Once Upon A Time, Season 1, Episode 22: “A Land Without Magic”
Written by Adam Horowitz & Edward Kitsis
Directed by Dean White
Airs Sundays at 8pm (ET) on ABC
This is how to do a finale. “A Land Without Magic” does exactly what it’s supposed to for the kind of show that Once Upon A Time is. This is no simple task. For a fantasy/epic/romance/drama with magic, mystical beasts, parallel worlds and a cast big enough to fill three shows, the finale pulls off an incredible feat of not only being cohesive, but intensely entertaining – not to mention pretty damn good.
There are plenty of action-packed spectacles, a solid story to fill in the stray plot holes, enough twists to keep it interesting, and a grandiose exit by way of cliffhanger. The finale is still not without its faults, but it’s such a gratifying experience that any blunders feel meaningless in the scope of the season whether it be easy dialogue or a CGI dragon.
We open in the Enchanted Forest when our old friend The Huntsman helps Prince Charming break out of the Queen’s prison. Charming soon finds himself in a tussle with Rumpelstiltskin, leading him to make a deal that involves hiding a magic potion inside the dragon Malificent if he wants to find Snow White.
In Storybrooke, Emma rushes a poisoned Henry to the hospital. While trying to think of a logical reason for Henry’s condition, she finally, finally considers that perhaps Henry was right. Once this happens, once she “believes,” she immediately remembers her first moments in the Enchanted Forest.
Regina makes her entrance, but before she can check on Henry, Emma whisks her to the back storage room and accuses her of everything we’ve known this whole season. Regina comes clean and they both venture to seek Mr. Gold for help in curing Henry. Just like her father, Emma finds herself at Rumpelstiltskin’s mercy. In order to cure Henry, she must seek what her father hid years ago in the dragon, which also happens to be in Storybrooke.
Once Upon A Time doesn’t usually call attention to its technical style, but when it does, it’s not without justification. The dragon battle scene is one of the most impressive sequences in this show. Yes, the dragon looks like an old PC game, but that can be ignored. The layering of how we experience this fight is surprisingly sophisticated. At this point in both worlds, Charming and Emma fight the same creature, establishing literal and metaphoric parallels between the two characters. Emma is indeed her father’s daughter as we see her courageously fight a creature that ten minutes ago, she thought couldn’t exist. The editing technique that induces these narrative parallels is the real treat.
The crosscutting in this dragon scene is impeccable. When Charming’s battle first begins, the dragon chases him around a corner, screeching after him. The next shot is a disguised cut to Emma looking back at the dragon as if it were screeching at her too. Soon after, Emma runs away from the dragon toward the right of the screen. Using this as visual continuity, the scene abruptly cuts to Charming running in the same direction.
Soon, we leave Emma staring up at the creature as a voice over ominously reads “And yet she was beyond hope.” It’s a clean break from the action that not only transitions to the next scene beautifully, but also transforms Emma. Things have changed. Emma is breaking the curse and she is fulfilling her destiny just like the characters in Henry’s book. It’s a tiny metaphysical moment that posits the most “real world” character into her own fairy tale. These stylistic choices produce a multilayered piece of storytelling that merits multiple viewings to appreciate the planning and choreography that went into making this scene work within the complex narrative of this show. Again, impressive.
The pacing from scene-to-scene also deserves mention. There are many moments that play out as quickly as the dragon fight, but there are just as many lulls. Writers and creators Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis strategically arrange these moments to keep the episode dynamic so that no scene feels forced or unnecessarily long. What’s better is that these moments allow the actors to build the emotional climax.
The breakout performance this entire season is Lana Parrilla as Regina. Robert Carlyle was the most consistent actor of the cast, delivering Emmy-Award worthy performances in every one of his scenes, but Parrilla steals the show again like she did last week. She is the clear-cut villain. It’s so black-and white that evil is part of her name. Yet she evokes such genuine sympathy when she tells Henry that she loves him. Emma’s bond to Henry feels more like a sibling relationship. Regina still feels like his mother. The fact that she raised and cared for him is her only redeeming quality. For all the things she’s done to everyone else, this feels miniscule, but it’s enough to make us care for her and it’s because of Parrilla that it’s real.
Besides the sub-standard computer graphics, the only other real weak point is some of the dialogue. In Charming’s encounter with Rumpelstiltskin, Charming has little more to say a few one-liner questions the beckon exposition from Rumpelstiltskin. Actor Josh Dallas has such little to work with in this interaction that he’s forced to read these lines in a ridiculously gruff manner to give them some bit of character. Thankfully he has a chance to showcase his talents and swell our hearts later in his love confession to Mary Margaret.
In addition to some of the easy expositional lines, some of the primetime wit falls flat. When Mr. Gold says he hid some magic for a rainy day, Emma replies “It’s storming like a bitch, where is it?” This line could have worked better if the characters talked like this more often, but it just ends up feeling cheap and out of place.
As far as tying up loose ends, the writers do a commendable job. They effectively use Jefferson, The Mad Hatter, in driving the plot forward. When they introduced him a few episodes back, he felt like a distraction to the main story, but he integrates well into the narrative of the finale. The writers also bring back Emilie de Ravin as Belle for a brief and gratifying moment in reuniting with Rumpelstiltskin. It seemed like they were going to forget her in the psych ward (which still has Chief Bromden from Cuckoo’s Nest and now apparently Sidney Glass). Instead, they use her in building the suspense for season two, which promises to bring another worldwide curse, much to the repose of Regina.
And in concluding the episode in true Lost fashion, once Rumpelstiltskin’s curse drifts into town, the clock strikes 8:15, bringing everyone back to where it started. What’s to happen to Storybrooke now? Thanks to the executives at ABC, we’ll learn this fall.
See you in season two,