Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 1, Episode 22 of ABC's "Once Upon a Time," entitled "A Land Without Magic."
The mark of a good TV episode is escapism. When a show is at its best, an hour seems to pass by in the blink of an eye -- there's not a moment of extraneous dialogue, no plodding scenes, no interludes where you feel tempted to check your phone in the middle of the action. You're transported -- transfixed by something truly transcendent. In short, you're entertained. Tonight, "Once Upon A Time" checked all those boxes and more.
Was it a perfect hour? No. But it was probably as close as network TV gets, delivering on all the promises made in the pilot in engaging, enthralling ways. Sure, the dialogue has always had the tendency to skew a little cheesy at times and the special effects were a little wobbly, but I'd like to see you try to create a realistic CGI dragon on a broadcast budget. HBO may have spoiled us with "Game of Thrones" and its lavish, subscriber-funded setpieces, but for the Disney crowd, no show on air has more heart than "OUAT."
As someone who still routinely bursts into tears from sheer nostalgic enchantment while wandering around Disneyland, I was predisposed towards "Once Upon A Time" from the start, easily dubbing it one of my favorite pilots of the 2011-12 season. That being said, the show's freshman year hasn't been without its share of niggles; many viewers (myself included) began to grow frustrated with the way "Once Upon A Time" seemed to be treading water when it came to weakening the curse, and with Regina's constant one-upmanship whenever Emma tried to take her down a peg. Still, both the network and viewers showed faith in the series, which was the highest-rated new drama of the season and a lock for renewal. I think it's safe to say that our patience was well and truly rewarded with the finale.
From the gripping opening -- and the welcome return of the dearly departed Jamie Dornan as the Huntsman -- to the ominous final moments, "A Land Without Magic" was what "Once Upon A Time" was always meant to be: a fairytale come true. We had a courageous heroine wielding a sword, double-crosses, valiant quests, painful losses and true love's kiss.
During a recent interview, Josh Dallas told me that the finale would focus on Charming's story. He also said that it was "bananas" and would "blow people's minds," and I think he was right on all counts. Charming was definitely the driving force of the Fairytale Land plot, but I particularly loved the way Emma's quest mirrored her father's on the Storybrooke side -- particularly their concurrent encounters with Malificent in dragon form. The whole episode was beautifully constructed to bring the season full circle, with plenty of visual and narrative callbacks to the pilot, and I was particularly amused that Rumplestiltskin ironed out any potential continuity errors by magically transforming Charming's questing clothes into the more regal attire he wore when we first saw him resurrect Snow in the pilot.
I was pleasantly surprised that the writers (showrunners Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz) chose to have Emma realize the truth so early on in the episode -- we may say it was long overdue, but that jolt certainly gave the episode a shot of adrenaline that powered it all the way through to the final moments without ever stopping for breath. It was deeply satisfying to see Regina, Rumple and Emma finally operating on a (mostly) level playing field, with Emma finally feeling righteous enough to truly take Regina on. Obviously, that equality won't last for long, since Rumple once again stacked the odds in his (and, inadvertently, Regina's) favor again by managing to bring magic into our world at the episode's climax.
Speaking of which, I found it heartbreaking that even though Rumple finally got back his lost love -- the woman who was starting to return his humanity to him in Fairytale Land -- he still made a wholly selfish, evil choice in using the wishing well to return his magic instead of his son.
If the wishing well truly could return something precious that was lost (and it obviously had some serous magical mojo), I was starting to believe that he thought Baelfire was the most precious thing he was missing. But just like Regina, Rumple's thirst for power seems to have subsumed all the goodness that he used to possess. It appears that not even Belle's miraculous return will be enough to keep him in check, which should make for a dramatic second season. I'm assuming that now that the curse has been broken, the inhabitants of Storybrooke will be free to leave the confines of the town for the first time. So are Rumple or Regina aiming to take control of our world instead of simply settling for their own? Time will tell.
I do wonder whether the episode would've benefited from being two hours long instead of one; the Snow and Charming scenes in particular felt a little rushed, and I suppose I was hoping for a slightly more poignant proposal. But their subsequent reunion in Storybrooke was a suitably satisfying moment for them. It's obvious that we've still got plenty of fertile ground to cover in Season 2 in terms of flashbacks, since we still have to learn how Snow and Charming took back the kingdom from Regina and King George exactly.
While Mary Margaret didn't have much to do this week, watching Snow read her own story to her grandson was a beautifully resonant moment, perfectly played by Ginnifer Goodwin. She and Josh Dallas did some spectacular work this week, as usual, perfectly conveying their characters' love and longing in both worlds. Jennifer Morrison, too, has truly hit her stride with Emma, and her scenes with Jared Gilmore as Henry were particularly moving. I can't wait to see their proper family reunion when the show returns.
It was fantastic to see so many of the show's phenomenal guest stars return, with Sebastian Stan, Emilie de Ravin and Kristin Bauer all playing key roles in the tale, along with the sorely missed (and noticeably more Irish-sounding) Jamie Dornan, who clearly needs to be resurrected somehow, now that our world has magic. I'd love it if the show somehow managed to lure Sebastian Stan back to be a regular next year, too; Jefferson is such a compelling and dark-edged character, and I'm wholly invested in seeing him reunite with his daughter.
Between Emma's magical kiss and Snow and Charming's reunion, I was a blubbering mess by the end of the episode, but I was still coherent enough to be surprised by Rumple's game-changing choice. Though some of the episodes have had their share of predictable moments, for the most part, the show has gleefully subverted and defied expectations all season, and I'm finding it impossible to predict exactly where "Once Upon A Time" might go next year, which is probably the whole point. With all of the fairytale characters freed from the curse, the producers have opened up a world of dazzling possibilities, and I can't wait to see where they take us next.
What did you think of "Once Upon a Time's" action-packed finale? Were you surprised that the curse was broken? Where do you think the show will go from here? Weigh in below!