Monday , April 22 2024
Which road to take, and where will it lead? The underlying theme of this week's Once Upon a Time episode "The Shepherd"

TV Review: Once Upon a Time – “The Shepherd”

There’s always a choice. And no matter the choice, there are consequences—and often collateral damage. Tonight’s Once Upon a Time episode “The Shepherd” is the prequel to the first meeting between Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) and Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) we saw in the series’ first episode. Both the Fairy Tale Land and Storybrooke stories deal with choices old and new, good and bad.

James (aka Prince Charming) has, or rather had, a twin brother. Procured as a baby for the childless King George (Alan Dale) by none other than Rumpelstiltskin (henceforth being called Rumple, and played by a deliciously twisted Robert Carlyle), James’ brother is a noble, brave knight. Proving himself before King Midas (Alex Zahara), ruler of a neighboring realm (and also the likely victim of a deal with Rumple), he will enrich his father’s impoverished kingdom by his courageous deeds. But there’s a catch; he dies. Alas, the young knight is impaled on a thought-to-be-slain opponent’s sword. Oh dear.

The death of George’s son not only wrecks the deal between the two kings, but also throws a monkey wrench into the a deal made between Rumple and George. (Geez, that Rumple has his hand in everything, it seems.) But the gleefully demonic gnome never goes back on his word, and has a reserve player tucked away in the wings—a twin!

Visiting the farm where twin brother James has lived his life, never knowing he’d had a brother, Rumple makes the young, penniless man a choice. If James accompanies Rumple to the king, his mother will want for nothing and the farm will prosper. All he needs to do is survive the challenge of slaying a dragon; if he survives, all will be well. (But that’s quite an iffy “if.”)

Reluctantly accepting the offer, James eventually prevails, and the consequences of this single choice sets in motion a series of events that lead us ultimately to Storybrooke. Offered the hand of Midas’ haughty daughter Abigail (Anastasia Griffith), James is uncertain, wanting to wait for true love. But he hardly has a choice in the matter (despite Rumple’s admonition that “there’s always a choice”). Yet, by accepting the princess’ hand, and then choosing to take “the scenic” route to the palace and his marriage, James first encounters Snow White. That one choice sets him on the road to true love—and right into the queen’s curse upon all of Fairy Tale Land.

Back in Storybrooke, David (aka John Doe, also played by Josh Dallas) has been released from the hospital and is welcomed home by his wife Kathryn (also played by Griffith). Trying to reassure him, she points out that she’s even gotten rid of an ugly old garden windmill that David hated. But he continues to be drawn towards Mary Margaret (Goodwin), who tries to resist the mutual attraction to the married man.

But the attractions seems almost beyond their control and David decides to leave Kathryn, realizing he really loves Mary Margaret. Still plagued with amnesia, he can’t continue living with a stranger he cannot remember and does not know.

Mayor Regina Mills (Lana Parrilla) warns Mary Margaret of the dire consequences lying ahead should she and David really get together. “Many lives will be ruined,” she cautions. But it is Mary Margaret’s choice. Which fork in the road will she take?

The path of true love, of course!

Now that he’s left Kathryn, Mary Margaret has no problem getting together with David. Planning to meet up with Mary Margaret at the troll bridge, David doesn’t know the way. Asking Regina for direction, he is informed about a fork in the road outside Mr. Gold’s (Carlyle) pawnshop, where he will find the right path. But there is no fork—just Gold’s shop. And entering the shop to ask directions, David spots the aforementioned garden windmill. The object triggers David’s memory, and he suddenly recalls his marriage to Kathryn. Now he cannot bail so easily and he vows to try and make things work—leaving Mary Margaret feeling led on and disappointed at the troll bridge. But what else might David remember, I wonder?

Life offers us a series of paths, littered with forks and detours that take us in new directions. Sometimes those paths lead us astray, and sometimes to our real destinies.

Clearly, Regina intends for David to lose his way at Mr. Gold’s pawnshop. Knowing that he’d enter the shop for directions, she must have known he’d see the windmill, and it would trigger his memory, thereby forestalling any relationship with Mary Margaret, which would of course fracture of her curse. But what’s up with Mr. Gold’s slightly evil and knowing grin when David’s memory is jolted?

Is he in on Regina’s plan? Has he used a little bit of magic? Or does Mr. Gold hope that David’s returning memories are of more than his Storybrooke existence? I don’t think that Mr. Gold and Regina are conspiring here; his motives are likely far different than hers.

I love the non-linear character reveals with which the show is presenting us. We knew that Prince Charming had been engaged before meeting Snow, but not the circumstances, and this backstory, emphasizing choice and consequence are important themes to the series overall narrative thus far. We’re given pieces of the puzzle from every corner of the tableau, but not necessarily contiguous pieces.

Interestingly as well, all of the choices made by nearly all of the characters in the Fairy Tale Land story, from Regina’s choice to murder her father as a means to the curse, to Jiminy Cricket’s choice that leads to the death of an innocent couple, to this week’s story all have Rumple’s green-tipped fingers in them. Each has carried with it his warning about choice and consequence. Every change, every choice, whether it involves magic or not, carries the risk of collateral damage. The question is, is it ultimately worth it?

Our choices send us off on divergent paths—sometimes clearly marked “right” and “wrong”; sometimes less defined, though equally treacherous. In this week’s episode, roads are especially important: James’ scenic route that leads to a chance meeting with Snow White, the road to the troll bridge, the road to true love. All of the characters are all on a journey, but where and to what end? And more importantly, what are the consequences awaiting the path chosen or fork in the road followed?

Random thoughts:

I’m getting more and more intrigued by the objects to be found in Mr. Gold’s pawn shop. The shop reminds me of one of those intricate “hidden objects” puzzles, and it seems to me that the shop’s cases and shelves are filled with many clues. I must find myself a very good high definition image of the shop to closely peruse while the series is on its winter hiatus. I’ve notice the tea set (Alice in Wonderland? Beauty and the Beast?), Aladdin’s lamp, and the beer steins (do they belong to the seven dwarfs?). Of course hanging in the middle of the shop is that exquisite unicorn mobile that must have some significance as well.

Also Dr. Whale (David Anders) just creeps me out. Any guesses as to who he might be in Fairy Tale Land?

And a heads up: I’ve just done a great interview with series writer/producer Jane Espenson (She wrote “Still Small Voice” and the upcoming “Desperate Souls,” which will air January 8.) I will post the interview next week sometime before next Sunday’s final December episode.

What did you think of tonight’s Once Upon a Time? Let us know in the comments thread below, and please let other fans know of this little space in the vastness of the Interwebs!


About Barbara Barnett

A Jewish mother and (young 🙃) grandmother, Barbara Barnett is an author and professional Hazzan (Cantor). A member of the Conservative Movement's Cantors Assembly and the Jewish Renewal movement's clergy association OHALAH, the clergy association of the Jewish Renewal movement. In her other life, she is a critically acclaimed fantasy/science fiction author as well as the author of a non-fiction exploration of the TV series House, M.D. and contributor to the book Spiritual Pregnancy. She Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (

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