I've never been a fan of all-male and all-female groups, whether it’s in school, in socializing, or in entertainment. But despite that, I know that sometimes, there are good reasons for it. This week’s Once Upon a Time is one such example.
With Snow and Emma caught in the Enchanted Forest, Henry is left in the hands of his grandfather Charming, a real moment for male-bonding, which you’d expect to be pretty important in two characters who are only children raised without a male parent. But Charming, despite his St. Crispin’s-style speech at the end of last week, has exactly the same priorities in this episode as, well, the entire series: find Snow above all else, and whatever the cost to everyone else. In his pursuit of this goal, he tells Henry that the boy cannot help him on his quest, and reveals, in an episode very much about parenthood, just how lacking Charming is in the necessary skills and just how much he has to learn from his grandson about a great many things.
After all, Henry is the one who unraveled the secret of Storybrooke and initiated its salvation. So Charming expecting him to not join in on the quest is incredibly naïve. And lecturing Henry on the dangers of magic?
Charming: And magic…
Henry: …always comes with a price. I read the book, you know!
Henry largely IS the book and is probably the smartest and best equipped to find the answers Charming seeks. So, left to his own devices by his grandfather, he sets out on Operation Scorpion by himself, tricks his manipulative mother, finds her vault of secrets, and nearly gets himself killed (a little parental supervision, please!), all while resolving another father-child bond along the way. Luckily, Regina knows her own child, Henry makes a narrow escape, and Charming learns that there’s little that can stand in the way of a stubborn kid on a mission.
The one thing that remains to be learned is sword-fighting. No, I’m not talking about the wooden swords Charming purchases to teach Henry to fence. I’m talking about the really clumsy fight scene between Charming and King George’s men. I understand that it’s an 8pm show, so the blood and guts need to be kept to a minimum. But the fight is choreographed and executed in such a way that it looks like no one actually hits their target and men are just falling down dead at random. This is a show about fairy tales, people. Sword-fighting is de rigueur. Let’s get it together. We don’t need Braveheart. But children’s theatre-level fighting ain’t gonna cut it.
So much for the guys.
The Enchanted Forest, in the meantime, is awash in estrogen, much of it frustrated: Emma and Snow in their efforts to get “home” to Storybrooke, Aurora to kill Snow, and Cora to…well, something very bad (it is Cora, after all). But motherhood is the unifying trope. Emma wants to get back to her son, Snow wants to connect with her daughter, Mulan wants to rein in her quasi-child Aurora, Charming’s mom wants to see her son happy, and Cora wants to reunite with Regina (which sounds pretty ominous for the Evil Queen).
And each desire ends up revealing something important to or about the characters involved, with some great moments along the way.
My favorites take place after Snow, Mulan, and Emma head off to Snow’s castle in pursuit of a way back to Storybrooke. Aurora, bent on Snow’s destruction, attacks her enemy, and Snow takes her downtown in some of the best princess-on-princess action ever. Emma, wielding her own magic, shows—Connery’s gruff warning notwithstanding—why you should never bring a gun to a knife fight. And Mulan finally gets to tell Aurora to grow the hell up.
Snow continues to be one of the more interesting and dynamic characters on TV. Based on a one-dimensional 15-year-old in a fairy-tale, OUaT’s Snow is more than an update, and in this episode, we get to experience her in her full glory. We see her as a warrior, making battle plans alongside her lover (showing a keener instinct for the task than he does). As a protective mother, standing between her daughter and a horrible beast (and later, an ogre). As a bride, willing to forego the pomp and ceremony of her place as a princess to marry Charming in the forest at his mother’s request. As an experienced ranger, showing herself as at-home in the wilds as she is in her castle. As a young woman in love, struggling with the heartbreak of a curse laid on her by King George (which is one of the major failings of the episode—there’s not much narrative tension in cursing a character if you’re presenting that character consistently in the presence of evidence that the curse has already failed…not a lot of suspense there).
The fact that Snow is all these things without any apparent contradiction is evidence of the impressive actress who plays her. Ginnifer Goodwin makes it all work, and given her physicality, it’s no easy task. She’s small, with the face of the fifteen-year-old version of Snow, framed either by a curly mass of Rapunzel-length hair or a pixie cut, both of which make her look even younger and more fragile than she might otherwise. But when she draws her bow or strides across the battlefield (kudos to the costumer who came up with her princess-dress-that-is-not-a-dress ensemble this episode), she takes up the entire screen with her presence.
But investing Snow with a complex and believable emotional core is where Goodwin really shines. She starts out playing, in one world, a princess who loses everything but quickly reveals she’s tough enough to take on the worst beasts of the Enchanted Forest and win while her Storybrooke counterpart is mousy, sweet, and quietly dedicated to her students and patients. We know these two are the same woman, and initially write off the dissimilarities to Mary-Margaret not remembering herself as Snow—because these really don’t appear to be the same woman. But as the series has worn on, Goodwin’s performance subtly reveals how much Snow there was in Mary Margaret: the same self-denial, same ability to stand up for what’s right—no matter the cost—and the same loving and heartbroken soul.
And in this episode, we see that last part come through brilliantly. Snow has had to fight from the beginning for the two things she holds most dear: Charming and her child. And both her characters experience their loss, even if, as Mary-Margaret, she doesn’t remember. From the moment she and Emma enter the nursery, the pain and sense of loss begin to build on Goodwin’s face as Snow moves around the room, remembering the childhood moments she’s never had with her daughter, all while Emma becomes more and more hostile. As we flash back and forth between this scene and that of Charming and Snow trying to save his mother, Goodwin parallels one set of emotional moments with another, investing the latter with a sense of empathy that would otherwise seem unreasonable. But it reveals the nature of her heart—this is the most central part of who she is and the font for everything else: all of her strength and her indomitable spirit comes from her empathy and understanding of loss. And that is what she shares with Mary-M
It also sets the stage for a breakout moment for Jennifer Morrison, whose performance, to date, has been fairly one-note. She redeems everything as she suddenly lashes out at her mother, the hurt and abandoned child crying out for understanding and love, suddenly brought to this place by having to face the same decision Snow did: to let go or lose forever. Her transitions from anger to contrition to relieved vulnerability to teen embarrassment are exactly right.
Still, it is Goodwin who shines most. Her final moments in the nursery, as she takes one last look at the 28 years she’s missed with her daughter, her tears when she subtly straightens her shoulders and turns to go, expressing her strength and ability to take on the leadership that has fallen to her despite what’s she’s been through–this is the stuff that Emmys are made of.
Laura Akers is a teacher by calling and a geek academic by nature. Her sporadic but often too-lengthy writing for Comics Bulletin (and her own personal musings) tend to revolve around issues of gender, sexuality, identity, politics, religion (and all the other things you’re not supposed to bring up in polite conversation) in TV/film/webseries narratives. You can get topical whiplash and occasionally offended by following her at @laurajakers