Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 1, Episode 9 of ABC's "Once Upon a Time," entitled "True North."
While "Once Upon a Time" is fast becoming known for its original twists on classic fairytales, the fantasy show generally erred on the side of tradition when it came to tackling Hansel and Gretel in this week's episode. Sure, the blind witch (played by "Buffy" alum Emma Caulfield) was more of a looker than we might remember, but the oven and the gingerbread house were picture perfect ... after all, why tamper with the classics?
Still, all roads lead back to The Evil Queen (henceforth known as "TEQ") in Fairytale Land, and in this week's story, she was the one who sent the twins into the sticky lair of her cannibalistic rival, all to retrieve an infamous red apple. I must admit, I love the idea of warring witches who might be friends but are more likely to be enemies, each with his/her own specific curses and powers.
As intriguing as those connections are, I'd still love to see more of Fairytale Land's geography and politics to work out how everything fits together. For example, how powerful is TEQ compared to Maleficent and the blind witch? If she's stronger, why must she send children to achieve her ends, and if she's not, why is she allowed to rule her late-husband's kingdom unchallenged? When the show began, I mistakenly thought that all of the stories would take place in the same realm, which was admittedly short-sighted of me, given how many princesses there are in the Disney canon. But now, it seems obvious that there are neighboring lands and factions at play, and probably even different time periods being explored. After all, Rumplestiltskin seems to be enough of an established antagonist for Snow White and Prince Charming that his own origin story, shown last week, potentially came years (maybe even decades?) before he was captured and locked away in the mines. The same holds true for Jiminy Cricket's backstory, since Geppetto was still a child when Jiminy traded his human form for a smaller, greener one, but an old man when Snow and Charming married.
I have no doubt that the writers and producers know exactly how everything slots together, but I do wish they could clue the audience in. It's a minor nitpick, but if an on-screen date or time-period had been established in the pilot, or if each flashback contained a reference to how long ago it happened compared to the day the curse took effect, ("Two Years Before Curse" perhaps?) I think the narrative would have more clarity. In this case, we can surmise that Hansel and Gretel's tale took place after the huntsman failed to kill Snow, and TEQ had obviously begun exploring other options to hasten her stepdaughter's demise.
The most intriguing part of this week's story was TEQ's unexpected desire for a family of her own. After Hansel and Gretel locked the blind witch in the oven, TEQ invited the twins to live with her, offering them wealth and power in an effort to make them forget about their father. But, since their father was played by "The X-Files'" Nicholas Lea, he was far too awesome to be replaced by a homicidal witch with a foreboding (and drafty-looking) castle. Hansel and Gretel found themselves abandoned in the woods once more.
I was surprised by the emotion that TEQ displayed in her conversation with the woodsman -- she seemed genuinely baffled (and hurt) that the children's love couldn't be bought, and I thought that Lana Parrilla expressed that longing for connection perfectly, with far more nuance than is generally required of her as TEQ. That being said, as wonderful as the nuance was, I did enjoy seeing TEQ teleporting and enchanting tree roots to capture Hansel and Gretel in the forest too -- she's been doing so much scheming lately that I was pleased to see her being more active again.
I'm also glad that Jennifer Morrison is settling into her rhythm as Emma as the weeks go by. I still feel like the Storybrooke characters are less compelling than their fairytale counterparts (with the exception of Mary Margaret and David) and that we're still, for the most part, only scratching the surface of their motivations and emotions. But little by little, we're learning more about Emma, and her encounter with Ava and Nicholas finally gave us more insight into her past, specifically her issues with the foster system.
We still don't know anything about Henry's father -- aside from the fact that he wasn't the hero Emma made him out to be -- and I have a sneaking suspicion that he's still alive and will come into play in a more direct way somewhere down the line. But I do think Henry could've handled the truth had she decided to trust him with it. I understand why she's trying to protect her son, especially considering all the disappointments and setbacks Henry's already encountered. But I'm sure her secrecy will only backfire later, probably due to Regina's interference.
Perhaps my favorite part of the episode came from Emma's later interactions with Mary Margaret; I was surprised that she shared Henry's theory (the truth) about Snow White -- and thus Mary Margaret -- being her mother, but knowing what we know about their real relationship -- the scene was surprisingly poignant. I was itching for Mary to have some great revelation and for her memories to come flooding back to her, but the understated moment where she picked up Emma's old baby blanket and smelled it -- beautifully written by David H. Goodman and Liz Tigelaar -- was almost as satisfying.
Though I sometimes worry that the show is treading water, spending too much time on peripheral fairytales and not enough advancing the storyline to break the curse, perhaps next week's episode, which again focuses on Snow and Charming, will help pick up the momentum. Any guesses as to the identity of the mysterious biker who just breezed into town, since strangers never come to Storybrooke? I'm leaning towards the Big Bad Wolf.
"Once Upon a Time" airs Sundays at 8 p.m. EST on ABC.