Sacrifice that boy, or you sacrifice everyone.Lady Tremaine
Starring Lana Parrilla, Colin O’Donoghue, Andrew J. West, Dania Ramirez, Gabrielle Anwar, Alison Fernandez, and Robert Carlyle
Episode 3: The Garden of Forking Paths
“The Garden of Forking Paths” successfully manages to add some more menace and dimension to our villain, Victoria Belfrey/Lady Tremaine, while also giving the audience a tantalising glimpse at what caused her ire at Ella. It also advanced Henry, Rogers and Roni’s quest against Victoria in Hyperion Heights, while furthering our understanding of the New Enchanted Forest, starting with Tiana’s mysterious rebellion.
To add new layers to the menace of Hyperion Heights at this juncture is probably necessary, especially as our protagonists prepare to go toe-to-toe with her. Both within the New Enchanted Forest, and Hyperion Heights it has been unclear what motivates Victoria up until this point, so it’s satisfying to see that there is a classic Once Upon a Time trauma hiding underneath it.
It helps to contextualise her hatred towards Ella, and the loss of a child makes it feel more visceral. However, it does feel eerily similar to the reasoning behind Regina’s hatred of Snow back in Season 1, due to Snow’s role in Daniel’s death. It does seem to be a bit more logical than Regina’s, as I think that the loss of a child compared to your lover might drive you a bit more crazy, and it’s also helpful to understand Victoria’s motivations, as there is a chance that she may yet revive Anastasia and that appears to be her drive moving forwards.
Crucially, this episode also helps us understand that Victoria in the present is fully aware of the Enchanted Forest, and still seeks to bring Anastasia back to life. She also has a mysterious witch chained up in a strange location, who has a vaguely threatening aura, even if we have absolutely no idea who she is and what threat she poses. It’s enough for the audience to have the sense of progression within the storyline without actually revealing too much and spoiling the journey which, presumably, will continue until the close of the season.
As well as helping us appreciate Tremaine a little more, Ella is also developed, which is also sorely needed at this point. While Ella has demonstrated some redeemable features in the early episodes, without some more light and shade, she runs the risk of just appearing to be constantly angsty at Henry in the present. Her own guilt at Anastasia’s fate is palpable, but her reaction to it seems different to Snow’s.
Snow was hugely motivated in her desire to help other people and make sure that nobody else got hurt. She sacrificed herself to Regina’s poison apple, for existence. In contrast, Ella appears more easily corrupted. I cannot imagine Snow performing Ella’s role in this episode as easily as I could see Regina in Tremaine’s shoes.
Overall, Ella – and Jacinda – lack the belief in themselves as a “hero”, which was also part of Emma’s journey of discovery within the first season. In the same way that Henry was the one who constantly checked Emma on her ability to hold up as a morally infallible creature, so too does Lucy here. The way that Ella almost resorts to ripping out Henry’s heart in the past to stop Tremaine demonstrates that she has far less self belief. This, similarly, is echoed in the present. She doesn’t see any way out other than following along with whatever Tremaine/Victoria’s demands are. Part of that comes from not believing in her self, and another in being jaded, and lacking that sense of hope that usually pervades our heroic characters.
That’s largely what Lucy’s role is in this episode. She’s performing Henry’s part from the first season, in semi-aggressively insisting that the adults in her life must hold up to a, frankly unattainable, imaginary standard. It’s something that Once, wisely in my view, steered away from in later seasons, as it’s less interesting and realistic. The idea that a hero must exclusively do virtuous things, else they are tarnished, is a severely limiting view that, as an audience, is incredibly boring. It’s the characters who exist in the morally grey areas which are more captivating and multi-layered, but that’s against this newfound focus upon the fairytales.
Tiana is also focused upon more in this episode. She’s still hardly the focus, but she’s given significantly more attention than she has been before this season. Her backstory seems to differ significantly from the original material, from what we can see so far, as she’s involved in leading some sort of resistance against the tyrannical moves of Lady Tremaine. It’s somewhat confusing, considering that the powers that Tremaine actually holds are not made entirely clear, but apparently she was involved in killing Ella’s father with the Prince. There’s no sign of Tiana’s prince, so I’m now slightly confused about how she is a princess, but I’m sure that Once will lift the curtain on this sooner rather than later.
Elsewhere, Regina is showing that Lana Parrilla’s role this season will be a reassuring presence without commanding too much of the attention of an episode. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this, as seeing Regina in the background is a little disquieting considering her massive amounts of character development, but seeing her as a wiser and more stable character who leads and guides the others is an appropriate graduation for her, even if I long to see her more. Her relating to Ella was sorely needed, and it was a nice bonding moment for the two of them, even if it’s more than we’ve seen Ella and Henry bond with each other before we’re expected to invest in their romance.
Ultimately, this episode shows that the seventh season of Once Upon a Time features heavy callbacks to its origins. While many of these are homages and links to what the audience respond to, it is uncannily familiar, and the writers would be wise to differentiate itself sooner rather than later. While there are subtle differences, there will need to be a more significant departure for the audience to feel fully captivated.
You can watch Once Upon a Time Seasons 1 – 7 on Netflix. Seasons 1 – 4 are now available on Disney+ in the UK. It is also available on home media and other digital platforms for purchase or rent.