The latest Once Upon A Time offering came with the mind-numbing potential of hopping between four time periods (Earth present, Earth past, Enchanted Forest present, and Enchanted Forest Past) but graciously opts for a mere two during most of the episode. Of course when they graze past a third it throws a monkey-wrench into the works but hey, the calm was nice while it lasted.
It all begins with the gargantuan beanstalk that “The Doctor” ended on. Hook (Colin O’Donoghue) gives Emma (Jennifer Morrison) a quick tutorial on giants, their magic beans that open portals, and the beanstalks which incidentally have a charm on them to keep out intruders. Hook has a bracelet that blocks the charm but he can only share with one of the girls. After a yawn-inducing argument, Emma comes out the victor and Hook comes on to Emma as he puts the magic bracelet on her. At one point during the discussion about stealing the bean, the audience is beckoned into Emma’s flashbacks to a time before Storybrooke; to a time when she was a thief.
Once upon a time, Emma Swan wore glasses, less leather, and more smiles. On the day we catch up with her she is stealing a familiar VW Bug that is – unbeknownst to her – already occupied. A man introducing himself as Neal Cassidy (Michael Raymond-James) pops up in the back seat shortly after Emma hot-wires the car, dangling the keys in front of her. Arguing with him, she runs a stop sign and it takes some slick talking from Neal to get away with a mere warning from the cop. Turns out Neal is a car thief too.
Back in the Enchanted Forest’s present, Hook, still doing his best to ooze charm, attempts to lure Emma out of her shell by suggesting they make the journey shorter by swapping histories. She’s not exactly forthcoming so he aims for the heart, informing her that he knows she doesn’t want Henry (Jared S. Gilmore) to feel abandoned like she was abandoned. Apparently she has the same look in her eyes as the Lost Boys back in Neverland and another flashback is triggered. Emma and Neal are a couple and there’s a fun heist scene before they start to contemplate growing up and settling down.
Meanwhile back in the Enchanted Forest, Snow (Ginnifer Goodwin) exercises her mad mommy skillz by calming Aurora’s (Sarah Bolger) fears and sharing how Charming (Josh Dallas) used to light a candle for her when she couldn’t sleep, telling her that it would capture her nightmares. At first pass this seems like a throwaway scene and adds more proof that Aurora is a whiney brat who should be tossed at the next ogre to come their way. The next scene with her trashing around seems even more corny. The dream about the red room with blood-red curtains that’s on fire with no way out and someone lurking in the shadows makes one question her sanity versus engendering trust. But more about that in a moment.
Hook and Emma finally make it to the top of the beanstalk where he declares she’d make “a helluva pirate” and then proceeds to hit on her again. This time he gets a little too close however, and she gets a glimpse of his “Milah” tattoo and quickly puts two and two together. She admits to “maybe” being in love once but in the flashbacks it’s revealed that she and Neal hit a snag when he’s tagged for the theft of some very pricey watches. He wants to abandon her for Canada – for her safety – but she’s determined not to give up so quickly and offers to retrieve the stolen watches from a bus locker herself.
Back at the top of the beanstalk, Emma and Hook have decided to get the Giant’s (Jorge Garcia) attention rather than waiting around for him to fall asleep. Hook makes the distraction while Emma lurks in the shadows waiting for just the right moment to fling sleeping powder in the Giant’s face. The only disappointing thing about this, and most of the other Giant scenes, are the lame digital effects. Maybe ABC/Disney was saving up their pennies for Lucasfilm at the time but they should’ve spared a few to at least erase some of the lines around where Emma was cut into the scene below; fairly sure any high-schooler with photoshop could’ve managed that one.
Bad effects aside, the dialogue between Emma and the Giant when she snares him in his own trap is strong. In his view, all humans are killers whose sole desire is to wipe out the giants and use their magic beans. This is slightly different from the account Hook gave and the Giant is quick to remind her that history is written by the victors. Emma spares his life twice and in return asks for two favors: the magical compass she and Hook were after to begin with, and that he keep Hook company for the next ten hours to give she and the other girls a good head start.
Why the trust issues? The answer to that is in the past. A past where – unbeknownst to her – the delectable August W. Booth (Eion Bailey) finally tracks her down and takes up his mantle of protector once again. Unfortunately for Emma, this means that Neal is chased down, then shown a mysterious something in a box that convinces him magic exists and that August’s story about needing Emma to break the curse is true. Neal not only leaves Emma high and dry but then calls the cops who swoop in for the arrest and haul her off to jail. The final time we see Neal, he is in Vancouver, Canada, with August. He leaves money and the Bug – complete with new VIN number for safety – for Emma and makes August swear to let him know when Emma has broken the curse. August promises to drop a postcard.
In the final moments of the episode we see Henry in present-day Storybrooke, thrashing around on his bed. Grandpa Charming is quick to come in and light a candle, holding him tight and listening as Henry recounts the nightmare. Turns out he and Aurora are sharing dreams about fiery rooms and red curtains with folks lurking in the shadows; though what the dreams mean is anyone’s guess and is part of what makes the show so much fun to come back to week after week.