Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 2, Episode 2 of ABC's "Once Upon a Time," titled "We Are Both."
Last week's twist-laden premiere of "Once Upon A Time" had a lot of necessary scene-setting to do, which resulted in an episode that felt both confident and a little rushed.
The second episode of Season 2, "We Are Both," had a lot more breathing room, resulting in an hour that emphasized what the show does best: compelling backstory, fascinating character interplay, and a lot of secrets still to be revealed.
We've always known that Regina and Rumple have history, and "We Are Both" did an excellent job of peeling back some of those layers, revealing that Rumple has known Regina since she was a baby, and had a particularly unnerving fascination with her back in "the fairytale land that was." Apparently, he taught Regina all she needed to know about magic, turning her into the delightful sociopath she is today.
Rumple can't take all the credit, though -- as we saw last season, a lot of Regina's issues stem from her controlling mother, Cora. The episode was an object lesson in the sins of the father (or mother, in this case) being visited upon their children, and the poison apple clearly didn't fall far from the tree in Regina's case, no matter how much she tried to fight her genetics and remain a good person.
Throughout the episode's flashbacks, Regina insisted that she didn't want power and didn't want to become her mother, yet it once again took Henry to show her that she'd turned into exactly the same manipulative control-freak that Cora was. That realization was enough to allow her to relinquish custody of Henry back to Charming after stealing him at magic-point. But while Regina insisted that she wanted to redeem herself, her actions said otherwise. She kept her mother's spellbook instead of destroying it, clearly wanting to keep hold of that leverage for the next time she wanted to terrorize the townsfolk or make another play for Henry.
The episode's other narrative thread centered around Charming's quest to become the leader he once was, rallying the people of Storybrooke and taking real responsibility for Henry. He was clearly still focused on rescuing Emma and Snow (sometimes at the expense of keeping Henry close), but he also managed to reconcile the mistakes he'd made as David with the hero he used to be and aspired to be again.
It was fascinating to watch Charming struggling to inspire the people of Storybrooke ("I did the fighting, Snow did the talking," he lamented to Henry), practicing his speech in the mirror like nervous David Nolan, but still managing to stride into Regina's home with a sword or Rumple's store with a goal in mind, refusing to take no for an answer. It was a great showcase for Josh Dallas' skills, and the speech Charming gave to prevent the townsfolk from leaving and losing their memories was very princely indeed. One of the episode's most effective and poignant moments had no dialogue at all, as the camera focused in on Henry and Charming taking a drink and sitting in a perfect reflection of each other, a genius piece of choreography that wordlessly highlighted the bond between them.
There were plenty of other charming (no pun intended) moments in the episode, a welcome treat that's always evident in "OUAT" installments where plot and characterization are allowed equal balance, without one crowding out the other. From Jiminy turning up at Regina's place, trying to get her to listen to her conscience, to the dwarves retrieving their pickaxes and Grumpy declaring "off to work we go," to Jefferson clutching a white rabbit when Charming rescued him from the car, those sweet character beats are what truly makes "Once Upon a Time" so enchanting. We even got an unexpected glimpse of August -- still wooden, but blinking -- at the beginning of the episode, and yet when Geppetto went to the hotel to find him, he was gone, with only his hat left behind.
It was also great to see Red taking charge and stepping up as Charming's second-in-command the way she was for Snow. We also saw the origins of Regina's fascination with mirrors, after Rumple encouraged her to shove her wicked mother through the glass and into another world -- logic that doesn't quite make sense, since Regina's land and the so-called Enchanted Forest where Emma and Snow ended up are supposedly the same, which meant the mirror didn't send Cora very far, unless she somehow found a way to make it back to Regina's land and ended up captured by Mulan and company. (I'm still hoping for a real map to spell out each of the lands and kingdoms in the fairytale kingdom.)
After seeing so much of Mulan and Aurora last episode, it felt right to focus more on the inhabitants of Storybrooke this week, and as much as I adore Snow White and Emma, I found that I didn't miss them much this week when the story in our world was so thoughtfully executed. Lana Parrilla did an excellent job playing Regina's former innocence, and her flashback scenes with Rumple crackled with wit and an unnerving sexual tension. I think the episode would've felt too heavy had the writers attempted to cram flashbacks, present-day fairytale land and Storybrooke into one episode, so I applaud their discipline and hope that fans don't care too much about the lack of Emma and Snow this week -- allowing their discovery of Cora in the pit to punctuate the episode left things on a suitably dramatic note, so it felt like they were used just enough to keep the narrative momentum going. (On a related note: Am I the only one who was reminded of the Rancor pit from "Return of the Jedi" where Emma and Snow ended up being imprisoned?)
Although I loved the season premiere for sweeping us back up into the magic of "Once Upon a Time," this week's episode proved to be a much more compelling and well-crafted hour -- Regina and Rumple's twisted history unearthed many new mysteries to be explored, Charming was able to embrace his heroic roots and turn back into the leader that Storybrooke needed, and there were many fun character beats to emphasize the whimsy of the world.
A few stray questions and observations to ponder before next week:
Follow Laura Prudom on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lauinLA