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TV Review: Once Upon a Time – “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”

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A kiss on the lips with Emma (Jennifer Morrison), and Sheriff Graham’s (James Dornan) memories begin to flood back, first as dreams and then as daytime visions. Piecing together his own history as the Evil Queen’s (Lana Parrilla) huntsman, we meet the man recruited to assassinate Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) in this week’s Once Upon a Time episode “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.”

With her husband, the king (and Snow White’s father), dead, the Evil Queen wants complete control of the kingdom (after all, that’s why she murdered him). Only one problem. Snow White is favored over her stepmother, and as long as her stepdaughter lives, the queen’s little bloody coup isn’t going to work.

It’s an interesting take on the Snow White story, diverging from the “who’s the fairest in the land” territory to make the conflict between the queen and Snow more political. I like it.

So the queen hires a huntsman—a man she believes to have no compassion, no heart. But she is wrong. This huntsman has a heart; he feels the pain of the animals he kills. And when it comes to murdering Snow White, he cannot complete the act, substituting the heart of a stag to present to her majesty. Unfortunately, the queen knows the difference between a human heart and a beast’s heart, and the her revenge for this act of betrayal is to remove the huntsman’s heart, locking it away for safekeeping.

The Fairy Tale Land story in this week’s Once Upon a Time for once doesn’t parallel the Storybrooke story as much as bleed into it as Sheriff Graham begins to remember—something. Running into the Storybrooke’s nearby woods, he spots an unusual wolf, possessing one black eye and one red eye. Pursuing the white wolf deeper into the woods, Graham loses him, but is surprised by Mr. Gold (the wonderful Robert Carlyle), who says he’s been doing a little gardening. Hmmm. But what is he really doing with a shovel and gloves deep in the woods?

Telling the creepy Mr. Gold that he’s been having strange dreams, Rumpelstiltskin’s Storybrooke alter ego enigmatically suggests that dreams are perhaps memories of another life. It’s a pretty big clue, and either Mr. Gold knows more than he’s letting on, or, like Graham, is beginning to remember. This makes me wonder again about Rumple’s place in the overall narrative. Is he villain or champion in disguise? And I also have to speculate here a bit. If Mr. Gold is remembering, and perhaps has been since Emma first arrived, is that what has led him out into the woods? Is he trying to dig up pieces of his own past life?

Believing he’s going mad, Graham confronts Mary Margaret, asking her if she remembers where and when they first met, because he cannot. Neither can she, but when he begins to suggest that he’s having past life flashbacks, she wonders if he’s been talking to Henry about his storybook. Henry, of course, is trying desperately to convince everyone in Storybrooke that they’re really fairy tale characters who’ve lost their sense of time, place and identity.

As Graham’s connections with the past accelerate, he becomes a liability for Mayor Regina, but she knows how to deal with such major security leaks.

But you have to wonder whether Regina’s motives aren’t more personal. She and Graham have been having a secret affair, but now that Emma’s arrived on the scene, he seems drawn to her, as if there is some invisible, but very strong connection between them. It is obviously romantic, but is it something more mystical? But before anything further can happen either with Emma or with his quickly-returning memories, Regina unearth’s Graham’s excised heart, crushing it to sand. After all, how else do you repay perceived betrayal if you’re an evil queen…er…mayor.

Heart seems to play a big role in Once Upon a Time. To invoke the curse in the first place, The Evil Queen needs to extract the heart of someone she loves—her father. To take revenge upon Snow White, she needs someone without (a) heart to assassinate the young Snow. And to control The Huntsman (and Graham) she keeps his heart locked away in a crypt. The Queen herself appears heartless, but on the other hand, she believes that Snow White betrayed a confidence at some point in the past, something else revealed in “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.”

What could it have been that the queen told Snow so long ago and far away? And why did Snow betray that confidence? Obviously we won’t be privy to that for some time to come. But it’s clear that the queen is in possession of her own broken heart. In fact, Storybrooke is littered with broken hearts, courtesy of The Evil Queen; that’s the point of her curse: “no more happy endings.” So I wonder what else the queen has locked away inside her father’s crypt? There are lots of little locked compartments lining its walls. More hearts, or something even more sinister?

This is a great episode, by series creators Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis. Sharply written and with a great final-bow performance by Jamie Dornan, it was a fantastic fall finale of a fairy tale.

The series returns January 8 with Jane Espenson’s “Desperate Souls,” which features Rumpelstiltskin’s origin story. I recently interviewed Jane about the series and the upcoming “Desperate Souls” episode; I will post it later this week. So, stay tuned!

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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)."
  • Brighid45

    This is my favorite episode to date. Well written and acted, with wonderful layers of symbolism and allusion . . . just excellent.

  • Great review. I’ve been surprised by how interesting show has been, and this episode was one of the best yet.

  • angelcat2865

    Wonderful review. Apparently Once Upon A Time fans not quite as vocal as House fans it seems.

    Really hated the lost of Graham this week. He was one of my favorites and yes, I had already figured out that he was the huntsman. But I guess his death was not in vain because it does show the power of the curse is definitely weakening. It also served to remind just how evil and sad the queen truly is. I believe if she cannot or will not change her ways she will find herself completely alone in the end and the curse she used to try and destroy the others will ultimately destroy her instead.

    Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold still continues to be the most interesting character in this story. Though I suspect that his ultimate motive is probably mayhem it is fun to speculate what is behind each of Rumpelstiltskin’s actions. Is he going to help or hurt Henry’s quest this time around. Like you I have to wonder what he was really doing out in the woods with that shovel.

    So far I have truly loved this show. It has been exceeding well told and I hope it will continue to be so. I have to confess that I do fear it becoming another Lost which I enjoyed at first but became so complicated and killed so many of my favorites that it lost me (pun intended).

  • You are very welcome, Sara!

  • sara

    Thank you Barbara, great review 🙂