Warning: If you haven’t seen episode 3.01 of Once Upon a Time, “The Heart of the Truest Believer,” this post may contain spoilers.
Sunday night’s third-season premiere of ABC’s family drama fantasy, Once Upon a Time, posed an interesting question, though I’m not entirely sure it’s the one the showrunners had in mind. (Although, it’s not exactly like they’re known for playing the long game.) But, in sending the vast majority of the first string to Neverland – and dropping a single player back into the Enchanted Forest – the start of the new season invited both die-hard Oncers and casual fans alike to consider the following: Can you sustain yourself on nostalgia alone?
If you’d tuned in at 7 p.m., you’d have been treated to an hour-long recap of season 2, condensing the entirety of the show’s (now incredibly) complicated mythology and highlighting the major plot points of last season. For me, the recap’s high point was its narration by Alfred Molina. But, in the interest giving the nebbishes steering this unwieldy ship some credit, the major talking points of the recap – and, frankly, of the series itself – are:
The corrupting influence of power;
the price of magic;
the search for “home”;
the damage parents unwittingly inflict on their children;
and the power of belief.
But I would argue the focus of Sunday’s premiere was actually the power of nostalgia; How that sense that things not only could or might have been better in another time, but were better, can corrupt our appreciation of the present. Consider, for a moment, a few of the major arcs of season 2. Regina’s mother, Cora, was shown as a power-hungry social climber who eventually used her only child to achieve the goals she’d never come near in her own youth. Rumpelstiltskin, when finally reunited with his son after centuries of self-inflicted separation, offers to rewind the clock and make his son a dependent teen again in a misguided attempt to make up for lost time. And even Snow and Charming, representing the shiny happy delegation of the Enchanted Forest, argue over the wisdom of returning to their former home and lives versus remaining in the world to which they were exiled.
The season opener, “The Heart of the Truest Believer,” picked up right where the second season finale left off: Rumpelstiltskin’s son, Neal/Baelfire, is missing, presumed dead. Emma’s son, Henry, is spirited off to Neverland by a couple of magic-hating interlopers who’d previously sought to destroy Storybrooke, which is sustained by an elaborate magical infrastructure. The town’s assorted white and black hats have agreed to a tentative armstice, in light of saving both the town and their own vested interests. And Emma; her parents, Snow White and Prince Charming; her step-grandmother, Queen Regina; and her son’s grandfather, Rumpelstiltskin, and psuedo-step-grandfather, Captain Hook, have all followed the proverbial rabbit down its hole in a no-holds-barred rescue of Henry. (Still with me?)
Officially, the tagline for the first half of Once’s third season is about Emma being forced to face her past when she finds herself in a place where no one has a future. And in so many ways, that is what Neverland represents: A place where children never grow up and learn to handle self-doubt, death, uncertainty and responsibility. Neverland is the home of the Lost Boys, children whose intense desire not to grow up, led them to a world governed by imagination and fun – but as rife with danger and uncertainty as our own. After all, J.M. Barrie’s novel pits Peter Pan against the manipulative adult figure of Captain Hook and his mindless crew of pirates, but there are other dangers in Neverland. It’s only Wendy Darling’s blind refusal to acknowledge that no world is safe, least of all that of childhood make-believe, that coats Peter Pan and Neverland in a sparkly top coat.
Once’s Neverland is dangerous from the word ‘go,’ with blood-thirsty Lost Boys, led by a particularly sadistic teen I’ve nicknamed “Blondie McScarface,” for want of an actual name.
The Storybrooke contingent is assaulted by violent mermaids who are seemingly part siren, part sea monster. And Henry unknowingly puts his own life in the hands of the very person who poses his greatest threat.
Meanwhile, Neal awakens from his brush with death in the Enchanted Forest, where he explains to a stranger why he took a bullet for a woman who wouldn’t normally acknowledge him. (Spoiler: It’s a healthy dose of guilt for breaking her heart, and an as-yet-undetermined amount for Emma.) Later, he realizes he must return to his father’s castle and, more troubling still, must use the very magic he blames for destroying his family in the first place.
The key to discovering how to reunite with Emma and their son and return to their world is his father’s walking stick. It’s one of the few times Neal shows any sentimentality regarding Rumpelstiltskin, and it’s telling that he gets a little verklempt over an object that reminds him of a time before his father had magic, when they were poor and powerless but happy together.
The high points were Neal’s interaction with Mulan, who, absent any romantic interest or prior knowledge of his past, treats him as an equal for Emma’s sake. Their friendship had a note of authenticity that is occasionally lacking in the other characters’ interactions, and we here at WWFTP are eager for Neal and Mulan to have further adventures, with or without the other remaining citizens of the Enchanted Forest. We found Kilian Jones less smarmy as Hook, and he arguably had the best line of the episode.
And we appreciated how different the show’s take on Neverland is from either the source material or the more obvious, Disney-fied take; while we have plenty of questions, we also found the Lost Boys and Peter Pan menacing enough to suspend disbelief on some of the vaguer points of the plot leading from Storybrooke to Neverland.
However, we were frustrated by Snow’s abrupt and unpredictable turn toward violence, which seemed entirely out of character, unless the showrunners have thought ahead for once and will reveal some aspect of Neverland’s magic that inhibits maturity.
We were also insulted that it’s taken the show two seasons to finally give Henry a motivation for his actions – the big reveal of the episode was Peter Pan’s desire for Henry being based in Henry’s role as “the truest believer” – but without giving his character more dimension than he had in the first season, when he was believed Storybrooke was a lie. Any opinion on the young actor who portrays Henry aside, we’re ready for the character to stop being treated as a plot device for the advancement of his mothers’ storylines.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention Robert Carlyle and Lana Parilla’s performances. Becca requested I mention how flattering Carlyle’s Rumpelstiltskin looked in his open-collared shirt. I would add that his boredom with Blondie McScarface’s threats was one of the character’s most amusing moment in three seasons.
Likewise, Lana Parilla outdid herself, swinging between a nearly sweet moment with Hook as they discussed the possibility of a happy ending for villains like themselves to her brusqueness when Emma named herself the leader of their misfit band to the second and third best lines of the episode.
The showrunners may think their characters are focused on the struggle between hearth and ultimate cosmic power, but whether it’s Emma’s refusal to accept her parents’ rose-tinted vision of their past or Hook’s gift to her of Neal’s old sword, the real question of the first major arc this season is whether the characters will continue to rely power of their nostalgia, or whether they will finally face the consequences of their actions. Even Kitsis and Horowitz are trading on the audience’s nostalgia, stating that their Peter Pan is not the one of our childhood – or of the peanut butter.
And, in the end, the Neverland of Wendy Darling’s childhood is not the same after her return to London. She eventually realized vowing never to grow up wouldn’t keep her safe; only actively trying to change what was expected of her would give her the security she felt she needed.
I only hope Emma takes a page from Wendy’s book, and follows a similar path, or considering the knot of abandoned storylines from last season, stays on any kind of identifiable path.