While I see "Once Upon A Time"'s dark view of Neverland as rich dramatic terrain in which to thrust our main characters, I've been conflicted in how the show has handled the Peter Pan storyline thus far. While this episode delivered at least one gut-wrenching emotional payoff, there were plenty of false steps prior to it to take us out of the moment. Peter Pan may be able to entice a bunch of kids with his skills on the pan flute (nice touch, though), fans of the show may not buy into this storyline so easily.
Does anyone else feel the Neverland set is less spectacular than they initially hoped it would be? More and more I feel like I'm watching the cheesy rock formations of "Land of the Lost." Neverland is feeling increasingly claustrophobic, and while I would like to think that's intentional, it's a theme that has an unlucky side effect -- "Once Upon A Time" is starting to look like bad kid's TV, and it only serves to underscore how thuddingly obvious and on-the-nose some of the story lines are becoming this season.
Part of me loves the idea of Mr. Gold chatting with Belle. There are a lot of things to miss about Storybrooke and it's homey, all-American-town with an evil underbelly vibe, and Belle is one of them. Still, the meat of these conversations has become repetitive. Belle believes in Gold, and Gold wants to believe in himself but vacillates. We get it. As wonderful as it is to see Emile DeRavin, especially when she busts out the Belle costume, she and Gold have had the same conversation over and over again with little forward movement. "You see me as a good man… then you see the monster… the only way I can redeem myself is to sacrifice myself," Gold tells her. Yes, this is a crappy situation to be in. It's obviously an issue you'd mull over. I just wish there was more to it at this point.
Unfortunately, this wasn't the only beat-us-over-the-head moment. Prince Charming's still poisoned (though the dreamshade doesn't seem to be moving very quickly, or you'd think his face and hands would have become pretty veiny at this point), and, yet again, Snow White has to remind him she couldn't go ON without him, she'd just DIE without him, NOTHING is going to happen to him EVER! I almost feel as if the scene in this week's episode was cut-and-paste from a previous one. While Charming gets a teensy bit closer to dropping the bomb on Snow, it's high time he actually put a hand over her mouth and cut in with the bad news. I suspect he will never need to do so, since something magical will save the day, but it seems that the timing of Charming getting poisoned was off, as we keep getting flogged with this space-holder scene over and over again so that, ostensibly, his cure can come at some later, more dramatic juncture. I'd be okay with simply tracking the progress of Charming's infection, as that wouldn't demand Ginnifer Goodwin to trot out rusty, albeit heartfelt, dialogue.
Still, there were plenty of other story lines and developments which were far more fruitful in this episode. In discussing strategy, Tinkerbell popped in to ask what the exit plan might be. Of course there isn't one, and even Regina ends up making excuses about the gang being in a bit of a hurry. When Tinkerbell produces Tamara's watch and waves it in front of her new friends, saying, "If Pan does this to people he employs, what is he going to do to you?" it's a moment that effectively gives the group new direction and punctures any irrational optimism to which they might be clinging.
We also get a hint of Hook's backstory with Pan -- like Neal, he was able to leave the island once after striking a deal with the boy king, though it's a deal he isn't likely to repeat. I'm hopeful we'll soon be getting a fully fleshed-out backstory for Hook, and none too soon. While I absolutely appreciate the streamlining Ed Kitsis and Adam Horowitz did with "Once" this season, allowing the story to focus on a few core characters with one shared challenge, it feels a bit as if they aren't quite sure what do with all this time they've been left with. Again, we've gotten hamfisted character development, circular story lines and a narrative that isn't progressing with the speed we remember from previous seasons. It's not that these characters don't have emotional issues worth tackling -- they do -- but I don't get the sense that the show is trusting the audience enough to deliver these with subtlety and action instead of nail-on-the-head dialogue delivered by actors standing around and sometimes pacing.
That being said, we got a taste of old-school "Once" in Gold's accidental rediscovery of his son. At first, Gold can't believe he's real, but once he does, there's no time for a tearful reunion. After a quick debate about who has the guts to take down Pan (and that would be Gold, who has guts but maybe not great motivation), they determine that they need to rescue Henry. Neal has an idea of how to pull this off without killing any Lost Boys -- and he'll do it using a trick that Pan himself taught him. This opens the door to a flashback revealing how Neal came to Neverland. Best of all, we get another quick hit of revisionist fairy tale history, and a clever one at that.
It turns out Pan was the Pied Piper, using his magic flute to lure Lost Boys to Neverland. While I'm wondering why Pan gave up on the flute by the time he met the Darlings (I guess he had a fleet of shadows to do his dirty work by then) and I want to know how Bae also ended up in Victorian England before or after Neverland, I'm sure there's probably a good explanation waiting in the wings. So far one of "Once"'s strengths has been in the longview story arc. There are some solid flashback scenes here, as Pan faces off with Rumple and exposes his weakness -- he isn't worried that Bae will be stolen from him, but that he'll leave on his own. When Pan makes him a deal -- if Bae just says he wants to go home, he'll let him -- Rumple is too scared to take it, instead dragging him away with reliable old magic.
In Neverland, our Scooby gang trots around the island, ending up at Neal's old hideout to read chalk cave drawings. For some reason, Emma is the one to figure out a coconut shell with holes in it is really a star map, though logically this seems like Hook's time to take the lead since he, I don't know, lived in low-tech Neverland. I know Emma is the Savior, but I can't see how her previous life has given her any skills to navigate Neverland. She may be a Lost Girl, but she was a lost girl in the big city, where coconut night lights/maps probably aren't a big thing.
At Lost Boy camp, Peter Pan is trying to make Henry enjoy the idea of running around in a circle and beating sticks, because all kids in the 21st century far prefer running in a circle and beating sticks to, say, World of Warcraft. But Henry, who feels loved and not lost, can't hear the magical pan (or Pan) flute. Since we know Henry to be a very solid, stable kind of kid, we can be fairly sure Pan is screwed, right? Wrong! Even when Felix warns Pan that Neal and Gold are nearby, he doesn't break a sweat. He has no intention of hiding Henry, as it's just more fun to torture three generations all at once. It's a game, it's a game!
While I do get that it's all a game for all-powerful Pan, his willingness to let his prey flop about endlessly on the hook doesn't entirely make sense for his character arc, even as it pushes everyone else into more promising terrain. Pan is sort of feeling like the villain at the end of a Bond movie who decides to sit back, pet a cat, and tell the protagonist about his evil plan as he waits for a laser beam or circular saw or whatever to cut his nemesis in half. It never makes sense, even if it does give the good guys a chance to run around and sweat.
Anyway, after Neal lures a giant squid out of the ocean or lake or whatever small, dark body of water he finds, steals its magical-creature-stunning ink and coats an arrow in it, he and his dad quickly find Pan and Henry and shoot an arrow at Pan. Pan catches it and laughs at silly Neal and his lack of strategy. But no, Neal has plenty of strategy -- he coated the length of the arrow in magical squid ink, not the tip, as he knew Pan would catch it.
But Pan, who is apparently only frozen from the neck down, gets the better of Neal and Gold another way -- he tells Neal that his dad has plotted to kill Henry thanks to the prophecy. Gold babbles that he's changed, and at first it seems Neal believes him. Unfortunately, Neal thinks he's learned his lesson (and perhaps he has) from past betrayals. After his father refuses to give him the Dark One dagger (which he can't), he takes his father's hand, it's only to slip a leaf coated with magic ink into it. "We're safer without you," he says, as he carries Henry (who's missing all the drama thanks to a sleeping spell) into the dense jungle.
It's a poignant scene, and one that Robert Carlyle digs into. "You're my happy ending. This is. Because it's my redemption. I can be strong if you have faith in me," he says, and we know Gold is trying to convince himself as much as he is his son.
This might have been a nice place to wrap up, but we keep plowing along. Of course, Neal and Henry are recaptured by Pan, and of course we get an odd moment of disclosure from Emma about how mad she is about losing Neal and how much she misses him or some such, because we never would have figured that out on our own. Peter Pan also has to inform us that he's "reset the board" and "the game is about to change." Belle shows up so that Gold can beat us over the head with the fact that his "nasty habit" of self-preservation is back (sigh) and, after briefly reminding Henry that his dad is dead and his mom will never find him, Henry just says, eh, screw it and starts dancing with the Lost Boys, rocking out to that magical pan flute.
Henry's transition is disappointing and abrupt, and while I'm sure it's not permanent, I guess next week we'll see him running around in a brown hoodie looking for things to hit with sticks. But the promo for next week, which suggests we're getting the full Hook (plus a big kiss with Emma!) is too exciting to miss. With or without sticks.