Rarely have I been as entertained by an hour of TV as I was by Sunday's midseason finale of Once Upon a Time. "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" really put a match to the fireworks box of potential relationships and unanswered questions that've been stewing over the last few weeks. Yet after the episode's shocking ending, I was left stunned at how little had actually been answered or accomplished. You know, except for (spoiler alert!) possibly killing off of the hottest guy on the show.
While Sheriff Graham’s IMDB page makes it clear that he’s around for the full 22 episodes, he could be relegated to the fairytale flashbacks, and things looked pretty grim for him last night. Transforming a recurring character into a romantic hero and then killing him off is an insanely audacious move, and OUaT has made a habit out of crafting super-appealing romances and then immediately destroying them. Before the opening credits had even finished rolling, Graham had chased Emma down in a fit of smolder and kissed her with such passion that the opening scenes of Twilight flashed before his eyes. (Or it was just a wolf in a woods. Regardless, he seemed pretty startled.)
The kiss seemed to unhinge Graham, who flashed back to trying to kill Margaret Blanchard and a wolf, and then went to rap about it with her, at which point he made a very interesting observation: Neither of them could remember exactly how they first met each other or anyone else in Storybrooke. Graham's ramblings about a past life—which he recited with sweat literally dripping down his face—and his every outward indication of going through a psychotic episode made Margaret suggest he talk to Henry. (Sending a postal policeman Henry's way? Maybe Margaret hasn't forgiven the kid for stealing her credit card in the pilot after all.) At this point, the fairytale flashbacks had already shown us Graham pink-cheeked and pelt-covered in the woods, slaying deer and uppity bystanders in the name of wolf rights. His backstory involved being literally raised by wolves, best illustrated by Huntsman Graham yelling at Evil Queen Regina "The WOLVES are my FAMILY!"
What a line to say, with a straight face, as a young hipster actor! Don't get me wrong: The writers on this show excel at plot. I honestly want to invent time travel specifically for the purpose of setting out for 2047 and buying a boxed DVD set of all future episodes (assuming they don't store information in crystals by then). So why does all the dialogue sound like English subtitles of a Ukrainian soap opera? It's partly due to the sometimes incomprehensible word choices and vague, dorm-style conversations about "putting up walls" and life "being hazy." It's also partly due to simple laziness. Having Snow White say "Goodbye, father!" while mourning at her father's grave, followed by "I loved him so much!" is the writing equivalent of making a clay "snake" in pottery class. And poor Lana Parrilla has the weekly task of warning someone off her man or her mine shaft with all the subtlety of a telenovela villainess.
But because Lana looks a lot smarter than her character sounds, she makes it work, and luckily the cast is adept enough to make the dialogue meaningful and the silent moments even more so. Their facial expressions and the music cues have enough of their own little psychology going to distract us from the kind of overwrought, ham-brained conversations that haven't been seen since my beloved Passions graced the airwaves. I had to laugh last night when someone asked Regina what she was doing and she shouted, annoyed, "Bringing FLOWERS to my father's GRAVE, like I do EVERY Wednesday!" Of course, this was moments before a lady fist fight in a graveyard. Though, to be fair, I don't think even Passions had an evil Mayoress cold-cock a woman with Miss Piggy hair while surrounded by tombstones.
As broad as the dialogue was and as weirdly soapy as the love triangle got, the hyper-imaginative twist of this episode earned the writers their paychecks. The sheriff and Emma followed the wolf to Regina's family vault in the cemetery, where the sheriff was convinced his heart was kept. After a showdown in which Graham broke up real hard with Regina, she continued into the vault on her own and slid open the coffin lid to reveal a glowing staircase.
Her little post-office box wall of hearts from the fairytale flashbacks is physically in Storybrooke! She pulled out the huntsman's heart, with the moment cutting between her and the heart and Graham and Emma sharing a kiss, and then Graham actually REMEMBERED THE FAIRYTALE WORLD! Just as she squeezed the heart to ash. Horrifying! Who else’s heart is in there? How often is Regina working crazy heart magic? (Every Wednesday?)
This show provocatively touched on a lot of our biggest questions about the series, but at the end of the episode we really didn’t have any answers. One of the largest question marks is, what exactly did Snow White do to Regina? Regina bragged to her mirror (Gus Fring! So good to see you still have all of your face!) that she had killed Snow White's father, so he's not the one she loved. She also told the huntsman that she had shared a secret with Snow White, but that Snow White didn't keep it. Intriguing! But not an answer. Snow White's suicide note, which she wrote before surrendering herself to the huntsman, was excessively contrite but similarly vague.
Graham meanwhile, is the first character to remember the fairytale past, but he didn't reveal it to anyone, which is torturous. Despite all the fairytale gowns and sly Disney references and goofy lines, killing off a nascent romantic lead in what appears to be a mental breakdown is one of the more emotionally devastating viewing experiences of this year. It was a desperately needed whirlwind romance, it gave an insane amount of power to Regina in the modern world, and it entertained the hell out of me. Once Upon a Time seems determined to provoke us by denying every possible happy ending, but the angsty journey of the story is possibly even more satisfying.
… What was Rumpelstiltskin "gardening" in the woods? Magic beans? Pot plants?
… What do you call those little antennae micro-bangs that Lana was rocking in the fairytale world?
…Did Margaret almost call Emma a s-l-u-t ?
… Will Sheriff Graham "pull through" from having his heart disintegrated, or will he appear in flashbacks as the woodsman? Or was his heart being destroyed simply the death of his ability to feel?
…Seriously, what did Snow White do to Regina? (Hacked her Facebook? Tweeted sexy photos?)