‘Once Upon A Time’ Review: ‘Operation Mongoose’ Is the Best Season Finale Yet

Recap and review of Once Upon A Time – Season 4 Finale – Operation Mongoose:

Once Upon A Time topped itself in ways I didn’t expect with “Operation Mongoose”: the two-hour movie event delivered a season finale that could have played out as a series finale, if the show had not already been renewed for Season 5. But if the show can keep up this level of storytelling into its fifth year, then I’m glad it’s not going anywhere. This was easily the show’s best season finale yet.

If anything surprised me about “Operation Mongoose”, it was how much I enjoyed the inversion of the show’s universe. On the one hand, I was somewhat disappointed at first in the happy endings for the villains, since I figured this new world would be one where the bad guys win while still remaining the bad guys. Here, they’re simply the heroes, whereas the heroes of the old world are suddenly the villains, with all their backstories inverted — i.e., Regina (Lana Parrilla) is a bandit in the Enchanted Forest, currently on the run from the evil queen Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) after becoming inadvertently responsible for the death of her one true love. I think “Operation Mongoose” would have been far more powerful had we entered into a world plunged into darkness, where the bad guys of the old world had won in spite of their treachery, as opposed to simply having the roles reversed. But this is probably the only complaint I actually have about the finale, and it’s a complaint that’s wiped away within minutes of the episode exploring this world with Henry (Jared S. Gilmore) as our guide.

Once Upon A Time - Season 4 Finale - Recap and Review - Operation Mongoose

Credit: ABC

Every interaction in this new world felt so vivid and nuanced that I found myself wishing we’d had more than just one and a half episodes to hang out in this world. I’m not saying a full season of this necessarily would have worked, but considering how much time we spent in Neverland last season, I feel like this could have been an interesting path for the season to explore, more so than the Queens of Darkness storyline (which I actually liked, but which has also come and gone with little in the way of lasting effects on the show’s world beyond the presence of Lily). This new backstory for Regina felt real and lived-in, and her brief interactions with both Robin Hood (Sean Maguire) and this ditzy version of Zelena (Rebecca Mader) was brimming with subtext from all their unremembered interactions back in Storybrooke. I also would have loved see more of Snow White as the Evil Queen, or Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) as her empty-headed servant, since a darker version of one of the show’s central relationships is something that I feel is worth exploring. Even Hook (Colin O’Donoghue) as a meek, fearful, not-at-all-adventurous deckhand on Blackbeard’s Jolly Roger could have made for a great extended arc, as Emma (Jennifer Morrison) helps him realize his true self, and bring out his inherent bravery. We get that story here, but as with each of these Villains’ World storylines, it feels rushed, due to cramming what could have been at least six episodes of material into about 60 minutes of the finale’s roughly 84-minute runtime.

But you know you’ve got a good finale when the big complaint was that there wasn’t enough of it, and so it was here: the added backstory for the Isaac Heller/The Author (Patrick Fischler) was downright fascinating, consider that it actually starts in our world in the 1960s. This backstory essentially depicts him as a failed writer who’s resorted to selling televisions to make ends meet. But Isaac has suffered from a string of terrible bosses, and this one is no different (although, to be fair, his boss had legit concerns about Isaac’s performance). Isaac becomes a far more pitiable character than he was before, which adds to the irony of his power. He’s someone who’s basically depicted as being powerless to ever change anything in his life, but he will eventually end up having the power to alter everyone else’s (and his own, which we learn is technically against the rules). When The Apprentice (Timothy Webber) summons Isaac under the guise of finally giving him a publishing deal, he’s instead given a test that assesses his worth to become The Author. He passes, and the rest is history, although we don’t get many more details than that (for instance, who authorized The Apprentice to select a new Author? Was it the Sorcerer? And if so, how does that explain Isaac using his powers to rid himself of those powers? Or Henry taking over the role of the Author without any middleman like The Apprentice to guide him?). That said, the ambiguity doesn’t really undermine what the finale does with these plot developments, since the story isn’t really about The Author, it’s about what a person does to deserve his/her happy ending, and whether or not goodness can be reclaimed from a heart of darkness.

'Once Upon A Time' Review 'Operation Mongoose' Is the Best Season Finale Yet

Credit: ABC

The character work was uniformly strong here, to boot. Regina comes full circle, claiming her true place as a hero by saving Henry in the Villains’ World, at the cost of her own life, while Henry’s constant belief in magic and the power of fairy tales finally pays off when the Quill responds to his touch, thus allowing him to become the new Author. Say what you will about it being a too-easy quick fix to a complex problem, but really, I think this was as good a solution as any the show could have come up with, and it at least comes out of a fairly intense climax, with Regina deciding whether she’s going to help Henry against the Knight Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle), or if she’s going to break up Robin/Zelena’s wedding and set the world back to normal. The drama here is really simple, and it’s rooted in character arc that have been building all season, as Regina is occasionally torn between self-pity and longing for her happy ending, while recognizing that her two great loves (Robin and Henry) are people she simultaneously has and doesn’t have (Henry due to his love for Emma, and Robin due to his responsibility to his family). But here, Regina sacrifices herself, proving to be the true hero by recognizing that this doesn’t have to be about her happiness. It’s about letting Robin go, and helping Henry live. Through her actions, Regina earns her happy ending in the real world. By that same token, Emma tries to return the favor to preserve Regina’s happy ending back in Storybrooke…

Once Upon A Time - Recap and Review - Season 4 Finale - Operation Mongoose

Credit: ABC

The Apprentice uses the Sorcerer’s Hat to remove the darkness from Gold’s heart, but this has the unintended side effect of releasing that darkness into the world. As The Apprentice explains, the darkness was a powerful force of evil that threatened to consume all the realms. It could not be defeated, so The Sorcerer made it so that the darkness would instinctively seek out a human form to which it could tether itself. That human form could then be controlled using a special dagger. Thus, this episode not only explains to us the function of The Author, it also explains to us the function of the Dark One. With Gold suddenly released from the dagger’s power, the darkness needs a new host body. Naturally, because all bad things must happen to her, it chooses Regina, but not without Emma making a heroic sacrifice, allowing the darkness to enter her instead. Maybe it was heroism, or maybe it was partially motivated by guilt for having been responsible for her happy endings falling through in the past, but either way, Emma tearfully says her goodbyes (including an epic “I love you” to Hook and a show of faith to her parents that they will be able to release her from darkness someday), and then vanishes in the inky black cloud. All that’s left behind is the Dark One’s dagger, now emblazoned with the name “Emma Swan”. And all this to save Gold, a man who hasn’t earned his happy ending.

Then again, containing the darkness was about more than just saving Gold. It was about…well, containing the darkness. But the show does muddy its own mythology with this, somewhat. Past seasons will seem less dramatically potent if we know that Gold doesn’t really have to die to stop being the Dark One. It’s similar to how the show continually reverses itself on deaths (Zelena) and comes up with zany new rules that help keep the plot moving (i.e., Mother Superior can get The Apprentice out of the hat as long as she has something he owns! Also, two people mating as dragons can produce a giant egg with a human child! Because how else would a family show find a PG explanation for why Maleficent doesn’t know who Lily’s father is?). Still, those are minor issues with an episode that is the type of epic, movie-sized event that I wish this series did more often. Still, the infrequency of these types of events is basically what makes them so special. Once Upon A Time can’t do an “Operation Mongoose” every week. But they did this week, and it was fantastic. I have no idea how they’re going to get Emma out of this one, but it will apparently mean tracking down The Sorcerer himself, Merlin, as The Apprentice reveals this with his dying breath. I’m not necessarily thrilled at finding out we still need to climb another rung up the ladder on this world’s hierarchy, but I do like the notion of meeting a being who is potentially as omnipotent in this world, if not more so, than The Author. I also love the prospect of an evil Emma Swan, especially if it involves warping her physical appearance like it did Rumplestiltskin’s (could you imagine Jennifer Morrison in the shimmery facepaint?). Whatever misgivings I might have had about the finale, they really are small potatoes compared to how much I enjoyed these two hours. At this rate, Season 5 could end up being one for the storybooks.

But what did you think of the season finale of Once Upon A Time? Sound off in the comments!

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