Once Upon A Time 1.20 "The Stranger" or "Strings Attached""

As this is Honest Reviews, I feel the need to come clean with you, readers. I had to have a glass of wine while recapping this episode. You see, this show has the tendency to lull me into a false sense of security before it drops a big honkin’ feelings bomb in my general vicinity. The fallout is not pretty, let me assure you, and neither was this episode. I guess the writers really meant it when they said the final episodes of the season would throw us into an emotional free fall.

This episode revealed August’s identity, and I know that we all knew he was Pinocchio, but at least we now have ‘official’ confirmation. I guess that explains the shin splints. Or splinters. Take your pick. I have a whole slew of “wood” quips. Unfortunately, most of them are wholly inappropriate so I’ll refrain from sharing them.

We open on August fitting a deadbolt to Emma and Mary Margaret’s apartment door. Emma exchanges a look with Mary Margaret that I can only assume means that the lock will be a topic of conversation after too many tequilas, and asks August when he’s “installing the torture chamber”. Don’t make jokes, Emma. It could happen. I’m betting those fairytale castles had dungeons, right?

Mary Margaret says that she doesn’t care what it looks like as long as it keeps Regina and her skeleton keys out of the apartment. Have you noticed how she’s changed over the last few episodes? More Snow, less timid schoolteacher. I actually kind of like Mary Margaret with a bit of chutzpah; it humanizes her a bit more.

Emma wonders where August got his handyman skills and he tells her he learned in wood shop, eighth grade. Mary Margaret suddenly realizes she’s almost late for school and Emma expresses concern about her returning there. “After a stint behind bars, how tough can roomful of fourth graders be?” Mary Margaret jokes. I’m not laughing. I used to be a schoolteacher. Kids are terrifying.

But August and Mary Margaret are worried about Emma, and remind her of her threat to take Henry away from Regina. She tells them it’s no threat, that she’s hiring Mr. Gold to build a case against the Mayor. Mary Margaret asks if Emma’s ready to be Henry’s mom and Emma says she is. Uh huh. Maybe that’s why she looks petrified and perturbed. Because she’s ready.

Henry calls through on the walkie-talkie and says it’s a “Code Red”. He wants Emma to meet him at Granny’s because there’s an “emergency”. Following her, August says that he didn’t think Emma believed in “all of that” and she says she doesn’t, but that it’s sometimes the only way to get through to Henry. Okay; I understand that she’s indulging him but from her perspective, is that really the right thing to do? Encouraging him in his hatred of Regina? I have to kind of frown at Emma here because egging Henry on to hate the woman who raised him just because Emma’s got a problem with her seems like odd parenting to me.

Still, August tells Emma that a custody battle against Regina won’t accomplish anything. He tells her that she needs to see the “big picture” and wants to take her on a trip. And he says that she’ll find “exactly what you’re looking for”. There’s that theme again – people looking for things they’ve lost, sometimes without even knowing they’ve lost it. He wants her to take a “leap of faith” but Emma tells him her kid needs her and she doesn’t have time for faith. Well, that’s just you all over, Emma. But I understand; it’s hard for someone to believe in others if nobody’s ever believed in them. And already I feel that, although this episode is ostensibly about Pinocchio/August, it’s really more about Emma. But more on that later.

At Granny’s, Henry is reading his fairytale book and drinking…wait – is that coffee? Surely not. But damn if the kid doesn’t look about 65, leafing through his book and sipping from a mug. Old before your time, Henry. Go out, get dirty, play with other children. Be a ten year old, for crying out loud!

He asks who else knows that they hide the book at the Sheriff’s station, because someone’s changed it. There’s a new story in it. Ohhh…so I suppose we all know why August had hold of it, right? But this new story isn’t finished, even though it’s about Pinocchio and everyone knows how that ends. Lies, nose, donkey, conscience, real boy, yadda yadda yadda. But Henry wonders if it’s unfinished because it can help them with the curse. However, he’s late for school and we’re left looking at a picture of a tiny boat on a green, stormy sea.

We plunge into the picture and are confronted with Geppetto and Pinocchio trying to sail their boat – and failing. A huge whale is chasing them and Geppetto tells his son to take the lifejacket. Pinocchio says that he’ll float because he’s made of wood. Yeah, I know. But let’s just go with it, okay? This is Fairy Tale Land, after all. And whales aren’t carnivorous, are they? This IS Once Upon A Time, isn’t it? Not Moby Dick?

Washed up on the shore, Geppetto has the life jacket and calls out for his son, saying that he saved his life. He finds his boy face down on the pebbly beach. Ouch, that’s going to hurt, wood or no wood. Pinocchio seems…well, dead. Deadwood (I couldn’t help it, sorry). Oh, and here’s the Blue Fairy. Well, you know what they say about bad pennies. I don’t like her, I have to admit. There’s something a tad shady about her. I keep going back to last week’s episode and how she’s from a power that’s greater than any other. And you know what they say about absolute power…

She turns Pinocchio into a real boy. Hurrah! He’s a real boy! The Blue Fairy tells Geppetto to he and Pinocchio have found each other – and there’s that whole ‘looking and finding’ theme again, but I’m kind of distracted by that thing she’s doing with her hands. She’s either treading water or herding invisible sheep. I can’t tell which, but it’s highly irritating. She tells Pinocchio to remember to be “brave, truthful and unselfish” as that’s the only way he’ll remain a real boy. Uh…Blue Fairy? He’s a seven year old boy. Those aren’t exactly attainable goals for a kid his age, you know?

August still has his little hat. Awwww. Put it on, August. I want to see how it looks. Then mock you for it. He calls Gold, looking troubled, and says they need to meet regarding Emma. As he goes to leave, his leg starts hurting and he pulls up his trouser leg to reveal that it’s actually wooden. But it does have a lovely finish. I wonder if he varnishes.

Mary Margaret is gleeful at being back at school. Well, until Regina creeps up behind her. She puts a brave face on it, though, and says that it’s “wonderful” and “everything worked out”. Regina wears a bitchface like nobody else, I swear, and asks if Henry’s about as he forgot his lunch. Yeah, haters, she’s the kind of mother who brings her son’s lunch to school. It’s probably an EVIL lunch in an EVIL lunchpail.

Mary Margaret says that Henry is “with his mother”. Oooh, burnnnnn. See what I mean about her getting some bite? Regina isn’t fazed though and asks if there’s a problem. There are accusations and implications flying back and forth between them in this scene and I LIKE it. And then Mary Margaret has this speech where she forgives Regina and tells her that her life must be filled with loneliness if her only joy comes from “destroying everyone else’s happiness”. She tells Regina that it won’t make her happy and will only “leave a giant hole in your heart”. Oh god. Feelings bomb alert. Because I remember what Maleficent said and you can tell from Regina’s face that Mary Margaret hasn’t just hit a nerve, she’s pretty much reached in and pulled it out to pluck at it like a harpstring. Ugh. Lana Parilla needs to stop looking like that or I’m going to have to give Regina a hug and I don’t think that would end well for either of us.

But there’s the crux of it, really. You can run away from everything you know, change your identity, change your location, even adopt a kid. But it doesn’t fill the emptiness inside Regina and to have that pointed out by Snow/Mary Margaret, of all people, must be horrid.

Regina gives Henry his lunchbox. It’s Tron! Now I’m having flashbacks to when I was at school. No Tron lunchbox for me, though. I had a hard childhood.

Anyway, Regina suggests Henry change classes, which is absolutely the wrong thing to say as he launches into a tirade of abuse. And that’s really the only word for it. He accuses her of framing Mary Margaret, of being the Evil Queen and tells her that “good will win” and everyone will get their happy ending. Regina’s in a state of denial and insists that the fairytales aren’t true, but you know, whatever gets you through the day, Mayor Mills. Henry knows the score. But he’s just so horrid to her, and honestly, if I’d spoken to my mother that way at the age of ten, I wouldn’t have been able to sit down for a week. But Regina doesn’t reprimand him; she doesn’t say anything and I can’t help but feel my heart break a little for her. She’s so desperate for him to love her that she’ll allow him to speak to her that way. And yes, I know she’s the Evil Queen but come on, the woman just wants to be loved. And she’s angry at Mary Margaret, not Henry. Interesting. Seems that Regina’s the queen of deflection as well as the Enchanted Forest.

At Gold’s shop, August meets Marco for the first time and is clearly troubled by it. Gold takes malicious pleasure in knowing who they are and taunts August a little. He agrees to turn down Emma’s request for help with a lawsuit in order to allow August to help her believe. August asks Gold to trust him and Gold says that’s a “big ask”, knowing August’s true nature. Donkeys; that’s all I’m saying.

In Fairy Tale Land, Pinocchio has Jiminy Cricket all tied up in a cuckoo clock. Bad boy. He relents when the Blue Fairy appears but she says that she’s the bearer of bad news. She explains about the Evil Queen’s curse and asks Geppetto to make a wardrobe from the last enchanted tree in the forest. The Blue Fairy says that it’s how he’ll “save us all”. I’m sorry, but I still don’t like her. There’s far too much emotional manipulation going on in Fairy Tale Land: the Evil Queen, Gold, the Blue Fairy. It feels like they’re all playing one another and I’m convinced that there’s a bigger plan set in motion that’s making pawns of most of our beloved characters.

Gold refuses to help Emma in a custody battle, claiming that it will hurt Henry and that he knows how to pick his fights with Regina. Emma calls Regina a “sociopath”. Again. That’s three times now, Emma. And sure, Regina’s not the most stable of people but…sociopath? Really? Harsh.

Emma goes to August and demands that he show her the “bigger picture” so she can beat Regina. I have to ask myself what’s more important to Emma here: saving Henry or beating Regina. She’s mentioned this before and I can’t help feeling that her priorities are perhaps a little mixed up. But then, that’s the whole notion of vengeance coming to the fore – Emma is so hellbent on punishing Regina that it takes precedence over everything. Maybe even being with Henry.

Regina has car trouble and David offers to give her a ride home in his truck. She calls him her “knight in shining armor” and he tells her that it’s “more like flannel”. Oh, David. You’re such a GUY. Why don’t you hush up and look at Regina’s fabulous legs. I know I am. She asks him to stay for dinner and says she’s making lasagna. Is that code for something? Am I missing out on a whole world of lasagna seduction here?

David refuses but when they enter the house Regina finds a note from Henry that says he won’t be home for dinner. “Lately it seems like he’ll do anything to avoid spending time with me,” she tells him. Awww. Play the sympathy card, Regina. Especially when the note from Henry is BLANK. Now, I know this is some sort of revenge plot to piss off Mary Margaret, but I have to question the extraordinary coincidences that Regina relies on here. She banked on David offering to help her, on him giving her a ride home, on him taking pity on her and staying for dinner when she finds the blank note…it seems like a hell of a lot of work to ensure that she could seduce him. I swear, sometimes this show seems to be written on the back of an envelope with plot holes so big they could swallow Storybrooke whole.

In Fairy Tale Land, the Blue Fairy explains that only two can enter the magic wardrobe. Wait – WHAT? TWO? I’m pretty sure it was just one when she was talking to Snow and Charming and…ohhhh, right. Geppetto insists that he’ll only make the wardrobe if Pinocchio can go through as well. He basically holds the entire kingdom to ransom to save his son which, although that’s sort of noble, is also blackmail. Not okay, Gepetto. When Jiminy protests, Geppetto tells him that his “debt can never be fulfilled”. Well, he did turn his parents into puppets. But still…”Pinocchio goes through, or no one does.”

We flashback to the scene from the pilot where the Blue Fairy tells Snow and Charming that only one can go through. I have to admit to being quite anxious about this. Another glass of wine, I think.

August has Emma on his bike and she’s wearing that ridiculous helmet. Sorry, JMo, not even you can make that look good. He says he’s going to tell her his story and they leave Storybrooke.

At Regina’s, David says that it’s the best lasagna he’s ever tasted. Again – is this some sort of flirting technique? Because I really like lasagna. Anyway, he asks Regina to tell him the story of how she found him and she relates a series of coincidences (ah, self-referential; nice choices, show), prompting David to say it’s “almost like the universe wanted you to find me”. Regina goes in for a kiss and she looks so needy I can barely stand it. Feelings bomb. AGAIN. Seriously, show, this has to stop. But David pushes her away and tells her that “this is great, like it is”. Ugh. Honestly, David, you’re an idiot. Hot Mayor is coming on to you and you run away. Idiot.

After he leaves, Regina stares at herself in the mirror and clearly doesn’t like what she sees. I can’t work out whether she’s disappointed, angry or just utterly frustrated that everyone leaves her. Which they have. Only her mother stuck around and we all know how that turned out, right? In a fit of rage, she hurls her wine glass at the mirror, shattering it. I know that’s symbolic in a lot of ways for the Evil Queen, but I get it. Who hasn’t done something impulsive after a few too many glasses of Merlot?

We flash to Fairy Tale Land where Snow is giving birth. The Blue Fairy tells Geppetto that Pinocchio can’t go; that Snow must accompany her daughter so that Emma will believe in her destiny. The Blue Fairy says that they must have “faith” that the savior will restore all they’ve lost. Faith. Hm. Sensing a theme here, anyone?

Geppetto ignores the Blue Fairy and puts Pinocchio into the wardrobe instead. He claims that his son can give Emma what she needs and take care of her. All that matters is that Pinocchio is safe. The boy reminds Geppetto that he told him not to lie, and his father replies that “sometimes we have to lie to protect the people we love”. Oh, right. So it’s okay when a “good” person does it, right? I’m having some serious issues with what this show will excuse and what it won’t. It seems to almost encourage good people to do bad things under the umbrella term of “the greater good” and I just…I can’t agree with that. But Geppetto puts Pinocchio into the wardrobe anyway and tells him that he “will be a great man”. Or, you know, not.

Stopping at a diner, August tells Emma that she’s been here before. He confesses that he’s the boy who found her, in the woods, not by the freeway like the newspaper reported.

In our world, Pinocchio is literally blasted out of a tree into the woods. He’s scared in this new world and shields himself from a plane crossing overhead and…wait. That’s an Oceanic plane! Well we all know where that’s going, don’t we? But thanks for reminding us (again) that this show was created by two writers of LOST. I don’t think I caught it the first twenty times you referenced it. Magic surrounds Pinocchio and he finds Emma in the tree, wrapped in her blanket.

In the same woods, August tries to explain to Emma that the curse is real and she’s the savior. She calls him a liar and says she’s “done listening”. But August mentions the baby blanket and Emma has no choice but to believe him. He says he lied to protect her and that the curse is true. August says that he didn’t end the story in Henry’s book because “this is the ending and we’re writing it right now”. She runs from him and he collapses, finally showing her his wooden leg. Yep, I know, even typing that out sounded wrong. But all Emma sees is a real, flesh and blood leg. It turns out that it started to change when Emma decided to stay in Storybrooke, and August wasn’t there for her. He’d strayed. Just like Pinocchio in the fairytale.

What follows next is possibly my favorite scene in the whole episode. August tries to convince Emma to believe and that everyone needs her. “I don’t want them to need me!” Emma tells him. “I didn’t ask for that, I don’t want it.” I really, really loved JMo in this scene; Emma is clearly struggling with the burden of having Henry and feeling the way about him that she does. And she’s almost losing it completely as August tells her that she’s their only hope. “Then you’re all screwed” she tells him. Oh, Emma. You’re so broken and out of place and you always have been. And another feelings bomb explodes in my chest. I hate the way the show does this to me time and again. Someone hold me.

In a foster home, we’re taken out of Storybrooke for the first time since the pilot episode. One of the other kids approaches Pinocchio with a bundle of money and says they’re going to escape. And here’s the kicker: Pinocchio, Emma’s guardian and teacher, abandons her to go with them. That’s why she doesn’t believe; that’s why things are going so wrong; that’s why her denial is preventing her from seeing what’s right in front of her. Because when you ask children to do the work of adults, they inevitably fail. Not because they’re bad, but because they’re children. And I kind of hate Geppetto right now, for putting all of it onto Pinocchio’s shoulders and expecting him – a kid – to be able to handle it.

Back in Storybrooke, August approaches Marco and helps him fix the same clock he played with as a child. “Your father must be very proud,” Marco tells him and August says that he’s not so sure; that he made him a promise a long time ago but that by the time he got around to making good on it, it was too late. But Marco says that he’s still trying to fix things, and that would be enough for him, if he had a son. I appreciate the sentiment here, but it falls a little short for me, given that it was Marco’s shortsightedness and overwhelming love for his son that started this whole messed up situation in the first place. But it fits with the show’s focus on the lengths parents will go to in order to protect their children, and also the horrible mistakes they make in order to justify their actions.

And speaking of…

What the hell, Emma? What the frilly hecking hell are you doing? Okay; I know you’ve had an emotional day and that Mr. Gold refused to help you, but kidnapping? That’s not the answer, and I know you know that. Seriously, I think Sheriff Swan and I need to have a little talk because beating Regina is one thing, but committing a crime is quite another, not to mention encouraging your son to sneak out of the house. Why didn’t Regina hear him? I’m guessing she was sleeping with Prince Valium, seeing as the whole Prince Charming thing fell through.

You know, I do love this show but it’s kind of disappointing me in a lot of ways. I want Emma to be the savior as much as August does, but I want her to be a hero I can really get behind. And she’s falling far short. I can’t help but feel that everything she does is driven by her dislike of Regina and that’s not the path she should be following. In a way, the parallels between her and Regina are pretty clear cut and it’s sad to see the hero heading down a path that won’t lead her anywhere good. I’m all for a flawed, complex heroine but after this episode, I wanted to smack Emma upside the head and tell her to get a grip because this? Kidnapping? This is NOT the way forwards. God help her when she comes back…which she surely will.

So, are you excited for the final two episodes? Based on the promo for next week, I think it’s going to hurt, a lot. I’m stocking up on wine as I type.


Ruth was born a fangirl and likes to write both fanfic and commentary on her favorite shows. She is whimsical at best; rambling at worst. She lives in London, but secretly hopes to have homes all over the world if that winning lottery ticket ever works out. When it comes to TV, she is a glass swan of emotion and is unashamed of sharing that with whoever will listen.

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