Once Upon a Time: Heartless Review


by Marianne Paluso (@Marianne_P81)
When Once Upon a Time debuted six seasons ago, I instantly fell in love with the characters, the stories, the fairy tale setting, and the themes of love, hope, and family. Looking back on season one, I fondly remember what stories drew me in the most: Emma and her journey of belief, her growing relationship with her son Henry, and despite her walls, her underlying longing for family and the brief flicker of hope at finding love again. Emma didn’t meet the man who would become her romantic true love until the second season and it’s true that when Captain Hook arrived and the stories continued to evolve, my love for the show grew exponentially. But it was the show’s original epic love story that captured my heart first and continues to move me. That story of Snow White and Prince Charming that made me fall in love at first sight as he rode his noble steed to awaken the sleeping princess with True Love’s Kiss and promise to “always find her” is the kind of pure and unabashedly romantic moment that is so rare in modern fiction and set the tone for the series that it continues to exemplify. As we’ve seen in the best episodes of season six thus far, the beauty and themes that I first fell in love with are being expressed in new, lovely, and touching ways because the premises remain the same but are now seen through a new lens and perspective from the characters who’ve grown and gone through so much. “Heartless” was a beautiful example of this, and there were many important developments, wonderful performances, callbacks to significant moments, and a twist that, while heartbreaking, reminded us that the love we create is the most powerful thing in the world.
The episode’s central story involved Snow and Charming’s connection to each other in both the past and the present and how the Evil Queen’s threat against them affects everyone around them. The Evil Queen wants Snow’s heart, and because she and Charming share one, that means they share this threat. If they don’t relinquish their hearts, she will destroy the town and everyone in it with water from the River of Lost Souls. But all hope wouldn’t be lost if they could find a sapling made from the first spark of a true love which may contain magic powerful enough to trap the Evil Queen. Snow, Charming, and Regina find it and discover it was made from themselves, but the Queen arrives, destroys it, and after they are willing to sacrifice their hearts she inflicts a fate far crueler than death – a shared sleeping curse where while one is asleep the other is awake and they can never be together. A truly heart wrenching twist. Snow and Charming’s plight affected everyone in different ways that moved the plot forward. For the couple and Emma and Killian, it was about belief in love and each other and the strength that creates. These moments were the most significant of the episode, but first let’s discuss how this affected the other characters in interesting and important ways.
I continue to be unsettled by Rumple and the Evil Queen’s alliance but at least my reactions are not singular because when Regina told everyone about their past “chemistry,” they all looked just as grossed out. Their faces were pretty hilarious and at least I am among friends in that regard. But in what was a ploy to distract the Evil Queen, Rumple and Zelena exposed their liaison and led toward interesting developments. Discovering this made Zelena literally green with jealousy again. Was it over lingering feelings for Rumple or the fact that she felt betrayed by her sister? At the moment, the latter feels more likely because despite Zelena’s issues and tendency for wickedness, one of the reasons she may have sided with the Evil Queen is because she thought the darker side of Regina is the one who would love and accept her more and deep down, I think that’s all she really wants. I was also pleased to see Belle continue to be strong as this situation shows her that Rumple is not being the man he could be. And what she tells him is a perfect evaluation of his actions. She rightfully forbids him from using the shears on their son, saying he cannot take love, he needs to earn it by being worthy – by doing what he so often has failed to do. She says he can longer use love as an excuse for bad deeds, being so afraid of failing that he doesn’t try to be good. What Belle tells him is in many ways so true. It’s almost worse than being pure evil because he does have the capability to be heroic, to choose love and be a good man, but is too weak and cowardly to try. Emilie DeRavin delivered these lines with such truth and conviction and you could see for a moment they may have sunken in by the expression on his face. This is the reality that he needed to hear if there is to be hope for him. But the weight of these words, at the moment, is still fleeting because as quickly as it seemed he may be willing to do what Belle said and look inwards at his own soul, he quickly turns to anger towards Zelena for telling Belle about what he’d been doing. Regardless of their past, he is the culpable one here and must learn to be the man he could be if there is to be any hope of finding love again.
The differences in splitting Regina and the Evil Queen were also interesting in this episode. So far this season the Evil Queen has been harsh and cruel, but the opening scene (which had haunting cinematography) was the first time she’s felt really frightening and her deep resentment and bitterness came out, not to mention the twist on the sleeping curse was a cruel act. To have the one you love right there and not being able to help or be with them is a curse in itself. This heartlessness was in sharp contrast to Regina who continued to provide support to Snow and David and seeing her genuine sorrow at the thought of their deaths and momentary joy when she thought True Love’s Kiss had broken the curse, with her exaltation of “would you look at that” that tinged with happy surprise was wonderful to see. However, it was odd how passive Regina was in some of these moments as well. Considering her feelings, I didn’t understand why she did not at least offer to sacrifice herself because that would destroy the Evil Queen. Not that they would have let her, but I’m surprised by this and how subdued she was as she didn’t try to fight back when her other half stole the sapling. I’m not sure whether this was character or plot based but how her two halves will be reconciled will surely be interesting as the story moves forward.
For lack of a better word, the heart of this episode truly was Snow and Charming, their love for each other, their deep connection, and the ways in which that love affects and inspires others. In both the past and present, we see that they are indelibly connected to each other in ways they didn’t even know about and it was a beautiful way of not only showing once again the purity of their love, but also give new depth to a story that is already enormously deep. In the past, Snow and David’s stories were separate but still intertwined as she is kidnapped by the Woodcutter bounty hunter after he met David along the road and doused his water so he could use his dog to track the princess. And their first meeting ended up being one neither one realized until now. It’s like couples who discover they were in the same place at the same time years before they ever met, but with an added dash of magic and destiny. That moment when they speak to each other through the door of the carriage was so beautifully filmed and performed and proved to be another significant one in their story. Ginnifer Goodwin and Josh Dallas have always had a beautiful and natural chemistry since day one and this scene showed that despite the physical separation between them, they have an indescribable and strong connection between them. The first spark of true love was made when they touched hands (a very common motif on the show), but it was more than that touch that created that sapling. It was born out of understanding, compassion, selflessness, and finally, that magical kind of feeling that is made from that very first touch. As we see that spark slowly fall as their musical theme played, I was moved and reminded of what a special couple they truly are. And, this moment also proved to leave a lasting impression on both of them, especially Snow. It gave her hope that at least one person believed in her and she no longer felt so alone. For someone who felt like love doesn’t last and hadn’t anyone left in the world who cared about her, that is irreplaceable.
If Snow and Charming’s past was meant to show how they were truly connected even while living separate lives, the present was meant to show how they truly are one. From their shared hearts, to their heroism and willingness to sacrifice themselves, to their now shared curse, they do everything together, for better or for worse because that is what you and your true love should do. Two moments in particular were especially significant in that they solidified how strong their love for each other has always been, and that what it creates can be as strong and inspiring, connecting to their daughter in an incredibly special way. On their journey to find the sapling, they discover its location is the place that she found him during the first curse and saved his life. In the season one episode “Snow Falls,” we saw that connection between them that couldn’t be denied. Even with no memories of each other, the curse could not break it. When she read their story to him as he lay sleeping in his coma, he grabbed her hand. And when he awakened, he was subconsciously looking for her – and she found him and saved his life. So it’s no surprise that the sapling that was created by their love was where even their cursed personas proved they would always find each other. As beautiful as this was, even more exquisite was the montage of all of their memories as they both touch the sapling. As these flashes of images brought back so many feelings from defeating trolls and Medusa, to her trying on his mother’s ring and giving her True Love’s Kiss, to weddings and seeing what the sex of their child will be, to that first meeting they discovered in that moment was a shared memory, we hear Lancelot’s voice from their first wedding: “May the love between you always remain strong, true, and eternal.” Their love has certainly remained so and their reactions were very touching. Dallas, especially, gave such a beautiful reading of the line, “As if we needed reminding,” with such heart and sweetness. This montage gave us beautiful callbacks and reminders of their incredible journey they’ve been on, but what’s significant is that it shows how the love between them is not singular or insular in nature. On the contrary, their love extends in all directions, but is also circular. Love is endless. For as much as Snow and Charming were dealing with their own lives and love for each other, they were also thinking about their daughter, what her fate may be, and how their love and path in life always connects to her. Snow telling Emma that they always know their path will take them to each other and back to her is more than just a heartfelt truth about what most parents feels for their child. It was also a way of demonstrating one of the most meaningful themes of the series and once again showing how intertwined and inspiring stories can be.
The love stories between Snow and Charming and Emma and Killian have always been so connected. For as many differences as there are between them, there are also parallels that are remarkable. They are two couples who treat each other as equals, will do anything to protect the other, will always find each other, and found true love of the rarest kind. What I loved about the scene between Emma and Killian in the vault was the multitude of purposes it served, the beauty of its execution, the simultaneous simplicity and grandness, and that like so many of their shared moments and those of Snow and Charming, showed that a single scene has the power to be one of the most beautiful, romantic, and important of the entire series. When Emma’s hands start shaking out of fear for her parents, Killian decides to read her parent’s tale from the Storybook to calm her fears, to remind her that her parents have never failed, and most importantly to help her believe in herself because she inherited their great strength. She’s made of their true love and can overcome anything. Hearing his words steadies her hand and he softly kisses it, reminding her that she is “the product of true love .” One of the loveliest aspects of the scene was that while on the surface it was not about their love for each other, it still showcased that deep affection between them – and affection in its most selfless form. Their deep love was ever apparent in the moment. Morrison’s soft expression was one of affection and awe at his unwavering faith in her, while O’Donoghue gorgeously displayed that everlasting faith in her in the beautiful way in which he grasped her hand, softly kissed it, and with deep reverence called her “the product of true love” as if he’s just seen the sun for the first time. Because to Killian, Emma is the most glorious person in the world.
Killian read the story to Emma to give her hope and show her that just like her parents she is strong, getting her strength from the love they share not only for each other but for her. What’s really beautiful is that while he’s telling her Snow and Charming story, he also indicates that “she” is a part of the story – how they found her, how she brought them together, and how they are in love because of her. But it also became part of his story. It’s Snow and Charming’s and Emma and Killian’s because their trip to the past and journey to ensure the future made an indelible and unbreakable connection between the two stories. As Emma watched her own parents at the beginning of their love story, she was accepting Killian into her own. Emma’s situation may be unique but its true meaning is to demonstrate the circular and endless nature of love. Just like rings that symbolize eternal love because there is no ending, so too is Emma’s connection to her parents, to her own love with Killian, and their stories will forever be imprinted in the storybook. And that magical storybook is such a significant part of the series. Amongst other things, it gave Henry hope; helped Emma believe; and Emma and Killian communicated through it, transcending realms and death. Killian reading to her is indeed a sweet and romantic moment and one that shows how greatly he admires Snow and Charming and the beautiful daughter they created. But also it’s a way that showcases what stories should be: beacons of hope and inspiration to be passed down from generation to generation. The best stories, just like love, never die truly. They live on so long as there is someone whose faith in the world is failing and needs to believe the darkness will not endure. Seeing Emma appear in the Storybook right in the middle of one of the greatest love stories is beautiful and moving in itself for a girl who had felt so unloved, lonely, and insignificant. But the day we see her and Killian’s own story magically appear will be exquisite one to behold. And when I pictured Killian reading their story to their future child, I began to weep.
This moment is also so reminiscent of not only Snow and Charming’s spark of first true love in this episode, but also of the Middlemist scene in Camelot when Killian helped chase away the darkness because of his faith in her. A moment that began simply with a kiss became grand and sweeping in fairy tale scope as the camera panned up to show them surrounded by flowers. The beauty of the moments in “Heartless” were not in scope but in their simplicity. The touching of hands, the reading of the story, the loving and amazed expressions on their faces. The meaning of these moments were grand. Just like Snow who no longer felt alone because Charming believed in her, so too does Emma find renewed strength and amazement at the love she has she was created from and the love she has found. Sometimes it’s the simplest things that can feel the most magical whether it’s the touch of a hand or hearing someone say they believe in you. While we know that all four of these characters would lay down their lives for each other, it’s just as powerful knowing they will stand by each other’s side with unfailing love and support.
The final scene of “Heartless” may have been a heartbreaker but it was also an emotional, poignant, and incredibly lovely moment. The way in which the scene was edited with Snow and Charming’s musical theme played over crosscutting of Charming giving True Love’s Kiss to Snow in the “Pilot” to the present day in Storybrooke was deeply moving and gorgeously filmed. Their shared curse may seem unbreakable and hopeless, but isn’t that when you need to believe in hope the most? It feels significant that Killian told Emma “true love can break any curse ” because that is what she’s made of. Could Emma awaken her parents or is that too simple? Can an outside source of love break the curse? It’s also beautiful and intriguing to wonder this: like Snow and Charming, did Emma and Killian create a sapling somewhere with perhaps a first spark of true love atop the beanstalk or somewhere else in the Enchanted Forest? The concept behind the sapling feels too significant to merely be destroyed so easily because true love cannot. No. No, as Shakespeare would say, “It is an ever fixed mark,” and like hope, it springs eternal, enduring so long as we never lose faith in the strength it gives us. This is why Once Upon a Time remains so meaningful and loved – because in a cynical and pessimistic, world there are no signs of derision and it remains unabashedly romantic, hopeful, and about all of life’s greatest attributes – family, belief, and love.
Favorite Moments: Romance and the beauty of storytelling were at the heart of this week’s episode and depicted some of the loveliest and most heartfelt moments in the series. From Snow and Charming creating a sapling, to their shared memories, to Killian reading to Emma, and Charming once again awakening Snow with True Love’s Kiss, we not only were reminded of all of the beauty that’s come before, but offered new depth to these tales that are worthy of a million storybooks. Also of note this episode were the music and simply stunning cinematography; the Blue Fairy wielding an axe, which was something I never knew I wanted to see; and that Wilby the dog is the cutest pup ever – sorry Pongo! Most of all, we were reminded that love is not singular but can create wondrous things. Emma is a product of True Love just like the hope that eternal love creates.
Favorite Lines:
Killian: It’s story time. Once upon a time, the Evil Queen vowed to kill Snow White and separate these two. But no matter what she tried, they always found each other. And then, they found you. And you inherited the strength of that love. So then, even when they couldn’t find each other, you make sure they did. True love can break any curse, and so can you because that’s what you’re made of. You’re the Savior because you were born of their love. And they’re in love today because you brought them together. You can overcome these visions. You can overcome anything. Now remember who you are. The product of True Love.
Snow: Knowing you believe in me means I’m not alone.
Snow: It’s good to be on an adventure with you again.
David: It’s always good.
Snow: I’m not giving up. I wouldn’t give up. I will fight for her until my last breath.
Snow: Emma, most people go through life never knowing where their paths will take them, but somehow we always do. It’s always to each other and back to you.

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