It has been a long hiatus, ONCE UPON A TIME fans, I know. But the ABC hit fairytale drama has returned tonight, celebrating its 100th episode in a fantastic mid-season premiere. “Souls of the Departed” felt a little like following the white rabbit into a whole new world, where the rules we know and abide to (or the rules in a fairytale world) no longer exist. The Underworld is a much darker and scarier place than anyone has ever imagined.
In case you need a refresher crash course, here is what happened the last time we saw the Storybrooke gang: Emma turned Killian into a Dark One in order to save him and, when that dirty little secret came out, well… let’s just say that our dear pirate was less than pleased about it, to say the least. Hook joined forced with Nimue and helped her bring all the past Dark Ones back into our world. Things just seemed to be going to hell pretty fast and Emma was feeling completely hopeless. This was no longer her pirate and she had to make the difficult decision to sacrifice herself in order to end darkness once and for all, including Killian. When he realized what she was about to do, he had a change of heart – funny how epic love works, right? – and sacrificed himself instead.
It was a dark time to be a Captain Swan fan because Killian was dead. There seemed to be no hope whatsoever. But then Emma started hearing the dagger again. It turns out that Rumplestiltskin had found a loophole and turned Excalibur into a conduit. So when Emma killed Hook, the darkness went straight to Rumple, who became, once again, the Dark One – this time, more powerful than ever – and he is fooling Belle yet again. Emma, however, used that to her advantage and blackmailed him into taking them to the Underworld to rescue Killian. After all, she can’t let her true love rot in the Underworld forever.
And that’s where we pick up when “Souls of the Departed” starts. Sort of.
First, we see Emma wake up in her faithful yellow Beetle to find none other than Neal Cassidy sitting right next to her. Her mind obviously jumps to the conclusion that she is dead, but Neal reassures her that that’s not the case. He has only requested to have a meeting with her because he needs to warn her about going to the Underworld. He is adamant that she should turn back while she still can, and return to Storybrooke. The Underworld is a very dangerous place, he says, full of souls who still have unfinished business from their past lives.
Emma asks him if that’s where he is, but he smiles and says that he is in a much better place now. This scene was probably my favorite moment of the entire episode – probably one of my favorite moments of the season, as well – because it was such a beautiful and bittersweet moment. Neal seems to be happy and content about where he is and it’s very clear that he and Emma still love each other very much, despite everything that has happened between them when he was alive. Jennifer Morrison and Michael Raymond-James brought their A game to this scene and it really tugged at my heartstrings.
By the time Emma came to, on the boat on her way to the Underworld, and Neal was gone, I had tears in my eyes. But the Savior had much more pressing matters to attend to. Although her parents were worried that she had passed out for a moment, she never told anyone about what had transpired in the short few minutes Neal had stolen her away to talk.
When they arrive at their destination, the Underworld reveals itself to be a mirror image of Storybrooke, except the city is a destroyed and desolate place. The gang fans out to cover more ground; they want to find Hook and get the hell out of this horrible place as soon as possible. Over the course of the next thirty minutes or so, we see a lot of familiar faces, such as Evil!Peter Pan, Cruella, Charming’s twin brother James and, of course, Cora.
But let’s talk about the flashbacks first. Back in the Enchanted Forest, it’s Regina’s birthday, and I have to say that it is always a pleasure to revisit the Evil Queen in all her glory. Lana Parilla is absolutely fantastic as the evil version of Regina and, when she has the complete Evil Queen costume on, she is a force to be reckoned with.
So it is the Evil Queen’s birthday and, as usual, she wants nothing more than Snow White’s demise as a birthday present. Her father tries to talk her out of it, but she won’t hear any of it – she will have her revenge and destroy Snow’s happiness at any cost. So her father, at a loss of what to do, turns to Cora for help, which turns out to be his biggest mistake. Cora – who had been trapped in Wonderland by her own daughter – manages to crossover back to the Enchanted Forest and does exactly what Regina wanted, by taking Snow White’s heart and planning to present it to her daughter in a neat box. She promises Regina that she has finally managed to do what she has wanted for so long, but she never counted on Regina’s father returning Snow’s heart without her knowing.
Regina is furious when she finds out what her father has done and decides she has had enough of his meddling with her revenge plans. She shrinks him and puts him inside a tiny box, before she has it out with her mother and banishes her back to Wonderland with a one-way ticket. What she didn’t expect, however, was that Cora would take the box with her father from her, and take it back to Wonderland, leaving a shocked, grieving Regina behind.
Back to present time, in the Underworld, Cora seeks out Regina, telling her she should take Henry and go back to Storybrooke immediately. She has even arranged for safe passage for her, something that, apparently, is very hard to come by in these parts. If she doesn’t leave, Cora tells her – as an incentive – that she will send her father’s soul to an even worse place than the Underworld. Regina is absolutely torn and tells the rest of the gang that, and they decide that they need to find Hook within the hour, so that everyone can return safely to Storybrooke.
Rumplestiltskin had already managed to procure a potion that would show them where Hook was, but when Emma pours it over his grave, they only see a badly injured Killian, who can’t see or hear them. She decides then and there that she is staying behind to save him and tells Regina to take everyone back home.
But before that can happen, Regina pours what is left of the potion over her father’s grave, so she can see him and ask for forgiveness. Even though “Souls of the Departed” immediately followed the epic sacrifice Emma and Killian had to go through, it was really an episode about Regina’s journey to repent and seek forgiveness from those she had wronged in the past. And her biggest regret has always been what she did to her father in order to get her revenge.
Their scenes together in the Underworld were absolutely beautiful and emotional. When he forgives her and is finally able to move on, I admit there were a few tears going on.
So the heroes stay in the Underworld and their efforts to find Killian have doubled. Except they have no idea that Cora and Peter Pan and all their old enemies are the least of their problems, for there is an ever greater foe working behind all this. The force that drives the Underworld and decides who stays and who goes is none other than Hades.
Don’t miss an all new episode of ONCE UPON A TIME on March 13 at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT on ABC