Caution: This review contains spoilers.
Season 3 of “Once Upon a Time” certainly delivers with its premiere episode, “Heart of the Truest Believer.” It opens with a flashback to the birth of Henry and Emma’s (Jennifer Morrison) heartbreaking words, “I can’t be a mother.” The frame cuts to the mission at hand: Emma, Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), Charming (Josh Dallas), Regina (Lana Parilla), Hook (Colin O’Donoghue), and Rumple (Robert Carlyle) make it through the portal and arrive in Neverland to save Henry (Jared Gilmore). Rumple sums up a central question when he asks Emma, “When have you ever taken a leap of faith?” because imagination is vital in a place like Neverland.
At the same time, Henry is on the island with Greg (Ethan Embry) and Tamara (Sonequa Martin-Green), who are awaiting orders from the “Home Office.” Greg and Tamara admit to Henry that they do not know the identity of their boss. For them, just believing in their cause is enough of a reward. Unfortunately, they realize they have been taken as fools once the Lost Boys (Home Office) arrive. A menacing shadow (from episode 2×22) descends right away and rips Greg’s shadow from his body, while a Lost Boy takes down Tamara with an arrow. Henry runs and finds help from a former Lost Boy (Robbie Kay), who later turns out to be Peter Pan himself.
The scenes also shift from Neverland to Fairy Tale Land (FTL), where Baelfire (Michael Raymond-James) ended up at the end of Season 2. Mulan (Jamie Chung), Prince Phillip (Julian Morris), and Aurora (Sarah Bolger) tend to his wound and agree to help him when they discover he is Henry’s father. Aurora tries to make use of the Red Room (a lingering effect of her sleeping curse), but she is unable to establish any contact with Henry. Mulan and Bae decide to travel to Rumple’s castle, which is being guarded by Robin Hood (Sean Maguire).
The episode, as given in the title, focuses on the concept of believing. It’s not difficult to identify Henry as the “truest believer” since he really believed in the Curse and set everything into motion for Emma. Nor can one be surprised with his successful use of the pixie dust, an actual leap, when the Lost Boys are in pursuit of him. Everyone back at the ship has a problem with believing in the possibility of teamwork: this uncertain alliance is already on the rocks.
This episode was strong on many points. Peter Pan is an intriguing villain, someone we’ll have plenty to talk about in the weeks to come. Another standout is Rumple and his “wardrobe change,” as Hook calls it. He’s traded his Armani suit for his old outfit as the Dark One. As always, Rumple/Gold works on his own terms. He doesn’t waste any time in rising above the fray and getting straight to business, stating that he will be the one to rescue Henry. With a spin of his cane, he is gone from the ship, leaving the group to handle some deadly mermaids and high waves.
While Hook’s remarks throw some humor on the scene, the change is quite significant. One could argue that Rumple needs different clothes because there’s sure to be a fight. Or is Rumple fully embracing his identity as the Dark One again? One would certainly think so, given that Rumple resorts to ripping out Tamara’s heart to kill her. (Will we also see him step on some snails in the future?) However, it’s clear that Rumple isn’t the same as he was in FTL, a result of his experiences as Mr. Gold. He does his characteristic hand flourish during a conversation with a Lost Boy but he lacks the glee and child-like mannerisms of old. In a recent #AskRobert Twitter session, Robert Carlyle characterized Rumple of Season 3 as “the Darker One.” The other trending title for the new Rumple is “Goldstiltskin,” which is also a fitting moniker. At the same time, we see this serious and dark façade break when the Lost Boy throws a strange doll on the ground, reducing Rumple to tears. In any case, the emergence of the Darker One begs the question: just how far will Rumple go to save Henry?
Another remarkable development concerns Baelfire, who has spent his life avoiding magic and his father. He admits to the others that he is the Dark One’s son, a fact that carries a lot of leverage in his quest to reunite with Emma and Henry. When he reaches the Dark Castle, he recognizes his father’s walking stick, providing a touching moment as he lets his gaze linger on it. He points out the notches on the wood to Mulan and Robin Hood; the notches were carved by Rumple to track Bae’s height as a kid. Waving the stick around activates the enchantment, a result of blood magic (being Rumple’s son), and reveals a secret cabinet in the wall. What’s really interesting here is how Bae resorts not only to magic, but having some faith or trust in his father. He’s so confident Rumple would have left something for him should he return to FTL. It’s a drastic departure from the disdain and frustration Bae displayed in season 2 whenever he spoke of Rumple. Repairing the strained relationship between the two is still very much in play if Bae manages to rejoin the others in Neverland.
It’s truly amazing that “Once Upon a Time” continues to offer thrills and surprises as we dive into season 3. Neverland is nothing like the place we saw in the Disney movies. You can’t afford to miss an episode.
“Once Upon a Time” airs Sunday evenings on ABC Network at 8|7c.