This episode of Once Upon A Time is titled "The Outsider," but really that title should be plural as it deals with so many of this show's fringe characters. Special treatment is given to the back-stories of Mulan (Jamie Chung) and Belle (Emilie de Ravin) rather than Snow (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Emma (Jennifer Morrison), as is usually the case. And the prince of the week is Philip (Julian Morris) rather than Charming (Josh Dallas).
The dark-side story, meanwhile, belongs not to Cora (Barbara Hershey) or Regina (Lana Parilla), but rather to Hook (Colin O'Donoghue) and Rumple (Robert Carlyle).
Smee (Chris Gauthier) also comes out to play this time around and is the first of the Storybrooke residents to cross the line at the town's border and not suffer a painful death or amnesia. His ace in the hole? A magic potion brewed by Rumple that transforms a person's beloved object into a talisman that protects them from the new curse. Of course, Smee is just the lab rat used to make sure the potion is safe for Rumple to use on his son's cloak and allow him to get the hell out of Dodge. And now that the experiment is successful, Rumple informs Belle that he's finally setting out on his quest to find his son.
Magic only comes in itty bitty vials and small pouches, apparently, because he informs her there won't be enough left to take her with him. Fortunately, he's fallen for an eternal optimist this time around, and though she's not thrilled by the prospect of staying behind, she accepts. The wrinkle in the plan is Hook, who first goes after Belle and then has the tables turned on him when she hunts down his invisible boat and springs the imprisoned Archie (Raphael Sbarge). All of this goes on while, in the background, the major characters gripe and moan about how much they miss their homeland and want to go back; good thing their shrink's not dead after all.
Memories of the past, however, can be unreliable, and the picture painted by this week's venture into the Enchanted Forest that was is just as brutal and deadly as Storybrooke, except Storybrooke has things like electricity and running water. Plus, Storybrooke hasn't yet been terrorized by a fiery beast, something that could not be said for Mulan's village back in the past. Word of this beast spreads to Belle's village and, persuaded by the dwarf who would one day become Grumpy (Lee Arenberg) and armed with her books and the dwarf's gift of fairy dust, Belle sets off with the men on an adventure.
They mock her, greedily accept the clue she provides, then ditch her when they're done. Fortunately, the shrewd bookworm had the sense not to point them in the right direction and heads off after the beast by herself. But books don't grant one courage, and at first sight of the beast in his cave she turns tail and runs (in her defense, the CG was honestly bad enough to scare anybody). Mulan pops out of the woods and is none too pleased with the meddling girl, though in time she changes her tune and the two unite to show the world what Girl Power is capable of.
A few burned bras [metaphorically speaking] and one injured warrior girl later and Belle is left to face the beast alone once again. This time she is on the brink of success when she realizes that the beast is sending out an SOS. Ever the optimist, Belle flings her pixie dust at it and POOF! The beast transforms into Philip. With her newfound courage and sense of purpose, Belle dumps Philip off with the injured Mulan and heads off to Rumple's, but is promptly shanghaied by Regina and hauled off to the dungeon.
Back in the present, Belle puts everything that she learned with Mulan to the test, first testing her mettle against Hook, then proving once and for all that she refuses to give up on Rumple no matter how dark things may seem. The refreshing thing about this princess is that she's nobody's pansy and she doesn't lose it emotionally when things get rough. She's also thoughtful and selfless, two characteristics sorely missing in the man she loves. As always, the last few minutes of the episode throw the most wicked curveballs and the follow-up episode next week looks as if all of the season's plot threads are about to collide head-on.
As this show continues to grow into its own, it is more and more evident that the writers' strengths lie in the villains they have carefully crafted. Their most dynamic episodes to date are the ones that focus on Rumple, Hook, Regina, and Cora, while those focusing on "good" characters tend to lag under the weight of underwhelming performances and stilted, generic dialogue. Emma and Belle are the only two characters with a backbone and endearing optimism that don't make one's teeth ache from too many saccharine speeches and syrupy smiles.
That's not to say that the show should take on a darker edge, but some balance in the quality of writing between the good guys and the villains seems like it would be better for the show in the long run.
Once Upon A Time airs Sunday nights @8pm on ABC.