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Once Upon a Time S03E01: "The Heart of the Truest Believer"

Bear with me, guys. I almost never recap OUAT chronologically, but the Season 3 premiere was so dense and insane I couldn’t in good conscience miss a scene. I ask you keep reading and BELIEVE it will end eventually.

Fellow OUAT fans, we went through a lot in Season 2. Our small-town drama had its most intriguing character pairings ripped apart for the majority of the season, and the last few episodes were just... they were embarrassing. Between August getting replaced by a child actor, "magic beans," Greg and Tamara’s inexcusable existence, and the depressing hints from production about an upcoming love triangle for Emma, a lot of us went into the Season 3 premiere just asking not to be too badly burned. 

So it was a relief that "The Heart of the Truest Believer" was a veritable electric parade of great decisions and quick fixes. Granted, OUAT’s M.O. has always been "strong premiere, strong finale, and a whole lot of treading water in between," but for now let’s just enjoy the show while we can. “The Heart of the Truest Believer” was possibly the weirdest episode of network television I’ve ever seen—a statement made with a lot of love. Murderous tuna. Soul theft. A walkie-talkie full of cornmeal. I loved all these bold, bizarre choices, but the best one by far was to keep our favorite characters constantly together. If Regina, Emma, Snow, and Charming are by each other's sides as often on the Lost island in Neverland as they did in this episode, I BELIEVE this season could be incredibly entertaining.

ANYWAY, the premiere opened with a flashback of Emma giving birth to Henry and then refusing to look at him. Quick fact: Everyone on this show was abandoned by their parents and/or watched their parents die. The entire series is just a candy-coated treatise on the vicious cycle of parental neglect. Just FYI for any newcomers.

In a moment of truly commendable special effects, the Jolly Roger emerged into another dimension and we were thrown onto the deck to see Regina spar with Hook in front of the ol’ steering bureau. Regina, in a revealing character moment, said she was surprised when Greg told her she was a villain. Regina (much like 90 percent of the OUAT fandom) doesn’t see herself that way.

The character moments gained more momentum as Emma took out her glasses and read the Charmings like the Oxford English Dictionary. In a moment that had me nodding along, Emma chastened her parents for posing as mentors when they were actually her same age, being perky to the point of stupidity, and dressing like effing hipsters—and then reminded them that THEY ABANDONED HER, nevermind that that’s exactly what she did to Henry AND IT STILL HURTS.

Then Rumplestiltskin showed up wearing his old Thriller jumpsuit and lectured us all on the importance of blind faith.

Guys, do you BELIEVE? What you believe in doesn’t particularly matter, it’s simply engaging in the act of blanking out your rational mind, as OUAT implicitly / explicitly encourages. (Unless, of course, you believe adoption is valid and important and/or are enamored of Swan Queen, in which case OUAT would like to gently smash your beliefs into smithereens!) Neverland RUNS on childlike belief! Which is bad news for Emma, because according to Rumple she has no imagination (I’m guessing that during their flight to Boston, she made some boring choices during a game of Mad Libs). Although, shouldn't imagination and belief technically be different things? Anyway, Rumple vanished into thin air, leaving Emma with no choice but to stomp below decks and tone her biceps.

Then we flashed over to Henry, the world’s most wanted/neglected child, who had been magicked to Neverland by Tamara and Greg. They did their whole tired, creaky song-and-dance routine about how they want to destroy magic and whole towns of people if need be, yet they don’t have even a vague understanding of why, and Henry was like “Writers, WTF?”

Luckily these two plot coupons were about to expire: After discovering that the mysterious organization they worked for had filled their single line of communication, an inter-dimensional walkie-talkie, with like parakeet food or something, we got the most preposterous reveal of the series. The super-secret international magic-fighting organization didn’t exist—the entity who hired and funded them was Peter Pan!

YUP! An uneducated group of Lost Boys who fend for themselves using hand-carved spears and a Teen Shadow convinced two adults in another dimension to dedicate their lives to fighting magic. YUP! We now know Tamara agreed to seduce Neal and faked being engaged to him for, like, a year, all the while not being clear on any of the details of why that was necessary. YUP! Did Peter Pan, boy demon, write them checks through a shadow corporation? Did he recruit them via Craigslist? Did he provide them with the high-tech magical tasers and torture equipment they were luggin’ around the sardine factory? Before I could ask any more questions, Tamara had an arrow chucked into her back by a catalog model and Greg GOT HIS SOUL RIPPED OUT and their incredibly embarrassing story arc was immediately erased from everyone’s brains. It felt so good just to let all of that go. It was like wetting my pants, but with logic.

Look, this reveal was legit insane. It was insane and lazy. But it’s impossible to really object to it because OUAT’s version of Peter Pan is THE strongest original concept the show has put forward to date, and I am happy to pretend Tamara and Greg never happened. Quick fix: Let us never speak of them again. They were writing devices to get Henry from Point A to Point B, where he could be dangled, much like a carrot, in front of our favorites so they can unite against Pan, and I’m in favor of aaaalllll that. I can suspend the shit out of my disbelief if it means we’re done with the Secret Anti-Magic League, the WORST of OUAT’s original concepts.

But I do want to point out that this “don’t think about it too much” mentality is exactly why none of Regina’s many many FTL crimes really “stick” with 90 percent of the audience. The plot has been so arbitrary and slapdash that the writers really no longer own these characters, the actors do. That’s why we’re all rooting for happy endings for Regina and Mr. Gold and hell, Peter Pan. Not that we know who he is yet. COMPLETELY UNRELATED:  Henry’s first and only same-age friend offered to help him flee the catalog models by going deeper into Neverland. We immediately assumed this unnamed, charismatic friend had no ulterior motive.

Back on the Jolly Roger, Hook barged in on Emma during her angry pull-ups to give her Neal’s sword and a wee nip of courage. Both will presumably come in handy when she needs to murder a bunch of tween boys.

We then cut to the Enchanted Forest, where Neal himself was blinking awake on the same Applebee’s waiting-area banquette where we first met Aurora.

Hey Philip! How'd you get your soul back? Also I did not know sleep could cure gunshots to the chest so, that’s cool. Anyway, Philip’s makeover from corpse to normal was not nearly as dramatic as Aurora’s new hairdo! Someone found a voluminizing spell!

Neal went on to confess to Mulan that he still loves Emma. That’s probably why he never followed up on what happened to her after she went to the slammer for muling his watches. Even after he learned that she broke the curse and understood his magical backstory, he up and got engaged to another lady. Their romance is truly as idyllic and beautiful as a Ricki Lake segment titled “My Baby Daddy Used Me, Abused Me, and Left Me to Rot In Jail… and Now He Wants Me Back!”  Mulan Neal him his “fear of rejection overcame his belief in love,” which was a polite way of saying he’s a puss-puss-pussay.

And then came the craziest scene of OUAT ever. That’s right, the unforgettable moment wherein a couple mischievous mermaids started doing kick-flips off the side of the boat, prompting Prince Charming to spin around a small cannon and start SHOOTING TO KILL MERMAIDS.

Prince Charming will blast a bitch to pieces who messes with his boat, and whether she has a tail or not is really none of his concern. Regina, proving once and for all that she is MVP and always has been, managed to much more effectively (and less fatally) scare the mermaids away by sending fireballs across the water. Emma and Snow insisted on hauling up a mermaid they caught in a net (which, obvs, they couldn’t do without Regina’s help), and the she-fish then lay shimmying awkwardly around on the deck while they threatened her. Things came to a head when bitch blew a conch shell, and by that I mean I cackled so wildly the neighbors banged on my duplex wall.

The ensuing barrage of one-liners from Regina in trying to handle the mermaid (“Filet the bitch!”) and the ensuing storm special effects were quite effective. (Theory: We are going to see a lot of Neverland at night because the CGI is more convincing.) Regina ultimately turned the Mermaid into a Pier One Imports sculpture, leading to Regina and Snow duking it out on the bucking deck of a storm-torn galleon!

Charming, in another legendary display of his leadership capabilities, decided to start a fight with the only guy on board who knew how to steer, during the height of the storm.

Amidst this cartoonish fracas cribbed from the climax of a Tim Allen film, Emma somehow made the connection that their inner turmoil was conjuring the LITERAL storm above, and she did what so many troubled youths do: She used self-destructive behavior to get her parents’ attention, leaping into the water to get brained by a mast. This was her LEAP OF FAITH, guys—one that her squirrelly parents might actually notice if she threw herself in harm’s way. (Just me, or did Regina seem REALLY upset about Emma going overboard?)  

Ultimately, Prince Charming would make possibly his first good parenting decision in 28 years and dive in after her. It’s unknown if any bloody mermaid fingers that he’d shot off of mystical sea creatures got caught in her hair while she was down there.

Similarly, Henry made a leap of faith with his unusually helpful friend, jumping across a yawning CGI chasm with nothing but a vial of white glitter to guarantee their safety. Leaps of faith and pixie dust will take you anywhere in Neverland, although rest assured that here on Earth, pixie dust and leaps of faith will mostly land you in the desert, living in an Airstream with a Manson-esque yogi, selling sherm to Burners.

Robert Carlyle made everyone’s lives complete by doing a sarcastic hand-twiddle. Neverland Rumplestiltskin is another great fix—letting Carlyle drop the Leprechaun impression while retaining the threat of being “the Dark One.” Rumple earned even more of our goodwill by not allowing Tamara’s storyline to continue, and then we learned that Rumple and Pan had a past (obviously, they both love scoopin’ up babies; they’re like the Coke and Pepsi of kidnapping), and then our all-powerful, charismatic Rumple sank to his knees and had a long weep over a corn-husk poppet. Is Rumple’s Vodun past going to finally be revealed?!

Meanwhile, in FTL, Neal led Mulan to his dad’s palace and basically ran into Robin Hood, a hipster squatter. Neal magicked a snow globe so he could see Emma in it, Wicked Witch-style, because “blood magic.” Sure, wetting my mental pants again, but sure. Neal tuned in just in time to see Emma landing alongside her other shipmates on Neverland.

Emma was making a quite the power grab, assigning herself the role of leader and goose-stepping up and down the beach as Regina, Snow, Charming, and Hook looked on, baffled, perhaps wondering how she’d managed to dry her hair so quickly. 

Villains, pirates, idiots, they must all work together! Emma’s special power? “Orgasmic magical interludes I’m a mother!” she screamed in Regina’s face. I would have shot back “Oh yeah? How many diapers have you changed? What are Henry’s allergies and what was his first word? P.S. Whereya been the last ten years?!” But Regina showed a lot of restraint by merely spanking Emma with her eyes.

Then, in a startling reveal that probably no one had ever even slightly predicted, Henry’s mysterious, companion revealed himself as Peter Pan! And he needs the heart of the truest believer! His whole plan all along was just to get Henry to Neverland!

Let’s... just for a moment let me play this out, let’s rewind the tape. So Peter Pan’s plan to abduct Henry was this simple:

1. First, he made contact with two adults in another dimension and convinced them he was a faceless and powerful secret organization, probably via Craigslist post.

2. He coached Tamara through seducing Neal, who at the time did NOT himself know that he was Henry’s father, or even that Henry existed.

3. Pan then told these agents via some inter-dimensional device to BLOW UP all of Storybrooke with a magic diamond fail-safe he somehow knew Regina had hid and then retrieved from Snow’s coffin—all while “taking care” of them, which I would assume means at the very least covering their travel expenses.

Cool! Whatever. I mean, the flagrant lack of logic to me is stunning. It truly is. But I know as well as y’all do that this show is about character development and emotional justice. Do I really want to be the one kid playing around in the backyard who points out the tree fort is made out of sheets? No, it’s not fun being that kid. This new premise is too enticing a sandbox. You could argue it’s now basically Lost with a cast of characters who have an insanely complicated and entertaining history and any number of super powers. Sure! Can’t wait to see more. The sheer audacity of this virtual series reset is enough to make me excited. Like, where does this all end? What happens to the first commercially successful primetime network fantasy show of our generation when the madmen at the wheel have burned the map and barreled off the road into uncharted territory? That’s a pretty effing intriguing question. 

I just hope OUAT rewards this suspension of disbelief by respecting us and believing in us, as viewers, to handle something more than just another trite love triangle.


– Do you think OUAT's producers were forced to turn in a season outline before starting work on Season 3?

– Neverland!!! How long will we be here? Is this a series reset or a short detour on the way back home?

– Is Neal the worst love interest in the history of Western narrative? (Hint: The answer is not “no.”)

– Are you more or less excited about Season 3 after this premiere? Where do you hope the show is headed?

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