With Henry’s presence minimized to just one scene and a focus on Mary Margaret and David’s relationship, one of the strongest aspects of the show, “The Shepherd” should have been a good, if not great, episode of Once Upon a Time. Instead, though definitely not the worst episode of the show so far, it ended up being the most boring. I’ll explain why after the jump.

This episode saw David returning home after having been in a coma, suffering from amnesia and unable to recall his life with his wife, Catherine. There was a meaty story to tell here; the concept of someone so displaced that he feels like a stranger in his own life is a rich source of dramatic potential. “The Shepherd” hinted at a serious dilemma for David: would it be best for him to try to reconstruct his old life piece by piece, to attempt to build a new one and forge a new identity, or to rebuild parts of his old life with pieces from a new one? Had this episode centred around that dilemma, it would have been a much stronger outing. Unfortunately, Once Upon a Time chose the bluntest, most reductive approach to David’s story, boiling his dilemma down a binary choice between two women: Mary Margaret or Catherine.

I have no problems with a love triangle, provided it’s executed properly. (See Pushing Daisies for how to get it right.) But this one, as it’s playing out, is incredibly silly. We already know what the outcome is, because Mary Margaret and David have “twoo wuv.” That’s not a huge problem, as long as the show has something interesting or sensible to illustrate with this love triangle. David choosing to stay with Catherine should tell us something about what kind of person David is, not merely that he “remembers” his time with this wife.

For what it’s worth, we now have an understanding that David is a man who tries to do what he feels is right. So perhaps, it’s alright that Catherine is little more than a cardboard cutout of a character. That being said, her fairy-tale counterpart, Abigail, isn’t at all like her. While Catherine is portrayed as nice and sweet, Abigail is shown to be an entitled snob. Catherine and Abigail aren’t at all the same person. If the fairy-tale world is supposed to mirror the real one, then this is a problem.

In this week’s twisted fairy tale, we saw that James, David’s fairy-tale counterpart, had agreed to marry Abigail under threat from the King. Of course there’s no love there. But in the real world, as far as anyone knows, David and Catherine used to be in love before experiencing marital issues. What Once Upon a Time seems to be saying here is that a sham marriage and a difficult marriage are essentially the same thing, and that’s not a position that I can support. In other words, what these twin love triangles are saying makes no sense.

And to top it all off, Mary Margaret is apparently going to start shacking up with the doctor. So now we have a love square? Rectangle? Quadrilateral? Whatever, it’s all silly; the doctor is little more than a plot device at this stage, and we were given little reason to be interested in him as a character. Do I see why Mary Margaret would fall into his arms? Sure. Do I care? No. The way all of this is unfolding is so utterly predictable, and it’s not a whole lot of fun to watch.

The rest of the show wasn’t working well this week either. Lana Parrilla continued to ruin every scene she was in, aside from her brief scene with Catherine, one of the sole humanizing moments Regina has been given. In her other scenes, though, Parrilla chewed more scenery than a beaver chews wood. Visually, the show looked kind of ridiculous this week. Maybe the production staff blew their entire budget on the CGI dragon, because the green screen was pretty awful in a few scenes, and James’s duel with the Brute was literally the worst-choreographed swordfight that I’ve ever seen on television.

There were also a couple of instances of the show sacrificing plot logic for dramatic effect. First, David asked Mary Margaret to meet him at the bridge where he was found, but he didn’t know how to get there! Then, in the fairy-tale world, James told his mother that he’d never see her again, as if we were to believe that James couldn’t go ever go off to see her in secret. That’s just bad scripting, folks.

I don’t want to give the impression that “The Shepherd” was an awful piece of trash. It wasn’t. It was just relentlessly mediocre television, content to deal with silly love-triangle clichés, when there was a much more compelling story about personal identity and morality to be told. That’s what was so disappointing about “The Shepherd”: it didn’t need to be this mediocre. It’s even more apparent how disappointing the rest of the episode was when you compare it to the subplot about Emma and the Sheriff. The scene where Emma found out about the Sheriff and Regina’s trysts was Once Upon a Time at its best. It gave us a great acting moment from Jennifer Morrison, who perfectly played the mixture of concern for Henry’s well-being and anger at having been betrayed as she walked away from the Sheriff. Plus, it propelled the plot forward in an interesting direction, with Emma now having dirt on the mayor.

That’s how the rest of the show should be. Once Upon a Time should be twistier and riskier, with far more narrative surprises. But increasingly, watching this show is like trudging through sludge in order to find the rare brilliant scene or the next Emma/Mary-Margaret bonding moment. If Once Upon a Time wants to take the path of least resistance, then so be it. In that case, however, after next week’s midseason finale, I might not be back for more in January.

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