The people from the Land of Untold Stories aren’t the only ones with tales they don’t want told.The Evil Queen
Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jennifer Morrison, Lana Parrilla, Josh Dallas, Emilie de Ravin, Colin O’Donoghue, Jared S. Gilmore, Rebecca Mader, and Robert Carlyle.
Episode 2: A Bitter Draught
With “A Bitter Draught”, you definitely have more of a sense of the writers’ intention with Season Six. It’s back to basics in a big way compared to the more epic fare of Seasons 3 through 5, which can only be a good thing. With stakes getting as high as global destruction and the afterlife, it’s nice to settle the action back down again and root the drama within the interpersonal relationships of our beloved characters and the town of Storybrooke in general.
The Count of Monte Cristo was a nice character to include within this story. He slotted in to the action remarkably well, and he is an unknown character enough such that the audience aren’t constantly comparing his original tale with what Once Upon a Time has done with it. Personally, having not read the source material I am none the wiser as to how it was adapted. However, his dogmatic pursuit of revenge nicely mirrored Regina’s own past, so it was a fitting way to tie him into the main cast. The fact that Regina would have given him the task of offing Snow and Charming on her behalf was believable and didn’t feel like the writers pulling a random plot out of thin air to contextualise the present day action. Furthermore, the reasoning why this deal never ultimately transpired until now was also explored, which was fitting and satisfying.
Seeing The Evil Queen in her heyday in her pursuit of revenge against Snow was a nice reminder of how far Regina has come. We’ve had more time with her as a sympathetic hero than we have as the villain she was presented as in the first two seasons, so to see her as a creature just seeking vengeance against those who wronged her was a stark reminder for those who may have forgotten. Indeed, there was a point in Once’s history where every other episode offered a spurious flashback to the Evil Queen trying to kill Snow White in an increasingly Wile E. Coyota v. The Road Runner kind of way, but that seems to have eased off over the past few seasons and it wasn’t an ordeal to see it again.
Not only do the actions of the Evil Queen in the past reflect upon how different Regina is in the present, but also is a marked difference to the Evil Queen we encounter in the present. Though she is a creature who is driven purely by her own wants and desires, she does not seem as hellbent on revenge as the Evil Queen in the past was, though she is as vindictive and calculating as Regina used to be.
The Evil Queen is absolutely delightful in this episode and though she’s going to be a massive thorn in the sides of all of our heroes, it’s quite fun to watch Lana Parrilla play both sides of the same character simultaneously. While Regina being her own worst enemy used to be metaphorical, now it’s taking one step further. You can see the way that the Evil Queen is more unleashed and fiery than Regina is in the way that she propositions Rumple. Quite why anybody would want to have sex with Robert Carlyle I don’t know. The man is more grease than an oil spill, but that’s just my opinion. Still, I can’t deny that his evident discomfort didn’t make the entire scene worthwhile.
Meanwhile, the Evil Queen is also intentionally driving a wedge between Zelena and Regina. She’s preying upon Zelena’s need for a sister who understands her, and knows Zelena’s insecurities enough to be able to get her onside while creating tension between Zelena and Regina. It’s a high level of manipulation, but it’s fascinating to watch.
The Evil Queen is also getting under the skins of our other heroes, not just by tricking Regina into killing the Count just to prove a point. By the way that she tells them that they’ve all got stories that they don’t want told, it’s evident that the Evil Queen isn’t the type of villain who will intentionally destroy them through yet another dastardly curse, but it’s more of an internal, psychological game that she’s playing. We’ve had this before with Ingrid, but back then she was aided by magic. The Evil Queen is genuinely playing mind games against our heroes to destabilise them and their relationships. That already seems to be working with Zelena, and while it may seem like a long shot for the rest of our heroes, she’s already shaken Regina’s self belief and sewn the seeds of doubt in Charming’s mind about his father’s demise. It’s an interesting way to get to grips with our characters and make them tick, and puts them in nice new territory for their sixth season.
It’s this kind of sophisticated, internal, character-based game play that is making the Evil Queen more of an engaging threat than I imagined she would be when she appeared in the Season 5 finale. Seeing the Evil Queen crop up again, in all of her regal finery, I imagined we were in for the Evil Queen of the first season, who would predominantly go around cackling about the revenge she was going to achieve, and ultimately getting in the way of a good story. However, if her game is to destabilise our heroes, that can only be a good thing and will give all of the cast some wonderful elements to work with and sink their teeth into. Moreover, she’s looking absolutely fabulous here. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many glittery diamonds on one costume in the history of the show.
Not only does the Evil Queen’s masterplan have me hooked, but so too does the general content of this episode. It was paced quite well and genuinely filled with tension, something which Once often loses due to its over reliance on longer arcs. Having Regina without her powers, physically fighting to protect Snow and Charming from the count was compelling and, though I didn’t realistically imagine that either Snow or Charming would be harmed, it had me interested nonetheless. Seeing Snow and Charming fighting using makeshift weapons from what they could find nearby was also brilliant to see, even if I was slightly unsure what they were doing casually wandering around the dockside.
Harking back to Season 1, this episode does well to balance all of the main characters, even those who aren’t the focal point of the episode. All of their individual plots seem to be added to, though the main thrust of the episode is dedicated towards Regina taking on her more evil side. Emma’s worries about her troubling vision continue, and Archie was utilised well here as Emma’s sounding board. The further reveal that Emma thinks that her murderer is, in fact, Regina, is also interesting for what this could mean for Emma and Regina’s relationship, even though I severely doubt that it will be Regina underneath the hood.
Elsewhere, Belle continues her narrative of escaping Rumple’s clutches. While I was hoping that Hook and Emma would offer Belle a room in their place, so that Belle could actually conceivably be involved in any plots until she and Rumple inevitably get back together, the scene where Hook and Belle connected was delightful. Hook acknowledging his past transgressions and seeking to move forwards is a bit throwaway, but it’s nice to harken back to what he used to be like and the ways that he has hurt Belle in the past due to her association with Rumple. Hopefully Hook does get something meaty and meaningful to do this season, however, as he’s mostly been relegated to “Emma’s boyfriend” since they got together at the end of Season 3.
This instalment also does well to balance the main action with the flashback. The fact that this flashback tells us a brand new story about a new character is refreshing, and reminds me of the structure of the first couple of seasons. While it was used nicely here, I hope that it’s not leaned on too much as a structure for the rest of the season, as I can see this getting as frustrating as the “fairytale a week” approach that they used to have. Hopefully the writers have learned enough about what worked and what didn’t work about Season 1 to balance these elements more successfully.
From a practical point of view, the new crashed dirigible set looks incredible, and I’m certain that it will be the site of lots of action to come, as it looks quite large and intricate. It’s also refreshing to see action grounded around a real set, as the CGI environments only serve to remove the audience from the actual plot.
In summary, “A Bitter Draught” is a promising continuation of the sixth season. There’s still no sight of Aladdin or Jasmine in Storybrooke, which is a shame considering the tease of their appearance in the season premiere, but the potential of the Land of Untold Stories reinvigorates the show with myriad new stories to explore and characters to get to grips with. If these characters’ tales serve to enhance the main characters’ stories, and are balanced as well as it is in this instalment, then we may be in for the strongest collection of Once episodes to date. Hopefully, the sixth season doesn’t fall into the trap that the first season did by making these adventures too standalone and removing us from the main elements of the show.
You can watch Once Upon a Time Seasons 1 – 7 on Netflix. It is also available on home media and other digital platforms for purchase or rent.