We love our heroes for exactly the same reasons they make us despair: honor, duty, sacrifice. And in the latest Once Upon a Time installment, “The Shepherd”, we’re reminded that when good men make difficult choices, the price for their decency can be pain. Not just for them, but for us shipping viewers, as well.
In this very Prince Charming-heavy episode (YAY!) we discover that our hero isn’t actually our hero. Rather, he’s our hero’s twin brother (soap opera plot alert), sold to King George by their mother, to save the family farm.
And thank God for that, as we open with who we assume is James, but is actually his twin brother, killing a very bad man in a sword fight and, in turn, accepting a request from King Midas to slay the baddest dragon in the land. Unluckily for James/Not James, that very bad man we all thought he’d killed didn’t stay dead, and gored James/Not James through. And James/Not James ended up very, very, no-doubt-about-it dead.
Of course, you may have already guessed Rumplestiltskin had his grimy hands in this whole twin swapping, and you’d be right. King George (Lost alum Alan Dale) begs Rumple to revive his son. “That’s out of the question–he’s dead ,” Rumple cackles, thereby solidifying Robert Carlyle as one of the funniest and most entertaining parts of OUAT.
But Rumplestiltskin, ever the negotiator, tells George if the King helps him find the Fairy Godmother and her wand, he’ll still help. (And wasn’t that a very clever nod to a previous episode where Rumple did indeed locate, and kill, said Godmother .)
Cut next to the James we’ve all come to know and love frolicking in a bucolic meadow. Turns out ‘our’ James is not a Prince, but a shepherd. And in what’s become a weekly game to spot all the Lost references, my guess is his vocation is a tip of the hat to Jack Shephard, if you ignore the spelling difference. Remember the Apollo bar in last week’s episode? Or the clock at 8:15? And the McCutcheons Rum? Yup. All Lost references, which makes perfect sense considering Executive Producers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz are behind both shows.
But I digress. Back in FairyTale, Rumple appears in the pasture and tells Shepherd James if he agrees to pose as his dead brother, and slay the dragon for Midas, his mother’s impoverished farm will be saved. And there we have it. One of those difficult choices I was talking about earlier. Of course, we all know our hero will choose the honorable route and agree to Rumple’s proposition. And in true heroic fashion, he successfully slays the badass dragon and in return, Midas offers Shepherd James his daughter’s (Abigail/Kathryn) hand in marriage. Just as our honest hero is about to blurt out his true identity, King George pulls him aside and threatens to kill both him and his mother, and burn their beloved farm, unless he agrees to the union.
Seeing little choice, Shepherd James makes the ultimate sacrifice; marrying not for love, but duty; and bids his mother farewell forever. Before they part, she gives him a magical gift–a ring that causes love to grow.
After marrying Abigail, Shepherd James decides to take the scenic road with his new, mostly unlikeable bride. We, of course, know this is where he will first meet Snow. And now we understand just why getting his stolen ring back from Snow was so very important. Again, this sort of backward reveal is so awfully clever and fun and reinforces the tight, well-thought out writing so evident on this show.
A similar tug-of-war between heart and duty played out in Storybrooke, too, as Amnesiac David initially decided to leave the wife he no longer remembered, nor loved. Instead, he “chose” Mary Margaret, the woman he loves now. As an already card-carrying shipper of Snow/Mary Margaret and David/James, I am all for this. But alas, it couldn’t be this easy, could it?
The short answer is no. After stumbling around Storybrooke, trying to find the Toll/Troll Bridge to meet with a hesitant Mary Margaret, David wanders into Mr. Gold’s pawn shop. Once inside, he spots the windmill that was supposed to have stood in his yard, and just like that, remembers his past life with Kathryn. I must admit, this scene confused me a little. Did Gold cast a spell on David, re-implanting the memories lost in his accident? Does Gold know he’s Rumplestiltskin? Does David now remember life not only in Storybrooke, but in FairyTale, too? More questions to be unraveled in future episodes, which is exactly the point, I suspect.
In any event, the return of memory means only one thing for our dutiful David/James. He must honor his commitment to his legal wife and try to make their marriage work. As hard as it is for viewers to watch, the consistency of the theme throughout this episode left this outcome in little doubt. Our hero is just that, and will strive to do the right thing, even when that means the least pleasant outcome for him, personally.
In a brief break from Prince Charming, Emma also learns Sherriff Graham is keeping company with the Mayor. And we get the briefest tease that suggests perhaps Storybrooke’s lawman is The Hunstman in FairyTale. Only Time will tell….