Once Upon A Time's "A Bitter Draught" made some extremely bold moves last night, including abandoning any notion of a timeline. I don't expect a series called "Once Upon a Time" to keep a 24-esque clock in the corner, but a title card of "Long ago" inserted before our abrupt segue into The Count of Monte Cristo would have been cool.
The chronology makes as little difference to my overall enjoyment of the show as the plot, and we can all agree the plot has nothing to do with why we love OUAT. I mean, OUAT has a massive and devoted fan base, but if you offered a million dollar prize to anyone who could coherently recite the sequence of events in the series from start to finish you wouldn't lose a penny. We watch the show for the characters and the cast, which is one of the strongest in network television history. But while modern TV theory tells us plot should derive organically from characters' conflicting desires and motives, the plot in OUAT simply lands on our characters season after season in the form of purple clouds or broken dirigibles, fencing them in with curses and magic pens and evil potions, forcing them into the most contrived scenarios outside of the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Which is totally okay! Because the characters (and actors playing them) are strong enough to make it work. Trouble comes when the show fiddles with its characters and makes them act inconsistently to serve the plot. That happened a couple times in "A Bitter Draught," and that was hard to swallow.
The biggest retroactive change, to the relationship of two major characters, was this idea that The Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) and Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle) had been attracted to each other for some time, that they had some unspoken sexual tension going on during their presumably decades-plus teacher-student relationship. When the Evil Queen appeared in Rumple's shop, she came on to him in terms that were far more explicit than anything in The Brother's Grimm.
The Evil Queen was fully half of Regina until basically a week ago. We've seen Regina and Mr. Gold square off many times in Storybrooke, and at no point was there really any flirting. They've had a fun, platonic rivalry as two worthy opponents jockeying for power, but considering Rumple had a passionate affair with Regina's mom before she was born, sexual tension seemed a little squirmy. It wasn't until last night's episode that Rumple suddenly ogled The Evil Queen's décolletage and then awkwardly sniffed her neck, and then suddenly The Evil Queen was acting extremely aggressive and in two scenes they had completely changed a relationship grown over five years. And in a way that made it less fun (and more squirmy) than the unique dynamic it was before.
The Evil Queen making a pass at Rumple also fits the pattern the show has developed of depicting evil women as more sexually aggressive: Zelena coerces Rumple, the Evil Queen made Graham her sex slave, "Dark Swan" Emma seriously put the moves on Hook.
Emma, during the main action of the episode, was sidelined in Archie's office, talking about how to deal with the prophesy of death that had been lain at her door by that nosy oracle last week.
In the first half of the episode, when it was revealed that Regina had (I can't believe I'm typing this) arranged for the Count of Monte Cristo (Craig Horner) to assassinate Snow White and Prince Charming, we saw Regina pick up a sword to defend herself against the Count, and then it cut to a flashback of her swinging a sword against one of her faceless knights. This was jarring, as Regina's weapon of choice has always been magic, usually of the fireball variety. So the sudden swordplay seemed like foreshadowing that Regina/The Evil Queen could be the masked swordsman who kills Emma in her visions. And just when I was congratulating the series for having some restrain and subtlety with this little clue, Emma came right out and said in no uncertain terms that she thought Regina might be the one to kill her.
If a retconned sexual tension between Rumple and Regina was a bit of a reach, this was a total betrayal, as literally the whole main arc of the series has focused on these two women going from bitter enemies to loving co-parents who trust each other completely. As early as Season 2, Emma was declaring that it would be impossible for Regina to have committed the murder of Prince Charming's then-wife. As recently as Season 5, Emma hoovered up all the CGI Darkness whirling around Storybrooke to protect Regina. But now she's not sure if she trusts her not to ram a sword through her rib cage? That's kind of an attack on the consistency of the most fundamental relationship in the show, but OK.
After the Evil Queen manipulated Regina into (I really can't believe I'm typing this) skewering The Count of Monte Cristo with a broadsword, the Evil Queen then taunted Regina about being inherently evil; try as she might to schizophrenically separate her "badness" into another personality, she was not dealing honestly with herself and would still make the wrong choices.
The show keeps doing this, making people entirely good or bad, or "Dark" and "Pure of Heart," but once filed into one of those two boxes, their official status has zero impact on their behavior.
Remember when Rumple literally cleansed all the darkness from his heart and still screwed everyone over because that's "just who I am"? Remember Snow killing Cora, getting a raisin of darkness in her heart, but still strutting through Glinda's "Doorway For the Pure of Heart" anyway? Remember all of the so-called "Dark Swan" storyline? I'm not sure if the show is trying to say something about free will and moral relativism here or if it's just playing as fast and loose with its internal logic, as it tends to do.
So yes. Two major relationships retconned in fundamental ways. And also, with all the grace and elegance of a grizzly bear in roller skates clambering up an escalator, Hook delicately apologized for cold cocking Belle a couple seasons ago, before the writers realized Hook was Permanent Love Interest Material and started protecting his character. He wanted to make it up to her by letting her stay on the old Jolly Roger.
Belle was not even bothered; she actually somehow turned the discussion around to her own personal failings? That's what years of Stockholm Syndrome will do, I guess.
Seriously though, the conversation we saw was less about Belle and Hook and more about the show acknowledging that many viewers are unable to consider Hook as a romantic hero with that moment between him and Belle just hanging, unaddressed in our subconscious. So it's been addressed, which is great, so now we're can just toss it onto the big pile of atrocities committed by our favorite characters. Along with the fact that Prince Charming was a bigamist, Snow White threw a newborn baby down a worm hole, and Regina killed entire villages of people, but is considered one of the good guys now. To be a good guy in OUAT you don't actually have to be a good person, you just commit yourself utterly to doing the right thing going forward no matter how badly in the past you've failed.
Which, you know ... wait a minute. I kind of like that. Is that the message of OUAT? That the honest desire to be a good person can be transformative, if those around you believe in you too? And, in turn, if we let other people move forward from their mistakes we'll all move closer to a better and kinder world?
Or did they just not realize how much viewers would respond to Regina and Hook when they wrote them initially, then when fans loved them, they slapped them both with redemption arcs and rode the ratings surge?
I honestly have no idea. Let's just let a memory curse wash over our brains and head down to Granny's for cocoa.
-Rumple and Regina: yuck or yes? Has this couple ever been a thing before now?
-Emma suspecting Regina: rude?
-What exactly is "darkness" in this show? A metaphor for the emotional consequences of hurting other people, an innate propensity towards self-serving choices, or magic that is capable of killing people? Or all of the above?
-How hard is Rumple going to freak out when he finds out where Belle's living?
Once Upon a Time airs Sundays at 8/7c on ABC.