Recap and review for Once Upon A Time – Season 2 Episode 9 – Winter Finale – Queen of Hearts
One of two things that Once Upon A Time does extremely well in its big cliffhanger episodes is either raise the stakes or send the story in a completely different direction, one that effectively ends the story as we know it. Last season’s finale broke The Curse, and though magic was returning to Storybrooke, there was a pervading sense of ambiguity as to where the hell the story could possibly go from this point. Regina (Lana Parrilla) had been defeated. Everyone had recovered their former Fairy Tale Land memories and identities. Emma had more or less fulfilled her role as the savior. What else was there, really, to do? As it turned out, plenty. The second season thus far hasn’t completely changed the series to where it feels like a different show, but it has opened up the world of the series, so that the story feels bigger, its world more expansive, and its characters, by turn, are both broad and surprisingly nuanced for a network genre show. “Queen of Hearts” plays as a closing curtain on the first half of season two, while also presenting a full-scale restructuring of the season’s overarching narrative, going forward.
Much of “Queen of Hearts” deals with Emma (Jennifer Morrison) her company, Snow/Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin), Princess Aurora (Sarah Bolger), and Mulan (Jamie Chung), and their struggle against Cora (Barabara Hershey) and Hook (Colin O’Donoghue). Scattered throughout are terse flashbacks that provide us with answers to a variety of lingering questions that have persisted over the course of the past half-season, particularly how the Enchanted Forest came to be exempted from The Curse. When Hook is dispatched to Neverland by Regina, we learn that the titular Queen of Hearts is actually Cora, reigning over the parallel kingdom after having been exiled by her daughter. Hook, sent to kill Cora, fails. But instead of being killed in retaliation by Cora, she instead turns him to her cause, explaining to him that Regina is essentially selling him short. Sure, if he kills Cora, and Regina enacts The Curse, they’ll all go to Storybrooke, where Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle) will no longer have magic to defend himself, but what Hook doesn’t know is that The Curse will obliterate his memories. As Cora succinctly puts it, what’s the point of finally having your enemy in a vulnerable position if you don’t actually remember he’s your enemy? With this info, Cora is able to turn Hook into a double agent for her own cause. She disguises herself as a corpse and allows Hook to take her back to Regina, in order to make it appear as though he has succeeded in his mission, earning her trust. However, when Regina tells her mother’s “corpse” that she can’t take her with to Storybrooke because she loved her, and always has, and that she can’t allow that weakness in her life anymore, Cora begins to relent a bit in her hatred. This doesn’t stop her from scheming in her own way, though, as she casts a protective shell around The Enchanted Forest to protect it from The Curse, but also freezing the land until The Curse was broken, at which point Regina would be able to travel to Storybrooke to “help” her daughter.
The scene between Regina and Cora’s “corpse” is strangely touching, though macabre in presentation. Both women are dressed in lush, striking black gowns, and the crypt is the kind of worn gray that made for a kind of beautiful tapestry itself – the greenscreen is back on-point, it would seem, whereas it had varied wildly between impressive and sketchy in episodes past. The moment in which Regina confesses her love for her mother is part of an episode-long arc in which Regina’s gradual shift toward goodness is explored at greater length than at any point during this half-season. The monologue illustrates the theme of “love as weakness/strength” that pervades the episode, but also shows that Regina has been fighting the villainous impulses inside her ever since her mother killed her fiance, Daniel, right in front of her eyes. Regina’s status as a villain has grown more ambiguous than at any point in the series, and it helps to add a fitting bit of nuance to her character, particularly through one moment towards the end of the episode that we’ll get to in a bit…
Emma, Snow, Aurora, and Mulan are imprisoned in Rumpelstiltskin’s old cell by Cora when they rush back to retrieve the magic ink. Cora reveals to the group that she’s been using Aurora’s enchanted heart to turn her into a sleeper agent within their clan, complicating matters for when the girls eventually escape the cell and give chase to Cora and Hook, who have the magic compass and a petrified magic bean, respectively. Aurora elects to remain in Fairy Tale Land since she can’t be trusted so long as Cora still has her heart, and it’s at least an understandable reason for breaking the fellowship, as I wondered how they would bring this partnership to a close without it feeling contrived. With the foursome now shortened to a twosome, the climax plays along more conventional two-on-two fight rules, since our main event is probably better off as a tag team match anyway. Emma duels with Hook (who even allows the girls to have Aurora’s heart back, rationalizing that a woman should only ever lose her heart over him). The fight choreography is kind of clunky, but the battle still works since it’s less about the action itself, and more about the anticipation involved in the ticking clock aspect of the duel, as Emma and Snow need to get to the portal before it’s destroyed by Gold and Regina. After besting Hook, Emma jumps in the way of Cora’s attempted heart-theft on Snow and, in the process, discovers that love gives her some kind of crazy, Sookie Stackhouse light power that is able to blast Cora away, though the blast doesn’t kill her. Emma and Snow jump through the portal, and that should be that. Except…
Gold and Regina are freaking out because Charming (Josh Dallas) hasn’t come out of his sleeping curse, thus there’s no way of knowing if Snow ever got the message about the magic ink. So Gold enacts his contingency, mining the diamonds from the mine shaft in Storybrooke and getting Regina to go back on her word to Henry (Jared S. Gilmore), by getting her to use magic to destroy the portal between worlds. Regina’s loyalties are tested, and she initially backs Gold, with the intention of keeping Cora from ever coming to Storybrooke, even if it means keeping Emma and Snow from ever coming back themselves – Gold even implies an added bonus, that trapping Emma will leave Regina with no competition for the role of Henry’s mother. However, when Henry begs her to have faith in him, and his assertion that Emma and Snow will defeat Cora, Regina uses what magic remains to her in order to absorb the portal-collapsing spell. Emma and Snow come up out of the magic well/portal, and all is well again, it seems. Except, again, we tie back to Regina’s own private pathos.
Upon first seeing Emma, Henry shouts “Mom!”, affixing that nomenclature to her for the first time, as far as I can recall, and there’s a brief, pained expression on Regina’s face that marks as perhaps Lana Parrilla’s best moment on the show, subtle though it is. Afterwards, in Gold’s shop, Henry embraces Regina and thanks her for everything she did – and then leaves her behind to go celebrate at Granny’s with Emma and Snow. It’s a starkly solitary moment, as Regina just stands there, and Lana Parrilla looks, for all the world, as if she’s got Charlie Brown’s squiggly frown on her face. But it’s touching, in what it tells us about Regina’s character. In her soliloquy to her mother, Regina spoke of how she couldn’t resist still loving her mother, in spite of all she’d done to her. In that moment, it becomes clear that her need to be Henry’s sole maternal figure is rooted in the desire to have a person in this world who is required to love her, no matter what, whether out of the dependent need of a child, or out of the genuine affection that often grows over time between a child and his parent. She essentially wanted someone who couldn’t help but love her, in much the same way Regina herself still loved Cora. It’s enough to create a pang of sympathy for the character, as we see just how much of her evil has been invested in the desire to have some semblance of love in her own life.
Having love doesn’t seem to be a problem for anyone else, however. Much like the season one finale, this winter finale felt like the story being tied up neatly in a bow, and being given a happy ending, as though no other chapters were forthcoming. Of course, this seems to be done mostly to give us a sense of stakes, of what could be lost if good fails to succeed against evil. Snow brings Charming out of his sleeping curse with True Love’s Kiss, which really ought to be bottled and sold in Rite Aids across the country, for all its effectiveness. Meanwhile, back in Fairy Tale Land, Mulan plugs Aurora’s restored heart back into her chest, because apparently it doesn’t take a medical degree. Aurora reveals that she learned, from Cora, that it’s possible to restore a soul that’s been taken by a wraith. With that, the two women resolve to rescue Prince Phillip’s soul from the “Let’s just call it a Dementor because that’s what it clearly was” that sucked his soul away quicker than Daniel Plainview drinking a milkshake. However, though things seem all neat and tidy, it turns out that Hook and Cora have rejuvenated the petrified bean with the magic waters of the lake. The closing shot of the episode is of Hook’s ship, rolling into the port of Storybrooke, with Hook and Cora overlooking all.
“Queen of Hearts” is as good as Once Upon A Time gets. It has a lot of what works about the series, with the shades of gray characterizations, and very little of what doesn’t work about the series, from the patchy greenscreen to the occasional tendency to focus on too many characters at one time, muddying the story and making it seem unfocused. Much of the significant plot motion is in Fairy Tale Land, yet the lion’s share of the character development is in Storybrooke, and this was a smart approach, as the episode breezed by, and never felt like it was trying to do too much with too little story. It looks like the narrative is shifting significantly now that Cora and Hook are in Storybrooke, though there’s still the Fairy Tale Land thread with Aurora and Mulan (though it’ll be hard to tell just how invested audiences will be in that storyline without any of our principles along for the ride). The success of the second half of season two will rely upon a careful, measured approach to storytelling, in which the series doesn’t rush through the major character beats, allowing the individual arcs to proceed organically, like Regina’s did tonight. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that we’re going to get the occasional one-off episode following Dr. Whale (David Anders) or Ruby (Meghan Ory), but I often look to those episodes as exercises in worldbuilding, thus giving the series a greater narrative heft by adding to the sense that this is a vibrant, living world full of characters each with their own stories, independent of what our main characters are up to. Once Upon A Time will live or die by that aspect, as it’s almost impossible to get people to care about a genre show without characters they have some attachment to – right now, the series is successful in that respect, and episodes like “Queen of Hearts” bode well for the show, going forward.