Shit gets real.
I'm not gonna lie, guys, I'm kinda burned out on this show. The winter finale could not have come at a better time, though it could have come with better dialogue. I guess I wasn't a good enough girl this year to warrant that present. Sigh.
Anyway, in the opening we see where Belle was trapped by Regina after she left R-stilts (got all that? It was last season), and that she has creepily kept track of the days on the walls. Everyone's sense of décor in this universe is spot-on: Martha Stewart would be proud. Hook breaks into the tower to “rescue” Belle and learn what she knows about R-stilts and how to destroy him. She knows nothing about R-stilts “magical weapon” (my guess Hook was asking after the curse?) so he tries to kill her. He is stopped by Regina, who we know is evil because her hair is piled very high and her dress is very tight (and also very awesome, in an '80s rhinestone way).
Regina offers to help Hook kill R-stilts if he will... have sex with her? That's what their intense looks seem to suggest. But no, he's supposed to assasinate Cora. Regina casts a spell on Hook's hook so that he can magically rip out hearts just like her, but he can only use it once (and remember, he used it to rip out Aurora's heart last week, so you know that this whole plan is about to go south). Regina sends Hook and a dead body through the magic hat to Wonderland, where he finds Cora and she's totally the queen of hearts and she totally makes fun of his name. He never mentions that he came through the hat, but she seems to know, either due to bad writing or her presumed omnisicence. He tries to take her heart, but like Voldy she doesn't keep all her eggs in one basket: her heart is not kept inside her body. I bet that will be useful to know down the line. She chooses not to kill Hook, instead making him her own pawn in the plan to get revenge on Regina.
Hook brings Cora back to the fairy tale world, where they make it look like she has died. Regina is sadder than you would think, and confesses to Cora's “corpse” that she couldn't bring Cora with her to Storybrooke because she loves her too much. (Really? After Cora killed Daniel she still loves her?) Instead of killing Regina (which was plan A), Cora chooses to cast a protection spell over a part of the fairy tale land and put all survivors into a deep sleep until the Curse is broken. She wants to wait until Regina has nothing, then swoop in and be the irreplaceable rock of her daughter's life. I'm a bit surprised at the unpredictable yet fitting turn this episode took – this almost makes up for the episode about Ruby and the pirate pack of wolves.
In present-day Storybrooke, R-stilts and Regina prepare for the worst: the possibility of Cora arriving in Storybrooke through the portal that Emma and Snow are trying to use. R-stilts wants to destroy the portal to keep Cora out, but Regina points out that doing so would kill whoever comes through. She thinks there's a good chance that Emma and Snow will find a way to defeat Cora, but R-stilts is less optimistic. He convinces her to help him close the portal and become the only mother in Henry's life, despite the fact that Regina is trying to be a not-awful person now. They go to the mine and use the wand from the Cinderella episode last season to harvest the remaining fairy dust.
A whlie later, Grumpy calls Red down to the mine because he has discovered this theft. They go to R-stilts' store and find Henry still reading to his grandfather (who is under the sleeping curse). They tell him that Regina and Gold took all the magic and everyone jumps to the worst possible conclusion – they're going to use the dust to close the portal. Henry feels betrayed by his “mom” because she promised earlier that she would try to help Emma and Snow. Side note, when is Henry gonna start calling Emma “Mom”. Does he call her “Emma” to make things less confusing?
Meanwhile, in the fairy tale world Emma, Snow & Co. visit R-stilts's cell, where they find a sheet with Emma's name written on it repeatedly instead of the bottle of squid ink they were supposed to find. There's an isolation chamber madness theme happening here, first Belle and then R-stilts (or in the opposite order, depending on how you're measuring such things) – maybe that's why they fell in love. Snow mentions offhandedly that Emma being the Savior was prophesied, IN CASE YOU FORGOT.
As they get ready to leave Aurora traps them by lowering the cell gate. She is still Cora's puppet, after all. Cora takes the compass, and Hook gloats that Emma lost her chance to have him on her side by making a bad metaphor out of the giant's dead magical bean. At this point I'm wondering if the squid ink has to be in the bottle to be used? Can't they just use the ink on the crazy note?
Everyone plays the blame game in the cell, but Snow is a right little ray of sunshine saying that good will always win out. Emma is less sure: she thinks that R-stilts has played this whole game, and maybe her time as a Savior is over. Maybe she was just supposed to break the Curse. Ah the endless question: do I do what I want because I want to, or because God told me to? Anyway, I was right – the ink was magical, and Snow uses it to get them out of the cell. They have to tie up Aurora and leave her behind, but not before Mulan swears to get Aurora's heart back from Cora. I have a feeling a lot of people are shipping Mulan and Aurora these days – what's going to happen to these besties when Phillip comes back next year and we find out he was two-timing?
Now that they have the compass, Cora and Hook go to Lake Gnostos. I wonder if they know that it was drained, but Cora makes water happen so that's one obstacle cleared. They pour the ashes of the wardrobe in to the lake while Gold and Regina wait at the wishing well in Storybrooke. The latter pair cast a spell to make sure that anyone who tries to come through the portal will not survive the crossing. Henry and Red arrive at the wishing well to stop them. Henry tries to guilt trip Regina, but she's too afraid of Cora coming through to believe that good will defeat evil (kind of like Emma).
Before they can jump, Emma, Snow and Mulan arrive to fight them for the compass. In the middle of the fight Cora disappears and Hook keeps Aurora's heart from falling through the portal. He gives it to Mulan and she leaves with Snow's encouragement. (She makes it back to Aurora and puts the heart in her chest, in case you were wondering.) Hook fights with Emma and gets to say “good form”, which you might recognize as something of a Hook catchphrase. Just as he's making some more comfortable somewhat reversed innuendo, Emma finds the compass in the sand and gives him such a solid right hook that he falls unconscious.
Cora tries to take Snow's heart, but Emma knocks her aside. This was a pretty big oh-shit moment. Cora tries to take Emma's heart after saying a classically villainous line about love being a weakness, but she can't because Emma is the Savior, you guys. She uses her awesome love powers to banish Cora from the lake and along with Snow jumps through the portal.
Henry convinces Regina to lift the barrier on the portal, which miraculously does not kill her. Oh and she gets the green stuff out of the well too. The green barrier gone, Emma and Snow are free to climb through the opening of the well and be reunited with Henry, who finally calls Emma “mom”. Regina is not super happy with her decision (doing the right thing doesn't always feel great), but I think this opens the way for Cora to do what she wants in the second half of the season: be the only important part of Regina's life.
At R-stilts' store, Snow wakes David with true love's kiss and they make out in front of everyone. Henry should be more grossed out, these are his grandparents. Emma confronts R-stilts about her suspicion that he planned all of this: the curse, her birth and Cora's partial defeat. He assures her that he merely took advantage of her existence, he didn't plan it. Emma seems kind of wowed by her new responsibility (free will truly is a burden), but puts it aside in the name of celebrating with her reunited family and her friends. The Charmings and the dwarves leave to celebrate, and once more Regina and R-stilts are left out in the cold.
BUT... as the happy group heads to Granny's, Hook's ship, with captain and Cora aboard, turns the bow to Storybrooke's harbor. DRAMATIC MUSIC.
Next year: all the rivalries come to a head. Better writing (I hope!). More hot guys that don't get killed off in one episode (looking at you, Lancelot). Save something for season 3, people.