Once Upon A Time 5×16 “Our Decay” delivered on all fronts. Rumplestiltskin and Belle have the conversation I’ve been waiting for so long to happen, two central characters who either been mostly or completely absent from the Underworld arc returned in thrilling and meaningful fashion, and “the big bad” of this arc gets some delicious character development.

Belle has been absent most of this arc, but she gets sucked into the Underworld and reunites Rumple. I’m so happy to see Belle back at center-stage on the show. She keeps getting a lot of focus and truly being a main character and then shunted off to the side. With the way things have been going in this arc, it looked like she might unfortunately be relegated to a minor supporting role. But that all changed, and was made even better by her reunion with Rumple. They finally had a conversation where they were both honest with each other about themselves and their relationship. I’ve gotten so sick of Rumple lying and being emotionally abusive to Belle. I was also tired of Belle too often forgiving Rumple and giving into his deceit. She’s a hell of a good person, but she’s also an incredibly intelligent and strong woman. I’m so glad she figured out Rumple is the Dark One again. It was a relief for Rumple to not deny the truth, but to show her the dagger and give voice to how much he loves his power, that even before becoming the Dark One he loved power. The only difference was he didn’t have it. It was also great to see Rumple admit that while he loves his power he still loves Belle, and the two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Using the same line of thinking, he argues that Belle didn’t just fall in love with the man behind the beast, but with the man and the beast as neither can exist without the other. I don’t completely agree with this, but I do agree that Belle’s feelings and attraction toward Rumple are a lot more complicated than loving the man behind the beast. Rumple is also a lot more complex than that. At the same time, I was happy to see and hear that Belle would not condone all of Rumple’s deceit and treachery. Rumple lies and tricks so much that it’s always particularly refreshing when he’s genuinely honest with himself and others. It was a powerful, refreshingly honest conversation between these two that was long overdue. Add in the news about Belle being pregnant and the contract that puts the child in danger, and this conversation was my favorite part of the episode.

Zelena has been completely absent this arc and I loved seeing her come back in such epic fashion. Rebecca Mader demonstrated many of the best parts of Zelena: her emotional manipulation, her ruthlessness, her inability to trust others, and a deep love for her child. Zelena’s return to the show and her fascinating connection and backstory with Hades didn’t seem forced at all, though it easily could’ve been if the episode went in a different direction. This is a testament to the writing but also to Rebecca Mader’s fabulous acting. That none of the “heroes” have a connection with Hades but Zelena makes her all the more special and integral to this story arc. Rebecca Mader has fantastic chemistry with Greg Germann (who has been remarkable as Hades and constantly exceeds my expectations).

Addressing the Zelena-Hades backstory first, I’m sure many feel it was too rushed, however, I feel it worked well. We got to see more of Oz and the time in which Zelena ruled the land through terror. Back in the season 3B arc where Zelena was the primary antagonist, I felt the Oz backstory seemed very incomplete. Compared to other lands like the Enchanted Forest, Neverland, Arendelle, Camelot, and now the Underworld, we really didn’t get to know Oz well in season 3. This is largely because our central characters didn’t spend any time there and we weren’t there for the majority of a story arc. We only saw it in two episodes for Zelena flashbacks. The storyline with Dorothy seemed pretty shoehorned in and we didn’t get a good sense for it, nor were the writers able to cleverly twist the traditional Wizard of Oz storyline enough with the limited spent there. We returned to Oz in the season 4B episode “Heart of Gold,” but we didn’t see much more of Oz in that episode, more of the focus going to the character development of Robin Hood and that he had a bit of a past with Zelena. Thus, it was delightful to return to Oz in this episode and see more of it, to see the Scarecrow and Munchkins and more of the land’s climate while under Zelena’s control. And of course, seeing Dorothy come back as such a badass and fearless adult awesome to see. I really hope we see more of adult Dorothy, and discover what transformed her from the girl we met in season 3B “Kansas” to now.

Beyond Oz itself, I buy into the Zelena-Hades relationship for several reasons beyond the acting of Mader and Germann. They both understand each other in a way that few others can. They understand what it feels like to feel unloved and hated while their older sibling gets all the glory and triumph and everything they ever wanted (or so Zelena thinks). They’re both incredibly conniving and vengeful and powerful and resourceful, but though they might not admit it, they’re also lonely.

Is it true love? Hell no. While this show is big about its true love, it’s also shown that while true love exists, it also takes a lot of time to develop and maintain. If you think about couples that have or had true love in this show (Snow and Charming, Emma and Neal, Emma and Hook, Regina and Robin, Rumple and Belle, Aurora and Philip) it’s taken and in some cases is still taking a lot to develop and maintain those deep emotions. The same goes for non-romantic relationships of true love (Emma and Henry, Regina and Henry, Emma and Regina, Regina and Snow, Rumple and Neal). While it may not be true love between Hades and Zelena, there is a mutual understanding and undeniable connection that bonds them.

(Also a tangent about Hades: With Zeus confirmed as his brother and Hercules as his nephew, if we’re keeping in line with the mythology, wouldn’t that also make Poseidon his other brother, and furthermore Ursula his niece? Hades being Ursula’s uncle will probably end up having zero relevance to the story, but an interesting connection nonetheless.)

The backstory in Oz with Zelena and Hades was wonderful, but their Underworld meeting in the present may have been even better. How fascinating that Hades made the Underworld look like Storybrooke for Zelena! I love how it’s left open-ended whether Hades is being genuine with Zelena. Usually when someone is being manipulative in this show, we find out pretty quickly. It’s a secret between characters, but not from the audience. I like that this time it’s a secret and for now it’s up to our interpretation. I don’t trust Hades. While I think he has some feelings for Zelena, I don’t see him putting those feelings ahead of his power and schemes, just like Rumple who Hades parallels in a lot of ways,

A few final things I enjoyed from the episode: I’m glad we finally found out who’s been taking care of baby Neal and baby Hood since the “heroes” departed to the Underworld (great to see the Blue Fairy again, it’s been too long). It was also nice to get a glimpse of Storybrooke with all the time we’ve been spending in the Underworld. I’m also glad Robin Hood finally got more focus and he gave a concrete reason why he left his child behind to go to the Underworld to help save Hook. It works well with how much he obsesses over his “code” but I still think staying with his child would’ve been more responsible and more of the right thing to do, albeit less glamorous. He’s reunited with his baby now . . . but who’s taking care of Roland while he’s gone? The Blue Fairy as well? This may go unanswered, but at least we have less questions about Henry being the Author in the Underworld as his skills are really rolling now. Give props to Regina as well for still trying to help her wicked sister out, despite all the hell Zelena has put her through. And finally I’ll also say that I was happy to see this episode depart from the “soul of the week” format that this arc has gotten a bit too much into. We’ve gone from Henry Sr., to Hercules, to Milah, to Liam, each week getting introduced or reacquainted with a dead soul, attach their backstory to one or more of the main characters, find out what their unfinished business is and see if they can move on from the Underworld or not. This worked really well with Henry Sr. and Milah, but with Hercules and Liam seemed a bit forced. In this context and all others, this week was a refreshing and all around fabulous episode!

 

Image taken from http://www.threeifbyspace.net/2016/04/upon-time-516-review-brief-look-decay/#.VwMPEvkrJD8

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