Coming off last week's filler, side character centric episode "Tiny", "Manhattan" promised fireworks as Emma, Rumplestiltskin and Henry track down Baelfire in Woody Allen's favorite New York burough. That it delivered.
Part of what made this episode work is its pacing. Emma and Baelfire come face to face immediately, leaving the rest of the Manhattan-centered scenes to one and one verbal face-offs, which like Lost before it, Once does better than anyone thanks to its emotional and richly developed characters. "Manhattan" may be Once's most layered episode to date. Every character has regret and anger at their betrayal. Emma is enraged at Baelfire abandoning her, while Baelfire has as much resentment towards his father choosing magic over him. Henry is hurt that Emma lied to him and moreso, acted like he was too young to handle the truth. Emma's abandonment of Henry as a baby also stings for both. For all of Emma, Baelfire and Rumplestiltskin, they are not innocent of mistakes hurting the ones they love, yet they can't hold back from lashing out at the ones that hurt them.
Rumple's flashback is filled with similar themes. Abandoned by his father, his drive to clear his family name only backfires by setting forth the series of events leading both to his branding as a coward and his son's abandoment by both parents. Fascinatingly it is magic and its hidden price that leads to the devastating fate of Rumplestiltskin. Like Regina the tragedy is that magic caused them so much harm, but when given the chance to embrace it, they couldn't turn it down or recognize its price. I also found it important that while Rumple had a destiny, it was his choices that led him to where he is. Fate does not excuse this personal responsibility, he was simply destined by his character and history to make these wrong choices. Likewise Emma and Baelfire are responsible for their mistakes, even if destined to make them.
Of the other plots, we mostly got chess pieces lined up for upcoming episodes with Cora and Regina on the way to Rumple's dagger, to use him to murder the Family White-Charming while escaping Henry's blame. Two important points. One is that Hook getting figuratively hit by a steel chair by his tag team partners may make him more willing to help Team Snow instead. Secondly, without words you could see the "Ruthlessly murdering them all and lieing to my son forever, that's kind of taking it far don't you think? Oh that's right, my mom's a sociopathic psycho" on Regina's face as she heard the plan. Regina has a heart and I expect she'd blink if faced with massacring the Family White-Charming.
Finally, we also saw the stranger video-phone magic to the outside world. In an episode full of important developments, this was a huge one. The world finding out about magic opens up a myriad of storyline possibilities.
The biggest development however from a storyline perspective, is that Rumplestiltskin is the Voldemort to Henry's Harry, who'll be his undoing according to the seer. This is the type of development that could be the centre of the series finale years from now. (Edit: After writing this article, I read an online theory that the "boy" who led Rumplestiltskin to Baelfire and eventually his undoing, could also refer to August/Pinocchio. This is fascinating, but the only reason I have to question it is that Eion Bailey's sparce appearances this season and casting in the Mira Sorvino TNT pilot "The Trooper", could make the writers hesitant to make him the centrepiece of such a massive future plot arc. That is unless the writing is considered on the wall for the pilot not getting picked up and Bailey becoming a full cast-member next season is now planned)
"Manhattan" is one of the show's signature episodes so far, with beautifully layered character interaction and a great flashback. While episodes like last week's underwhelming "Tiny" proves Once isn't flawless, episodes like "Manhattan" show that at its best Once is as complex, well crafted and deserving of praise as much more lauded cable dramas.