With the threat of this being the last season of the show, the writers have started off the second half of the season exactly as one would expect the beginning of the end to be. The action picks up where the previous episode left off and we are teased with a showdown between Emma and Gideon – but obviously not their ultimate showdown, which clearly cannot take place yet or it would be a rather awkward ten episodes until the finale.
Thus, Tougher Than the Rest is everything that I expected of it and little else. Emma and Regina escape the alternate reality that they were previously trapped in, bringing along a new version of Robin Hood for the ride. The escape is not that thrilling and the best part of the alternate reality is seeing how badly Hook has aged. This episode resolved the cliffhanger and restored the status quo, ultimately making the alternate-reality Enchanted Forest seem little more than a cumbersome romp. I understand that it served as an opportunity for good character development for Emma and Regina, but after the alternate-reality seemed so promising in the previous episode, we did not really get a chance to explore it. Personally, while I can understand that the writers did not want to waste time, I think they might have been better off to wait until the next episode to get the characters back to Storybrooke. Then again, the story proceeds along nicely at a good pace, so I really cannot complain.
Despite not creating two separate storylines for this season, the writers still had to create two acts. Tougher Than the Rest opens Act Two and does its job. Emma realises that she can face Gideon. Hope is restored, the band is back together again.
In Murder Most Foul, we begin the story arc of Regina wavering between courting and mothering alternate-Robin as he tries to adjust to life in Storybrooke. Alternate-Robin is an outright villain who is finds himself constantly reminded of a better version of himself. He is astute enough to realise that Regina sees a ghost when she looks at him. Not only does he feel out of place, but he cannot reconcile her with the villain that he had heard of in the alternate reality. Their story becomes a B-plot for the next episode as well. It is enjoyable drama, but seriously feels out of place. Compared to the action that the other main characters are facing, Regina`s domestic troubles unfortunately come across as melodramatic.
Luckily, we are able to push aside this drama in favour of a fun, albeit ultimately tragic, adventure with Charming and Hook. Seeing them have their own investigation – a bit of a buddy-cop episode – was long overdue. The two of them have come to a place where they actually trust each other. They are also each out of their element. Neither of them have much to do with magic (thus their potion brewing was hilarious) and neither of them are particularly adept at heroics on their own.
This made me realise how much Once Upon a Time is carried by its female leads. It was actually unusual to see Charming and Hook do something together without Emma, Regina, or Snow. Indeed, it is rare for two or more male characters to be shown doing something on their own together for any length of time. Sure, a few one-off scenes here and there, but not a whole plot! In most shows, it would be the other way around.
In this episode, we finally discover what happened to Charming`s father and get to see what led to his twin being taken by the king. We also, sadly, get to see that Prince James was unhappy and that the boys` father hated himself for not being able to reunite the family. Charming learned something about himself and resolved some issues of his past, but Hook only discovered more things to despise about his once-wicked ways. Like any reformed criminal, he hurt people in the past. Coming to terms with that, especially when meeting victims` loved ones, is not easy. One keeps having to be forgiven over and over again, and forgiving oneself especially. Each new revelation could cause years` worth of trust and relationships to be destroyed. Understandably, Hook is terrified that he is going to lose Emma`s love and Charming`s respect.
In a show that is ultimately about hope and forgiveness, this new plot twist was well-placed. It is too early in the act for everything to be fine.