Last night's episode of Once Upon a Time, "Desperate Souls," was kind of like unwrapping a beautiful present from your favorite store and finding stylish pants two sizes too small and no gift receipt. So close to what you want, yet so far away. And someone left a melted Fudgsicle in the back pocket.
I know the show's premise has to be able to extend to six or more seasons, and that means going off on tangents. But that does not excuse a midseason return episode centered on the intricacies of electing a new sheriff. Graham just died! Why did we not see a hospital montage, a tense funeral, or a solemn graveside vow? Also, the last time Regina and Emma crossed paths on camera, they had a fist fight in a graveyard. But last night's episode returned them to their usual coy bickering. It didn't feel right. By all social logic, Regina should be slamming panic buttons and screaming for security whenever she sees Emma.
So this episode was all about Sidney Glass versus Emma Swan for sheriff. Mercifully, the turmoil surrounding a political process less complicated than electing a high school class treasurer was cut together with Rumpelstiltskin's origin story, which: Cool! He started out unsparkly! He had a kid! And when Sidney Glass published a story about Emma having given birth to Henry in jail, I thought, "NICE. The backstory of her adoption process with Henry will dovetail with how Rumpelstiltskin lost his son!"
Nope. She just folded up the paper all like, "Had you in jail, nacho business." That was shady, but Emma in general is shady. I realized that when she accused Henry of "ducking her." If my birth mom moved to town, lived out of a car until a stranger took her in, changed clothes as often as Homer Simpson, drowned her sorrows in Maker's Mark, wore pants so tight you could read the date on a dime in her back pocket, started fisticuffs with the mayor, and tried to pass off having a baby in jail as no big deal: Hell, I'd be ducking her too. Emma is like a Jerry Springer guest with good grammar and big hair. REALLY big hair.
And the debate at the Amish playhouse was, sorry, super dumb. Sidney's speech sounded like he had written it in crayon, and Emma's was outright crazy. "The fire was a set up by Mr. Gold. Can't prove it! Heroes don't play this way. Peace out time! Gonna get drunk instead of waiting for voting results."
You can feel both actors' talent fighting to get through the clumsy lines like heat through an oven mitt. Lana Parrilla did an exquisite job (as always) making her lines crackle with effortless timing and spot-on delivery. I could have watched Regina and Emma trapped in a burning building all night, there wasn't enough time! No need for two women who crushed on the same man and who share a son to have a moment together! Move it along! Got to fit in that third speech about what it means to be a hero!
Also: Mr. Gold set up the fire via yarn, KNOWING Emma would save Regina, but Emma's confession at the "debate" that Mr. Gold had set up the fire was also a set-up? What? Even I knew that he couldn't take credit for her independent moral decisions, and I have Pop Rocks lodged in my brain. But Emma was like, "How you know what I is think? Do you also keep airplane in sky?"
Truly, I respect the mechanics of this show. I picture a writing room with a wall of index cards on which a meticulous Swiss clock of a plot has been mapped out with neat milestones that the writers diligently hit in each episode. But because the writers are focusing on the larger story, the dialogue has become a slave to the plot, not a voice for the characters.
Let me take a moment to be positive: Robert Carlyle disappeared into his character, and his backstory resonated beautifully with what we know about Rumpelstiltskin so far. The idea that he was a powerless coward who made a deal with the devil that ultimately lost him both his son and his humanity was great stuff, and thick hearty material for a superior actor to dig into. I also liked that Snow and Prince Charming had a moment. He may still be with his wife, but you can tell they're soul mates from their old-timey, awkward hats.
There is so much to love about the world this show has built. I am continually grateful to see actors of this caliber (Brad Dourif in a cameo, hells yeah!) inhabiting such a unique and imaginative story. But when you have a premise and professionals this strong, it's a crime not to make the most of them. And while I trust next week will enchant me once again, I didn't feel the magic this time.
… Any guesses for what "Kiss my Boot" is an uncomfortable Freudian stand-in for?
… Is any reference to a "Dark One" who wears a cape going to tread on the toes of Star Wars?
… Did the evil child soldier kidnappers have a big birthday calendar on their wall so they knew when everyone turned 14?
… Is it weird or awesome to see Gus Fring/Giancarlo Esposito just having a little lighthearted fun?
… How did YOU like the return episode?