Well, this was certainly a night that will go down in Once Upon a Time history as one of the best episodes since the end of the first season. After a few weeks of staying somewhat in place, we finally gained a glimpse of where the first half of this season is going to end up. So much happened in tonight’s episode that it’s rather hard to summarize, but here’s a glimpse: in the past, we learn that Rumplestilskin’s cowardly father abandoned him to stay in Neverland and become Peter Pan (the biggest shock in the series’ history, in my opinion), while in the present he faces his father and is imprisoned in Pandoar’s Box, while Peter Pan succeeds in stealing Henry’s heart.
As has been the case throughout this season, Robbie Kay continues to steal the show as Peter Pan, combining elfin good looks with a pure evil that is unmatched even by the other two big baddies of the series, Regina or Rumple. This episode helped us to understand a little of what makes him tick (mainly that he’s a coward who is always on the look out for this own benefit), while also leaving us enough ambiguity to speculate about just how much feeling he had, or ever had, for his son (it’s worth noting that he adopted his name from a doll that he had given the young Rumple). What is so compelling about this Peter Pan, especially as Kay portrays him, is that he manages to bring to the fore those features that made the other Disney Peter so appealing, while also bringing out the more sinister components that were always lurking just beneath the surface.
Ultimately, as always, this is one of the series’ greatest strengths. Just as Red turned out to be a werewolf that was actually responsible for the death of her lover, Peter turns out to be a villain that, while purely and unequivocally evil, nevertheless has a compelling backstory that fleshes out what was merely hinted at in earlier incarnations of the character. Most noteworthy in tonight’s episode was, of course, the final confrontation between Rumple and Peter, both of whom are fathers who abandoned their sons because of their own interests. Just as importantly, both Carlyle and Kay bring a powerful, afffective, and electric performance to the scene. As a result, we finally learn that Rumple has been telling the truth all along; he really does want to save Henry and make a fresh start with his life (though it remains to be seen whether either his son or anyone else will be willing to let him do so. The Dark One has a lot of atoning to do, after all). His father, however, finally proves that he is willing to sacrifice even his son if it means that he will be able to hang on to the immortality that he gained at such a high price in the first place.
Lest we forget the other members of the cast, it is important to note that Emma, Snow, and Regina continue to prove how complex their characters are. Although old antagonisms die hard, it is fascinating to watch the ways in which the three of them are united by their desire to save Henry. Regina in particular has come a long way since we first met her in season one, though there is still a hard edge to her that lurks, not always very far, beneath the surface. The fact that Henry teeters on the brink of death will no doubt pose new challenges to these three strong women, and it remains to be seen what they will do in an attempt to save the men that they love (remember that David/Prince Charming is still dying from the poisoned wound he received earlier in the season).
Tonight’s episode raised some big questions. Should one be willing to forgive anything, if the person asking for the forgiveness seems to genuinely be seeking redemption. Is redemption even possible for someone like Rumple, for example, who has ruined countless lives and has confessed to have been willing to kill Henry before he found out he was his grandson? Does even the possibility of Belle waiting for him back in Storybrooke offer a reasonable hope of redemption and a new life? The show does not seem to want to provide any hard and fast answers to those questions, though it does provide glimpses of an answer through Pan and Rumple. Whereas the former cannot see past his own ambition, Rumple does show signs, however faint, that he might just be beginning to change for the better. As Neal rightly points out, however, it is precisely because Rumple has so much power that he cannot be trusted. However, there is some indication that, no matter how much we love the evil Rumple and the conniving Mr. Gold, he might just be ready to turn over a new leaf and begin a life that is at least somewhat normal and good with his newly rediscovered family.
When all is said and done, this was in many ways the strongest episode yet, bar none. The narrative remained tight, focused, and forward-oriented, while also leaving enough hanging in the air to give us something to look forward to next week. Although it is still not entirely certain whether ABC will renew its fairy tale series, the last two episodes, both of which reminded us why we fell in love with the series in the first place, may just convince wandering fans to come back to the fold. Of course, we’ve still got several episodes left before the series goes on its winter hiatus, but if tonight’s episode was any indication, they will no doubt be full of as much entertaining and nail-biting action as we have seen so far. After all, there are still so many questions that need answering. (How) will Rumple manage to escape or be freed from Pandora’s Box? (How) will David recover from his poisoning? The worst part? We have to wait two weeks to find out.