At last the claustrophobic stint “Once Upon A Time” spent in a surprisingly dark and dreary Neverland has finally ended. Aren't you glad that's over (sorry, Peter Pan)? The show returns tonight (Sun. March 9 at 8:00 p.m. on ABC) with a new story, a new villain and some lingering questions that should be twisty enough to fuel the last eight episodes of the season. But is that enough to bring back viewers?
Let's face it — as many of us looked forward to Neverland before the storyline began (I know I did), the reality was less than stellar. Our core characters were trapped on an island that appeared to be a soundstage cluttered with potted plants and not much else. We didn't fully appreciate the rich colors, textures and secondary characters of Storybrooke and Fairytale Land until they were stuck on a back burner to make room for… a one-note antagonist and endless puzzles for Emma and the gang to solve that felt like freshman year writing exercises (if your main character's biggest emotional issue was a hill, what would it look like?).
Despite Robbie Kay's best efforts, Peter Pan never blossomed as a villain. His need to present “challenges” to our protagonists never felt organic — just a way of propelling plot. We can only hope that this disappointing experiment, which seemed determined to toss out all the elements that made “Once Upon A Time” work in the first two seasons, has taught Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz what works — and, significant, what doesn't.
This first episode following the midseason hiatus suggests they did — so fans who tuned out during Neverland can feel safe putting “Once” back in their DVRs. It's hard to write about the episode without leaking dribs and drabs of spoilers, but I'll do my best even if the result is a little vague. The story picks up where it left off last season, and the door has been blown open to more fully incorporate elements we've sorely missed — our colorful, traditional Fairytale Land and yes, Storybrooke. I don't get the sense we're going to have Emma, Charming, Snow, Regina and Hook stuck in isolation this time around. More importantly, we're getting an antagonist that, while just as iconic as Pan, promises more drama and fewer useless puzzles (no spoiler here if you've seen the promos or been on the Internet) — the Wicked Witch of the West, in all her ghastly green glory.
“Once Upon A Time” has remembered what Disney fans have always known — female antagonists, whether they be witches or evil queens or sea creatures — are almost always more fun (at the very least they get MUCH better costumes), and the Wicked Witch suggests a more suitable rival for our “good guys” and perhaps an equal match for Regina. One of the issues with Peter Pan was watching a group of adults do battle with a kid — even though we knew Pan was nothing of the sort, on a visceral level it was still unsettling.
Now we will see Oz's most colorful (literally) bad girl and, as you'd expect, all of the accessories that go with her (you ponder that, but I suspect your first guess is dead on). The show has picked a visually rich world to explore, and if it gets this part right, that's half the battle.
We also see glimmers of Kitsis and Horowitz picking up threads of story lines that looked promising earlier in the season but seemed to get lost in Neverland's gloom. There is romance in the air, dwarves are in the mix (we did not get enough Grumpy this season!), and complicated spells are being cast. The show will bounce between timelines, which it's done successfully before, and locations. As long as none of those are Neverland, I think the magic is definitely back.
Are you going to watch “Once Upon A Time,” and did you tune out during the Neverland episodes? What do you think about the new villain? What did you think of Peter Pan?