Season 3 of Once Upon a Time is one of the best of the series with both arcs being captivating and moving as we were treated to new lands, fantastic villains, growth from our characters, and so much heart in terms of romance and family relationships. Moments that had us opening weeping as well as moments that had us smiling endlessly, Season 3 was remarkable in every way and still includes the best episode the series has ever created. Here are the best from this magical season.
1. “Snow Drifts/There’s No Place Like Home” (Season 3, Episode 21/22)
If any episode of Once Upon a Time could be described as perfect, it would be the two-part season 3 finale. An epic, romantic, exquisitely poignant fairytale adventure if there ever was one, it had everything: time travel, sword fights, romantic waltzes, intrigues, a wedding, and magic, with true love once again prevailing. Creator Eddy Kitsis called this episode “wish fulfillment” and indeed this stunning conclusion to the season was like a dream come true. There were countless amazing moments: we see the first meeting of Snow and Charming interrupted but Emma and Hook working to make sure things are restored to normal, showing the couple still falling in love in very much the same way, and proving that some things are meant to be. Emma entering the fairy tale world, experiencing things she’s never done in her life was very significant, and witnessing her parents fall in love mirroring her own heart as she was opening up to Hook. Their adventures brought them closer together in truly extraordinary moments from Emma seducing a past Captain Hook, to which he punches this version of himself, to him teaching her to waltz, to him lending a shoulder and understanding ear and she realizes how much your parents mean to her and that Storybrooke is her home. And indeed magic as glorious Emma’s was created. Every character had their time to shine in truly delightful ways: Rumpelstiltskin in his hilarious, impish self contrasting with his softer (albeit still deceitful) but sincere marriage vows to Belle, as well as Regina in her evil queen grandeur showing just how far she has come especially in finding happiness as she rejoices in her time with Robin Hood. The true love couple montage at the end of the episode was poignant and truly beautiful with each vow reflecting what our characters have gone through on their journeys toward love. For Emma and Hook, the moment he revealed he traded his ship for her was an exquisitely moving scene and it demonstrated the great beauty of true love. Emma’s journey has been a long one and her walls were a mile high. But with a single word her walls came tumbling down as the two share the most beautiful kiss the show has ever seen. He gave up his home to bring her back to hers and in a show about shared hearts and true love’s kiss this moment of sincerity and love was just as pure and magical. This episode fulfilled that theme Once Upon a Time demonstrates so perfectly: true love is indeed the most powerful magic of all. And there has never been a more magical episode.
2. “New York City Serenade” (Season 3, Episode 12)
The mid season premiere of season 3 was one of the most different and yet beautifully familiar episodes ever. With significant and lovely parallels to the “Pilot,” this episode reinvigorated series in such a dynamic way and it was fantastic to watch. With flashbacks to our heroes just after they’ve been transported back to the Enchanted Forest, we see how far they’ve come especially for Regina, Snow and Charming. As they work their way back to their home united and determined, we bear witness to the wonderful, hopeful new chance at love when Regina meets the dashing outlaw Robin Hood as well as the truly touching moment where Regina and Snow share the heartache of leaving their children behind. The present-day scenes of Hook finding Emma in New York City were equally fantastic – amusing in their fish out of water scenario, and poignant in the undeniable connection we see between them in the moment where she takes the leap of faith, trusts him, and has her memories restored. And in the journey back home to Storybrooke complete with dialogue, music, and camera angles that perfectly parallel the “Pilot,” we see that just like her other true love Henry, Hook was bringing her back to Storybrooke with the hope of breaking the curse, but was actually bringing her home. This episode was amazing in every way.
3. “Going Home” (Season 3, Episode 11)
Tied with “Swan Song” as the episode that has made me cry the most, the dramatic and heart-wrenching finale to the first half of season 3 gave every character significant moments both in flashbacks and present-day Storybrooke as our heroes tried to stop Peter Pan and his dark curse that threatened their lives. From the flashbacks of Snow and Charming recalling the days before the first dark curse choosing to have hope that everything will be okay, to Rumple lighting a candle for Baelfire’s birthday, to Hook meeting Tinkerbell in Neverland claiming that he’d risk his life for love or revenge, and Henry first receiving the storybook from Mary Margaret sparking that belief in hope and his quest towards finding Emma, all of these flashbacks reflected the present day drama in profound ways. Rumple made the ultimate sacrifice fulfilling his arc for this half of the season, laying down his life most especially for Neal and Belle but saving everyone from Peter Pan. Regina had to say goodbye to Henry to stop the curse and in Henry’s eyes the woman was no longer a villain but simply his mother and she was able to spare Henry and Emma from the curse with the gift of new and happy memories but ones that erased Storybrooke and the memories of all them from their minds. In these moments where Emma said goodbye to her friends, to Hook who promised to think of her every day, and finally, with a heavy heart, to her parents, I openly wept as they crossed that town line and our fairytale tale heroes and Storybrooke vanished in a cloud of magic. And in a pure stroke of unexpected genius, when I saw the one year flash forward to Emma and Henry in New York City with Hook showing up at her door, trying True Love’s Kiss to restore her memories, I literally lept from my seat, my heart so full after having been broken moments before. It was a perfect representation of the theme to never lose hope and that no matter the distance, love will always find you.
4. “Good Form” (Season 3, Episode 5)
This episode truly had it all in terms of new and fantastic dynamics being explored, heart, unexpected moments, and flashbacks that not only informed what was going on in the present but also helped delve deeper into a character and indeed the over arching story. It was wonderful to see “Team Mom” working together – essentially three generations of family doing anything to get a message to Henry – to give him hope and let him know they were coming for him in “Operation Cobra Rescue.” Equally fantastic was Hook and David traveling to Dead Man’s Peak to retrieve a sextant, while in truth it being a quest to the magical water to cure David dreamshade poisoning. The reluctant alliance soon turns to mutual understanding and an unlikely but real friendship was formed. It was a poignant parallel to the flashbacks to not Captain Hook, but the true man he is. Lieutenant Killian Jones was sweet, earnest, and honorable, worshiped his brother Liam, and wanted to be a hero. Seeing shades of this his brother in David no doubt motivated Killian as well as wanting to save him Emma’s sake. It was heartbreaking to see how Liam died in his arms and that his path towards piracy was the result of the loss of love and betrayal from a corrupt king. These flashbacks were not only engaging, wonderful drama but perfectly established the idea of the longing to be a hero even if you’ve faltered along the way. Honor remained in Killian as he saved David’s life and respected his wishes for discretion about the truth of his condition. But he’s also has evolved and the cheeky charmer cannot help but flirt and ask Emma for a kiss, no doubt never believing she actually would do so. And what a kiss it was! Passionate and intense, it was the result of the pent up sexual tension between them with genuine feelings being revealed as the two are completely overwhelmed after their amorous moment. Emma and Hook, and indeed the show, have not looked back since.
5. “Ariel” (Season 3, Episode6)
The Little Mermaid was my favorite Disney film as a child so I was so excited to see Once Upon a Time’s take on the iconic character. And they did not disappoint. Not only did Joanna Garcia Swisher’s characterization perfectly capture Ariel’s sweetness, spunk, and romantic sensibilities, but she beautifully reflected what our characters were experiencing in Neverland. In the past, Snow helps Ariel find her courage to go after love, even if she is afraid because love is always worth the risk; she also proved to be a a kind, selfless soul choosing friendship and saving Snow’s life over the chance to be with Eric. These flashbacks were whimsical and lovely with a tinge of heartache when Ariel reaches Eric and is unable to speak. It was an effective and moving parallel to our heroes journey to rescue Neal in the Echo Cave where they had to reveal their darkest secret – where their voices were what was necessary. These confessions were some of the most heartrending of the series, each of which were profound and affecting for everyone but especially Emma and her journey of love, forgiveness, and healing. From David’s tearful secret about his fate, to Snow revealing how much she loves Emma but desires to have another baby to experience what she missed with her daughter, to Hook confessing that their kiss revealed that he never thought he could let go of his first love and move on until he met Emma, and finally to Emma telling Neal she had hoped him being alive had been a trick, this heart-wrenching confession that his death would be easier to move on from rather facing all their pain again. These confessions were undeniably dramatic and compelling and irrevocably changed everything for our characters.
6. “Dark Hollow” (Season 3, Episode 7)
One of the most complimentary, fast-moving, and well-balanced episodes of the series, “Dark Hollow” finally brought the action back to Storybrooke after a long absence, with events happening concurrently with the events in Neverland – a type of timeline rarely seen on the show. Ariel and Belle work together to retrieve Pandora’s box proving crucial in the “Nevengers” quest to defeat Pan and proving that quick thinking, cleverness, and compassion and understanding are just as important as physical strength. I loved their scenes and the friendship they formed. Meanwhile in Neverland, the heroes all split up with different tasks, but meaningful truths were revealed. Snow finally expressed her anger towards David, while he admitted his fears and contrition as the two were reminded that they must always be honest and believe in their love and each other. Truth of the heart also embodied the trek Emma, Hook, and Neal made to Dark Hollow to retrieve Pan’s shadow. Hook and Neal may have had tension between them, but the real tension and truth was in the romantically spine tingling moment where Hook completely lays his heart on the line and vow to win Emma’s heart, but that it will be only because she wants him. That beautiful honesty may have been too much for her to handle at the moment, but when the shadows attack both men, she not only was able to use her magic to save them, but screams Hook’s name in terror, her true feelings beginning to come to the surface and showcasing what Once Upon a Time does so well: demonstrate that moments of fear and darkness can reveal what truly lies within our hearts.
7. “The Jolly Roger” (Season 3, Episode 17)
Melancholy, sweet, and captivating, this episode revealed more crucial moments from the missing year in the Enchanted Forest, while also showing how much our characters have grown into a family, and ended in a way that had us audibly gasping in heartbreak – all of this necessary to move the story forward while moving us in very deep ways. In some lighter moments, it was great to see Emma being taught how to hone her magic by Regina; her methods were extreme but Emma’s instincts proved to be amazing. David teaching Henry to drive was one of the funniest moments of the series and provided much-needed levity, while seeing them all happily eating dinner together at Granny’s we witnessed how forgiveness can repair and create a happy family. Snow’s expression, matched by one from earlier in the episode, was particularly telling. Despite everything I think Snow just wanted her stepmother back and she finally is. It was the person who was missing from the family dinner that provided the heartache of the episode. In the past we see how hard Hook was trying to forget Emma and go back to his old way of life, but struggling to do so. These flashbacks, complete with swashbuckling gloriousness with a pirate duel with Blackbeard aboard the Jolly Roger provided the captivating adventure, while the sadness of his mistake and going back on his word to Ariel provided the brevity. It was a brevity punctuated with profundity with his confession to Ariel in the present which resulted in him swearing on the name of his true love Emma Swan. Profound on its own it was also shocking when we discovered that Ariel was Zelena in disguise who cursed Killian’s lips, leaving him shocked, trapped, and so heartbroken that he feels he can’t accept Emma’s dinner invitation and sincere sign that she’s ready to open her heart to him. As he watched from afar, his heartbreak was potent and unforgettable.
8. “Kansas” (Season 3, Episode 20)
So much to find captivating and moving in this episode, we see fun and unique flashbacks to Zelena’s trip to Oz and her inability to stay free from envy which tied right into the present-day excitement that found her eventually defeated but her essence still remaining to cause trouble for our characters. The birth of Snow and David’s baby boy was done so movingly, paralleling the “Pilot” when he is snatched from her arms moments after his birth. The raw pain was heart wrenching, which made the pure joy when David returns, a bright smile upon his face, placing the baby back in her arms even more beautiful. When Emma and Henry join them, happily welcoming the new member of the Charming clan, the moment is sweet and joyful but punctuated with sadness as we see Hook, outside the room, physically and still metaphorically separated from my family he longs to be a part of. He longs to be with Emma, and knows that she cares deeply – something she realizes herself when she gave up her magic to save him from drowning, begging for him to come back to her. The moment is poignant and emphasizes her fear of losing him. But it’s a fear that is still under the surface, blocked by her fears of an uncertain future, resulting in her saying she’s going back to New York. Lastly the defeat of Zelena – the showdown between sisters- was absolutely fantastic as we see Regina fight back, find her courage (and I might add a moment after Robin retrieved her heart) and proving that you can change. She found light magic within herself and proved to be a real hero.
9. “Lost Girl” (Season 3, Episode 2)
A truly touching episode that paralleled mother and daughter, “Lost Girl” is apristine example of the way Once Upon a Time so perfectly can balance family and romantic moments with adventure and poignancy. Seeing how much faith David has in Snow was lovely as it is revealed that the quest to find Excalibur was simply a ruse for her to realize that she had the courage inside of her all the time. When she stood up to Regina and vowed to fight for her kingdom she showed that is not outside essentials that determine our heroism, but rather the truth of our hearts. Snow was lost but with a little help from her true love she found herself. It was a moving parallel to Emma in Neverland, who needed to admit who she really was in order for Pan’s map to Henry to be revealed. Of course the episode also showed the birth of the “Nevengers “as they banded together in a battle against the Lost Boys; but the true heart of the episode was Emma admitting to her mother that she doesn’t feel like a hero or a savior. She feels like an orphan, seeing the same look of despair in the eyes of a lost boy that she has had. Her admittance of the pain she experienced as a child when she cried herself to sleep, wanting her parents, never understanding why they gave her up was heart-wrenching and beautifully performed. It was another step in Emma’s journey of her heart slowly beginning to heal and open up. This step was lastly demonstrated when Hook honestly says he would like to know who she really is and she walks away not quite ready to open up to him. This is a truly lovely episode.
10. “The Tower” (Season 3, Episode 14)
There are not nearly enough episodes that are center around David’s character, but when there are they never disappoint. This one in particular was a powerful one for his character and the show itself. As is often the case, he brings out the show’s timeless themes in moving ways. In this case, it is a flashback that centered around searching for a root to rid himself of his nightmares but instead had him finding Rapunzel in a tower, afraid to leave, bringing forth the idea that our fears must always be faced head-on. The melancholy dream David has of teaching Emma to dance only for her to be pulled away from him show his fears of failing his children, something any parent can relate to. When he physically faces a version of himself that taunts these deepest, darkest fears that he has, he found his courage and realized that bravery doesn’t mean the absence of fear, but rather recognizing and facing it anyway. It may be a fantastical situation, but moving and relatable nonetheless. Complete with a sweet moment between Henry and Regina, and evocative and romantic one where Emma opens up about getting her heartbroken with Hook saying he’s glad because it means it still works, “The Tower” is all around fantastic.