In ‘The Other Shoe,’ Once Upon a Time recovers its sense of humour — and its heart

It’s always good when Once Upon a Time remembers to have some fun with its fairytale premise — and that’s exactly what it does in the third episode of its sixth season, The Other Shoe. The opening sets the overall tone for the forty minutes to follow, with Regina and the Charmings paying Hyde a visit in an effort to bribe him with Regina’s ultimate weapon: her home-cooked lasagne. It’s absurd and over-dramatic, but most importantly it’s fun, and that’s what really makes this episode such a sharp improvement over the first two this season.

This week’s “untold story” revolves around Cinderella, a character we were introduced to back in season one whose step-sister Clarinda has recently arrived in Storybrooke’s via Hyde’s dirigible. Let me get one thing out of the way: I hate this version of Cinderella. What works so well about the original Cinderella — indeed, what is arguably the point of the original Cinderella — is her unflagging grace and goodness: the hope and love she manages to maintain even in the direst of circumstances. It’s not empowering in the modern sense, perhaps; not in the sense that OUAT usually writes empowerment, all defiance and leather jackets, but it’s still a strength worth depicting — and one that Once clearly doesn’t know what to do with, if Belle is any indication. So it’s disappointing, if not surprising, to see this version of Cinderella modernized into a foil for Emma: resentful, bitter, and down-trodden in both fact and spirit.

But unlike the Monte Cristo story from last week, Cinderella’s tale doesn’t make the mistake of taking itself too seriously. There’s plenty of fun to be had here: from Cinderella’s floating sneaker; to all-you-can-eat cheese buffets for her mouse-turned-human sidekick; to Emma, Hook, and Henry teaming up on a case again, and bickering in the process. Even outside of the Cinderella plotline, Once finds time to be playful, with Snow and Regina teaming up to create “the world’s scariest-sounding paediatrician’s office:” Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Frankenstein working together to find a scientific solution to Hyde. It’s always satisfying when OUAT remembers and leverages its canon to plug plot holes and drive its narrative, and the Jekyll-Frankenstein combo is both forehead-slappingly obvious and deeply satisfying. This is what Once Upon a Time is all about: taking characters we already know and love and re-imagining them in compelling, fantasy football configurations.

Also along for the ride in this episode’s rags-to-riches story are Henry, Emma, Hook, and of course, the Evil Queen. This is a familiar group of characters, with extensive, established relationships that we’re already well invested in. Instead of trying to care about the Count of Monte Cristo’s conflicted affection for a woman whose name I’ve already forgotten and who will never be seen again after the episode, we get to see Hook playing a father-figure for Henry; Emma both longing for, and afraid of, happiness with Hook. There’s even a chilling moment when the Evil Queen speaks to Henry and reminds us of just how awful Regina used to be, while Henry does a good job looking both traumatized and captivated. This is a story worth telling, that OUAT has previously only skimmed over: how does Henry, of all people, reconcile the controlling, gaslighting, emotionally abusive Regina from the first eleven years of his life with the mother she is now?

At the end of the day, love at first sight is boring: a fact the writers are keenly aware of, despite their fairytale setting. This is why the show’s most enduring relationships have always been at the heart of its storytelling: Henry and his mothers, Belle and Rumple, Emma and her parents, Snow and Charming. By spending this episode on familiar characters and familiar relationships, Once Upon a Time rediscovers some of that heart. The side-plot with David, Rumple, and Belle is another example of this shift in focus, and a beautiful reminder of how right OUAT can get it, when it gets it right. Even though we’re only given a few scenes with these characters, the writers simultaneously manage to advance Rumple and Belle’s estrangement alongside David’s quest to discover what happened to his father, all the while tying both plots together with the theme of fathers-and-sons and leaving us with a reminder of the mystery of Morpheus like a foreboding aftertaste. It’s quintessential Once again: thematically rich and emotionally consistent, and always, always centred on its human relationships.

But if there’s a crowning moment of classic Once-ness in The Other Shoe, it’s undoubtedly the ongoing storyline of Emma and Archie, which continues to be a goldmine in terms of emotional storytelling. It’s truly heartening to see this season taking Emma’s mental state seriously, and casting therapy as a valuable thing that Emma shouldn’t be ashamed of having. More importantly, what these scenes also do is recreate Emma as the flawed, relatable “window” character we haven’t really seen since season one. For once, Emma is allowed to have motivations and dramatic storylines that spring from internal sources, instead of external ones. She’s allowed to make decisions based on her history and personality, instead of simply reacting heroically to one emergency after another. We’re watching Emma again, not the Saviour, and it’s a much needed point of focus amidst OUAT’s dizzying and sometimes disposable cast of characters. I wish Once would do this more often — give its characters space like this, to be flawed and complex and interesting in relatable ways, instead of fairytale archetypes responding to fairytale scenarios.

As Emma obsesses over the transience of her happiness, Archie reminds us that living is about bravely facing that uncertainty: “Any day, I could walk out that door, and get hit by a bus. But that doesn’t stop me from walking out the door.” It’s hackneyed but also genuinely moving, and a reminder of the best Once is capable of. For the first time this season, I’m excited about Once Upon a Time again: where it’s going, and what it’s going to do when it gets there.

The Good

· “It’s too bad she got here first. With a better menu.” Truly, if I could bottle up the first 2 minutes of this episode for whenever OUAT next disappoints me and I wonder why I’m still watching — I absolutely would.

· I’m so glad to discover that Belle snores. That’s wonderful.

· Mark Isham is on point this week. My favourite moments of scoring this episode are during Snow’s moment of realization (lush, sombre, lots of arpeggio), and when Cinderella is being pursued by her enchanted shoe (music-box, a little sad, and more foregrounded than Isham’s scoring is usually).

· Cinderella’s mother has a few fleeting moments of being a fun villain: “You look like trash bin and you have the education of my cat.”

· “Now stop slouching. Posture is self-respect, and if you don’t have it no one else will give it to you.”

· It’s a joy watching the Evil Queen and Hyde bond over the uselessness of their “lesser” halves, and I hope we have plenty of it in the future.

The Bad

· The lows of this season so far continue to be low: Zelena is more and more unreasonable this episode, and her grievance with Regina is so patently unfair it’s hard to feel anything but frustrated watching it.

· Why is Nurse Ratched in Storybrooke anyway? Not to mention, the psychiatric hospital/prison makes me uncomfortable every time I see it; not only because Belle was canonically imprisoned within it for 28 years (as usual, with very few narrative consequences), but also because it jars unpleasantly with the otherwise relatively respectful depiction of mental health we’re getting this season via Emma and her engagement with Archie.

· The hokey way Cinderella gets her name this episode is unbearable. “Cinders on the Ella.” I can’t believe someone actually got paid to think that up.

· OUAT has the bad habit of scattering its episodes with incredibly pointless scenes. This week’s most pointless is definitely the interaction between Snow and Cinderella at the ball, which serves absolutely no narrative purpose whatsoever.

· Regina’s confrontation of Zelena this episode is prompted by five seconds of reflection, which would seem to suggest that Regina has never given the matter more than a moment’s thought until now. Alittle sloppy, considering she was willing to kill someone last episode for the same stakes.

· “I’m not your typical princess” — Snow’s version of “I’m not like the other girls”? This scene was really unbearable.