Once Upon A Time 6×11 “Tougher Than the Rest” Recap

Spoilers Ahead

“Tougher Than the Rest” was a solid season premiere that finally addressed something we’ve all been wanting to know.

Episode Summary: In flashbacks, we learn that a little last-name-less Emma was about to burn away pages of The Ugly Duckling story in order to keep warm after running away, but a kind stranger talks her out of it by telling her she’s capable of changing her fate. Back in the Evil Queen’s wish realm, Emma seeks August’s help to rebuild the wardrobe that sent her into our world while Regina seeks out Robin to learn if he’s happy in this land. Killian and Charming do everything in their power to find the hooded figure who’s after Emma while Rumple and Belle attempt to figure out their infant son is suddenly standing before them as an adult.

Review | Analysis: Once Upon A Time is truly at its best when its focus is on telling our heroine’s story. And perhaps that may appear to be a biased opinion to some, but the truth is, while it’s engaging to get a twist on our classic fairy tales, it’s inexpressibly beautiful to watch Emma Swan’s story unfold. At its core, this series is about self-discovery and understanding the importance of our choices. It is a series that often highlights the prominence of rising after tremendous falls and persevering while climbing the steepest hills. While “Tougher Than the Rest” had its flaws, it was thematically exquisite.

“If we believe in something strongly enough, we all have the power to change our fate.”

Mckenna Grace is spot on as little Emma — the natural survival instincts and the inability to grasp the concept of hope are delivered with the same sardonic mannerisms as Jennifer Morrison in earlier seasons. But in “Tougher Than the Rest,” advice from a stranger brings a bit of light into Emma’s life. A light so bright, she chooses the road she’ll travel to. The best part of “Tougher Than the Rest” was finally learning the origin behind Emma’s last name, and I for one love the fact that it’s something she chose as opposed to it being a former foster/adoptive parent’s last name. It makes the name that much more powerful and adds a profound layer of heart to it.

After the mysterious boy tells her that the ugly duckling’s persistence is the purpose of the tale, Emma comes to the understanding that if she too believes with every fiber of her being, perhaps great things can happen. Perhaps she can be a swan. Perhaps she is one. So when a broken little girl declared that her last name is “Swan,” you felt the change in the atmosphere. It wouldn’t get better right away, it would take years and years, but at this moment, it’s evident that the duckling would never give up. And kudos to art director, Sean Carvajal for making sure Emma stood out as a light in the dark — a swan in the sea.

But the stranger in Emma’s life is anything but that — as we learn by the end of the episode, it’s actually August. And in an incredibly sincere moment, Eion Bailey delivers the gorgeous reveal that he’d always kept tabs on her. We cannot fault a little Pinocchio for abandoning an infant, there aren’t many kids in the world that’d know how to stick around, but while it always frustrated me (and always will) that he went through drastic measures through Neal to have Emma reach her destiny, I suppose it’s comforting to know that he always knew where to find her. And perhaps he knew that if she was ever in a situation where she could not manage, he’d be close by.

Through everything, however, Killian has always been the constant in Emma’s life. He’s chosen to protect and uplift her from the moment they met serving as the perpetual beacon of light in her life. He’s been her hope. He’s been her best friend. He’s been her safe place. And he’s been the one to always remind her of how amazing she is. This adventure would’ve been absolute magic if the two of them were on it together, but their adorable reunion was enough to remind us of the beautiful impact they have on each other’s lives.

Nevertheless, their scenes as wish realm Pinocchio and Emma were a real treat. When Emma finds Pinocchio, she learns that Gepetto has passed and chooses to tell him the truth about what is going on. Knowing that his father’s belief in the fact that he could be a real boy is what made him who he is, he chooses to believe her, and the two set off to recreate the wardrobe that once allowed their characters to pass through realms.

But as they’re attempting to carve out the wardrobe from the gorgeous, magical tree they’re interrupted by a pirate who’s nothing as we’ve previously known. While I’m aware that no one is truly themselves in the “wish realm”, this scene felt wrong. I have a sense of humor, I do, but when attention often goes to a man’s “drinking problem”, it feels cheap. And without the line of rum, it would’ve been perfectly fine. There are a number of ways that “wish realm” Killian could’ve been handled, and the opportunity to bring in actual Disney Hook has now been wasted. He reminded me a bit of Pirates of the Caribbean’s Jack Sparrow, but the play on his former habits marginalized the character to a pathetic drunk without properly acknowledging the issue that’s at large. And the unfortunate truth is that the series is guilty of glossing over issues that should be properly dealt with.  It would’ve been cool to instead see Killian as a ruthless, truly threatening pirate whose sole life was a result of grief and absolutely no presence of light. But nonetheless, Colin O’Donoghue was excellent.

That said, after Killian, Hook rather, breaks August’s chisel, he gives up on the idea that he can create anything remotely close to what his father was capable of. And by reminding him of the advice she was given as a little girl, the two manage to recreate the wardrobe.

There are a lot of admirable things about Once Upon A Time and one of them is the means by which things come full circle. And that’s essentially what life is — moments leading up to bigger moments then tying us back to our pasts in order to showcase just how much growth has taken place. There are certain things in life that are impossible to forget, and they are the moments in which we felt as though happiness could be found — moments where despite how much we’ve struggled, we’ve been reminded of the possibilities. And belief in something is always the right step. Once Upon A Time has frequently exemplified the power of belief through its characters, and “Tougher Than the Rest” was yet another fantastic portrayal. In order to succeed in whatever they need, belief needs to be in full force.

And in “Tougher Than the Rest” Emma wasn’t the only character who needed to believe. Charming’s unyielding quest to protect his daughter once again stands as the number one priority for our noble prince. His refusal to wake up to Snow until they found Gideon was expected of him. And while he’s more often than not collected in his quests, this particular battle has broken him. Though it broke me, too, the reality is, I’m a prodigious fan of Josh Dallas’ work as he portrays a father and husband on a mission. It’s where Dallas is at his best exuding everlasting adoration for his family that’s greater than anything else in his world. And the innate love of a father is never once absent from his expressions.

As much as it’s frustrating to see our favorite couple apart, it’s amazing to see our favorite bromance take charge. (They need a spin-off detective show.) Killian and David may not have always seen eye to eye, but today, they are a manifestation of strength in the other’s life. When one is uneasy and riled up, the other’s there to remind them of the fact that everything will be okay. And Killian’s choice to calm David and remind him that he needs to slow down was a nice drawback to “White Out.

But David’s relationship with Killian wasn’t the only unexpected blessing in the series — Belle’s newfound trust in Killian continues to be an absolute blast to witness. I appreciated Belle’s choice to go to David and Killian because that’s who she’s always been as a character — trustworthy. And because she is trustworthy, she needed to open up about the reality that’s become their lives to everyone that’s involved.

There are quite a few heartbreaking tales on Once Upon A Time, and Belle’s is most certainly one of them. The fact that she wasn’t given the opportunity to watch her child grow is a tragedy on its own, but to reunite with him later only to learn that he’s actually aged and had a horrific upbringing is essentially too much. (Can we please stop speeding up pregnancies and aging on this show?)

Gideon meets with his father and mother to let them know that he was raised by the Black Fairy and is now under the belief that he must kill Emma in order to become the savior of another place that’s under her reign. Oh, and he’s 28. Excuse me but WHAT? The bottom line is, viewers shouldn’t have to do this much work in order to figure out what’s happening on a show that’s rather simple to understand even without intense analysis. And while I’m intrigued with the story, the timeline in correlation with what Aladdin has said about saviors makes zero sense. Perhaps it’s something that’ll be answered in the upcoming episode, but for now, the concept of time on Once Upon A Time has become a hot mess rocket science can’t even figure out.

This whole idea of them attempting to talk things through with Gideon as opposed to eliminating him was a wise choice as they could have made, and for once, I actually applauded Rumple’s character. When he told Belle they needed to partner up in order to help their son, it felt right. In spite of everything they’ve been through, that moment, that choice felt right for them. I’m not entirely sure if there will be a death this season, but if there is, my guess is on it being Rumple. As I’ve often said, the only way his character can truly atone for all that he’s done is a final, honorable sacrifice. And if it’s done to protect his son, then his story comes full circle. I wasn’t as excited before, but after everything we’ve learned during this episode, I’m thrilled to meet the Black Fairy. I want to see what drives her, what motivated her, and what broke her to cause this ultimate fury that seems to be showcasing her as the worst parent of all.

As confusing as Once Upon A Time’s timeline is, the “wish realms” is even more of a puzzle, and we see that through Regina’s journey as she finds herself in search of a version of a Robin that hasn’t aged a single bit. Okay. How? It’s interesting that characters that have actually died weren’t a part of it, but Robin is, and that leads Regina on a quest to learn how. Although things aren’t entirely clear, it’s safe to assume that perhaps we should be under the impression that when Hades obliterated him, his soul remained. And perhaps that’s due to the fact that he died as a sacrifice for love, which changed the way the crystal works? Here’s to hoping this is a question that gets answered quickly.

But this version of Robin is just as different as the other characters — he doesn’t steal from the rich to give to the poor. He steals from the rich to give to himself. Marian died before they could marry so Roland was never born. And he’s not entirely the happiest of folks. As bizarre as this adventure felt due to the questions it posed, it took us back to a moment in “Outlaw Queen” history that I personally have always adored. As Regina looked through the tavern window, she remembered Tink’s message about the man with the lion tattoo being her soul mate. Does this make anyone else’s heart jump a little because mine always does? That brief little moment is such a marvelous part of their history and the reminder is always lovely. But it was interesting to me that Regina was genuinely under the belief that people would be happier without her in their life. Because the truth is, things may not have been as they are now, but lives would have been a lot easier without her continuously torturing them as the Evil Queen.

But nonetheless, her adventures with this version of Robin were a lot of fun to watch. And his sarcasm was on another level of great. Seriously. Sean Maguire was greatly missed and this is the reason why. He is so much fun to watch as an actor. And after they’re imprisoned by Sheriff Knottingham, then released only to be captured again by Rumple, Robin breaks them out in order to help her back to Emma. But before they part, he doesn’t leave her with nothing but rather gives her the feather that had been lost. And then strangely, this turned out to be another iconic scene between the two because the things we lose have a way of coming back to us in the end, if not always in the way we expect. Luna Lovegood was right. In spite of the mess that this all turned out to be, this moment fit, and whatever the mystery may be, it played into the episode’s theme beautifully because Regina states that she had a feeling they hadn’t seen the last of the feather. So when Emma suggests they bring him back, Robin agrees to want to know who the other version of him was willing to die for.

I’m not entirely sure how this is all going to work because if this version becomes a reality, does that mean Roland fades from existence? All magic comes with a price so how bad will the ramifications of this choice be? Will he need to eventually die again in a less heartbreaking way? Who knows, but here’s to hoping it ends well.

The episode concludes with Emma and Gideon fighting on the streets of Storybrooke with everyone watching, but this couldn’t have been the battle right? And I’m judging this based on Emma’s outfit along with the idea that Gideon won’t be giving up that easily. Nevertheless, it was an incredible battle scene that reminded me a lot of Rey and Kylo Ren’s in The Force Awakens. Jennifer Morrison projected a plethora of resilience and valor through her eyes — the image of a swan fighting for the life she’s earned to live. An image that I presume will only be bigger and better during the next fight. And the fight wasn’t without the absence of her shaking hands, but the belief that she could change her fate served as the force that burst through her. Emma is fated to die, but this isn’t the time, place, or way, and punching back with belief exhibits monumental growth for the character.

“Tougher than the Rest” left us with a number of questions in an all-around entertaining premiere. And while the episode could use improvements, its thematic showcase of the power of belief was a gorgeous display of Once Upon A Time at its best. A series that reminds us that hope is always at large if belief is present. Even if it’s a small, blossoming feeling, it’s still an indication that we’re on the right path in life. And for these characters, it’s always served as the reminder that where there’s one person whose faith is endless, possibilities know no bounds.

War is coming to Storybrooke and it feels pretty close to the end.

Worth Mentioning:

  • I need every single outfit Emma and Belle have been wearing this season because they’re too adorable.
  • As much as it bothers me, Killian’s confusion about switching to water made me laugh.
  • I love reunions on Once Upon A Time and I especially love them between the Charming families.
  • Robert Carlyle broke me in the way Rumple said “please, he’s my son.” That was such a beautiful showcase of fatherly adoration, and I have a feeling Rumple’s end will be sacrificial.
  • Was there ever an episode where we were told Emma’s last name came from a foster parent or is that just an assumption a lot of us made? If anyone has the source, please link us to it.

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