Not for the first time, the Once Upon A Time writers take a three-strand approach to story-telling. The Enchanted Forest's past journeys again into Wonderland to unveil the secret identity of the woman behind the velvet shroud.
In the Forest's present, an all-out race to open the magic portal into Storybrooke is on. And in Storybrooke, Rumple (Robert Carlyle) and Regina(Lana Parilla) have to decide if the best defense against the possibility of Cora's (Barbara Hershey) return is a strong offense.
The past is fleshed out, beginning with how, 28 years ago, Hook's (Colin O'Donoghue) taste for revenge landed him in the middle of a messy, mother-daughter feud. In exchange for not killing Belle (Emilie de Ravin), Regina offers Hook the opportunity to do her a favor, promising that in return he'll get to come along to the land where Rumple will be stripped of his magic.
Thus, Hook finds himself in Wonderland, where he locates - and fails to kill - the Queen of Hearts, Regina's mother. Cora manages to persuade Hook to let her play dead for Regina, but her plans change when Regina reveals a weakness. Cora decides it's more worth her while to preserve a portion of the Enchanted Forest and bide her time until the curse is broken; until Regina is vulnerable enough to destroy once and for all.
Clearly, Regina doesn't know the specifics of Cora's survival. Nevertheless, she and Rumple know that Cora will be out for revenge on them both. Rumple's solution is a curse that will kill whomever comes through the portal first. Henry (Jared S. Gilmore) is vehemently opposed to this because it could kill his mother and Snow (Ginnfer Goodwin) instead. Rumple doesn't have a problem with collateral damage, but Regina waffles and while she promises Henry she will protect Emma (Jennifer Morrison) and Snow, she still goes with Rumple's plan to enact the curse.
Meanwhile, in the present-day Enchanted Forest, Cora has followed Aurora's (Sarah Bolger) heart to the location that the princesses and Emma are searching for the squid ink that will help them open the portal. The former Queen of Hearts locks them in Rumple's enchanted cell and leaves, making the classic bad guy mistake of failing to check for loopholes.
And a loophole is what they find, in the form of a scroll covered with Emma's name that was written by Rumple in squid ink. Fortunately, Snow knows just the spell to release it from the paper and them from their cage. Aurora insists that they tie her up and leave her behind so Cora can't use her heart against them. A mad dash to Lake Nostas and a decent fight sequence between good and evil ensues, wherein Hook returns the heart he stole and Emma learns Cora's heart-ripping powers are useless against her. Snow and Emma make a break for the portal while Mulan (Jaimie Chung) takes the heart back to Aurora as they set off on a quest to find Prince Phillip.
Back in Storybrooke, Henry isn't at all thrilled about Regina's betrayal. While a bit overly optimistic like his grandfather, Henry's entreaties at least are not as saccharine and Regina's evil side holds out until the very last second. The moment she lifts the curse, the portal collapses, spitting out two very weary travelers who are glad to be home.
Poor Regina is forced to watch Henry and Emma's joyful reunion, as well as Snow's bedside revival of Charming (Josh Dallas), and her reward for doing what's right leaves her just as alone as she ever was. The acting here is very strong on Lana Parilla's part, inviting the audience to see why her character so despises happy endings. All, however, is not as happy as it looks, and with Hook and Cora sailing their way into Storybrooke, the next half of the season promises to be more exciting than the first.
Once Upon A Time airs Sundays at 8/9c on ABC. New episodes resume in January 2013.