This also sets up a brilliant twist, which is the show’s inversion of the first season scenario. Whereas before, Henry was the believer, desperately trying to convince Emma that fairy tales were real, now Emma is the one who knows the full truth, once more preparing to save the people of Storybrooke, while Henry is the one “of the Real World,” who has no access to the truth. And while we don’t yet know how he’ll react when Emma tells him what’s going on, odds are he’ll have some degree of trouble accepting it. And even if he does believe her, at the very least, he won’t have any memory of Regina as his mom, which means that her sacrifice still remains both in effect and heart-shattering. What could be worse for Regina than being reunited with a son who looks upon her as a stranger?
The other major twist on the first season is, of course, the fact that once more, the characters of the Enchanted Forest have been cursed, only now they haven’t lost all of their memories of the Enchanted Forest, but only the most recent ones. And while it may seem jarring for Storybrooke to be back so soon after it was destroyed, what I like about it is that this jarringness is deliberately woven into the fabric of the narrative. From the fairy tale characters’ perspective, Regina cast the new spell, and BAM! a moment later, they found themselves back in Storybrooke a year later, with no memory of that missing time but with some definite, undeniable changes, such as a newly very-pregnant Mary Margaret.
Whereas during the first season, the residents of Storybrooke had no memory of who they actually were and the flashbacks all filled in the blanks for the audience, gradually answering the many mysteries about the various connections between these people and how they wound up in this situation, now we have a new set of mysteries, all revolving around that missing year–what happened? why are they back? how does the Wicked Witch fit into all this?–which is a truly brilliant concept. It refocuses the show, giving it a new drive and motivation, as well as a fresh new source of fairy tale flashback material–it seems that the majority of flashbacks will now be to this “lost” year–which was needed, as when it came to many of the characters, the show did seem to be running out of untold bits to relate.
And while part of me was hoping to see a Once Upon a Time mostly set in the Enchanted Forest, this method is more surprising–who expected Storybrooke to be back so soon, if ever?–and allows the show to retain its original DNA, albeit with an entirely new agenda. And the introduction of Oz mythology is an ingenious way to do it. Dubbed “an American fairy tale” by L. Frank Baum when he first wrote it, establishing it as the first attempt on the part of an American (or, at least, the first successful, well-known one) to create a fairy tale that didn’t emerge from a European tradition but which was strictly unique to this, still-quite-new country, what could be more appropriate material for the full-on Once Upon a Time treatment than The Wizard of Oz? Furthermore, it’s an extremely recognizable story (arguably more so in the U.S. than either Alice or Peter Pan, the other two stories Once has been tackling this year, or it’s at least, on the whole, known better here)–so much so that its most prominent iconography is part of standard American pop cultural shorthand. Once can weave in these elements without having to spend too much time explaining them and then play off of what we know of Oz in its own unique way. And, again, there’s a whole new world of fresh fairy tale fodder here.
We know the story so well that even just the introduction of a flying monkey is enough to bring shivers of wonder and fear. (Speaking of which, the casting of recognizable TV actor Christopher Gorham as Emma’s new beau, who then turns out to be one of the Witch’s monkey minions, is similarly inspired. He isn’t so hugely famous as to call attention to himself, but is well-known enough among a certain sect of TV fans as a generally nice-guy-type in order to distract from the possibility that he could be not only evil but magical in nature. At the very least, given the series cast a known face, I was expecting him to last longer. Although I guess he could always pop up again, as it’s not clear just how dead or not he is when he crashes to the ground in a puff of smoke.) The CGI design for these creatures is fantastic–truly creepy and disturbing–and in a pure fairy tale mash-up sense, the idea of Snow White and the Evil Queen being attacked by a flying monkey is just too delicious.
Speaking of Snow and Regina, they are another element that the episode handles superlatively. Regina has treated Snow with animosity for so long that it can be easy to forget that, at the start of their relationship, they were actually very close, until Cora poisoned Regina against her. Regina did, however, still spend many years as Snow’s stepmother after that, years during which–as evidence from directly after King Leopold’s death indicates–Regina was pretending to like her, and odds are that, on some level, despite herself, she did. It would be difficult to maintain a masquerade for that long without some emotions bleeding through, although Regina often let her anger blind her to that. In the flashback of the second season episode, “The Evil Queen,” we even see Regina temporarily–again, practically in spite of herself–demonstrate a desire for Snow to once again embrace her as family, until Snow discovers the dead villagers and turns on her.