Recap: ‘Once Upon A Time’ delivers justice to the evil queen – or does it?

So, after waiting all summer for “Once Upon A Time” to return to the air, fans of the show were rubbing their hands together in glee at what seemed like an inevitable plot payoff on tonight’s season premiere. When we left the show, the curse over Storybrooke had been lifted, and all our fairy tale favorites were no longer blinded to their true selves — or evil queen Regina (Lana Parrilla)’s role in that unpleasantness. So yeah, she’s gonna get her what for and how, right? Well, kind of. 

Things certainly seem to be headed toward a magnificent payoff right at the jump. After a brief encounter back in fairy tale land in which Prince Phillip rouses Princess Aurora from her 28 year nap, we head back to modern times as Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) and Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), along with the rest of the townspeople, hug and delight in realizing who everyone really is. It’s sort of like the ending of “The Wizard of Oz,” but a little more poignant, if that’s possible. When Goodwin as Snow recognizes her pal Emma (Jennifer Morrison) is really the baby she shoved into an empty,  magical wardrobe 28 years earlier, her expression — joy, sorrow for all that’s been lost, amazement — reminds you just how fabulous an actress she can be. 

Of course, leave it to Grumpy (Lee Arenberg) to cut through all the cuddly garbage and get to the point. If the curse is broken, why are they still stuck in Maine? With modern plumbing and no corsets? Honestly, I think Regina did them a solid in that respect, but he has a point. The Blue Fairy (Keegan Tracy) explains that there’s got to be some magic floating around, but in the modern world it’s weird and doesn’t work right, which is true of most technology, though you don’t see anyone tossing out their iPhones because of it. 

As usual, we flop back and forth between the two storylines, though I have to say I’d be fine with this episode focusing solely on Regina’s comeuppance. While Aurora and Phillip’s story just reminds me of how often Disney princesses get to nap, it’s a delight to discover that Phillip’s loyal henchman is actually Mulan, a discovery that gets Aurora’s knickers in a twist. I half expect Aurora to stomp off in a huff because her beloved has been palsy-walsy with a hot chick while she’s been sleeping, but the appearance of a wraith, or soul sucker, pretty much puts any petty grievances on the back burner.

It turns out Phillip is marked by a medallion that looks kind of like something from the DHARMA Initiative on “Lost” (nice callback), which makes him a wraith magnet. Despite Mulan and Aurora’s best efforts to save Phillip from the wraith, he gets soul sucked and Mulan takes a moment to fill in Aurora on all she’s missed. While she was sleeping, Regina placed her curse on the people of their little corner of the world — but somehow, one safe haven remained (which is why we haven’t seen Mulan and Aurora eating at the diner in Storybrooke). No one knows why, but I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough.

Back in Storybrooke, the townspeople stop hugging long enough to start looking for Regina, a charge that’s led by Dr. Whale… whose fairy tale persona is still a big question mark. But he’s really, really pissed at Regina, so he must have had it good back in fairy tale land. He’s all for killing the evil queen, but Emma, being all reluctantly goody-goody, has to spoil everyone’s fun by bursting in on the growling lynch mob to point out she’s the sheriff, blah blah blah. Of course, Snow and Prince Charming back her up, even after Regina threatens to transform into the evil queen and zap them all — only to realize her magic is on the fritz. Why? No idea. The magic-in-modern times bit seems to be a bit confused and random, sort of like cable service. But it’s still a great, funny moment, and I would have liked to see more of these humbling events for Regina. But alas, her comeuppance is brief — and limited.

Meanwhile, Gold/Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle) is sorting out that his beloved Belle (Emilie de Ravin) has been stuck in an asylum for the last 28 years and is suitably enraged at Regina. Of course, that’s a little ironic given that he held Belle captive himself back in the day, but no matter. He wants to kill Regina, but Belle makes him promise not to do any such thing — a deal he accepts a little too easily. Belle should have known that Gold had already figured out a loophole. He had no intention of wringing Regina’s neck himself, after all — but, being the Dark Lord, he can always call on some monster to do the dirty work.  And thus, the wraith gets a pretty major workout this episode. For such a major element of the episode, the wraith is pretty unimpressive, and more importantly, was there a shortage of spooky, Halloween-type monsters to draw on? I felt like I was watching outtakes from one of the “Harry Potter” movies. 

In the midst of all this excitement, the relentlessly propulsive plot pauses for a minute to allow Snow to ask Emma why she doesn’t want to connect — and for Emma to admit that, even though it’s wonderful to realize her parents are heroic storybook characters, for 28 years she’s been left with the same traumas that affect any kid that’s been left behind. It’s an interesting theme that we can only hope will be revisited, but, alas, like everything else in this whiz bang episode, it’s over almost as soon as its begun. 

Locked in the town jail for her own protection, Regina is given a few moments to pout and glower, but it doesn’t take long for her to be rescued, again. While most of the time it feels as if the show is carefully balanced, and repetitive elements are meant to reinforce themes and purposefully echo, in the premiere it feels as if everyone in the writers’ room was itching to get to the beach and just cut and pasted the work they’d already done so they wouldn’t get stuck in traffic on PCH. 

After confronting Gold, Emma and her parents realize Regina is in danger and go about saving her (again), this time from Gold’s wraith. Their plan for dealing with an enemy that can’t be killed (wraiths are already dead) is to grab Jefferson’s magic hat and let the thing get sucked into it. Of course, things don’t go as planned. No good deed goes unpunished, and while the wraith gets sucked in, it pulls in Emma along with it. Snow, unwilling to lose her daughter again, dives in and Prince Charming is left with Regina, who tries to kill him. Luckily, Henry stops in and, like Belle with Gold, makes her promise to be good. Pretty sure she’ll find the loophole before Henry gets out of the building. 

So, after waiting all summer for Regina to be taken to task — as well as to see the cursed characters remember who they really are — it’s a shame that vulnerable moments aren’t much more than that — moments. But given how much plot gets churned through in this season opener, I’m hopeful the show’s producers have bigger, juicier plot lines in store. If not, I hope they had a good time at the beach. 

What did you think of the season premiere? Were you disappointed that Regina returned to power so quickly? Are you excited to see Mulan?