Ginnifer Goodwin as Snow White/Mary Margaret.
Ginnifer Goodwin as Snow White/Mary Margaret. (Autumn de Wilde, ABC)

I may have hinted at this before but for me, the first eight episodes of the second season of "Once Upon a Time" were a bit of a disappointment compared to most of the episodes in season one. Whereas last season introduced us to our favorite fairytale characters and important storylines, the start of this season was a lot of dilly dallying. Unneeded flashbacks and side plots diminished the intrigue this show provided last season, but I should have expected this once Emma broke the curse. Where do you go after a major event such as that is resolved?

Thankfully, the winter finale (new episodes return Jan. 6) showed a bit of hope for the show's future. This episode was a satisfying conclusion to the frustrating first eight episodes that were season two. The pleasantly jam-packed hour had Emma and Snow finally return to Storybrooke, revealed why part of fairyland wasn't affected by the curse, explored Hook and Cora's history, introduced Emma's new power, and gave us some of the best Regina-Henry moments thus far.

Cora's side job

We begin with a flashback. First off, I will say that this entire flashback was actually completely necessary and interesting. Yay! We find Hook at Regina's castle. He kills two faceless guards with his hand hook and finds Belle locked up. Hook is hellbent on revenge after Rumpel killed Milah and he thinks Belle knows how to kill him. Not surprisingly, Belle has no idea how and has no intention of killing her ex (?). Hook responds by knocking her unconscious.

Regina walks in and says she knows how Hook can get rid of Rumpel. How? Her handy curse that will send everyone to Storybrooke. She tells Hook that with the flick of his wrist, he can kill Rumpel since there will be no more magic. Yet she decides not to mention that fact that Hook will have no memory of his enemy. As always though, there is a catch. Regina wants him to dispose of Cora by taking her heart and if he does, she will include him in the Storybrooke party. I enjoyed the evil chemistry between Regina and Hook and I was half expecting them to hook up. Maybe it will happen in the future, because that's a relationship I'd be all for (sorry, Snow and Charming).

In Storybrooke, Henry reads stories to a sleeping-cursed Charming. Meanwhile, Rumpel and Regina discuss the possibility of Cora coming through the portal. They both agree that this can't happen. Rumpel wants to sabotage the portal so that anyone who comes through will die and that way Cora will never be able to wreak havoc. Unfortunately, this also means that Snow and Emma are dead if they make it through. At first, Regina is reluctant to this idea because it would emotionally kill Henry. Rumpel reminds her that it's a win-win situation. With Emma out of the picture, Regina can can once again have Henry all to herself and Henry won't have to know. She reassures Henry that she'll do everything in her power to make sure Snow and Emma have a safe return. Later, she and Rumpel come upon the diamonds that the dwarves mined. Using his magic wand, Rumpel extracts the magic from the gleaming crystals.

In Fairyland, Emma and the gang are underground where Rumpel was once a prisoner, in search of the magic ink that will supposedly help them get back. Aurora finds a scroll that has Emma's name written on it about a million times. At first I thought Rumpel was really trying hard to perfect his cursive.

We're back to the flashback. Regina enchants Hook's hook and yes, that sounded wrong. This will enable him to rip out the heart of Cora, who happens to be in Wonderland, which we got a glimpse of last season. Taking a dead body with him, Hook travels to Wonderland where he is immediately presented to the Queen of Hearts, otherwise known as CORA. I absolutely loved this twist. Hook buries his hook into her just but nothing happens because duh, she's the Queen of Hearts. If he doesn't tell her what her daughter has been up to, she'll take his heart.

Regina's weakness

In Fairyland, Emma and the gang are  trapped by Aurora because remember, she doesn't have a heart. Cora's control over her heart causes Aurora to lock them up. Cora quickly snatches the compass from Emma and Hook rubs it in that she should have trusted him because maybe things would have turned out differently. The dynamic duo leaves them there, intent on getting to Storybrooke. Emma responds by hacking away at the bars with her sword. This is literally the definition of wasting energy. She blames herself for all that's happened and says that she's the pawn. Snow, who is ever so hopeful, reminds her that good always triumphs evil.

Through flashback, we learn that Cora first gains a bit of Hook's trust after she informs him of the inevitable Storybrooke memory loss, something Regina forgot to mention. She says that she'll help Hook kill Rumpel if he gets her close to her daughter so she can rip her heart out. Well this mother/daughter relationship just keeps getting better doesn't it?

Actually, it does. Hook gives Regina her "dead" mom, in a scene that provides the darkest and somehow the sweetest moment of the night. Remember when Cora told Regina that love is weakness? Well, the reason that Regina wanted her mother dead and not in Storybrooke is because she loved her which means she was her weakness. This scene was truly messed up yet touching. With how much Cora put Regina through, it was strange and sweet to see Regina's true feelings for her mother.

Regina gives Cora a rose and leaves. Her mother doesn't snatch her daughter's heart like she intended too. Hook asks why, and Cora says it's because the curse is coming and they have to protect themselves. Then we finally get the answer to what plenty of us were wondering: why part of Fairyland was unaffected by the curse. Cora puts a shield over that part of the land and says she knows that in 28 years, there will be a savior. She reveals that everyone unaffected by the curse will remain frozen until it's broken. So all along, Cora knew when she would make her move.

In present day Fairyland, Snow realizes that the scroll with a million Emmas is actually from a spell book. She blows on the words which magically burn down the prison bars. The group is free and ready to stop Cora and Hook. First they have to tie Aurora up, because girls with no hearts can't be trusted.

A ship in the clouds

Cora and Hook have arrived at the dried up lake from a few episodes back. Cora then magically creates water. That would be magic power number three that I want. She then enchants the whirlpool to make it ready for safe travels. Just as they are about to jump, they are interrupted by Emma, Snow and Mulan. A somewhat epic showdown occurs. Mulan gets Aurora's heart back and Emma and Hook have a sword fight and she knocks him out with the compass.

Simultaneously in Storybrooke, Rumpel has created a green and menacing thunderstorm with his magic wand to sabotage the portal so it will kill anyone who tries to come through. The portal is located at the mysterious well in the forest. Henry and Red find and attempt to stop them so Rumpel hilariously blasts Red away. Henry tries to persuade Regina to make the portal normal.

Emma and Snow are trying to defeat Cora, but girl has some seriously stellar agility skills. Cora corners Snow and almost rips out her heart, but Emma jumps in the way. Cora laughs and tries for Emma's, but nothing comes out. What?! Something in Emma blasts Cora away. Snow tells her daughter that she knew she wasn't just a pawn in Rumpel's game. They grab the compass and jump into the portal, as Regina holds back a screaming Henry (which happens to be the most annoying version of Henry).

Henry tells Regina to have faith in him and he ultimately changes her mind. Regina absorbs the green lightning from the portal and it's all pretty freaky. The chaos dies down and at first, no one comes out of the well. Of course it's a fake out. Emma and Snow climb out of the well and we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Everyone's happy and they all parade through Storybrooke soaking up each other's happiness. Snow finds Charming and gives him true love's kiss, which is followed by a full-on make out session in front of everyone. Get a room, please.

Emma confronts Rumpel about the scroll and gets him to admit that he knew everything would happen. He was exactly where he wanted to be when he was locked up and he knew Emma would one day end up in her situation and find the scroll. He thinks Emma gets her otherworldly powers because she is the product of true love. I'm not so sure if I buy this yet. In the other room, Henry tells Regina that she has changed and they embrace. Cue the most heartfelt moment of this episode. Then, everyone decides to get dinner at Granny's without Regina. Really? She just saved the day and she gets rejected by everyone and Rumpel is gladly there to rub it in. I felt sorry for Regina during this scene, and it actually made me want to root for her.

The end of the episode showed Cora about to accept her failure. But it turns out that hope was never lost ,as Hook still has his magic bean he got from the beanstalk. Why they had put all this effort into getting the compass is beyond me, because the bean actually worked to get them to Storybrooke. As the happily reunited group heads to Granny's diner, an ominous shot of the clouds over Storybrooke shows a ship. It's Hook and Cora sailing to Storybrooke and they are getting closer and closer. It looks like things in Storybrooke won't stay happy for long. This is great because this town needs more drama!

Fairy dustings

What have Jiminy Cricket, the blue fairy, Jackson and August been up to? This show has gotten great at letting supporting characters drop off the face of the earth. I know having a lot of characters on at the same time can be chaotic, but at least let us know what they've been doing. I hope they will be included more in the next part of the season.

Mulan awkwardly gives Aurora her heart back in what I'm going to call "magic surgery." She then tells her that Philip can be saved, but I've already forgotten what he looks like.

When is the Neal storyline going to come into play? I'm only asking because Michael Raymond-James automatically makes every show better.

"Normally, I prefer to do more enjoyable activities with a woman on her back but seeing as you're trying to kill me..." - Hook.