How did you all like last night's episode of family show Once Upon a Time? It was a real all-ages crowd-pleaser, if you ask me. Get the kiddies together, warm up the hot chocolate, its time for—
STOP SCREAMING! STOP SCREAMING! It's just computer effects, okay!? You kids play video games. Just because a disembodied head is looking down on its own body, that's—HEY! Stop crying!!
There's something about dark, over-the-top violence appearing in the guise of children's entertainment that has real staying power. I am basing this on a childhood viewing of Return to Oz (anyone else remember the scene where Dorothy wakes up THE HEADS?) in which I apparently had to be dragged out of a theater in a fit of terrorized hysterics. Now that I'm older, I LOVE Return to Oz. And I LOVED last night's episode of Once Upon a Time, because it was dark, because it was bizarre, because without showing any gore (except for that crimson stripe down at the bottom of the Mad Hatter's head) it managed to give me a thrill I'd previously have filed away for viewings of, say, Silence of the Lambs. And more importantly, because from scene to scene I did not know what was going to happen at all. It was a mad romp through Wonderland, and more legitimate information came out in a single expository speech between "Jefferson" and Emma than we've heard this entire season.
We knew from promos that Emma was going to end up in the clutches of an unbalanced steampunk, but it was pretty hilarious how proactive Emma was about getting herself in trouble. I fully expected him to blackjack her as she walked to her car outside the Sheriff station, or for her to follow a trail of clues to his house, or for him to slip something into her drink at Granny's and steer her to his Fairy Tale Character Torture Chamber.
It went more like this:
To be fair, Sebastian Stan is super dreamy. Even his gothy scarf and ankle-length trench did but ill conceal his dreaminess. But even the most rudimentary awareness of stranger danger keeps ladies Emma's age from offering rides to nice young men at night, and for a bounty hunter who has presumably seen the worst in people, well, as dumb as Emma is, I expected her to be a little more savvy.
It took an actual threat to her life for her jail-mama instincts to surface. Breaking that teacup and using the shards to free herself is the single most ingenious thing we've ever seen Emma do. I will no longer have any patience with a character tied up in a room if there's glass nearby, Emma just raised the bar. In fact, once she got into Jefferson's mod-style mansion she made a string of good choices and was able to freaking MAKE A HAT from a pile of crushed velvet.
It makes me wonder if the paint in the Sheriff's office is heavily laced with lead or if Regina is piping in carbon dioxide to keep Emma's clearly keen intellect right about level with that of a golden retriever. She also might pipe a fine mist of "wash and curl" into the Sheriff's office, because did you notice how straight Emma's hair was this episode? Although when she eventually MacGyvered her way out of her restraints and saw the Mad Hatter, a hope flickered in my chest that he was sharpening those shears to cut her hair.
Of course clearly we were supposed to believe he was getting those shears ready to cut Emma into little tiny pieces. Especially once she found Mary Margaret, it was clear the show wanted us to think: This guy is a nutcase, he gonna KILL THEM, he possibly dragged Kathryn from the roadside on orders from Regina, and now is going to try to disembowel MM and Emma. That was the subtext going on, and part of the reason the episode was so dark was that while it was painting this guy as a psycho killer in the Storybrooke world, the fairy-tale version of him was the nicest, youngest father I've ever seen.
As a single, emo-haired dad so strapped for cash he has to make his daughter's capes out of old couch, Jefferson in the fairy-tale world was easy prey for Regina. It was not lost on me that it was the tempting white rabbit toy that ultimately lead Jefferson to take the Queen down the hat-hole to Wonderland. (How crazy was that hat spinning into a whirl-hole? This show!!!) And the fact he had access to another reality and his explanation of all these realities that touch up against one another, that was loose but exciting, because they usually don't give us that much insight into the world's logic. And despite having a good hearty laugh about him and Regina essentially jumping into a giant hat, I absolutely loved the foyer full of doors, even if the mirror they chose ultimately lead to a giant screensaver from 1997.
The whole interlude with them in Wonderland was pretty exciting. I had no idea where things were going, but Regina was able to keep her magic and burn the eff out of the hedges. Burning your way through a hedge maze is my new favorite way to get through a hedge maze. It was a deeply satisfying moment, especially considering the walls of the maze were in one moment threatening, in another moment helpful.
It was revealed that Regina was stealing her dad back from the Red Queen, who had miniaturized him and kept him in her own little P.O. box in the labyrinth of hedges. I assume he was miniaturized, because all Regina had to do to get him back to normal size was feed him a chunk of magic mushroom.
It was both fascinating that Regina was going to such lengths to rescue her father, when we knew from past episodes that she was going to throw him away like an old corn husk and use his heart to cast THE CURSE on Storybrooke. Much more dark and Return to Oz was this shizzit:
The Queen talking only through a tube and keeping her face covered was genuinely eerie and wonderful and like something out of The Cell. I don't know if they're just waiting to reveal what character she is in Storybrooke or if they wanted to cast a guest star and then Dana Delaney was sick that day. The whole beheading scene was made more nightmarish because it was happening within the glowing screensaver world and attended by people dressed up like the cast of a high school performance of Alice in Wonderland, and yeah, okay, I loved it. Loved it for the same reason I watch 10th Kingdom once every two years: the wild swings of the tone make the light stuff lighter and the dark stuff that much darker, and the complete defiance of genre opens up the story in vulnerable, profound ways. So TIP OF THE HAT, Once Upon a Time.
The weird nightmarish world of the fairy tale was undermined by the reveal in Storybrooke that Jefferson had no intention of killing Emma. In fact, Jefferson turned out to be the character we were hoping August would be: the one who shed light on the bone structure of the show. We weekly put our brains in the power of this world and invest in its characters without fully knowing what the hell is going on. Jefferson's speech to Emma about how the curse is real and the nature of the realities and telling her she has the magic MAKE THE HAT WORK—as absolutely silly as it was for him to demand that she make a hat (and even sillier that somehow she DID), it was crucial ground for the series to cover. Like, if OUaT were a video game, this episode unlocked a new level.
Although as many questions were raised by the cursed Jefferson as he answered, because for as often as the curse is mentioned, it's never been described by someone who's lived through it. Okay, so they've all been trapped in time for the last 28 years, his daughter is the same age as when he vanished into Wonderland, she's being raised by another family, his curse is that he remembers their former life together, got it. So Grace is Henry's age but has not aged in 28 years. Henry HAS aged, though, being of this mortal realm. Regina didn't adopt him at the age of eight, in the pilot she gave us the whole speech about changing every diaper. Does Henry notice he's the only kid who's aged in his town? Wouldn't that be the first thing he mentions to Emma, or does saying everyone is "frozen in time" cover that? The logic of the curse has always been heavily veiled so we are unable to question it, it's just a nice story spackle. "Why is he being so mean?" "The curse." "This and this?" "The curse, dumbass."
Continuing her uncharacteristically awesome chain of great ideas, Emma at first appeased the Mad Hatter and delighted the audience by confessing she hopes MM is her mom, and will try to believe in the curse and magic, and then cracked Jefferson upside the head with the telescope. Every time Jennifer Morrison talks about hoping Ginnifer Goodwin is her mom, yes, I kind of lose it emotionally. When she offered MM the choice to take her car and stay on the lam, she called her family. The idea that she has embraced this enough to say it out loud and yet obviously is still rejecting it is fantastic, solid development. Also, MM karate-chopped him out a window. Whoa.
The fact that he vanished means A) one less body for MM to explain and B) Emma now has undeniable evidence of her own magic, as do we. This is a lot of ground to break, Once Upon a Time, and the writers managed to embed it all in a story that was sinister and thrilling and unpredictable.
Next week is a major episode, we finally learn why Regina hates Snow so much, which is kind of the foundation of the show. Also Mr. Gold said MM was guilty of murder. Of course, he may have been referring to something that happened in Fairy Land. If this week's episode is any indication, it's going to be a stunning reveal and an episode not to be missed. After weeks of extending the "frozen in time/stuck in a miserable rut" curse from its characters to its viewers, "Hat Trick" was a tip of the hat to US: "We aren't totally pulling this all out of our ass, thank you for trusting us, here is our world-logic, keep watching." All that in maybe the single most entertaining episode of TV I've seen all year.
– Will that map of Storybrooke that Jefferson drew come back into play?
– He fell into Emma's magic hat, right?
– So Mr. Gold is still on Regina's side? Will a reveal of Belle maybe influence him to turn against her or... ?
– Seriously, how does aging work for Henry?
– Last chance to place your bets: What went down between Regina and Snow?
– What did you think of last night's episode?