Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 1, Episode 11 of ABC's "Once Upon a Time," entitled "Fruit of the Poisonous Tree."
I'm starting to think that all that lurks beneath Regina's myriad layers of cruelty, manipulation and lies is another set of layers. "Once Upon a Time" did an admirable job of trying to justify The Evil Queen's wicked demeanor this week, but just when it seemed like we had her motivations (a loveless marriage and first wife envy) figured out, the show threw another dastardly curve ball at us: All of her apparent vulnerability was just another lie.
The lonely genie had obviously been an easy mark to suit the queen's purposes, and just as in Storybrooke, Regina had no intention of getting her hands dirty when she could manipulate someone else into murdering her husband for her. While that delicious twist certainly adds more depth to the character, it also makes one wonder just how far back her devious deeds go: What was the catalyst that truly made her the wicked witch she is now, and what could Snow possibly have done to betray her, when it was obviously not the king's lack of attention that sparked Regina's resentment?
While I applaud "Once" for its ability to keep its audience guessing, I sincerely hope that Kitsis and Horowitz aren't going to fall into the same traps that their previous writing team on "Lost" fell into, answering questions with more questions until the show frustrates viewers more than it satisfies them. I understand that the producers don't want to reveal all their secrets too quickly, since we're only halfway through the first season, but I don't think the show should be afraid of developing -- series like "The Vampire Diaries," "Nikita" and "Chuck" (R.I.P) have proven that bold storytelling can lead to far more inventive writing than simply prolonging the inevitable, and there's something to be said for taking narrative risks and trusting the audience to keep up with a faster pace.
That's partly why I was so glad to see the writers finally allow Mary Margaret and David to begin their romance in Storybrooke last week, since Snow and Charming obviously have a much longer road to travel before we'll be permitted to see them together properly. Sadly, that storyline stalled somewhat this week, too. We had an adorable picnic that proved that the pair were committed to their adultery, but my main problem with this episode was that, by the end, we were right back to where we started narratively, with nothing having truly developed. We learned that Regina's name in both worlds is Regina -- which makes sense, since the curse is her creation and all of her memories are intact -- and that she's been evil for far longer than we realized. We also saw how Sidney came to be in Regina's employ, and trapped in the Magic Mirror. Aside from that, Emma was still being manipulated by Regina without ever regaining the upper hand, which is frustrating, given how she's supposed to be "The Hope" for all the cursed characters.
I think I'm mostly craving some momentum, some chance for Emma to actually strike a blow or force Regina out of her comfort zone instead of constantly being the one who is beaten down and left one step behind the villain. We know that no one in Storybrooke believes in happily ever after, but some small ray of hope would be comforting.
It's interesting that Mr. Gold continues to be the one person who could be Emma's greatest ally (i.e., he certainly tried to prevent her from making a fool of herself in accusing Regina of embezzlement at the town meeting) and yet, he's the one person who unnerves her even more than Regina. He's clearly keeping too many secrets of his own to ever be completely trustworthy, but, once Emma becomes desperate enough to admit she needs his help, he must possess more than enough incriminating information to destroy Regina.
One thing that does seem to be gaining momentum is speculation that the mysterious stranger in town is the author of Henry's book. His fascination with it would certainly lend credence to that theory, in which case, the question becomes: How did he know about the past lives of the cursed fairytale folk in the first place? Was he also an inhabitant of Fairytale Land, but somehow able to resist the curse, or is he somehow able to travel between our world and the other, just as he can enter Storybrooke and leave it? And why has he returned now? I do wonder whether the show will shy away from relating him to the Brothers Grimm, given NBC's rival fantasy show.
I must admit that I was a little disappointed that "Once's" take on the genie and his freedom made no mention of Aladdin, but his naive love certainly explains Sidney's misguided loyalty to Regina, and his final wish proved to be an ingenious method of positioning him as the voice of her trusted -- and blatantly biased -- mirror. It was also interesting to see that Regina's castle always looked imposing and ominous, even while the king was alive; I assumed she had changed it somehow to suit her dark mentality after his death. Having Regina demolish Henry's more traditional, wooden castle (which was the safe place he shared with Emma) to build a monstrosity based on her own palace in Fairytale Land was a clever touch, further emphasizing her control over Henry and her disdain for Emma -- and by extension, anyone related to Snow White. On a nitpicky note, why any parent would allow their kids to spend time in a sharp-edged, metal-based play area in the middle of the woods in an area prone to powerful storms is beyond me, but I don't know why I'm trying to apply logic to a show populated with fairytale characters and magic.
Thanks to the Super Bowl, the other networks are getting out of NBC's way next Sunday, which means that "Once" will be back on Feb. 12 for their unique twist on "Beauty and the Beast." What did you think of Sidney and Regina's elaborate scheme to manipulate Emma, and are you any more confident as to the identity of the stranger?
"Once Upon a Time" airs Sundays at 8 p.m. EST on ABC.