In “Heartless,” OUAT almost dares to give its story an unhappy ending

The seventh episode of Once Upon a Time’s sixth season, “Heartless,” kicks off in high gear with one of the most breathtaking pre-credit sequences since the premiere. In this opening scene, Snow wakes in the night to find herself teleported into the woods by the Evil Queen, who delivers the ultimatum that frames the episode: give me your heart by dusk, or condemn the people of Storybrooke to suffer in your stead. Snow stands defiant shades of white and grey, stark against the strange, spotlight glow of the forest clearing, as the Queen looms over her in black and red. It’s a striking visual that haunts the next forty minutes, as the extended Charming family scrambles to find a way to neutralize the Evil Queen before their time runs out. If this doesn’t sound much like any other plot we’ve seen before in OUAT, that’s because it isn’t.

The opening scene of “Heartless,” Snow waking up as Charming sleeps, is actually a bookend for an episode which comes full circle despite the best efforts of its protagonists. In the present-day storyline, Storybrooke’s heroes attempt to decipher the Queen’s plan and find a way to trap her before night falls; in the past, a young and newly-outlawed Snow attempts to choose flight over fight and makes an encounter that restores her faith. All the other stories this episode spring from these two central tales, and never wander very far, with none of the usual peppering of side-plots that Once likes to busy its narrative with. While overall this lends a consistency and coherency to “Heartless” that too often gets lost in Once’s juggling act of plots and characters, it does mean that characters like Aladdin, Jasmine, and Belle get left on the sidelines in ways that can feel lazy or untrue. Worse, their stories in turn hang in limbo, suspiciously unaffected by all this turmoil. Aladdin and Jasmine are completely absent, along with any satisfying conclusion to the question of Agrabah broached last episode, while Belle supposedly spends the day looking for answers in her library. Are we really expected to believe that she wouldn’t try to intercede with Rumple on the town’s behalf, when it’s this exact sacrifice that first brings her into his orbit? It’s probably for the best that Archie’s still a cricket wandering aimlessly around Storybrooke for all of this.

For the characters that are included in this episode’s narrative, “Heartless” depicts a harrowing, hectic day of their lives. The futility of the heroes’ struggle against the Queen in the present runs parallel to Snow’s attempt to flee her destiny in the past. In both scenarios, Snow eventually chooses to embrace a losing battle; in both scenarios, Snow initially decides to run, but eventually lets love change her course. It’s only in the present that this same love fails to save her. Though it creates the sapling that they intend to use to imprison the Queen, ultimately, the sapling is easily snapped in two. Though true love enables Snow and Charming to share a heart between them, it’s this very split that allows the Queen’s curse to keep them apart. It’s refreshing to see Snow and Charming’s decision in season three finally have consequences, but the consequences seem to suggest something that runs counter to OUAT’s central premise: that the young, cynical Snow from the past is right, after all. Love has failed to protect her before, and it will fail again now, because love does not hold its value. It reduces two hearts to a vulnerable one; creates hope easily dashed by malice. And for that failure, at the episode’s end, it’s love itself that is forfeit.

And yet, for all its apparent bleakness, OUAT leans its weight in all the predictable places, as though trying to spin “Heartless” into a tale about true love’s persistence, rather than its inadequacy. Snow’s story in the past appears to culminate as much in the creation of true love’s sapling as it does in her choice to remain in the Enchanted Forest and fight, and even this latter decision is recast as one born out of love. It’s Charming’s faith, and implicit love, that somehow shakes the foundation of Snow’s pessimism, even though it does nothing at face value to disprove her belief in love’s precariousness. After gifting us this surprising, cynical version of Snow, reversing her philosophy without a proper rebuttal feels underhanded and unsatisfying. As though to distract from the speciousness of Snow’s epiphany, OUAT moves to the present to reinforce its love-trumps-all narrative, with a deft but unsatisfying storyline around Emma.

For the putative protagonist, Emma is surprisingly absent this episode, turning out to all the family events but scarcely getting a scene of her own. This is justified by Emma’s tremor, which “Heartless” explicitly links to her mental state and has worsen with the risk to her parents. Once has gone back and forth on the root of Emma’s problem this season — suggesting emotional causes through sessions with Archie, and supernatural ones through reoccurring visions of prophetic doom — but this is by far the more interesting take. With Archie out of the game it’s a pleasure to see this more psychological angle being kept alive, with Emma’s friends and family playing support while the pathological Saviour tries to accept and contribute within her limitations. It’s a moving and realistic struggle, making it all the more frustrating when Once immediately undoes its achievement in a single scene which rationalizes Emma’s strength and tenacity as predestined. “You’re the Saviour because you were born of their love,” Hook reminds Emma at the peak of her anxiety, but this idea — that Saviours are born, not made — is not a good one, for reasons that almost seem too obvious to go into. At the very least, at a narrative level, it contradicts one of the other major stories of the season — Aladdin’s, which would seem to prove the exact opposite: that Saviours are not born with any guarantee of successful saving. Worse, it strongly hints that Emma is the real “sapling” of the story, born of Snow and Charming’s love, and that it’s her persistence — her unbreakability — that will re-unite her parents. She is proof that love does not lose its value after all, but simply takes on different forms. By making Emma the embodiment of true love and thereby reaffirming its infallibility, Once wavers and ultimately abandons its commitment to telling a story about love’s failure to secure a happy ending. Snow and Charming’s struggle is circular and futile, but no longer illustrates a story about futility. If the heroes have not succeeded by the end, we’re told it’s just because they haven’t reached it yet.

After promising a season focussed around smaller stories, “Heartless” is the first episode that truly delivers on that promise. By focussing around a single, time-bound plotline — Snow and Charming’s race against the clock to defeat the Queen — Once Upon a Time gives us one of the most coherent and conceptually-rich episodes since Snow killed Cora in season two. Everything in “Heartless” seems to funnel inevitably towards its conclusion: Snow and Charming’s first meeting through the partition of the Woodcutter’s cart foreshadowing their separation at the end, while Charming’s kiss of a sleeping Snow is superimposed with an older, more successful one. History repeats itself and changes in the repetition, sometimes for the better, and sometimes, also, for the worse. But for all the promise of this idea, “Heartless” ultimately shies away from its exploration in favour of more familiar ground. Love will reign triumphant, and history will repeat until it ends more happily: whatever “Heartless” brings in coherence and structure, it sacrifices in ambition. By failing to commit to its unhappy ending, Once undercuts its own potential to be challenging, and leaves us with a very well-told story about nothing new.


The Good

· Can the Evil Queen call Charming “Prince Farming” from now on, please? Can everyone?

· “Your father always made sure you got what you wanted…plus a little bit more. Well now I want what I’ve always wanted. Your heart in my hand. And since your husband has half your heart, I get that too. You see that’s a little bit more. That’ll make today my perfect day.” Not only is Lana Parilla’s delivery pitch-perfect — intimate and inconsolable with rage, unyielding in her vindication — but the monologue is exquisite and evocative to boot.

· It’s been a while since we’ve seen a youthful Snow on screen, but Jane Espenson conjures her vividly through the opening dialogue, as the Evil Queen recalls her step-daughter’s easy entitlement to the love that she was denied and believes was her due.

· The Evil Queen’s costumes are always something, but her dress this episode might be the highlight of her wardrobe.

· Favourite aural moments of the episode: 1) the delightfully hammy, sinister little theme that plays when the Queen teleports into the cave to steal the sapling and 2) the reprise of Snow and Charming’s theme that plays when Charming kisses her, with the addition of those low, pulsing strings that add a note of tension and dread to an otherwise sweet theme and reinforce our suspicion that this will not End Well.

· Snow and Charming veer into cheesy more often than not, but Charming’s heady, bright-eyed pause before he tells Snow “as if we needed reminding” (“…maybe it shows people their true love?”) was genuinely affecting.

· The justification for the curse is surprisingly convincing, and a satisfying piece of fairytale logic that Once doesn’t always pull off. I presume that Snow and Charming sharing a heart makes it impossible to only kill one of them (thereby separating them by death), so the Queen’s inventive recourse to her old favourite — a sleeping curse — is legitimately clever and believable.

The Bad

· I am profoundly ashamed to be part of an audience that Once thinks will need the word ‘sapling’ defined for it, as “a baby tree” no less.

· Costuming choices for Snow this episode are really questionable. Re-using that wrap from the opening over a white, lacey shirt makes it look like she’s still wearing her pyjamas. I had to go back and check that this wasn’t actually the case.

· If OUAT is suddenly remembering Snow and Charming’s heart split from god knows how many seasons ago, is there any chance they’ll also remember that Snow committed murder and her heart has a big black spot on it as a result?

· A sapling created by the first spark of a true love seems like something of a stretch. I can only assume the next Plot Device Once needs to save the day will be the rose created by the spark of true love’s 10th anniversary.

· The reasoning for Charming not to see Snow’s face makes absolutely no sense. How would recognizing her paint a bigger target on his back than the one he’ll already have for saving her?

· Snow’s early capitulation this episode is grossly out of character after six seasons of dogged (and arguably naive) optimism, but I sympathize with the challenge OUAT has set itself making the Evil Queen’s threat suspenseful after so many past failed attempts.

· Zelena’s “like a bed of lies!” is a line of dialogue straight from a soap opera. Kudos to Rebecca Mader for what must have been a challenging straight-face to keep. While we’re at it, what exactly is Regina’s plan here? To make Zelena jealous in the hopes that the ensuing temper tantrum will keep her, the Queen, and Rumple distracted enough to not notice the beacon? The less said about this pointless, ambling storyline, the better.

· Why is Rumple putting up with any of this, anyway? We haven’t gotten his perspective for some time, but last I checked he was stonewalling the Queen’s advances quite reliably. Is OUAT ever going to give us some insight on why he’s given in now — or is it just plot-convenience?

· While I am ready to believe Rumple is canny and careful enough to have brought back some River of Lost Souls water for safekeeping, I wish we’d been allowed to see this on screen. Then it would feel less like a writerly AssPull and more like a satisfying Chekhov’s Gun.