The last few episodes of Once Upon A Time have done much to reveal its strengths (the continuing love-challenged relationship between Ginnifer Goodwin’s Snow & Josh Dallas’ Charming, the revisionist take on fairytales, etc) while also highlighting its flaws (telegraphing every upcoming moment, continued ineptness by Jennifer Morrison’s Emma, and – to a certain extent – the continuing love-challenged relationship between Snow and Charming). As the show closes in on the end of the first season, it takes a dramatic formula detour that tantalizes and antagonizes…
Let’s bitch it out…
Last week I opened my recap with the words “one character begins to make headway in unraveling the curse (and no – it’s not Emma).” The same could be said this week as the Sheriff seemingly makes progress, only for the rug to be pulled out from under viewers in a frustrating exercise inflicted on us by the show’s writers.
We’re introduced early in the hour to Jefferson (Sebastian Stan), a crazed man who kidnaps both Mary Margaret (MM) and Emma and imprisons them in his hotel-like home – which is simultaneously in the middle of the woods, as well as conveniently within telescope distance of everywhere in town. Jefferson is no ordinary man, however. He knows that his Storybrooke existence is cursed because his FairyTale daughter, Grace (Alissa Skovbye), lives with another family as a girl named Paige. And he’s desperate to get his hat – a conduit between worlds – working again so that he can return to the life he once had with his daughter.
Recognizing that Emma has instituted change in town since her arrival, he drugs her and puts her to work imbuing his hat with magic so that he can return to the other world. And this is the crux of the episode – the attempt by a peripheral character we’ve only just met to convince Emma that she not only needs to “open [her] eyes, look around, wake up” but that there are many worlds existing simultaneously, some with magic and some without.
In many ways ‘Hat Trick’ is like a play: a dialogue-heavy exchange between only a few characters in a single location within a concentrated amount of time (a single night before MM’s 8am arraignment). I can see why some viewers might be bored by it, but I was pretty enthralled – not only because Sebastian Stan is a good actor, but because it feels like much of the episode is representative of a conversation that the show has been having with viewers over the last seventeen episodes. In fact, the concerns that I’ve had with Emma’s character are verbalized by Jefferson: he tells her that she’s different, and when she lamely denies the claim, or tells him that he’s mad, he refutes her by detailing the premise of the show she’s on! I’d call it meta, except that because Emma is too dumb to get it, it doesn’t quite work.
But wait! Near the end of the hour, there’s a moment when Emma finally breaks down, and realizes that what he’s talking about – the life he remembers with his daughter from whom he’s separated – is the same as the relationship she so desperately yearns to have with MM, the woman imprisoned in the other room who just may be her mother. And it finally seems like we’re making progress, because Emma is going to stop being the Debbie-Downer she’s been this whole season where she lies to her kid about believing him and finally accept the truly miraculous, magical things she’s seen. Sure it seems like a quick about face to suddenly believe a mad-man, but let’s go with it.
And then she clocks Jefferson with a lamp. It’s the equivalent of the writers going “Ha ha, you actually thought that she’d believe it and allow the show to advance? You’re so dumb!” No – because how can the show run for six seasons and a movie if it actually takes risks and lets its main character accept the truth and, you know, actually become active? (Please note ironic, rhetorical question).
So instead Emma and MM battle Jefferson, and MM goes kung-fu on his ass, kicking him out a window and (presumably) into his magical hat where he disappears. And after Emma asks MM whether she’s been taking kickboxing, MM quips that she has no idea where her skills came from…and we laugh because we know it’s her Snow White skills from the other world. Get it?! I just wish that instead of doing these obvious wink-wink, nudge-nudge “aren’t we clever” bits, the writers would give viewers (and their characters) some credit. Ordinarily I groan at these knowing jokes or, depending on how witty it is, give a slight chuckle, but tonight – after locking us in a room with an existential debate about the possibilities of the very topic the show is built around and then pulling the rug out from under us, the quippy finish and re-establishment of the status quo feels like the televisual equivalent of a slap to the face. Why is this show treating me the same way Ringer does?
More promising is the final coda. After the Jefferson drama is over and done with (naturally followed by a diabetes inducing sickly-sweet speech about the values of family and friendship), MM is back in jail. And then a new reveal – only this time an effective one because it’s not telegraphed or obvious: Gold (Robert Carlyle) and Regina (Lana Parrilla) are co-conspirators, working together to ruin MM. It makes sense considering that the key MM found in her cell last week matches those on Regina’s key chain and it’s in her benefit to have MM run away. So the sixty-four thousand dollar question now revolves around what Gold stands to profit from this…and my instinct tells me it’ll involve the mystery of his absent son.
- In FairyTale, the biggest mystery is not how Regina will backstab Jefferson after she gets him to agree to use his magical teleporting hat to travel to the alternate world of Wonderland to free her father, but what is the relationship between the queen and the magician? They speak as though they’re brother and sister (there’s an intimacy in how he calls her Regina, they talk of family being important, which is why she’s calling in a favour, and there are suggestions that she’s connected to his deceased wife). Ultimately when she leaves him stranded in Wonderland, it’s clear that the man she’s rescuing is not his father and their comments about family were only in reference to his daughter and her father, but it felt like there was something else to their relationship. Mixed messages between these two…it’s very strange.
- Although Regina’s treachery is completely obvious from the moment we hear that the number of people through the door must equal the number who come back (and then this is reiterated), at least Jefferson’s time in Wonderland is, in fact, wonderful…for us at least. Not only is the Queen of Hearts (actress Jennifer Koenig) mysteriously kept under a red veil, but she creepily whispers to her manservant through a horn. It’s reminiscent of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland via his interpretation of Sleepy Hollow, especially how Jefferson’s severed head lives on after its been decapitated from his body. (Side Note: anyone still think this is a kids show?). Bonus points: Jefferson’s scars from the decapitation are still visible on his neck in Storybrooke
- Regina’s father is being kept in a safety deposit box in a vault very similar to the one she keeps her hearts in. Is this a thing that Queens get when they get crowned? Like a free gift from a box of cereal?
- At one point Emma confronts Jefferson that she’s called back-up and he shoots her down because he knows she can’t afford to let anyone know MM has escaped. Sure, that’s one reason, but the other is that there’s no one who she can call! Like really…who would come: Red?
- If we’re getting super bitchy, how gross did Emma’s hair look in this episode? I get that she’s in a desperate situation because she’s been kidnapped, and she’s up all night, but girlfriend needs some conditioner to strip some of the greasy straightness away and get back to her curly locks. Blech
- How frustrating must it be to be any actor on this show not named Morrison, Goodwin or Parrilla? Case in point: Giancarlo Esposito’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as the Genie/Mirror in the FairyTale portion. Everyone’s gotta collect a paycheck, huh?
- Interestingly enough, if you look through promotional pictures (see above), there’s one of August (Eion Bailey) visiting Jefferson’s home that was not in ‘Hat Trick.’ Wonder how that would have played out since we know from last week that August is in town specifically to help out Emma.
- Anyone else groan when the Queen, in disguise as a hag selling stuffed toys (whaa? why?) in the market in FairyTale, makes a reference to the economy? Stick to the escapism, Once Upon A Time. Leave the “ripped from the headlines” storytelling to The Good Wife.
And that’s our episode. What did you think of the “one location” format in the Storybrooke parts? Were you, like me, frustrated at Emma’s insistence in denying the existence of the show’s premise? Or do you feel that when she sees Jefferson with Grace in Henry’s (Jared Gilmore) book it is an affirmation that she’s coming around? And finally, why are Gold and Regina working together? Sound off in the comments below and tune in next week when the history between Snow and the Evil Queen is revealed!
Once Upon A Time airs Sundays at 8pm EST on ABC