Once Upon A Time 5×19 “Sisters” Recap

Spoilers Ahead

“Sisters” is one of Once Upon A Time’s most beautiful and thematically powerful episodes.

Episode Summary: Flashbacks reveal that there was a time when little Regina and Zelena got along incredibly well only to have their bond broken by Cora and their memories of one another completely wiped. In the present day, once Regina overhears Hades’ plans to leave the underworld and make a living with Zelena in Storybrooke, she seeks out her mother in order to stop Zelena from giving Hades “True Love’s” kiss. James switches places with Charming and attempts to kill those closest to him. A heartfelt apology finally allows Cora to move on, but before Zelena could happily take her sister’s advice, she’s taken captive by Peter Pan and Rumplestilskin.

Review | Analysis: Once Upon A Time is a show about family. It is the show where despite how ridiculous it sounds to those who’ve no idea what it’s about, each and every character is connected to one another in deeply intriguing ways. And “Sisters” managed to make a strange connection absolutely beautiful. When you say it out loud, it sounds bizarre to think that the Evil Queen and the Wicked Witch of the West are sisters. However, after this week’s episode, it’s a relationship a lot of us care greatly for.

Despite its unique and wonderful ridiculousness, Once Upon A Time tells real stories and while some stories are bound to have a happy ending, other’s simply just aren’t given the chance. Sometimes, it’s too late. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try to change someone, it doesn’t work out. And “Sisters” not only illuminated the serenity found in forgiveness, but it showcased the rage that’s built up from the refusal to let go.

Anything and everything requires love. In order to move forward, you must open your heart to those in front of you. In order to forgive, you must choose to hold on to love. The greatest strength doesn’t come from magic or physical versatilities, but rather love, for love and only love alone could change lives in impeccable ways. And at the end of the day, it all comes down to a choice. 

We often come to this place where we wonder who the worst parent truly is. Cora? Pan? Brennan? Or Rumple? And yet, in the end, we always come down to believing that if Cora were different, everything else would be, too. There are plenty of parents that want riches and glory for their children, but the extent to which Cora pushed Regina was downright horrifying. And the sad reality is, it wasn’t about Regina — it was about Cora herself. She may not have wanted to see her daughter have the kind of life she did, but at the same time, she left another child behind because she wanted to give herself her best chance. Cora’s choices have continuously been about herself and ultimately, Cora’s choices were always stemmed from deep desires. She only ever followed her path and no other road was an option for her.

It’s not easy to make the difficult choice. It’s not easy to take the honorable route, but the thing is, Cora has never tried. She was never willing to shift her perspective. She’s pushed and pushed her daughter over the edge and even when she could’ve been enough for her, she wasn’t. However, for the first time, Cora was open and honest. And that honesty gave her daughters the opportunity to seize something incredibly significant — each other.

There are two kinds of people in the world: people who do as they see because they don’t see their own strength to branch out or people who see one thing and do the exact opposite. For Regina and Zelena, all they’ve known is that they weren’t good enough. And when that comes from the belief that you weren’t wanted or ever enough for the woman who gave birth to you, you’re bound to make more bad decisions than good ones. Regina knew what it was like to have a loving parent, but Cora needed to push her over the edge. Cora needed her to lose the love in her heart. And if you push a person far enough, they’ll fall eventually fall. Additionally, knowing she was never even wanted, caused Zelena to seek revenge believing that Regina’s life was only ever wonderful.

Life can be terrible sometimes, but people can help. Persistence, kindness, and openness can do wonders for the heart. Snow continuously forgiving Regina is what allowed her to open her heart to the possibility of feeling again. The hollowness Regina had harbored for years was due to the fact that no one else could love her and as a result, she became incapable of properly loving as well. In the same way, Zelena filled her heart with hatred because she firmly believed in the fact that she was not only unworthy but that Regina had a better life. And once people make the decision to close their hearts, it takes a great deal to open them again.

Up until the heroes step in, villains are often stress-free, but choosing to open up their hearts, means the risk of getting hurt is high again. And due to the disapproval stemming from their mother, both women closed their hearts towards the world, but even more towards one another.

When Regina was forgiven, it gave her the opportunity to forgive herself, and being exposed to a life less lonely, it became easier to make difficult choices. It became easier to choose the difficult road. It became easier to do honorable things. Although in order for her to truly feel fulfilled, her mother needed to see the beauty in her choices as well. As for Zelena, she needed to know that Cora truly regretted leaving her behind. It’s easy to look at another and believe that their life is glorious, but the truth is, people only reveal what they want the world to see. Zelena wasn’t going to give up bringing Regina down because it was etched in her that in spite of everything, she was good enough to be kept around. And it’s only now that she was able to see that Cora had damaged Regina as well.

As it turns out, when Regina was a little girl, messing with magic knocked her unconscious, and the only way to revive her was through someone blood-related who’d never harmed her. Cora then seeks out Zelena and once Regina’s woken, the two bond just as beautifully as sisters do. Regina finally has the friend she’d always dreamed of, only when Zelena opens the box sealed with blood magic, the two come to the realization that they’re related.

Ava Acres and Isabella Blake-Thomas were so great as young Regina and Zelena — the two wore absolute joy perfectly in their performances once Cora told them they were actually sisters. Top the scene off with Once Upon A Time’s classic “I will find you” and you’ve got us wrecked in tears. It’s heartbreaking in every sense of the word that despite the fact that she’s got a husband and daughter who love her, Cora still believes that the only person you can trust is yourself. And continuing to etch that idea into Regina is what created the monster the Evil Queen turned out to be.

“Sisters” teaches viewers the importance of trust. Sure no relationship is forever, but it’s better to have experienced it than to believe no soul can be trusted and you must go through life alone. And as it turns out, that’s exactly what Cora needed to realize during her time alone. While you may be able to trust yourself, it’s better to know that there will be people who’ll always find you when you’re lost. And although choosing to wipe the girls of their memories was a horrific choice on Cora’s part, choosing to return them was perhaps the best decision she’s ever made.

There was a time when Cora didn’t get the chance to stop a fun, pretend fireball fight with Regina and Zelena, but when it came down to a real one, she finally chose to put her daughters’ happiness above her own. She chose to do the right thing, which meant reminding them of the love that she once believed was a weakness. Barbara Hershey, Rebecca Mader, and Lana Parrilla were exceptional throughout the episode, but in that scene especially, they each floored us. Zelena has changed, she is truly willing to be a better mother for her child and by choosing not to run away during this moment, she chose the hard path. It would’ve been easier for her to refuse to see Cora’s side, but both she and Regina were willing to hear their mother out. And their reactions toward one another as their memories returned were absolutely beautiful. Mader and Parrilla wore such sincere regret and sorrow for the things they had done, we’re probably never getting over it.

It’s always beautiful that Once Upon A Time addresses the importance of forgiveness because it’s perhaps the most liberating sensation. When we carry rage in us, we burden ourselves with horrific, unexplainable pain. We harm ourselves mentally, spiritually, and even physically while those who’ve hurt us don’t ache as badly. It isn’t easy to forgive. It’s fair to assume we all know that feeling very well. When we’re hurt, we don’t want to forgive. We want matters to be made right, but it isn’t always easy to let go.

Sometimes, people don’t apologize. Sometimes, they’re insincere. But once we finally let go, the moment we choose to believe to see the best in someone, we find serenity again. And it was immaculate to see both Regina and Zelena find the solace they’ve always searched for. Regina may have a family now, but surely deep down it always ached her that she was at war with her flesh and blood as opposed to being a family At the end of the day, despite the fact that Regina may have had a better relationship with her mother than Zelena, she had never truly forgiven her for all the terrible things she’s done. She had never forgiven her for keeping Zelena a secret. The chapters in the Mills’ storybook always had darker pages than light. But most importantly, it was gorgeous to see both sisters willing to forgive Cora for what she’d done. Blood is thicker than water, and no matter how hard we try, deep down we always want to be at peace with our families. And some families are truly terrible, and there is no peace, but it seems as though when there’s a willingness to mend things, it’s always a step in the right direction.

Sometimes, there is no explanation. It just happens. And the fact that Once Upon A Time emphasizes the importance of “better later than never” is incredibly admirable to us.

Sisters are an irreplaceable gift. Rebecca Mader and Lana Parrilla have never been stronger scene partners than they were in “Sisters” and now we’re praying for more scenes between the two. Mader made sure the audience didn’t miss a single beat as she projected such innate vulnerability, genuine shock, and iridescent happiness. And the single tear falling from Parrilla’s eyes broke us — you could feel the love for Zelena rushing back to her. Regina’s protective of those she loves and oftentimes, she’s harsh, and you could see it all make sense now. She could never kill Zelena because despite their differences, as sisters, the two somehow always cared for one another. And that compassion though very small at some point has stopped them from permanently harming one another.

We never thought we’d say a scene involving Cora would be sad, but the goodbyes she shared with her girls before she passed were heart-shattering.  People can change. Sometimes love is enough. And for Cora to have truly changed her beliefs is wonderful. She was the foolish one to steadfastly believe that love is a weakness but choosing to remind her girls that holding onto one another would bring them strength was perfect. And did anyone else break into ridiculous sobs when she told Zelena she never even got the chance to say hello to her before their goodbye? (And cue the tears because it’s happening again.) And another thing we never thought we’d see is a heartfelt embrace between the two sisters.

The embrace they shared was a choice to fortify the promise they’d once made as children. The promise to hold on to each other and look out for each other. From this moment on, they’ll always be family — the hands that’ll hold each other through the darkest times. The sisters will ceaselessly fight to ensure the other’s happiness at all costs. The sisters who will always find each other.

Love is everything — whether it’s platonic or romantic, it’s the strongest force in the entire universe. It is what inspired Killian to change his ways for Emma, and she didn’t have to try, she merely gave him the option to choose to be a part of something. And it was great to see Regina choose love for Zelena because sometimes, all a person needs to chase something is someone believing in them. Snow was there to help Regina follow her heart to Robin, and it was incredibly lovely to see Regina believe in the fact that her sister can inspire Hades. After all, love is what inspired Regina to become better for Robin. And Henry in similar ways inspired Regina, too.

Prior to finding trusting Hades, Zelena fell in love with her daughter and that’s a kind of love Regina understands profoundly. She also knows that in order for a person to truly change, you not only need to believe in them, but you must encourage them. No one can move a mountain on their own.  Parrilla delivered Regina’s faith in Zelena with such sincerity, to which Mader’s reaction was then filled with a glimmer of hope we’ve yet to see from her. For once, Zelena’s not fighting alone — for once, she has family by her side and her sister’s choosing to not only believe in love’s power, but she’s choosing to believe in Zelena. And that kind of faith isn’t something Zelena’s used to. And for the very first time in ages, Regina has blood by her side. She has someone whom she can argue with and simultaneously adore to bits in a way only sisters could. The best part in all this is that for once, we aren’t terrified Zelena will turn around and do something horrible. We have faith in her as well, and it’s going to be so exciting to watch her story unfold.

Unfortunately, not everyone gets the chance to move on and that may have been the most disappointing part of the episode. Josh Dallas has done some exceptionally fine work in “Sisters” as he took on the role of both James and David (Charming) and at one point, he even pulled a Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) by having one twin impersonate the other. Dallas’ ability to wear terror and hatred in James’ expression juxtaposed with the genuine fear and vulnerability in David’s was thrilling. James is terrifying. And for the very first time, David was actually scared which managed to make us nervous because if there’s one thing David’s capable of, it’s protecting his family. But when the two first reunited out on the streets of Underbrooke, Dallas projected such uncertainty in his expression — David’s genuinely unsure of what James is capable of and that made him uneasy. But for a while, James got the opportunity to get his glory back only to fail with the unstoppable force that is Killian and Charming’s bromance. But seriously, James — if you’re going lock a man up, at least do it at a place that’s foreign to him.

When we imagined their reunion prior to the episode airing, we figured it would end with James choosing to let go of the anger he’d built up toward Charming. But as Emma states, some people just don’t get to move forward. James was going to ruthlessly murder Emma, Robin, and an infant all because his mother gave him up when he was younger. However, unlike Cora, Ruth didn’t have a choice.

She didn’t want to give up any of her children, but the reality is James probably had a better life. And in the end, he chose to be selfish not because he resented Charming for being the chosen one, but because in the end, Charming stole his glory. He loved being a Prince, he was meant to be King, and knowing someone else then had that opportunity destroyed him. Once again, it comes down to a choice — and instead of choosing to see that his brother had no choice but merely took the fall for his recklessness, James chose revenge. He chose the easy route which leads to hatred and anger and ultimately landed him in an eternal pit of sorrow. We’re still hoping these souls can be freed and hopefully by then, James would’ve had the time to think his problems through. And although it was heartbreaking to see Charming saddened by the fact that this isn’t the way he wanted things to end with his brother, it was sweet to see Emma there for her father. It was sweet to see her remind him of the things he would’ve reminded her of had the roles been reversed. He had no choice. He didn’t just throw his brother in the river because it was easy, it happened as he fought him trying to protect his family.

While some people can never move forward, others can never choose anything above power, but at this point, it isn’t shocking that Rumple’s not even going to try. But choosing to get Pan involved in kidnapping Zelena may have been the dumbest move yet. C’mon, beastie the sisters just united, do you really think you stand a chance against Regina and the Charmings? And especially now that they’ve got the wicked witch on their side?

“Sisters” has now landed a spot on our list of favorite episodes and it’s done so by graciously and beautifully reminding us of the importance of forgiveness. When you have love, you have everything. When you have family, you have everything. Opening yourself up to someone allows them to feel safe enough to fall. And when you feel safe with someone, you feel safe as your best self which effortlessly inspires you to keep thriving, fighting, and believing in the possibility of a happy ending.

It really doesn’t matter what we see on television this week because Rebecca Mader’s performances have been so groundbreaking, we’re still not done talking about them. Be sure to check out our performance review for her at the end of the week.

On a side note, at least we know Robin is doing good and he’s getting all the necessary things for baby!Hood.


  1. What a lovely and articulate review of this episode, Giss! You truly outdid yourself here and did a beautiful episode justice by showing just how deeply it touched you. <3

    This was one of my favorite episodes of the show in quite some time, and you perfectly laid out why. It took some of the show's most powerful themes and made them feel fresh and vibrant by bringing them to life through the story of a family of women who I never would have thought capable of reaching a place of forgiveness, honesty, and sincere love.

    I also had to laugh at your paragraph about Rumple because I had the same thought: How could he possibly think this plan would work? But he's always underestimating how strong love is, and I think once again he's going to see that as his undoing when Regina's love for Zelena combines with Hades love for her as they work together to save her.

    Now I'm going to be waited with bated breath for your post about Rebecca Mader!

    1. Thank you x a million, darling. I’m never going to stop saying it because it just truly means so much coming from a writer/friend I admire.

      Honestly, what even is Rumple’s deal. I’m not sure his scenes are meant to be funny, but I suppose we all need a good laugh and that’s what that ending scene was. I cannot wait to see the look on his face when he realizes Zelena’s not someone the heroes will be happy to have lost. And I’m just so excited to see Hades fight for Zelena!

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