One of my main issues with Once Upon a Time, ever since the show finished its tremendous debut season, is that the series tends to quickly rush through promising storylines that could be very compelling and instead provides many of them with overly neat, easy, and tidy resolutions. While I’d argue that the majority of the episodes in Once Upon a Time Season 4 have refrained from falling victim to that crux, it wasn’t the case in last night’s hour, “Poor Unfortunate Soul,” which gave us the incredibly interesting backstory of Ursula only to have her leave Storybrooke with her happy ending in the episode’s final moments.
The most successful parts of “Poor Unfortunate Soul” are those that detail Ursula’s past, in which she had a very tense relationship with her father, Poseidon (Ernie Hudson), after her mother’s death and sought friendship with Hook, who promised that he would help Ursula escape her father’s grasp. This was another instance in which Once Upon a Time took elements of fairy-tale stories, or Disney films (in this case, The Little Mermaid), and combined them together to give a newer, fresher take on a villain. Once‘s version of Ursula in her younger years was very much like The Little Mermaid‘s Ariel, and her desire to be her own person on the land was the most absorbing the show’s flashbacks have been in a while and added some much needed depth to the Ursula that we knew in the present.
Ultimately, Hook and Ursula’s plan goes completely awry after Poseidon discovers what the two of them are doing, and as an act of vengeance against her father, who now prevented him from being able to destroy Rumpelstiltskin, Hook steals Ursula’s voice and keeps it. Without her voice, Ursula feels like she has lost her one last connection with her mother (both of them were singers), and it’s this pain which prompts her to take Poseidon’s trident and turn into the sea witch that we now know in the present. That is until Hook and her father are able to return Ursula’s voice back to her in Storybrooke, reuniting the estranged father and daughter and giving Ursula the happy ending that she had wanted.
While Ursula’s storyline certainly works on paper, it’s in the execution where Once Upon a Time failed last night. By not affording Ursula enough screen time in the present and having Poseidon return (offscreen) to Storybrooke through a random portal, this seemed like a quick and easy way to write the character out of the show. The matter-of-factness of how the whole situation in the present was handled cheapened the richness of Ursula’s backstory.
There’s a lack of emotion in Ursula’s reunion with her father because we don’t see their connection, their wanting to be together again as a family; it’s never shown to us through action but merely explained in dialogue. Poseidon simply shows up to give Ursula her voice back and apologizes, telling her how it was difficult for him to enjoy and encourage her singing because it reminded him of the loss of his wife and her mother. Given more time and care (and more scenes of showing rather than telling), this could have been a fantastic two-, or three-episode arc for Ursula, a story that would have been a fitting exit for the character. Instead, she leaves Storybrooke just as she was getting interesting.
And this quick and easy fix to Ursula’s story is also seen throughout other places in “Poor Unfortunate Soul,” such as when Cruella escapes from the cabin which has Emma, Snow, Charming, and Hook all inside just because they’re distracted by Ursula and her father’s reunion, or when Rumple, Regina, and Maleficent go and check the Sorcerer’s house for the Author’s door but we never actually see them look and instead are just told that they didn’t find anything. These storytelling shortcuts robbed much of last night’s material of any dramatic weight and left me feeling like I was watching a recap of the night’s events rather than an actual episode.
However, despite my complaints, two developments in “Poor Unfortunate Soul” have me excited for what’s still to come on Once Upon a Time. First, I’m very curious to see what Regina’s dream involving Robin Hood is all about. Could he be in some sort of trouble in the real world, or is there a new threat out there that’s looming? What does it all mean?
And second, that the Author is actually trapped inside the book is a pretty cool twist that injects some much needed energy into that whole storyline. Plus, if it allows for August to stick around for a little bit longer, I won’t complain.
– One last gripe about how they handled Ursula’s storyline. Just compare how the writers told her story last night to how they’re telling Maleficent’s. And while Maleficent is certainly a big part of the Charmings’ storyline in this second half of Season 4, Ursula’s story directly connects wit her, and her Hook’s past could have provided some more meaty material for both characters over several episodes.
– While I could barely follow Ariel’s explanation for she arrived in Storybrooke, I’m never going to complain about JoAnna Garcia Swisher being on my TV. I’ve always been a fan of hers.
– Regina’s whole possession spell, which let her speak through Snow White, was a neat bit of magic we haven’t seen before.
– Tiffany Boone was excellent as the younger version of Ursula. She really helped make last night’s flashbacks so great.
– I keep going back and forth about whether I really bought into Hook and Emma’s whole “happy ending” scene. On the one hand, I like it because it shows how much Hook has grown (before, his perfect happy ending was killing Rumpelstiltskin), but on the other, I just can’t believe how clueless Emma seems in that moment. I mean, of course, he’s talking about her there! Who else would he be talking about?
What did everyone else think about last night’s episode of Once Upon a Time?
[Photo via ABC]