? 

“Welcome to Storybrooke” is an episode packed with information and answers as we are transported back to the first days of the town, a place that doesn’t exist beyond its borders. To that very first day after Regina’s curse is enacted, bringing them all to a modern-day (but slightly surreal) New England town. 

Awakening in 1983, Regina is delighted with her “win.” Everyone goes about their business as if they had done it “as long as anyone can remember.” But what they don’t remember, except for Regina, is their lives before Storybrooke. 

But Regina has only gotten part of what she wanted. Yes, she’s put an end to the happiness of the Charming family. But she, herself, has not gotten that happy ending she has for so long craved. 

Realizing that her curse hasn’t worked quite the way she wanted, she tinkers with it, but still, she acquires no happiness. No one loves her, and that is the one thing that has always eluded her.

Complaining to Mr. Gold in his shop, she insists this was not the deal they had made so long ago. But alas, it appears as if Mr. Gold, too has no recollection of life before Storybrooke. (Or does he, and is just not saying?)

The episode begins with a teaser that seems right out of The X-Files (and ironically guest stars John Pyper-Ferguson, who appeared on that iconic series in season five).  A father (Pyper-Ferguson) and son, camping in the woods in 1983 experience a bizarre storm, but they soon discover the existence of Storybrooke. “It’s as if an entire town was dropped right on top of us,” says the bemused father to his son Owen. 

Regina is surprised by their presence in her town; they don’t seem to belong there. They worry her, but she is drawn to the boy. In her own perverse craving for love, she mistakes the boy’s warmth for love, and schemes to keep him (and the dad) in Storybrooke.  When she realizes that it’s a bit more complicated than just desiring it, she uses her power and magic to hold them both–until she realizes she cannot, and lets the boy go. 

But that incident has now come back to haunt them all as we finally learn that the boy is all grown up and has reappeared as Greg Mendell, who has for all these years searched for his father, presumably still Regina’s captive. (Any takers for my bet that the dad is being kept in the Cuckoo‘s nest in the hospital basement?)

(By extension we also learn the meaning of Greg’s Star Wars ring tone. All these years he’s carried with him a lanyard keychain, given to him by his dad as a light sabre on that fateful camping trip. Cool, huh? Sometimes a ring tone isn’t just a ring tone. )

Both the flashback and the present-day story revolve around Regina’s complex desires of both love and power. She craves love, something denied to her by her own mother for so many years, but the only way she knows how to get it is to use magic and force it, whether that’s in controlling Sheriff Graham’s heart or scheming to control Henry’s.

In addition to our re-introduction to Storybrooke on Day One, the story also picks up from the end of “The Miller’s Daughter” and Regina’s plan to exact revenge upon Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin). With Cora (Barbara Hershey) dead, killed by Mary Margaret (AKA Snow White) to save Rumple’s life, Regina is out for Mary Margaret’s heart, if not her life.

Rumple argues to Regina that it might be time to cut her losses and cast off the idea of revenge. It will only cost her the thing she most wants, her step-son Henry. Reminding her of the lesson Cora learned only shortly before her death, it is not possible to have everything. Love and power are not always a possible combination. 

Regina disagrees and will not be swayed from her mission to get rid of Snow White for good. She finds a curse that will force Henry’s love, but it requires the death of the person she most hates, and conveniently for her, that would be Snow White.

Alerting the Charming’s about Regina’s threat, Gold believes he has fulfilled any debt he may owe them. Charming (Josh Dallas) disagrees, reminding him that he owes his life to Snow White and must as payment for that debt agree to protect her by stopping Regina. 

“Cora was very dangerous because she had no heart, Regina is even more dangerous because she does,” warns Rumple. She will stop at nothing. Well, almost nothing. 

Unlike her mother, Regina has never gone so far as to remove her own heart, which would allow her ruthlessness to go unabated, and perhaps even allow her to revel in her evil with no care about love at all. It would, at least in her own distorted, heartless view, make her “happy.” But it’s a step she is unwilling to take, despite her misery, and as with Rumplestiltskin, it is what makes them both ultimately redeemable.

Henry wants to get rid of magic in Storybrooke, worried about the spiral everyone seems to be on, moving further and further down a very dark road. He runs, intending to destroy the portal to Fairytale land, stealing some dynamite along the way. It is a desperate move, but he is determined. 

He doesn’t succeed in destroying the magic, but he does manage to get Regina to destroy the love curse. As she had with Owen, 28 years earlier, an innocent, good boy breaks through her barriers and defenses to appeal directly to her heart, her better nature. Goodness still remains a glimmer within her, sequestered deep within her heart, and it tells her to listen to Henry, despite her own desires. 

While all this is going on, Snow White remains depressed, agonizing over her deed. She asks Gold how he manages to live with himself after all he has done. “You keep telling yourself you did the right thing, and maybe someday you might actually believe it,” he answers, not quite convinced himself. Gold knows only too well that that day never actually comes, and as much as he would like to believe it, emotionally, Gold is has paid dearly for his actions. And the point is, our Rumplestiltskin even after hundreds of years still hasn’t answered the question even for himself. 

A despondent Snow White ultimately begs Regina (Lana Parrilla) to kill her, but Regina has no desire to put Snow out of her misery. She is perfectly content to watch Snow miserable, her heart blackened by her complicity in Cora’s death. It is so much better to allow Snow to suffer, let her heart grow blacker with each passing day, watching her self-destruct. Why risk Henry’s love when Snow will do herself in, without tainting Regina’s hands?

It was a delight to see Jamie Dornan back to reprise his role as Sheriff Graham (AKA The Huntsman). We learn that Regina had him picked out from the start to be her boy toy, henchman and all around bot, ready to do her bidding whatever that may be. 

I found it interesting that young Owen strongly resembles Henry. I wonder how that relates to the story of Henry’s adoption. I’m guessing it is no coincidence.

“Welcome to Storybrooke” is another great episode in a string of them since the return from hiatus. With Owen/Gregor poking around town, looking for his father and possibly bringing much misery to the entire town, the story will undoubtedly ramp up as the weeks pass.

Next week “Selfless, Brave and True,” will bring Baelfire’s fiance to town, and then the series goes on a spring hiatus, to return April 21 with “Lacy,” which promises to ramp up the RumBelle story as the show pushes into its final month of season two.

Tomorrow night on Let’s Talk TV Live, we will deconstruct “Welcome to Storybrooke” and look ahead to the what the final few episodes of the season might bring. So stay tuned and tune in!

Once Upon a Time airs Sunday nights 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)."
  • brittin

    I Just watched this Once Upon a Time Episode 18 Promo.

  • Jane E

    I really enjoyed this episode. It took some unexpected twist. I loved Rumple guarding Snow White, a bit shocking. I also enjoyed Henry the peace maker and can’t wait to find out how Regina adopted him. I think your right Owen plays a part in this.

  • Robin

    The tale “Snow-White and Rose-Red” is actually a different story from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”. Different characters, same name.

  • Jo

    Barbara, do the writers know that Snow White had a sister named Rose Red?

  • “If you say it often enough you may even believe it yourself”, or something to that effect. It was a comment filled with regret and a knowledge that deep down, he knows that he has done harm.

    This was a gorgeous line reading by Carlyle. He imbued with centuries of regret and a lifetime of experience. Brilliant. One line that carries with pages and pages of subtext.

  • WML

    You can tell that Rumple does not really like the man that he has become, that aside from Belle seing the good in him, he loves Belle because she allows him to find the good in himself. His redemption is not complete if he only does things because he wants to please Belle. It will only be complete when he is no longer happy to be deluding himself with falsehoods. Notice what Rumple tells Snow when she asked him how he can live with himself. “If you say it often enough you may even believe it yourself”, or something to that effect. It was a comment filled with regret and a knowledge that deep down, he knows that he has done harm. And this would not have been possible, I don’t think, without Belle’s love. The Rumple before Belle would not help the Charmings to the degree that he is doing in this episode. He is now capable of showing empathy for others. And he seems to even care. This is Rumple before the curse. Manifested in Gold, in limited amounts. I think Belle would really be proud of how he really is changing.

  • Barbara Barnett

    Interesting theory.

  • Alli Purple

    This a random thing I was thinking about: Episode 19 (I think) is entitled “The Evil Queen.” What if it’s Snow? I mean, it would make sense with her heart growing darker and all. And we’ve seen the good sides of Rumple and Regina, and I honestly think it would be really cool to see that happen. I don’t know, just a thought.

  • Betsy

    I kind of thought Gold’s comment about Regina being more dangerous than Cora because she has a heart was very wise because he above all else knows what it’s like to seek vengeance out of the loss of a loved one. Post-wraith, Gold has done nothing to seek revenge on Regina and, in fact, this entire season has seen him on a beautiful, slow, realistic redemption arc.

    I love him so much….

  • WML

    I really liked this episode. It’s great to see Regina get some love (or not get love). Good acting by Lana and the Sheriff (Jamie Dornan, you are missed). I am glad to see that Henry still loves his mom. She’s not totally lost, The struggle in Regina has always been her need to be loved. I wonder what happens when she finds out that Greg is the boy she lost all those years ago. And I wonder who the unlikely hero will be.