After tuning out for several weeks, I thought it was about time I checked back in with Once Upon A Time by taking a look at its latest offerings, Hat Trick and The Stable Boy. Hat Trick introduces us to the character of Jefferson, a Storybrooke resident Emma meets after she nearly runs him down with her car, while out searching for the escapee Mary Margaret (who, in case you’ve forgotten, was incarcerated for the suspected murder of David’s wife, Kathryn). Believing Jefferson to be injured, Emma drives him home. He shows his thanks by taking her hostage – but it’s okay, she can leave once she makes him a top hat. Yes, a top hat.

This brings us to the fairytale element of the episode. Hat Trick takes us back to the fairytale world, where Jefferson is in possession of a top hat that can transport you (I presume) anywhere you want to go. For the Queen, that place is Wonderland. She wants to get back something that was stolen from her, and she needs Jefferson’s help to do so. He initially refuses her request because he can’t leave his daughter, Grace.  Her response is ‘I understand. There’s nothing more important than family’. Unfortunately, Lana Parrilla doesn’t manage to communicate the level of menace underpinning these words. Despite this, the scene nicely foreshadows the events to come. Jefferson eventually agrees to help the Queen (thanks to her meddling) and we receive our first glimpse of the realm beyond the fairytale kingdom.

While the decision made by the writers’ to go beyond the traditional fairytales and draw upon other source material could have lead to some interesting develops, Hat Trick – for the most part – fails to deliver. Thanks to the limitations of a commercial network budget, the Wonderland of Once Upon A Time mostly looks like a subpar videogame rather than realistic CGI.

Also disappointing is our introduction to the Queen of Hearts. We never see the Queen’s face because know one looks directly upon the Queen, of course), perhaps to prevent spoilers in future episodes, should the Queen have a  Storybrooke identity. During the brief scene involving the Queen her face is covered by a red veil. She also speaks to an advisor via a long tube which, for some reason, resembles an elephant’s trunk.

While Sebastian Stan is good in the role of Storybrooke Jefferson he, like most of the Once Upon A Time actors, can’t quite pull off the fairytale world dialogue. He also fails to convince in his role as a young father. However, this can partly be blamed on the miscasting of the young actress playing Grace, who Stan shares zero father/daughter chemistry with. He would have been more believable as Grace’s older brother.

While Hat Trick is an episode of many diappointments, it does deliver on two counts. One, Mary Margaret finally gets to kick some arse; perhaps leading to some interesting develops for the character. Could Snow White finally be surfacing?

Two, Emma is finally starting to wonder about the legitimacy of Henry’s fairytale story. Her belief in the fairytale world could provide the series with more direction beyond the current ‘fairytale character of the week’ format, perhaps expanding upon Emma’s role as the apparent ‘saviour’.

Like Hat Trick, The Stable Boy is an unsatisfying entry into the Once Upon A Time mythology. For me, the most disappointing aspect of the episode is the performance of The West Wing’s Richard Schiff. Schiff, brilliant as White House staffer Toby in TWW, gives a lacklustre performance as the recurring character of King Leopold.

Despite its shortcomings, at least The Stable Boy finally explains why the Queen despises Snow White. As a young woman the Queen was in love with (surprise!) the stable boy, Daniel. The Queen, or rather, Regina befriended a young Snow White after rescuing her from her wayward horse and that’s where things really started to go wrong.  Probably the biggest coup of the episode was the casting of Bailee Madison as the young Snow. While Madison has the same difficulties as Stan with the fairytale dialogue, her performance as the young Snow to Ginnifer Goodwin’s adult version is excellent, perfectly replicating Goodwin’s mannerisms and facial expressions.

We also meet Regina’s mother Cora, a manipulative social climber with magical powers. Cora is to blame for the person present-day Regina has become, and her actions late in the episode prove similar to some of Regina’s own in the present. The portrayal of young Snow as naïve and trusting makes Regina’s displaced hatred of the adult Snow White unconvincing, when surely all her hatred should be directed towards the one really responsible for Daniel’s fate.

The best scene of The Stableboy is set in Storybrooke, as Regina pays the incarcerated Mary Margaret a visit. Parrilla may give a mediocre performance as the Queen, but as Regina she projects just the right level of malice. The parting words between Regina and MM are a highlight of the episode:

‘I don’t deserve this. I never killed Kathryn.’
‘Oh, I know. But you do deserve this.’

The B-story of The Stableboy revolves around Emma trying to prove Mary Margaret’s innocence. Emma is assisted by August in her search, and together the two unearth some vital evidence of Regina’s involvement in Kathryn’s disappearance.  The Emma/August scenes offer some clues as to August’s fairytale persona, now the writers’ have officially quashed the Brothers’ Grimm theory. We learn August experiences pain in one of his shins and that he apparently never lies. The reappearance of Kathryn may draw The Stable Boy to a close, but only poses more questions.