“The Stranger” delivers ‘Once Upon a Time’s’ best episode of the season, once you get past the initial surprise and disappointment. What surprise? What disappointment? August was finally revealed to be…Pinocchio. Can we say anti-climactic? I was expecting him to turn out to be some swashbuckling, romantic, heroic fairy tale figure. Not a little wood puppet. But as the episode unravels, all the seemingly frustrating elements fall into place and learning our sexy stranger is actually a tree stump starts to make a strange sort of sense.
Most of the action this week takes place in Storybrooke, with a little FairyTale back-story to tie together the loose ends. We open in FairyTale with Geppetto and puppet Pinocchio (in a cool bit of CGI) fleeing from the whale. They both wash up on shore, but only Geppetto is still alive. Before Papa G can start CPR on his wood-son, The Blue Fairy arrives. (She is everywhere, isn’t she?). She not only revives the puppet, but turns him into a real flesh-and-blood boy. In return for giving him life, she tells Pinocchio that in order to stay real, he must always be “brave, truthful and unselfish”. Of course, we all know he’s going to mess that part up, right?
Unfortunately, Geppetto, Pinocchio, and their conscience Jiminy Cricket have only a short while to enjoy the boy’s newfound human-ness, when the Blue Fairy re-appears and tells them of the Evil Queen’s curse. She implores Gepetto to construct a magical wardrobe, using enchanted wood like which built Pinocchio. She tells the trio that this wardrobe could be used to send both Snow White and prematurely-born baby Emma to a safe land, so that in 28 years, grown-up Emma will save the entire kingdom from the curse.
Geppetto builds the bureau, but afraid that his son will not survive the Curse, sneaks him into the wardrobe, instead of leaving room for Snow White. He tells his son to protect the baby and shuts the door. So we’ve now learned how Emma came to this land as an orphan. One mystery solved.
But the best reveals of the week happen in Storybrooke. First, we learn that August’s mystery illness is actually his body returning to wood – specifically, his leg. It would seem he’s not living up to his end of the bargain–remember the “brave, truthful and unselfish” stuff?
Regina’s world is also starting to unravel. First, Henry (proving he’s the bravest soul in town) tells his adopted mother he knows she’s the Evil Queen, and that she’s cursed them all, but that “Good will win”. Snap. Then, Regina cons simpering David into having dinner at her place and even tries to kiss him. But he backs off from her advances and beats a hasty retreat. What’s Regina’s game now? Why does she want David, who is also Prince Charming, on her side (and bed) here in Storybrooke? It seems that whenever one question gets answered on OUAT, a dozen more pop up.
Later, August takes Emma on a motorcycle trip outside of the town’s limits (remember, they are the only two that can leave Storybrooke). They end up at a secluded diner. When Emma demands to know why August brought her here, he tells her this is the spot where she was found as an infant. And that he knows this because HE was the young boy who found her, 28 years ago. He demands Emma face the truth–that the fairy tales are REAL and that there IS a curse and that SHE is the only one who can save them all.
But Emma refuses to see the truth. Quite literally, actually, as when August/Pinocchio shows her his wooden leg, she can’t see it. Her denial blinds her to the truth, and she merely sees a human leg.
And in a wonderful, hair-raising scene, Emma’s portrayer Jennifer Morrison delivers a passionate, heartbreaking speech about how she cannot be their savior and that if the town is relying on her, “they’re all screwed”. This was Morrison’s strongest moment by far, and I desperately hope we see a lot more of this from her.
Finally, in a very sad flashback, Pinocchio is comforting a crying baby Emma. It’s obviously a foster home, and not a happy one, at that. The older foster children have stolen money from the mean foster dad and are planning to immediately run away. They invite Pinocchio along, but tell him he cannot bring the baby. How can these children possibly take care of a baby, the biggest kid asks. Torn, but wanting to escape, Pinocchio kisses his fingers, places them on Emma’s little forehead and abandons her to the foster home. It’s a desperately poignant scene, and while we know Pinocchio has forsaken his promise to watch out for baby Emma, it’s impossible to judge a seven-year-old boy.
Cut to grown-up Pinocchio/August, approaching his Storybrooke-version Father, who doesn’t recognize his son in this world. But August helps him fix a clock nonetheless, and the older man agrees to let him work alongside him in his shop. August tells his stranger-father that he just “feels like fixing things” and we know this adult Pinocchio plans to rectify the mistake he made as an alone, terribly frightened young boy. He needs to protect Emma now and help her face the truth.
Two more episodes remain in Season One and next week’s previews show Henry in terrible danger. There have been rumors of a shocking death–could it possibly be our young Henry?