It's been a long summer for Once Upon a Time fans who've been wondering about the fate of their favorite characters. The time for answers has finally arrived and it begins in a delivery ward. Because that's what this episode is all about: new arrivals and how one copes with the change.
The first group to arrive at a new destination is the ragtag gang from Storybrooke comprised of sinners, saints, and a savior whose only common goal is saving Henry (Jared S. Gilmore). The ties don't bind them very tightly, however, and before the curtain can close on the first act, Rumple (Robert Carlyle) decides he's going to save his grandson on his own. Probably best he doesn't stick around because things degenerate into little more than one great big shouting match between the rest.
In between the constant bickering among the members of the group, Hook (Colin O'Donoghue) and Regina (Lana Parrilla) wax poetic about their mutual hope that happy endings aren't just for the good guys, while Emma (Jennifer Morrison) plays peacemaker between them and her parents. There's a bit of a kerfuffle with the Neverland mermaids that takes a turn for the worse when one of them summons a storm that feeds on tension. It takes Emma's near-death experience to calm the literal and figurative storm, though it will take one more speech when they reach the beach to convince them that working together is the only thing that is going to get them - and Henry - out of Neverland alive.
While Emma continues to struggle with her identity and her past, Neal (Michael Raymond-James) finally embraces his. After literally being shot through a portal in the season 2 finale, Neal finds himself in the Enchanted Forest. Unlike Emma and the Storybrooke crew, Neal copes fairly well with his arrival back in the land he spent his childhood trying to escape. He makes new friends that the audience met last season and delivers tongue-in-cheek jokes for Disney like a pro.
Even better, upon arriving at his father's old castle, he meets the new tenant: Robin Hood. British actor Sean Maguire dons the familiar Sherwood garb and introduces us to the OUAT version of the old storybook favorite. At first blush, he may not seem as dashing as Hook or as mysterious as Neal was last season, but at least he's not as bland as Phillip (Julian Morris), so he's got that going for him. Plus, he's got a past with the Dark One, offering hope that there's a decent back-story to be explored.
This time out, though, it's Neal's story, so after admitting that he loves Emma and that he is the Dark One's son, the last hurdle he must face is magic. And where last season was all about Neal running away from magic, this one opens with him embracing it, albeit reluctantly. Unfortunately, it brings him bad news instead of good and seems to suggest that in order to save his family, he's going to have to find a way back to yet another realm he fled as a child: Neverland.
Finally, this story tracks the arrival of a third party to a new realm. Well, okay, technically Henry is flanked by his kidnappers when they arrive on Neverland island, but the Lost Boys dispose of Greg (Ethan Embry) faster than you can say "Star Trek red-shirt" and Tamara (Sonequa Martin-Green) only survives long enough to have her heart ripped out and crushed by Rumple upon his arrival on the island. The jungle scenes will now flip back and forth between the vengeful Rumple's solo journey and Henry's escapades with a mysterious British boy.
The fact that he doesn't volunteer a name, seems to know the island like the back of his hand, and his vial of pixie dust suggest that there's more to this strange boy than meets the eye. It also suggests that he's none other than Peter Pan (Robbie Key) well before the end reveal, but what isn't clear is his place in the grand scope of the narrative.
He's meant to be the season's antagonist - that much is sure - but why go to such lengths to deceive Greg and Tamara into bringing Henry to him only to kill them right off the bat? What does he need with "the heart of a true believer?" And what is so nefarious about him that established baddies like Hook, Regina, and Rumple are loath to cross him?
The fact that these questions are raised is a good thing. Yes, the season still suffers from saccharine dialogue delivered by Henry as well as his maternal grandparents, and the bickering Storybrooke bunch gets old fast, but at least the mystery of Pan is a good one and we know that these OUAT writers are experienced in doing great things with characters trapped on a mysterious, deadly island.
Plus, there's Neal's journey to explore and Robin Hood's character to flesh out. But will it be enough to keep an established fanbase and entice new viewers to invest their time?
Once Upon A Time returns next Sunday with "Lost Girl" @8pm on ABC.