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TV Review: Once Upon a Time – “True North”

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Finding your course in life—or finding your way back onto your intended path often requires a compass. Tonight’s Once Upon a Time episode “True North” treats us to an alternative take on the classic fairy tale of Hansel (Quinn Lord) and Gretel (Karly Scott Collins).  And the episode marks the first “happy ending” to which we’ve been privy in the story thus far. Can this be further evidence of the curse’s fragility and Emma’s (Jennifer Morrison) effect—and, I might add, the power of family?

With their woodcutter father (Nick Lea—a memorable Alex Krycek on The X-Files) taken captive by the Evil Queen (Lana Parilla), Hansel and Gretel are left to fend for themselves in the Enchanted Forest. To be reunited with him, they only need to do the Evil Queen a simple favor: steal an important curse from the Blind Witch (Emma Caulfield, Buffy the Vampire Slayer)—a curse needed to defeat a hated enemy!

The witch lives in a unique house—tempting and tasty. But the children are admonished to leave whatever temptations they may have at the doorstep. “Eat nothing,” she warns them.

But who wouldn’t want to take just a taste of the witch’s fondant-decorated candy cottage? I have to give full kudos here to the brilliant art department and production designers of the show. The cottage is gorgeous, eye-popping and irresistable. So who can blame Hansel for wanting to take just a little lick of buttercream from a too-tempting cupcake?

Alas, it awakens the The Blind Witch and soon she has both children locked away in her larder ready for a little snack…hers. The witch has cannibalistic leanings, with the bones of countless children lie scattered in front of her hearth. (Oh my!) And she is ravenous. But fortunately, Hansel and Gretel are destined to be food for the her table; they eventually outsmart her and manage to escape, tossing her into the oven just like in the classic story! And what curse could possibly have been so important to the queen? It’s the infamous poisoned apple, of course.

When the kids return to the queen’s castle, she is so impressed by the children’s resourcefulness in obtaining the object of her desire, she offers them a home in her castle—which they refuse, wanting only to find their father. The queen is curious. Why would Hansel and Gretel pass up an opportunity to live in a magic castle in favor of reuniting with their impoverished father? It makes no sense to the heartless one.

I adored the scene in which the curious queen asks the father why Hansel and Gretel are willing to forego riches for a poor woodcutter of a father. It is as if she honestly cannot comprehend the sentiment, deeply touched by the notion that family trumps riches. It’s a lovely, subtly played and honest moment, perfectly played by Parrilla, whose queen, and Mayor Regina, are designed to be very much over the top.

Back in Storybrooke, Henry (Jared Gilmore) befriends two young children living on their own in an abandoned house. They should really be sent into foster care, but Emma is reluctant as sheriff to accommodate the strictest sense of the law. Trying to identify the father, Emma takes the kids’ antique compass to Mr. Gold (Robert Carlyle) with the hope of finding a link back to the missing dad. He’s happy to help, recognizing the compass as something acquired from his shop, but of course there’s a price to retrieve the name from his well-kept record box. He coyly asks for forgiveness from the new sheriff, but she counters with “tolerance.” “That’s a start,” he offers, giving her the name Michael Tillman. But when he replaces the card in the box, we notice that it is blank. Hmm. It’s clearly an important detail; Mr. Gold’s knowledge of names is vast (and of course ties back into Rumple’s obsession with them).

Emma locates the dad (Nicholas Lea! Hey, who remembers him as Alex Krychek from The X-Files?), who’s not interested in suddenly becoming parent to adolescent twins he’d never known existed. Desperate to keep the kids out of the foster care system, she manipulates the father into meeting them. Magic happens, and a hesitant father takes baby steps into forging a family, paralleling the Fairy Tale’s narrative. During the episode, we learn a little more about Emma and her backstory, but more importantly, her strong feelings about family and rootlessness—and how that’s affected her worldview.

There are a couple of interesting threads about the nature of family that the series has explored in the last couple of weeks. There’s a contrast made between the queen’s cluelessness about it in “True North” and Rumple’s sacrifice for it in “Desperate Souls.” These are two characters whose Storybrooke alter egos are often diametrically opposed forces—but in some ways quite similar. How they each shaped by their experiences with family love and devotion. Add to that Emma’s experiences, and an interesting picture begins to emerge.

First, let’s look at Emma: she was found as a baby, abandoned on the side of the road. She’s never known any semblance of family, spending her youth in the foster care system. In Fairy Tale Land, Emma is saved when she’s placed in an armoire just before the queen’s curse sweeps over the land, and as a result, she is not relegated to Storybrooke. Although she’s transported to our contemporary world, she has aged 28 years (unlike the other characters, who’ve not aged at all, apparently), and according to Rumple in the pilot, this is when she’s to appear to begin breaking the queen’s curse.

She lives her life without family, giving up her baby when it’s born in prison. The baby (Henry, of course) is then procured for adoption by Mr. Gold, who provides him to Regina—further suggestion that these three characters (four, if you include Henry) are very closely tied together.

Then there’s Regina, who hasn’t a clue about the importance of family. She has no scruples about murdering her own father to cast her curse; she doesn’t hesitate to kill her lover, Sheriff Graham (Jamie Dornan) when he begins to remember his FTL past. She may care for Henry, but I believe she thinks of him as a possession, rather than a son. And it’s clear from “True North” that the concept of “family” is completely foreign to her as the Evil Queen.

Rumple is an interesting blend of complexities. Family is important to him, enough that he risks much to protect all he has left of it, believing that he will “truly become dust” should his son be conscripted and sacrificed in a senseless war. Willing to sell his soul to protect his family, he ends up with a bad bargain, losing his family anyway. It destroys him, turning into the trickster dealmaker he becomes before he’s imprisoned. But does family still matter to him at all by the time we meet him in the series pilot?

That might well tie into why he’s willing to help Snow White for only the price of the baby’s name (which becomes a key to bringing Emma to Storybrooke). He’s aware of the queen’s curse, and is his willingness to help save Emma from it due to a deeply buried hope that he might someday be reunited with his son Bae?

Might Bae be the handsome stranger who’s come to Storybrooke? Now there’s a thought. It will be interesting to see him interact with Mr. Gold, pick up any clues.

Well, that’s all for now. Once Upon a Time returns next Sunday on ABC with “7:15” at 8:00 p.m. ET.

And just to let you know, I’ll be doing another LiveChat Event following episode 12 “Skin Deep” February 12. 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)."
  • Action Kate

    Yeah, I saw Nic Lea (not knowing he was on) and paused it to yell “Hey! Look who it is!” Hubby looked at him for about three seconds and says “It’s Ratboy, isn’t it?”

    Amazing how some characters just stick. And Lea is not a bad actor, either, and he’s been working steadily since XF finished up, but… he’ll always be Ratboy.

    We are both really enjoying Jennifer Morrison’s work, even if her character is frankly not very different from House’s Cameron. And Lana Parrilla is just the cat’s pajamas. 🙂

  • Emma–that’s totally cool. We’ll see who’s right and that’s half the fun, isn’t it?

  • Emma

    Like with Bae anything is possible I suppose but if we can’t use the well defined length of a human pregnancy to figure out time lines, there isn’t much we can say about when things happen in Fairytale land.

    As for his clothes: maybe he destroyed them after capture, or the magical nature of the prison aged them, or the writers had no clue how long he was supposed to be in when they wrote those episodes. But unless we get dialog that says years I think I’m going to stick with months.

  • Emma–then what explains the condition of his clothes? When he is imprisoned he dresses like an elfin knight, by the time of the curse, he is in rags. Time, especially in fantasy is never a fixed construct, as they say.

  • Emma

    While there is a chance Bae could be involved in the present storyline somehow if time travel is involved, there is no way Rumple was in jail for years before the curse. Ella was in the middle of her pregnancy when he was imprisoned and days from giving birth when the curse hit. Unless the poor girl was pregnant for years even before Storybrooke, Rumple was imprisoned for 3-4 months.

  • AlexisAwake

    I noticed that too, Barbara! I saw that on the bloody dagger it was spelled Rumplestiltskin, but when I consulted the original Grimm’s fairy tales spelling, it was Rumpelstiltskin. I wondered why they changed it up at first, but then again, they are changing everything else so why not his name. 🙂

  • MWK, I will correct the name, nitpick aside. El bicho is also correct about the series title. speaking of odd spellings, OUAT uses a non-standard ( I won’t say misspelling, since it seems deliberate) spelling of Rumpelstiltskin, spelling it “rumple” not “rumple…”

  • Please, MWK, if you are going to needlessly nitpick, you should get your own comments in order. The series title is “The X-Files”.

  • MWK

    Please Barbara it has been almost twenty years since Alex K R Y C E K was introduced on the X Files, as it was his most memorable role to date, let’s all spell it correctly. I watched this show for the 1st time because Nicholas Lea was a guest star, I loved the costumes and the twists to the original fairy tales.

  • AlexisAwake

    Very true! Sometimes I wonder why I even try to figure it out, as if I could somehow channel the genius of Kitsis and Horowitz into my own finite brain. It IS fun to try though. 🙂

  • Alexis–I still think it’s possible, given that the EF story keeps moving back and forth in time. By the time we meet rumple, he’s been in prison for years (given the state of his clothing and physical condition).

    We don’t know what might have happened to Gepetto–perhaps he’s aged due to other things. and perhaps Bae hasn’t for other reason. Anything is possible, because we don’t understand (yet) the internal logic of FTL. Which is part of the fun 🙂

  • AlexisAwake

    Another great review, Barbara! Here’s my 2 cents on whether the mysterious stranger could be Bae. It doesn’t seem to me that his age would fit in with the timeline of our story, and I’m basing this on…Gepetto.

    In That Still Small Voice, we meet Archie as an adult who visits Rumple to enlist Rumple’s help in escaping his parents. At that point in the story, Rumple is very obviously already the Dark One. Then Archie accidentally allows Gepetto’s parents to be cursed rather than his own. Gepetto is a young boy here, yet when we see Gepetto in the pilot just days before the Queen’s curse hits, he is an old man. Therefore, Rumple’s son would have to have grown to an old man by that time as well, and he may even be dead, given that we don’t know how much time Rumple had been Rumple before he met with Archie.

    So…based on all that, I don’t think the mysterious stranger is Rumple’s son, and I really wonder if his son could even still be alive and in Storybrooke.

  • Thank you Sara! Please pass the word (and don’t forget to Google+ it if you’d like). I agree with you entirely, tho I have to confess to Rumple/Mr. G being my favorite 🙂

  • sara

    ”But when he replaces the card in the box, we notice that it is blank. Hmm. It’s clearly an important detail; Mr. Gold’s knowledge of names is vast (and of course ties back into Rumple’s obsession with them).”
    Or maybe he still have the ability of to predict the future.

    Thanks for your amazing review, Barbara.

    I love Emma, Mr Gold/Rumple, Evil Queen/Regina sooooooooooo much! 🙂