Once Upon a Time: Tougher than the Rest Review
By: Marianne Paluso (@Marianne_P81)
The first Once Upon a Time episode for 2017, and the first in the back half of season six, succeeded in the way many of the show’s finest episodes do. “Tougher Than the Rest” both resolved and set up stories for the rest of the season in a way that you can truly see things coming full circle for the characters. However, I had several issues with the first part of this Wish Realm scenario. There was an opportunity to see Emma and everyone in a true “what if the curse never happened” scenario, and that opportunity was wasted. The second part didn’t deliver on this either, and I’m not soon to forget it – but I am more likely to forgive, because part two was just miles better and the type of episode I enjoy. There was something for everyone from all of the characters – great acting, sweetness, drama, humor, poignancy, all-encompassing story, and character parallels, and the theme that the series has beautifully expressed since day one: the power of belief. Above all, everything circled back to Emma’s journey from the Ugly Duckling to becoming a Swan in a way that was incredibly touching and shed further light on what the show is truly about.
In Storybrooke, Killian and David were on edge with the arrival of the hooded figure that is fated to kill Emma, David especially so because he knows his wish brought him there. He’s feeling guilty, protective, and is coming unhinged from lack of sleep, refusing to wake Snow until he can fix everything. It was not only wonderful to see a moment of solidarity and understanding between David and Killian as it once again shows how far these two have come in their relationship – two of Emma’s dearest loved ones in this together – but it was also great to see Dallas given the opportunity to show his range and David’s less than cool and collected side. This will surely continue in many ways as not only the shared curse between him and Snow continues, but also because of the complicated situation with Emma’s fated killer. He is Belle and Rumple’s son Gideon, who was kidnapped by the Black Fairy, clearly abused and corrupted, with his views completely twisted. He believes he will become a hero and a Savior, but by killing Emma. Why he believes murder will make him so is beyond understanding at this point, but seeing both of his parents struggle with wanting to protect him while also not condoning his plans was the most interesting part of the episode for their characters and surely will be an imperative part of the season. Rumple is no stranger to having a strained relationship with a child, but this is completely different. Unlike Baelfire who hated magic, Gideon embraces it and the evilness he says doesn’t reside within him. However, he seems like a petulant child more than anything else – dark and murderous, yes, but purely evil, no. What was interesting was Belle and Rumple’s conversation about their son after Emma defeated him, as it finally seemed as if Rumple wanted to actively change and do good – and his son is the motivator. Clearly Rumple always knew what he was doing – rationalizing dark behavior, as he says, reaching for a cure that was only more poison, completely addicted to it. And he and Belle finally seem to be on the same page. Whether this means they can reconcile remains to be seen. For many, understandably so, he has crossed too many lines. But I enjoyed their moments together because they demonstrate a very real struggle that many go through – seeing your worst traits show up in your child. It’s one thing to continue an addiction yourself, but seeing your child go down the same dark path is a whole other story and surely neither one the couple wants to see play out.
In the Wish Realm, not only was the story and characterizations much more enjoyable than the first part, but there were moments that spoke to who they are on a deeper level – something we also see echoed at the conclusion of the episode in Storybrooke. After being interrupted by Robin, Emma and Regina lose their portal back home so they must find another way, especially since everyone is after Regina and believe Emma has been kidnapped. Emma seeks out August, hoping he can construct another magical wardrobe like the one that brought the two of them into the real world years back, while Regina decides, real or not, that she needs to find out if Robin is better off and happy, and therein lies some of the episodes brightest moments. When Robin died last season it was heartbreaking, and Sean Maguire’s presence has been sorely missed, as has the beautiful relationship between him and Regina. The Wish Realm version is not Robin Hood who robs from the rich and gives to the poor. This is Robin of Locksley, who steals for himself, never married Marion or had a son, and admits he hasn’t been happy for quite some time. He may be different but it seems a part of Robin’s soul may be inside him, and Maguire wonderfully portrays the character’s retained warmth, cheeky charm, and dry wit that is undeniably likable, making us wish he is indeed real and back for good. It’s unclear where exactly his story is headed, and he may leave us (and Regina), again and it will be just as sad, so it’s important to cherish all of the moments with this character. As far as those moments for Outlaw Queen, as they are lovingly known, they not only reminded us what wonderful and sweet natural rapport and chemistry Maguire and Parrilla have (besides Goodwin, he’s my favorite scene partner for her), but also showcased the theme of the episode and underlying aspect of what is always true for the two of them. Their story has always been about second chances. That is what they represented for each other and in this realm, Regina got the second chance to go into the pub and meet her soulmate that she was too scared to do when she was younger. And in going back to Storybrooke, Robin perhaps has a second chance at life. We shall see. But beautifully so, we see a sign of belief in two moments from Robin that astonish Regina: that he is so readily willing to believe the details she tells about his other self, and then believes the trip to Storybrooke may work. Those moments are lovely, the affection and attraction remain despite it not being quite the same person, while the poignancy of believing something on faith alone was showcased in such a sweet way. It’s a common thread of the show that those with a strong connections to each other can believe, or learn to do so, and Robin demonstrated this in spades, because real or not, Robin Hood or Robin of Locksley, he is Regina’s soulmate and nothing will ever change that. Much like the alternate reality in “Operation Mongoose” where Killian believed Emma’s story, some things will always remain, no matter what. This is something that is ever-apparent Emma’s journey in the episode as well.
While most things in the Wish Realm were not as they should be, Emma’s friend August was. He’s still someone who very much cares for Emma as well being someone with a great amount of belief, and someone who has a strong connection with Emma as he had in the real world. As a character, I always have loved his sweetness, mystery, and imperfections. Like Collodi’s Pinocchio character, he inherently struggles with not always doing good and his selfish desires. He failed Emma in many ways but actively worked for forgiveness, and always believed in her. Like the young boy who encouraged little Emma not to burn the pages of the Ugly Duckling, he teaches her that we all have the power to change our fate and become the swan. Here, he so easily believed in her story and helped her to get her home. And their scenes were a joy to watch with smiles, hugs, and learning to believe in yourself. He may have not always done right by her in the past, but it’s clear sometimes he did, and in really exceptional ways. And it’s lovely to see representation of a strong, platonic friendship, as well as always a pleasure to see Morrison and Eion Bailey in scenes together.
One of the other great moments in this episode will also go down as one of the funniest of the series. The Wish Realm version of Captain Hook who happens upon Emma and August is there to duel and rescue Princess “Enya” as he calls her, and doesn’t resemble her Killian. He’s older, disheveled, with a belly from too much drinking, while he’s lost some of his capable sword skills and is a bit ridiculous in demeanor. But no amount of dishevelment can erase the handsomeness, and he’s almost like a worn out, older Aragorn with a penchant for dashing rescues. And he’s absolutely hilarious and endearing. It’s clear there is nothing O’Donoghue cannot do, and that no matter the material he’s given, the exceptional actor in him makes any version of Captain Hook (I believe he holds the record for number of personas) absolutely unforgettable. But no matter what the differences, one thing remains true that not even the twisted wish could erase. With the entire kingdom on the lookout for the “kidnapped “princess,” Killian is the one to find her – just like he always will. Just like Emma will always find him, just like her parents will always find each other, just like the entire Charming family.
Equally endearing was Emma’s reaction to this version of Killian and her reunion with him back in Storybrooke, as he is confused by what she has encountered. A bit shocked and exasperated but not overly so, it’s like those couples who find embarrassing pictures of each other and lovingly tease each other about them. It also speaks to the love she has for him, as does the quip about switching to water as she lovingly hugs him. She uses the article “we” because it’s not just about him, it’s about them. They are a unit and from here on out, they will face life together, from curses to simple, everyday health.
Of course, some battles we must face on our own, even with the support of loved ones, and as far as Emma goes, the only who saves her is her. Emma has been struggling with her fate and visions, and she earned that moment when she steadied her hand and defeated Gideon. Although I suspect she may face him again as the scene played out differently than her vision, what matters is that she is taking her destiny into her own hands. Similar to when Emma fought back against the darkness in her “I am not nothing” speech, she triumphed in this moment and Morrison showcased Emma’s tremendous courage and will with such vitality and strength, and demonstrated that timeless and important theme of the show and Emma’s journey – belief.
The Ugly Duckling story has always been inherently tied to Emma’s journey. With Swan as a last name, and her issues of self-worth and feeling unloved and unwanted, the story always felt like a beautiful and poignant metaphor for what the ugly duckling felt and experienced, not knowing all along they were a beautiful swan worthy of love. And so too were Emma’s experiences as she slowly realized her own self-worth. But now this metaphor has an even deeper meaning because it’s more than what you are, it’s also what you want to be, choose to be, and believe you can be. Emma choosing the last name Swan is a moving and incredible testament that you can transform who you are, your life, and be whoever you want to be, no matter how low or insignificant you feel, and no matter what destiny life has dealt you. Some things are meant to be, yes. But it’s our choices and beliefs that truly shape who we are. Being the Savior may be her destiny, but she is in control of who she is and where her life goes, and through many struggles and tribulations, she has learned to choose and believe in love, hope, and herself. After all, hope and belief are not a set destination. Just like in life, it’s about the journey, and we are always learning along the way. And so is Emma’s journey of self-discovery. She says that being the Savior means she protects people, but that’s an underestimation of all she does. She protects people and helps bring back happy endings. She also saves people’s lives and not just in the physical sense. She also saves people emotionally because she inspires them. In this episode, she inspired August to believe in himself and Regina to take control of her fate now that she is doing the same. She inspired her parents and Killian to be the man he wants to be. Emma inspires me as a person; like Killian says, she is indeed amazing. And she’s well on her way into believing she can have the happiest of endings, fated to die someday as we all are, but not before her time. Her story will not be what some vision dictates. She can live a long, happy life, challenging the so-called fate of all Saviors because she’s “tougher than the rest,” and because our futures are whatever we make of them. Emma believes she can control her own destiny. It’s like the quote, “She stood in the storm. And when the wind did not blow her away, she adjusted her sails.” Emma became a swan, the hero, the amazing woman she is and all because she believed. And as we know, “believing in even the possibility of happy ending is a very powerful thing.”
Favorite Moments: So many wonderful moments abounded in this episode. I loved seeing Emma take control of her fate, defeat Gideon, and embrace Killian, Henry, and David. The Wish Realm version of Captain Hook had me endlessly smiling, as did the scenes between Emma and August and Regina and Robin, as both pairings were such a lovely demonstrations of belief. Lastly, I loved the little nods to both the Ugly Duckling story and poignant and clever us of dialogue and Easter eggs, from August asking Emma, “What’s your story,” to her using her baby blanket to keep warm, to her drinking hot chocolate and cinnamon, and making the definitive and poignant choice to give herself the last name Swan.
August: If we believe in something strongly enough, we all have the power to change our fate.
Killian: You’re amazing, Emma.
Emma: I’m fated to die. And I will die. But not today.
August: When you picked Swan, I was happy. I figured it meant you got it. That you were on your way to becoming the person you wanted to be.
Emma: I don’t know if I totally got it…I don’t know if I still do…But I think I’m on my way to believing I can make my own destiny.
Robin: This other Robin, before he died, did he…did I have a good life?
Regina: I think so. I hope so. He helped a lot of people, which he was proud of. And he loved his friends, and family…
Robin: And you.
Regina: And me.
Robin: Why not get to know the woman one version of me was willing to die for?