Den of the Cyphered Wolf

Monday, November 27, 2017

Best Once Upon A Time Episodes (Between Seasons 1 and 4 and not counting Wonderland)

Okay, I might as well. Once Upon a Time is a very hit or miss show. When it's good dear god is it great but when it's bad dear god is it intolerable. As such it's guilty pleasure. I like it but I completely understand other people who hate it. Sometimes I'm right there with them.

It is hard to make people understand what I see in this show when there's a 50/50 chance their first episode will be god awful. So if you are someone who wants to see what all the buzz is about here are the episodes I recommend you watch.  Keeping in mind a few provisos.

  1. Spoilers. Both if you read what I have to say and if you watch these. If you want the full Once experience you're going to have go through some PAIN but most times I'm not even really all that willing to do that. So whatever. Just don't blame me if you see some really huge plot turns out of order. 
  2. I've only seen the first half of season five and almost none of season six. So they won't be showing up on this list.
  3. Furthermore, I think it's unfair to really grade most of season 7 until things play out. I'm digging it but I want to wait until the season is over to really solidify my opinions. 
  4. Once Upon a Time: Wonderland is probably the most consistently good thing the show has ever done so instead of cherry picking episodes if you want to watch it just watch it. It is generally more serialized well-paced than the main series.
  5. This isn't a straight top 10 list since Once is so serialized. But rather a list of watch these in this order so you don't get put off. 

Pilot: Season One Episode 1
Name on the tin. It's not the best episode not even close. But it does have most of the basic information you need to engage. So watch it.

The Outsider: Season 2 Episode 11 
I have trepidation about putting this on a list of "best" Once Upon a Time Episodes but it does form the foundation of Regina Mill's/The Evil Queen's redemption arc so if nothing else it's important.

Honestly, if you're binging the series watch this earlier.  It explains the motivation of season two's villains but they're small potatoes anyway so ehhh.  That's not why it's important. In all honesty you should probably watch it right after the pilot.

This episode is about explaining why Henry, Regina's adoptive son means so much to her.

She can't control him. His love actually is love and that's what after all of it she wants.  Retroactively that's what the big conflict between her and Emma was about. Losing the only person in her life that truly loved her.

It takes place just before the series proper.

The Evil Queen wins. Regina gets everything she wants. Her magic forces Snow White and Prince Charming to kowtow to her. Her enemies live in fear of her. Life is pretty sweet. Except it isn't. She won. She won. Yet she's unsatisfied.

The love and respect of her enemies means nothing unless it's freely given. That revelation would have meant a lot more if the series articulated that earlier.than it did.

And Still doesn't change that she ripped the Huntsman's heart out though. And this episode ends with her doing some pretty despicable stuff too. So she's no saint.

That Still Small Voice: Season 1 Episode 5
This is the episode where Once Upon a Time... grew up. I'm a sucker for fantasy and will give virtually anything a try if it has dudes with swords but this is probably the first legitimately good episode of Once Upon a Time. It still has its problems but has a story to tell and is a pretty good character study of Jiminy Cricket.

Sometimes the guy who everybody goes to for advice just doesn't have the answers. Sometimes "the conscience" has no clue what the right thing to do is.


But that doesn't mean he shouldn't try.

Anyway, it highlights one of the best aspects of Once in that it fills out well-known fairytale icons to make them more interesting in ways that feel very much in line with what we know. Most of the better episodes of season one do this. So many in fact that I'm probably going to skip a few not because of they're bad but because I don't want to write a complete episode guide for season one.

Nor do I want to pretend there is no fat in a lot of these episodes. They are obligated to focus on the main plot featuring Regina Mills and Emma Swan and compared to some of the other stuff those two are just boring. And that extends to this episode.

There are lots of times when I would be screaming at the scream, "STOP CATFIGHTING AND GO BACK TO THE CRICKETT!"

The Heart is A Lonely Hunter: Season 1 Episode 7
Yeah I just got done explaining this one but. It's probably the singularly most important episode of season one. It's the first real episode where the show stops playing coy about whether or not "the flashbacks" we've been seeing are real or not. It's the episode where Once Upon a Time became Once Upon a Time.

Desperate Souls: Season 1 Episode 8
"Desperate Souls" covers the back story of Rumple Stilskin who is probably the single most important character of the entire series. Everything and I mean everything goes back to him.  Even if it wasn't a good episode you would need to watch it just to make sense of things... but it's a really good episode. If this were a straight top 10 list it would probably be number 3.  Most of my affection for the character is based on the quality of this single episode as his quasi-introduction.

Rumple is a real rat bastard, but he's a tragic rat bastard.

Skin Deep: Season 1: Episode 12
I keep saying the series is more clever than people give it credit for and one of the reasons is because it amalgamates characters in clever ways. This is the first time it really does that and introduces Rumplestilskin, one of the most duplicitous and ruthless individuals in the show up to that point (and let's be honest period) as Belle's beast. And honestly knowing how horrible he is when he starts that story adds a new context to it, highlighting the redemptive power of love.  And also hinting the stuff that went down in Rumplestilskin's episode affected him to the core. Part of the reason why Belle falls for him is that she's the only person he reveals this vulnerability to but that story is another episode.

The Crocodile: Season 2 Episode 4
This list is probably going to wind up as  "Rumpie is  so awesome isn't he." But the plot of the show really is best when you view as epic tale of the fall and redemption of one big screwed up family of which Rumpie is responsible for.

Once Upon a Time really can be seen about how his moral failings cause his family to suffer and the lengths he will go to in an attempt to make things right even if in doing so he causes more harm.

The Crocodile is really three interconnected stories.  And each of them is interesting. The first is a perspective flip of Belle who is trying to make a real go of a relationship with Rumpie but she has to come to terms with the fact that yeah for a long time he really was this series' resident devil and acted accordingly.

The other two are basically the tale of one of the worst things Rumplestilskin has done in this series. And later sets up consequences for his actions.

Hat Trick: Season 1 Episode 17
This episode is important for two reasons. First off while the audience realizes that magic exists far earlier in the series, the characters are oblivious to it. While it's not a lock this is the first episode characters become open to the possibility that something hinky is going on.

And secondly, it establishes the cosmology of the series which is one of the more interesting aspects of it. This episode introduces the existence of Wonderland a third "realm" other than our world and the world of fairy tales.  It actually goes further explaining that there are a lot of places and a lot of stories playing out that we the audience just haven't been seeing. It opens the door for anybody and everybody to show up.

Also as a stand-alone episode, the Mad Hatter plays up the mad bit. He's legitimately frightening and unpredictable.

Also this is the start of the end. There is a lot of fluff in Once Upon a Time but from here to the end of the season it's more or less a race to tell its story.

"The Return": Season 1 Episode 19
I've been trying to focus on episodes that are good in their own right. Where you don't have to watch everything that preceded them to be entertained.  But a lot of the best of those happen to be about Rumplestiltskin's backstory. This list might as well be called the Rumplestiltskin playlist, and this episode expands and connects "his" episodes to the story at large. What exactly is it he wants and how have his actions, which have instigated the story at large,  been getting him closer to it.

Rumple mentions the plot of this flashback story Skin Deep but this is where we see it. The ONE DEAL, the one promise he couldn't keep. And it more or less defines him as a character.

"Second Star on the Right" & "Straight on Till Morning": Season 2 Episode 21 & 22
So part of what had Rumpie so rattled in "The Return" is that he thought, August, the only person around he didn't recognize as a known fairy tale creature might have been his long-lost son. Spoiler he's not.

"Second Star on the Right" might have more impact if you watch it right after "The Return".

For a long time, we're going to be exposed primarily to Rumpie's regret but "Second Star on the Right" and "Straight on Till Morning" reveal that, yeah what he did was a really lousy thing to do to his kid it did have consequences for his son.

Furthermore, this episode sets up the groundwork for Neverland as Baelfire, Rumplestilskin's son crash landed in Victorian London and started stealing bread from Wendy Darling to survive. It doesn't go exactly where you think and I'll probably spoil all of that later but it's a really nice charming retelling of the first bits of Peter Pan.

Also as mentioned previously I don't really give a damn about the villains or really the plot even of the second half of season 2. It's the guy they're working for I really care about. And this is the first episode we get an idea that he's baaaaaad news.

"The Stranger": Season 1 Episode 20
August, the guy walking around in "The Return"  is actually a grown-up Pinocchio. A globe trottin' grown-up Pinocchio who failed to stay on the straight and narrow, and we all know what happens to Pinocchio when he fails to stay on the straight and narrow.

This is an episode where we watch him confess his sins and try to make amends. And it is especially heartrending as he tries to fix things with an amnesiac Gepetto.

"The Doctor": Season 2 Episode 5
Anyway, by the second season Once Upon a Time decided it really want to redeem The Evil Queen, who up until this point I viewed as a pretty disposable character despite her being framed as the co-lead. This episode manages to make her actually interesting, by pulling the same trick it did with Rumpie.  Once has a talent for charting it's characters' paths to the dark side and while it's not the first of her episodes to deal with it it's probably the best. It best captures the forces that made her into what she is.

Furthermore. It's the Frankenstein episode. (It was that season's Holloween episode.)

One of the biggest criticisms of the show is that at times it can feel like a giant Disney commercial. While it does regularly feature some non-Disney characters it's rare for it to depict a character that feels out of line with what they would do in their classic animated movies.

Victor Frankenstein is a whole 'nother animal.  Once never really fulfilled it (I didn't see season 6) but watching that episode felt like a promise.  Once Upon a Time could and would mine any iconic story. Anybody and everybody could possibly show up.

"Manhattan": Season 2 Episode 14
Manhattan is the series MVP. It is by a long shot the best episode of Once Upon a Time, and is the pay off to all the stuff dealing with Rumpie.

The entire series plot thus far has been a part of Rumplestilskin's master plan to reunite with his son and this is the episode where it happens.  He meets his son and has to account for that moment. And it's rough and honest, and rough.

"Think Lovely Thoughts": Season 3 Episode 8
I have a tendency to talk Rumplestiltskin up as best bad guy. Largely because in a lot of ways Once Upon a Time is his story but he's not the best villain of series. Peter Pan is the best villain of the series. The first half of season 3 is the high point of the series but because of how interconnected it is I have trouble just sorting one episode from the others. But this is the episode where the show puts its chips on the table and tells us exactly what season 3 is all about.

Furthermore Peter Pan is the reason why I say this show is the story of Rumplestilskin's big screwed up family. And Rumpie coming to terms with him as a manifestation of his own sins is satisfying.

"Snow Drifts" & "There's No Place Like Home": Season 3 Episodes 21 & 22 
Okay mostly I'm going on for big dramatic episodes filled with pathos. This one is just funny. It's basically Back to The Future. The series decided that for the season 3 finale it would do fairy tale Back to the Future. And it's just fun on a metalevel.  That said since we're playing with time travel most of the humor is dependent on being keyed into the series continuity this far.

"A Tale of Two Sisters" & "White Out": Season 4 Episodes 1 & 2
Season 4 is where the show started to jump the shark for me. Let me explicitly state that. Almost everything that happens is stupid and incongruous with previously established events.



The relationship between Anna and Elsa works. Especially as a post-script to the movie.

Furthermore their "spirit quest" to find each other works as the closest thing Disney could have done to telling the Anderson version of Snow Queen.

If nothing else season four deserves my respect for pulling that little miracle off.

Shoehorning Emma into it as a snow witch later kind of ruins it but as it is I have to give it a slow clap for what they did manage to accomplish.

And these two episodes are relatively light on the stuff I hate. And I feel I need SOMETHING from season four on here.

"Operation Mongoose" Parts 1 & 2: Season 4 Episodes 22 & 23
Okay, the plot of the back-half of season 4 is convoluted and I hate it. Just about every bad guy in the series that matters already went through a redemption arc and to make season 4 work they had backtrack on all that good character development.



 It culminates in one of the most fun episodes of the series.

So the bad guys have been trying to use the magical mcguffin to re-write themselves as good guys in their own stories, and it works. They manage it. The bad guys are good and the good guys are laughably bad and it's hilarious.


As a single episode.


I hate season 5.



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