Home isn’t a place. It’s the people in it. And they will always be with you.Henry Mills
Starring Lana Parrilla, Colin O’Donoghue, Andrew J. West, Dania Ramirez, Alison Fernandez, Mekia Cox, and Robert Carlyle
Episode 20: Is This Henry Mills?
The main element that sets the trajectory of Once Upon a Time’s seventh season apart from the rest is the impression of the “next chapter” of the tale. The anchor of that tale, at its heart, is Henry. In many ways, Season 7 is his story. While the first six seasons were Emma’s story (though, of course, everybody had large roles), Season 7 is about how Henry grew up and found his own adventure, instead of living in the shadows and watching from the sidelines.
If Season 7 had made more of a focus upon Henry, I think it might have been more cohesive as a whole. The issue with focussing upon Henry as the next generation, and yet also placing him under memory wipe makes it a bit trickier to see his character development as strongly as we might otherwise have done. Part of that is just a problem with the structure of Season 7 as a whole and also, to an extent, the presence of some of the old cast members. While having reassuring presences like Robert Carlyle, Lana Parrilla and Colin O’Donoghue, I can’t help that perhaps Season 7 might have been conceptually stronger or at least braver had it made a complete break from the past seasons, with the exception of a rare cameo.
Anywho, I digress. Truly, Henry growing up, finding his own identity and his own hero tale has been the thread that linked the beginning of this season with the rest of the Once Upon a Time lore. Though it has strayed from that quite heavily, and we haven’t really seen all of the elements of Henry’s hero journey as much as we saw Emma grow into it in season 1, it is nice for this episode to remind us of that and tie us back into the original story, and how far Henry has come since then.
This episode ties the failure of the breaking of the curse because of the idea that Henry, beaten down by the world, is jaded, and unable to believe in the way that he used to. It’s a troubling thought, though it does feel like an incredibly unsubtle attempt at character development. It’s a character journey that’s broadcast, essentially with buzz words. “Henry doesn’t believe”, the show cries, even if it doesn’t necessarily ring true, and then they spend the episode trying to reconcile adult Henry with his own childhood. It’s actually a brilliant journey, and a wonderful idea, with some great, touching moments, but it’s not exactly foreshadowed. After all, adult Henry has spent the past few episodes being the one trying to convince those around him that they have been cursed as Lucy claims, so for him then to suddenly revert to not believing in such a visceral way seems jarring.
The flashbacks do help sell this episode as one of Henry’s purposeful move forwards. Our glimpse of Henry speeding off into the Enchanted Forest in the season premiere probably would have been sufficient as a sign of his dissatisfaction, but this episode really helped us to dig down into his feelings of “otherness”. In many ways, Henry’s journey in the past is easily relatable to the audience. Everybody, at some time or other, whether consciously or not, outgrow their surroundings. There’s a time where you look around, especially as a growing adolescent, and realise that everything around you is the same, and you are not. You need to pave your own way, find your own interests and your own path, and it’s a journey that everybody must do alone.
In many ways, I think this season might have been more compelling without a curse. Without being displaced to Hyperion Heights, without having to know all of these new characters, both cursed persona and original Enchanted Forest versions, and just following Henry as he went through his own personal development away from home. I also feel like that message would have been much stronger if you had removed the familiar elements from the show. If you’d eliminated Regina, and Rumple, and just been able to focus more on Henry.
I think a lot of the struggle for Season 7 as well has been its attempt to recreate the magic and the spark of Season 1. The issue, and the difference, I find, with Season 1, is that there was a much clearer idea of who the main players were. The Storybrooke storyline was supported and carried principally by Jennifer Morrison as Emma Swan, and as she was not cursed, she was one of the few characters who we saw develop. That first season was all about her stepping up to be the saviour, and developing that self belief that grew through her relationship with Henry. The other characters, like Mary Margaret and David went through a personal transformation that saw them grow closer in spirit to their Enchanted Forest counterparts. We had the space – largely, because it was the first curse, and the only objective within Season 1 was to break the curse – to properly explore the characters first and foremost.
Season 7, in comparison, while trying to get back to that more simplistic storytelling, while shedding most of Once’s canon to make it more accessible to newbies, also somehow makes itself more complicated. Through the inclusion of Wish Realm counterparts, I suppose the flashbacks in the latest season are fine for a newcomer, but for veterans it becomes needlessly and frustratingly confusing.
What’s more, the viewership have become horrendously desensitised to curses. If you check the Once wiki page, every character’s page is separated into “Before First Curse” etc. Turns out there are six. The original curse was an end goal in itself, but since then we have had curses which have always been to achieve something different, mostly with memory wipes. At least the curses that we have had after Season 1 never gave our characters cursed identities, meaning that the gaps in their memory were only for dramatic tension and didn’t stunt their character development.
Within Season 7, however, there just isn’t that same level of character development in the cursed personas, perhaps because the viewers know that it’s ultimately going to be fixed. Still, I feel like we never really get to know half of the characters in the Enchanted Forest, and the symmetry within the storylines was more palpable in the first season. For example, there would always be a very strong link in between the events in the Enchanted Forest and those in Storybrooke, but that wasn’t present in Hyperion Heights.
With the seemingly constant revolving door of the different villains involved in the curse, the focus has never been wholly on the curse. Regina was woken up from the curse within the first few episodes, and the villain bounced from Tremaine, to Drizella, and then ultimately to Gothel, who then casually disappeared. None of these have been especially compelling, and Season 7 as a whole has been far more concerned with plot twists and events than it has with meaningful character development and emotion, which is essential for a show to be successful.
Additionally, Emma was clearly the protagonist of the first season. She was the only person not affected by the curse, and the only one who could break it, and the show never lost sight of that fact throughout. With everybody cursed in Hyperion Heights, and nobody acting as a similar sort of Saviour character, it loses that sense of spark and just becomes horrendously messy and convoluted. What’s more, they tried to conflate too many things.
We rooted for the curse to be broken in Season 1 for two main reasons – three at a push. We wanted Snow and Charming to remember each other and to finally get together. We also wanted Emma to know her parents, after her turbulent upbringing. Then there’s obviously wanting to bring down Regina, who was undeniably the main villain of the season, who was well realised. We haven’t had a stable villain in this season, and we’ve never really had a solid grasp upon what motivates them and what they wish to achieve. With Regina, we knew that she wanted the curse to continue, so that she could have her happy ending, and as a result she wanted Emma out of Storybrooke to stop her from breaking it.
There are far too many things going on here. Not only does Henry now have a wife, but he now also has a daughter. The person who is our protagonist, Henry, is also separated from his wife and daughter, not that he knows it, and also believes that his own wife and daughter have died in terrible circumstances. In this way he embodies Emma because of his more jaded nature, but he doesn’t have the same relationship with his child that Emma fosters, which is how she develops her belief, because he doesn’t know that she exists. Sure, it’s an interesting twist, but it just means that he’s balancing too many things. We also now want the curse to break so that they can be a family, but the show never really has bothered to sell this connection other than tell us that it exists.
This episode tries to make the season retrospectively more cohesive and coherent by framing it as Henry’s story. Obviously the show runners, when they started Season 7, didn’t know how long the show might continue to run for, so their amount of forward planning is uncertain. However, where this to be conceived of as Henry’s story from the off, and his journey to becoming his own hero, which would be the most logical thing to do in order to erase most of the previous cast, would be to focus more upon Henry’s journey within the flashbacks.
As an idea that comes directly off the top of my head, if this were to be the prevailing journey, then Henry should have been focussed upon much more throughout the season. Reflecting upon it from towards the end, Henry has been around in Hyperion Heights for quite some time, but he hasn’t really done too much of consequence. He’s just sort of been…there. Instead, the flashbacks could have been looking back to the Enchanted Forest, as we saw him try to step up to the legacy of his family. The only previous cast member that would be needed, and only in a recurring capacity, I’d imagine, would be Regina. I think it could work differently though.
Basically, Henry could have tried to be a hero in the Enchanted Forest and got something terribly wrong, resulting in those that he cared about dying, for example. This could explain his jaded personality throughout Season 7, but throughout the season he learns that there are different ways to be a hero than just the fairytale ones and ultimately that’s what he triumphs over by the end. Perhaps the problems that he faces aren’t even magical ones, but just regular things that he has to confront. It would make for a far more mature and nuanced final instalment. Of course, hindsight is twenty-twenty, but if this episode is going to pretend that Henry is at the heart of this story, there are many ways that it could have functioned better.
Back to the focus of this episode, the key scene is obviously when adult Henry phones his younger self and inspires him to find his adventure outside of Storybrooke, telling him that he doesn’t have to be around his family because he can carry them with him wherever he goes. It’s a touching moment, and both Jared Gilmore and Andrew J. West really sell it.
Henry regaining his belief here is a key moment, but it would have made more of an impact, as I’ve already pointed out, if this had actually been a visible theme throughout the season instead of just conveniently thrown in here to try and elicit some emotional response. Similarly, the way that Henry breaks the curse by kissing Regina is a nice callback to Season 1, in the way that Emma revived Henry by kissing him.
By the end of the episode, Gothel is defeated by Tilly, in a surprisingly brief showdown, and so too is Facilier dead. In their place, Rumplestiltskin, from the Wish Realm, is now in Hyperion Heights. This ties in with the villain problem of the season as a whole. Gothel’s plan was flimsy at best, and she really didn’t need to cast the curse ultimately, and Facilier just sort of existed in the background until he was killed off. His romantic entanglement with Regina was never expanded upon, despite her claiming to have feelings for him, and his intentions never became clear.
To pull Rumple out of nowhere for the finale seems bizarre, and a strange final enemy for the show, especially because, strictly speaking, he isn’t actually real. It seems like the writers just sort of scrabbled around in the bottom of a box, realising that they hadn’t written a credible villain in a while and just deciding to give Robert Carlyle something to do. It’s not really interesting or especially clever, it’s just a bit lazy and eye roll-inducing. Not to mention confusing.
For a plot that was just meant to be a throwaway fun joke as the mid season finale of Season 6, this wish realm has gone much further than anybody could have reasonably predicted. Not only is our new Hook from there, but so too is Rumple now, causing a dozen random implications from the fact that this realm can even exist, which is quite frankly mind boggling.
While the curse is now broken, the presence of Wish Rumple doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence or enthusiasm for the finale. This season as a whole has been a collection of meandering and substance less plot lines, with subplots dropped left, right and centre and poor characterisation as a general rule. The new characters have not been especially well developed, with the exception of Ivy (who was unceremoniously written out) and Alice. On the other side, the old characters, like Regina, Rumple and Hook have barely been developed either, but just used as a reassuring presence. Regina was given very little to do both in the past and the present, though Rumple’s plot line has been a grounding and consistent force throughout the season even if it casually erases the more unsavoury aspects of his character. Hopefully the finale manages to salvage something from the entire season to give a fitting ending to a wonderful series.
You can watch Once Upon a Time Seasons 1 – 7 on Disney+. It is also available on home media and other digital platforms for purchase or rent.