In what is proving so far to be the most intriguing story arc of the show, the second act of Once Upon a Time’s fifth season opens with our main characters (Emma, Regina, Snow White, Charming, Robin Hood, Rumpelstiltskin, and Henry) arriving in the Underworld to rescue Captain Hook. They are all still alive, which proves to be important later.
The Underworld looks like a red-tinted, disaster-ridden version of Storybrooke, at once familiar and strange. Dead characters reappear in evil counterparts to their living relatives: Prince James is the sheriff, Peter Pan runs the pawnshop, and Cora appears to occupy the mayor’s office. All of this, it turns out, is run by Hades – a vengeful, fickle, culturally-refined, and petty evil entity in the guise of a man. He is also seemingly immortal, so good luck defeating him!
We have come a long way since the first season, mucking around in childhood fairy tales and whimsically exploring the Enchanted Forest and Storybrooke. Not that the show has ever been childish or immature, but with this storyline, one could say that it has truly grown up. The Underworld, and all of its themes of atonement, salvation, redemption, and reconciliation, is not exactly an easy, lighthearted bedtime story. This isn’t “fun with fairy tales” anymore.
Souls of the Departed is the show’s 100th episode and is thus as much about nostalgia and celebration as it is about moving the plot forward, but it does not get bogged down in hidden references or discontinuity. After all, what better place to dwell on one’s past than the Underworld?
The episode begins with a focus on Emma, as it did in the beginning five years ago, but soon shifts its focus to Regina, who has always been the show’s central character. (She shares the spotlight with either Emma or the Charmings, but she has been a more steady presence.) While the group splits up in their search for Hook, Regina meets up with her mother, who tries to convince her to leave (along with Robin and Henry – she is no longer heartless, after all) by threatening to send Regina’s father, Henry Sr., to Hell.
Yes, we delve into theology (sort of) in this season! In essence, the Underworld is Purgatory, with two ways out for souls trapped there: Heaven or Hell. Both locations are accessed the same way, hinting that they are either the same place, or that the fires of Hell guard Heaven. It appears that the fires destroy souls forever, rather than torture them eternally – not that I suppose it makes much difference to the story.
The main plot focuses on the war within Regina’s soul, still ongoing but radically changed from back in the Enchanted Forest prior to the casting of the Dark Curse, which we get to see again. This war is represented by her mother and father – the former wanting her to be happy at all costs, while the latter wanting her to do what is right. Henry Sr. is willing to brave hellfire if it means that Regina has truly repented and redeemed herself, no longer spiritually paralyzed under Cora’s influence. Unsurprisingly, Regina chooses to stay in the Underworld and help the others, proving that she can put others before herself, and Cora casts her husband into the pit of fire. But instead of being consumed, the gates of Heaven open up to him. Before leaving, he meets young Henry, thanking him for continuing to believe in Regina and look out for her once he no longer could. Both men find vindication in their faith.
As an aside, Hades was extremely angry with Cora for not convincing her daughter to leave the Underworld. Clearly, he sees Regina as his most formidable opponent among the heroes.
Upon realising that they can help other trapped souls, our main characters (except Rumpelstiltskin, who has his own agenda) decide to keep doing so, invoking further Hades’s wrath. Apparently, he doesn’t’ like “losing” souls. He must still be upset about the time that living-and-dead man came and took everyone out…
Labor of Love brings Hercules into the mix, both as a first love and mentor for Snow White in the past and as a help to the heroes in the present. Whether he is just a one-off character remains to be seen, but either way, his appearance was well-integrated into the story. The Greco-Roman myths fit well into the world of fairy tales, even moreso than Arthurian legend or recent literary works (Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, etc.), and the writers do not waste time trying to explain how they are there. Presumably, the real of Mount Olympus and the Greco-Roman gods is another realm within the worlds of the Enchanted Forest; perhaps Mount Olympus is the closest the show is going to show Heaven.
More important than Hercules himself is the effect that he has on Snow White, who has long felt that she is too much Mary-Margaret – the sweet, timid former schoolteacher-turned-mum – and not enough Snow White, the bandit queen who would do anything for her people, up to and including death. I suppose that age and motherhood would do that to a woman. Even though baby Neal is (hopefully) safe among the living and Emma is a fully-grown adult, Snow still puts them ahead of herself. She is more cautious, but it is easy to hide behind one’s children as excuses not to act when one should. In this episode, Snow comes to realise that that is what she has been doing. Regina has to be the one to call her out on how the Snow White that she knew did not come all of this way merely to give up. The woman who once wanted nothing more than to kill her now will not let her die.
As the episode ends, Hades has forced Hook to choose whom from among our heroes will die and remain in the Underworld in exchange for the souls that they help to escape. He hands him a chisel and three fresh tombstones…
I am very much interested in how they are going to get out of this adventure!