I know where you come from, true love always wins. But mine is a world of broken promises where people never find each other.Ella
Starring Lana Parrilla, Colin O’Donoghue, Andrew J. West, Dania Ramirez, Gabrielle Anwar, Alison Fernandez, Mekia Cox, and Robert Carlyle
Episode 8: Pretty in Blue
”Pretty in Blue” is what one might diplomatically call a mixed episode of Once Upon a Time. While there are elements which really work, there are some which are slightly confusing or tenuous that drag it down. While putting some of the more interesting and engaging characters front and centre, such as Rose Reynolds as Tilly and Alice, it is let down by continuing to add obstacles to the criminally uninteresting central relationship, while still continuing to give the audience no reason to meaningfully root for it.
Following on from last week’s revelation that Hook’s daughter was, in fact, Alice (which, in retrospect, wasn’t wholly surprising), the show runners can now begin to explore storylines in the flashbacks which show this relationship. It’s probably the most interesting relationship we have seen this season, doubtless owing to Rose Reynolds and Colin O’Donoghue’s fantastic chemistry. What’s more, their relationship needs slightly less selling than Henry and Ella’s. While we are seeing that pair discovering each other, the desire to be with one’s parents or child is far more understandable from the audience’s point of view, and Reynolds really sells her anguish at not being able to be close to her father.
Something which takes centre stage in this episode was the Curse of the Poisoned Heart, which, apparently, is what separates Hook and Alice from each other. It was offhandedly remarked upon earlier in the season, but it is treated as if it’s something that the audience should intuitively know about. Fortunately, Alice does give us a bit of an explanation as to the nature of the curse, and hopefully it is explained in future episodes, but it’s the first time really this season that there’s been a palpable missing event in the flashbacks that muddies the action.
It is also, apparently, something that Ella’s mother had put on her. This is an attempt made by the episode to add a little bit more substance to Ella’s character. I feel like, compared to some of our other characters, we have relatively little understanding of who Ella is outside of her connection to Henry, as we have yet to see anything of her life before Henry appeared in it. Personally, I think that this should be expanded upon sooner rather than later, because it’s fairly alienating for an audience to root for a romance between Henry, our darling, handsome Prince, and Ella, who is incredibly emotionally closed off and prickly.
It’s not precisely a new concept for Once. In fact, Henry in Seattle is a little bit jaded, too, and Emma was incredibly closed off when she first arrived in Storybrooke, and even up until her relationship with Hook. Even this was sometimes irritating, but at least with Emma there was a context, and it was always a huge part of her identity, as a real character in the real world that she had been abandoned. It was something that she spoke about a lot with Henry, and you could sense that element of hurt. We don’t really have this same experience with Jacinda or Ella, we just see the results of it within her characterisation, but it’s difficult to understand what Henry is drawn to when she spends the vast majority of her time being confrontational.
Still, there is a glimpse at the hidden depths underneath Ella here, even though it is literally spelled out for the audience. Ella literally says “my world is one of broken promises where people never find each other”. Quite how somebody can be so self-aware of their own issues, and yet also remarkably blasé about solving them is a mystery in itself, but you do get the sense that Ella genuinely has had a troubled life. I mean, as an audience, we know this anyway because Cinderella’s story is one that is practically engraved on the consciousness of every child in existence.
I suppose the principal difference that we face here with this version of Cinderella, is that the version that everybody is used to sees Cinderella downtrodden and abused by those around her, but she always maintains her sense of hope. Even against insurmountable odds, Cinderella is content just to go to a ball. She doesn’t go there to try and escape her life, she’s accepted it, but she goes just to have one night. She falls in love with the prince, and falls into that new life wholeheartedly.
This version of Ella, however, is consumed with bitterness and a desire for revenge, which is an odd colour for a heroic character, especially one who is trying to be with our chief protagonist, Henry, who is practically the embodiment of hope. Of course, it could be argued that Ella being more jaded and bitter at her treatment is probably more true to life, and I would agree here. I think that having that sense of abandonment is understandable, since she lost her mother and her father and then had to live a life in servitude. That doesn’t mean that it makes her likeable or rootable for as a character, however.
The small amount of backstory here gives us a little bit of an idea of Ella’s past, but it still doesn’t do too great of a job of showing this pain to the audience. Instead, it’s pretty much just an info dump. Ella and Alice sit down, and they talk about how Ella’s mother left her for Wonderland, and how she abandoned her and it’s plagued her her whole life. Alice then explains that she, in fact, had the curse of the poisoned heart, and was then killed by the Jabberwock, causing Ella to then mourn the fact that her mother never left out of choice and didn’t stop loving her.
I can see exactly what they were trying to do. Not feeling the love of a parent is relatable and almost universal, but something just doesn’t click. It doesn’t fully translate to the audience. I didn’t feel that anguish within Ella. I didn’t feel like this was the culmination of something that she’d held true for her whole life, that she had to completely reconceive her upbringing to erase that painful memory. It just felt like a random beat within the plot to arbitrarily push Ella and Henry towards the next step without actually having to invest in marked character development for a character who they wrote themselves into a corner for. I also don’t think that the slightly stilted performance did the scene any favours.
Another element of why it just doesn’t click, additionally, is the sense of inevitability that exists around Henry and Ella’s relationship despite not actually having invested meaningful time into selling them as a pairing. Essentially what we have so far is the fact that he crashed into her carriage on a motorbike. They have had remarkably few consequential conversations or interactions since that point, and the only extra elements that this episode includes is the typical cliched romance moments. By that I mean, a sword fight, where their faces get far too close. They fall over, and land on top of each other, and laugh, before staring into each other’s eyes. That’s all. Ultimately, this episode just pushes us towards their first kiss, after Ella has now magically gotten over all of her emotional obstacles because she found out that her mother never abandoned her in the first place so love must be real.
I suppose something else that just doesn’t make this relationship soar is that, unlike Hook and Alice, there’s nothing that’s keeping them apart. There are no obstacles to come. It’s just slightly boring. They met each other, and now they’re flirting and they’re together. That’s probably the simplest romance in the history of Once Upon a Time. Even Regina got a better love story than that. So did Zelena, and that was in the span of just a couple of episodes with some choice flashbacks. If that can happen with those characters, then why is the show struggling so much to carry it off well when it’s meant to be a relationship that we’re actively pushing for?
In Hyperion Heights, we see yet more coming between Ella and Henry, as Nick, Ella’s ex and supposedly Lucy’s father, turns up in town to help Ella get Lucy back from social services. It’s Sabine’s idea. Remember Sabine? She’s regular cast, but for some reason she just casually disappears despite running a business and cohabitating with Jacinda, who we always see. This fly in the ointment leads to Henry taking a step back from his relationship with Jacinda, which is, of course, great news for Regina, who wants to prevent them having True Love’s Kiss.
It’s irritating how there are so many obstacles in the present storyline. I suppose this was also the case with Mary Margaret and David in Season 1, but as I’ve explained before, their relationship was much better sold and demonstrated. We have still yet to see Henry and Ella as a proper couple. We still don’t know what their dynamic is and how well they fit together. With the arrival of Nick in the Enchanted Forest, as Jack, I think it might be more interesting were they to shake things up a bit more. We know, or we think we know, that Lucy is Henry’s child, but maybe it’s not that simple. Maybe Lucy actually is Nick’s daughter, but that Nick and Ella didn’t work well together, and Henry and Ella then got together afterwards and created a blended family. That’s something which is much more modern and relatable, and remarkably less bland than the beige crap we’re currently being fed.
Another element of this episode that didn’t really work were the slightly tenuous machinations of Drizella in Wonderland. Apparently, she convinced Alice that she could get close to Hook and she had been cured of the curse, just so that Alice would then flee through a portal (apparently portals are super easy now, despite being a major plot point in other episodes, because convenience) and lead Henry there so that she could poison Henry’s heart. Why does she want to poison Henry’s heart, you ask? Uncertain. Mayhaps to ensure that Tremaine can’t revive Anastasia using his heart, or that he can’t have True Love’s Kiss to stop the curse from breaking? Who knows. Will it be explained? Likely not, but it’s still fun to see Adelaide Kane, even if a mirror is being dropped on her head.
The aesthetics of Wonderland are also impressive, especially considering the show’s limited budget. There’s certainly been less CGI so far this season, but they achieved the overgrown landscape and mushrooms wonderfully, and it was very evocative.
Elsewhere, in Hyperion Heights, Regina is awake and desperately in need of help, so turns to Rumple. We, as the audience, know that he is awake, but, unsurprisingly, he pretends not to know what Regina is talking about, because he’s far too interested in his own mission as opposed to what actually helps anybody else. Apparently he never changes, so I’m done with him and now thoroughly uninterested. He is on the hunt for the Guardian still, though, and I’m willing to bet it’s probably Alice. Instead, Regina therefore resolves to visit somebody who was driven out of Hyperion Heights, who hates her, and takes Henry along for the ride. My bet is that it’s Zelena.
At the close of the episode, there are definitely some gaps emerging in our flashback knowledge. It was going so well with the seemingly simple narrative unfolding there, but there are huge parts of Alice’s life missing. Of course, this is inevitable when we have a character who we only saw as a baby in the previous episode, but so far we have no idea how Alice escaped the blood magic lock on the tower in the first place, nor how she ended up in Wonderland. Regardless, I’m looking forward to finding the answers to these questions, not least because of Rose Reynolds’ delightful onscreen presence.
I said at the beginning of this review that it was a mixed episode, and yet spent the entire time picking at the flaws. That’s mainly because the good elements aren’t any large elements per say, merely carried through by the appeal of the characters themselves. Hopefully this is just a blip in the journey, but stories that focus too heavily upon Henry and Ella’s relationship just serve to make me yawn. The more investment in the character dynamics like Alice and Hook, the better.
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.