Once Upon a Time sincerely wants you to sincerely believe in things. Sincerely.
You probably get the idea. Once is all about sincerity, so it inevitably gets a bit cloying at times. However, its midseason premiere episode “Tougher Than the Rest” turns it up more than a notch.
We pick up right where we left off last year, with Regina and Emma stuck in an alternate reality where Emma never became the Savior, and was raised by her parents in a peaceful fairy tale realm. They were all set to go home, but Regina got a bit distracted by her true love Robin showing up. So now they have to find a way back to Storybrooke and avoid the people hunting them down.
It’s not too difficult though, since NO ONE seems to have any trouble believing Regina and Emma. I know this is a fairy tale world, but come on. Shouldn’t someone think their story is a little bit unusual, even if it is the truth? Plus, there’s a whole lot of obstacles that feel as arbitrary as they are easily overcome. The Pinocchio guy needs to carve a tree that can magically transport Emma and Regina home…with a chisel. He fails, Emma tells him to believe in himself. Now she just needs to figure out how Regina can write a note and disappear that quick to look for Robin, who’s actually just a common thief in this world. At least he’s doing better than Hook, who’s an old drunk with a huge beer belly. Talk about how the mighty have fallen.
Things are worse in Storybrooke, since the guy under the hood who’s fated to kill Emma is actually Belle and Rumpelstiltskin’s son, Gideon. Belle’s attempt to send their son away and give him his best chance backfired in a big way, since he spent an abusive childhood with his grandma, who’s actually the Black Fairy. Gideon wants to save the people she rules, so he’s decided the best way to do that is to kill Emma so he can become the heroic new Savior. Ooookay. And he remembers Belle because…he remembers his time in utero? Whatever.
It’s more interesting to see Rumple confront Gideon. Rumple’s always been the one who’s needed to be saved from darkness, and for maybe the first time, there’s someone he cares about who is in greater need in this regard. At this point, all it amounts to his him asking Gideon if he’s got the balls to hit his old man. Fatherly bonds are complicated, huh?
It is a good way to get fans reinvested in Rumbelle, in spite of all the crap Gold has pulled with her lately. But now they have a son they’re both deeply committed to saving, so here we go again. These two will never end no matter what Gold pulls, will they?
The real letdown is the big climactic fight, the one that’s been teased all season. Since this episode is all about believing enough to change your fate, it’s hard to feel that Emma is in any real danger, but she overcomes this whole death prophecy a bit too easily. Not to mention the fact that Rumple is able to plead for his son’s life even after he’s been frozen. But once you change your future, what’s next? There’s a lot of potential here, but OUAT seems less interested in fulfilling it lately. I’m certainly more interested in the Black Fairy and the charming duo that was Jasmine and Aladdin. But it looks like they’ve left Storybrooke, and instead of another interesting villain, we’re gonna get more of Charming’s crap. Yawn. But Once is also all about shifting gears, and it’s shown it’s capable of using that to its advantage. So even if the show seems to have lost its groove a bit, there’s always the chance of them turning it around next week.
Once Upon A Time airs Sundays at 8/7c on ABC.