A long time ago, they used to be friends. Sort of.

Disclaimer: This post contains spoilers for the most recent episode of ABC’s Once Upon a Time, “Quite a Common Fairy.”

With a show like ABC’s Once Upon a Time, it can be difficult to say what it does best as the execution of the story telling can vary so wildly between one episode and the next. Last week’s outing, “Lost Girl,” chased (and missed) every beat it had, and the character development was uneven at best, and perplexing at worst. But then an episode like “Quite a Common Fairy” comes along that, while not spectacular, had several solid moments of character development and plot points that push the Neverland arc forward.

The episode managed to juggle five interlocking storylines without too much confusion. (Although I would prefer an episode which doesn’t require me to switch locations every other sentence when I’m emailing Kerry and Becca about the story’s action.) The A Plot(s) this week was the story of Regina’s history with Tinker Bell and how their past affects the current search for Henry in Neverland. The B Plot concerned Neal’s attempts to travel from the Enchanted Forest to Neverland, while the C Plot revolved around Mulan’s unresolved feelings for Aurora and the D Plot (Yes, a D Plot.) involved the beginning of Henry’s indoctrination by Peter Pan in Lost Boy philosophy.

The A Plot, or Plots as is more apt, both concerned the relationship between Regina and Tinker Bell. As much as the current events were intercut with flashbacks to their initial meeting and interactions, both their past and their present were given nearly equal time. In sum, Regina and Tinker Bell met when the latter saved the former’s life and offered to help Regina find a Happy Ending grounded in True Love, rather than revenge on Snow White.

Regina’s insecurity and unwillingness to let go her anger had three unintended consequences: She continued toward self destruction; she set in motion Tinker Bell’s “defrocking” as a fairy; and she may have ruined the life of her new True Love. These consequences eventually result in a confrontation with a now powerless Tinker Bell in Neverland.

Regina’s storyline in this episode managed to accomplish what much of Season 1 and 2 tried to achieve: It took a fan favorite character and gave her depth in showing a plausible cause for sympathy. Her insecurities have long been hinted at, stemming mainly from her combative and manipulative relationship with her mother, but Regina’s failure to embrace love and happiness crystalizes how she internalized her mother’s message that she was merely a pawn and not worthy of a meaningful inner life.

As much as Tinker Bell’s motivations are not shown to be purely selfless, she is perhaps the most selfless of those trying to ‘help’ Regina. Where Regina’s mother was trying to fulfill her own thwarted ambition by securing for her daughter the successful future she had been denied; and Rumpelstiltskin played a long game to finagle a way to find his missing son, Tinker Bell is shown as wanting to both build her own reputation and help Regina start fresh.

That Regina is given Tinker Bell’s help after she admits to frustration with a loveless marriage and a stepdaughter she blames for her unhappiness and who she finds insipid is interesting because it casts her later failure to cross a threshold between her current life and her past in a new light. Regina has categorically refused in previous seasons to place blame for her first True Love’s death at her mother’s feet, where it belongs, because she spent the better part of her life believing that if she simply did what was asked of her, she’d be worthy of her mother’s love.

Compounded by her mother’s habitual emotional and physical abuse, it was easier for Regina to blame Snow White for her sweetheart’s death. Likewise, her perception of a healthy relationship is skewed, given her father’s devotion to his indifferent wife and the secret and furtive nature of her first love.

In short, she is frustrated in her marriage because it lacks genuine passion or unwavering devotion that, to her, are the hallmarks of love, while she is unwilling to commit to learning mastery of magic or leaving her husband, despite being safe from her mother, because she can’t recognize that she now possesses the agency she was previously denied.

And when she is offered the opportunity to put that agency to good use by Tinker Bell, she hesitates before fleeing because she is equally afraid of finding happiness as of learning she is inherently unlovable or unworthy of joy and stability. She is a woman caught in her present because she cannot let go of her past or embrace the uncertainty of her future.

 

However, perhaps the most authentic moment for Regina as a character in this week’s episode was when she reached into her own chest and offered her heart to Tinker Bell to destroy when they find each other again in Neverland.

Arguably, she does so to prove to the former fairy that revenge will not satisfy the gaping hole the loss of magic left in Tinker Bell’s life. Tinker Bell, who is shown grungy, tattered and living a subsistence lifestyle in disgrace, is tempted but reconsiders when Regina explains that it was not the loss of magic that sent Tinker Bell on a downward spiral but her loss of confidence. It’s a statement rich in irony, given the nature of their initial meeting: Then, it was Regina who felt not only powerless but helpless, while Tinker Bell chose to believe in her. Now, it is Regina who must convince Tinker Bell she is not as black-hearted as herself and can still claim a worthwhile future.

Still, Lana Parilla’s performance in this scene gave Regina an edge of desperation she’s lacked in previous life-or-death situations. In this instance, where Regina feels she might manage some good by saving someone else – and after she has effectively taken herself out of the search for Henry and given Emma an implicit order to find the boy at all costs – it’s possible to believe Regina is ready to embrace death as her future, regardless of whether she’ll be happy.

And Rose McIver, as Tinker Bell, deftly walks the line between power mad and powerless, even when she holds her enemy’s life in her hand.

The B Plot, in which Neal convinces Robin Hood to let him use Hood’s son as bait for Peter Pan’s Shadow, in hopes of hitching a ride back to Neverland, finally gave Michael Raymond-Jones more to do than sputter, yell or look abashed.

He channeled a little of Robert Carlyle’s performance as Rumpelstiltskin as he persuaded Hood, adding an interesting layer to the idea that Rumpel, as the Dark One, wasn’t so much changed by near limitless power as he was corrupted by it, in that it stripped him of his inhibitions and made him infinitely more shrewd. Perhaps, if we’re very lucky, Rumpel will learn of Neal’s plan or will otherwise see something of himself in his son, which is certain to be entertaining given Neal’s insistence on being nothing like his father.

But, frankly, the importance of the B Plot is how it contributed to the C Plot, wherein fans of the Mulan/Aurora pairing were given vindication – and then their hopes immediately squashed. Upon hearing Neal explain his concern about missing his chance with Emma, Mulan politely turns down an offer from Hood to join his Merry Men, explaining she can’t accept his offer without knowing if she has left anything unfinished with those she loves. She returns to Aurora’s castle, presumably having been gone several days, and immediately seeks out the ginger princess.

Jamie Chung nails every emotional beat of her scene with Sean Maguire’s Robin Hood, displaying pleasure at Hood’s praise of Mulan’s tactical skills without seeming like she’s flirting or fawning, while she conveys utter heartbreak when Sarah Bolger’s Aurora drops the baby bombshell.

It’s unlikely this is the last we’ll see of Chung and Bolger together, but it’s a powerful moment for the show to potentially imply, especially given its “family friendly” nature.

However, Chung and Maguire have an easy rapport that should make Mulan’s addition to Hood’s Merry Men a welcome change when the show revisits the Enchanted Forest.

Next week appears to be the first climax of the Neverland arc, which presumably will include some sort of denouement of the Henry and Peter Pan D Plot introduced this week. Pan’s attempts to indoctrinate Henry fell flat this week, though the former’s reasoning that Henry is the real savior, not Emma, was an interesting, if not wholly effective, tactic. Coupled with Neal’s return to Neverland and the potential for Emma and him to present Henry with a united front should make for an hour of TV that isn’t a complete hot mess. Assuming, of course, KitsoWitz didn’t stick their fingers into the plot and swirl things around too much.

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