At long last, Ariel will be joining the "Once Upon A Time" players, and I'm hoping she'll add a lighter element to the unrelentingly dark Neverland we've been largely stuck in. While I know her story will get a twist and happy endings are hard to come by, this season has suffered from a limited amount of fresh blood (and thus, fresh stories). C'mon, mermaid, we're counting on you!

We meet Ariel in a flashback. Running from the Regina's guards, Snow has no choice but to leap into the ocean. Lucky for her there's a mermaid around! Even luckier it's Ariel, as the mermaids we met earlier in the season certainly didn't seem like the types to save a human from drowning.

Because Ariel and Snow are bonded, they start talking about boys. Ariel rescued a certain Prince Eric from drowning, and even though he was just a limp, soggy, unconscious blob, she's sure he's the one for her! It was love at first sight! Don't you adore how relationships start in fairytale land? This is one of the conceits I'd have no problem with the show upending more often than it does. Maybe Ariel (or another princess or prince) falls in love across a crowded room -- then realizes the hot tomato he or she is so excited about is a bore, or doesn't like them back, or is gay (granted, we did get that already with Mulan). Hey, dating is hard anywhere, right?

It seems that that's going to be the setup here, but no. The theme of the week is secrets, and Ariel is going to try to com Eric when she finally does meet him. He's having an Under the Sea ball that night, and it just happens to coincide with the 12 hours in the year when Ariel can walk on land. She doesn't have to tell him she's anything other than a regular girl! For a while! Until he really falls for her, and it will crush him to realize she's part fish! Great plan, Ariel! Ariel also begs Snow to keep her secret. Snow promises she will.

Of course, when Ariel goes to the ball with Snow as her sidekick, Snow has apparently trained her in the fine art of being a human. While Ariel really can't grasp the fork thing ("Mini-trident!" she chirps), Snow has apparently taught her to curtsy AND to dance, which is pretty impressive. Ariel and Prince Eric see one another across a crowded room, they dance, and Eric proclaims he's been dreaming of her face ever since he was saved by drowning and invites her to run away with him for his world tour. I would have thought that was a pretty sleazy offer (come, be my concubine!), but I guess the rules of Fairytale Land are just different. 

After one dance, he moves on to mingle, which I just find unnerving. Okay, fine. He's found the love of his life. Doesn't he want to spend the rest of the evening talking to her? Asking about her family, her likes and dislikes, whether or not she's part fish, that sort of thing? But no, I guess his part in this has been fulfilled. Plus, Ariel has to talk to Snow about what she should do (Snow is really pushing for honesty because, if we missed it, the theme of the week is SECRETS), and she can't have him hanging around for that, can she?

She also has to talk to the ocean about what she should do, as she's hoping she can get a hold of Ursula. Unfortunately, because Regina has her magic mirror trained on Snow, she's up to speed on Ariel's scheme -- and decides (after killing the guard who declared Snow dead from that cliff jump) she has an idea. She poses as Ursula and presents Ariel with a deal. She just has to give Snow a nifty bracelet that will turn her into a mermaid, and then she'll have legs for life. Her secret mermaid past will be just that -- a secret! Ariel thinks that's great! Snow needs to get away from the Evil Queen, so she'll have a swell life under the sea! I'm thinking Ariel may have wanted to become better friends with Snow before she made decisions like that on her behalf, as I'm pretty sure we didn't hear Snow say, "Ooh, you're so lucky to have kelp get stuck in your hair!" or "It's not even slightly gross to have to live in your own toilet!"

Of course, once Ariel's already slapped the bracelet on poor Snow (it can't be removed by the wearer), Regina shows up and Ariel realizes her happy ending is coming at a horrible cost -- Snow's life. Snow urges Ariel to turn her back and go to Prince Eric, and so does Regina (they finally agree on something!). Thus, Ariel turns to leave…

Then comes back and stabs Regina with her "mini-trident." So, stealing stuff from a fancy party pays off! She and Snow flip into the water, and it seems Regina has been defeated. 

Ha! Not! Once Snow has made it to land, she urges Ariel to go after her Prince. Ariel swims to the dock, but realizes she can't speak. Regina has been patiently waiting for her to show up, just to inform her that the only thing worse than being rejected for telling someone you love the truth is to never be able to tell him how you feel. Ariel would say something pithy in response, I'm sure, but she can't. 

Oddly enough, when Regina returns to her castle, she hears a voice -- Ursula! She's entirely gold for some reason, and warns Regina that she'll be sorry if she ever impersonates her again. I'm hoping we get to see more of this take on Ursula, as I'm not clear on where she stands on the Ariel issue but I'd love to find out. 

While this wasn't a perfect flashback, I was happy to get it. It's good to be reminded every once in a while that Regina could be the Big Bad, as she's been rendered fairly toothless in Neverland. And while the meet-cute between Prince Eric and Ariel was pretty clumsy ("Hi! What's your name? Come away with me for a very, very long trip! We'll get along FINE!"), we now have another couple to root for. I also appreciated the small references to the movie -- Ariel collecting things and the Under the Sea ball, for example. More than that, it was nice to get out of Neverland. I'm really starting to understand why the Lost Boys cry themselves to sleep. 

Speaking of Neverland, Hook makes a bold decision -- he tells Snow and Charming that Neal is alive. He didn't even spend a lot of time mulling this over! I'm impressed. Yes, Hook knows that operating out of self-interest is exactly what Pan wants and expects, but still, I'm impressed. He does leave the decision about whether to tell Emma the truth to her parents, though, and they're hardly in consensus. Snow thinks she has to tell Emma immediately, but Charming fears that Pan could be lying and he doesn't want to break his daughter's heart. Charming, as we know, is all about the keeping of SECRETS (Hey! That sounds familiar!). 

Of course, Snow can't keep a secret (SECRET!). She blurts out the truth to Emma, who does not look entirely thrilled to know Neal is alive. Meanwhile, Regina is getting frustrated. She declares she's going to go find her darn kid and the glee club can sit around bonding for all she cares. She locates Gold, who's busily talking to his imaginary Belle, who's parroting the things Pan has been telling him. Go home to Storybrooke! Make babies with Belle! Accept the fact his son will never forgive him anyway! Gold seems to be wavering in his resolve (it's awfully hard to commit to the idea of sacrificing yourself) when Regina strangles Belle. It turns out the figment of his imagination that so badly wanted to hold hands wasn't Belle or a figment but was a shadow that probably could have dragged him off to Storybrooke whether he liked it or not.

Regina then has Gold's full attention. They need a plan -- and a way around the stupid prophecy. Gold has just the thing… unfortunately, it's back at his shop. He wasn't really packing a bunch of stuff for his trip, since he was going to die and all that. The problem, of course, is getting back to Storybrooke. I'm sure with the will of these two, there's definitely a way.

But let's get back to the rest of the Scooby Gang, who learn that Neal is being kept in the Echo Cave. The Echo Cave, as Hook explains, demands that they must tell big, ugly secrets to rescue Neal. Once inside, Hook admits he kissed Emma, but it's not really a secret, as she's already told Snow. Still, it's enough to get Charming all riled up. Emma, to her credit, doesn't roll her eyes. It's clearly hard for Snow and Charming to tolerate being parents to a "child" that's their own age, but the protective dad thing really doesn't work very well at this stage.

Hook admits that he never thought he'd be capable of finding love after Mila, but he's beginning to feel that way about Emma. This is apparently an Echo Cave-worthy secret, as a bit of stone bridge suddenly appears. Then, Snow admits she wants another baby because it's killing her that she missed out on all of those big moments with Emma. More bridge. Charming is good with that idea, but she'll have to do it with someone else, as he can never leave Neverland because of the dreamshade business. With that, the bridge is completed and Snow wants to pound her husband. 

Emma tries to break open Neal's cage, but she can't -- she has to tell a secret now, too. She admits to Neal she was terrified when she realized he was alive. She never stopped loving him, but all of the pain of losing him came back when she thought he was dead. So, she loves him but she can't really deal with all of this. The cage dissolves, and there is hugging. Neal tells her he understands how she feels, and that's fine. His secret is that he's never going to stop fighting for her. I am so torn -- Neal is (or at least has become) a great guy. But Hook...

I had some doubts about the Echo Cave -- lately it seems that some of the themes are being hit on the nose so hard you can hear cartilage crack -- but this was a case in which, though obvious, the storytelling device was an efficient and entertaining way of getting some big issues on the table. Finally, Snow knows she's lost her husband to Neverland (though come on, we have Rumplestiltskin and the Evil Queen! Someone can fix this!), and the love triangle is waaay out in the open. Maybe Pan is right -- the truth will tear them all apart.

Elsewhere, Regina and Gold are on the beach. Regina picks up a conch and gives Ariel a ring (so much cooler than a cell phone!) and the mermaid pops up. After restoring Ariel's voice, Regina makes her an offer to not only give her legs, but to reunite her with Prince Eric -- who just so happens to be living in Storybrooke. Ariel, who really shouldn't trust Regina further than she can throw her, seems interested. But we'll see if Ariel is still the sweet, trusting mermaid she used to be, or if she's been hanging out with the mean girls who like to use their flippers to toss over ships. You never know!

 

Were you glad to see Ariel? Do you think Charming will get off the island? Do you think Emma and Neal will get back together?