Friday, December 6, 2013

In Which I Review Once Upon A Time in Wonderland (1x7)

One of the most irritating things in television is when a show that you know is going to be cancelled suddenly trots out an exceptionally good episode. Such was the case this week with Once Upon a Time in Wonderland's "Bad Blood." Like the fourth episode of the season, "The Serpent," the focus was on Jafar and it was a really good episode and while I know that ONCEWL isn't going to be outright cancelled so much as only given one season as was intended, this weeks episode showed me what could have been. If present me could hop in a time machine and go back to the past to speak to the writers and creators of ONCEWL, I'd tell them to rewrite the Red Queen totally, never use CGI scenery, and to make Jafar the focus. Naveen Andrews is a great actor and I've known that since LOST, but last night his character of Jafar got the "ONCE" treatment by which I mean that I may have really hated him at the start for being ruthless and merciless, but by the end I felt horrible for him and began to think he was justified in some of his actions. This episode was essentially "A Desperate Soul" from ONCE proper where Rumple's first bit of backstory is given. Our villains are never truly villainous, but rather follow one of the overarching themes both ONCE's have always employed: desperate souls do desperate things. 

Nothing but a Street Rat

The episode opens in Agrabah (as so many of our episodes do) long ago, this time finding Jafar at the deathbed of his mother, Ulima. Little peasant Jafar is begging his mother not to die, to stay with him, but Ulima knows that her time has come. We know very little about Ulima except that she's a healer and that she lied to Jafar about who his father was. The man Jafar thought was his papa died long ago but turns out, Jafar is the son of the Sultan and as a parting gift to Jafar, Ulima give her son a ring that will indicate to the Sultan who he is. Once the Sultan sees this ring, he will take Jafar in and give him a good home and he will be cared for. But naturally, things don't work that way in the ONCEiverse. The Sultan, it turns out, is a bastard. There is just no other way for me to say that. I'm not sure what Jafar represents to him but whatever happened between the Sultan and Ulima, it must have been pretty bad. Jafar insists that he doesn't want to be a Prince, just a son. He's happy just having a father; he doesn't need to be clothed in silks and flippery, he just wants to be loved. But the Sultan takes one look at Jafar and sees a threat to his legitimate son, Mirza.

Mirza is the heir apparent to the throne and this is where we run into maybe the one problem I had with the episode. Jafar isn't actually a threat to the throne, not if he's a bastard boy. I mean, sure, Jafar could grow up and decide to take over the kingdom and fight Mirza for it, claiming to be the true heir since he is the elder. History is full of those situations. But I honestly don't think Jafar wants that. I think he really just wants his fathers love and acceptance. But the Sultan refuses: "I am not your father and you are not my son," he tells Jafar. Instead, Jafar will be a serving boy, a poor orphan the Sultan has taken pity upon. So now Jafar gets pity and the Sultan can be praised as a benevolent leader who takes care of his subjects when they are in dire straights. The relationship between Jafar and Mirza isn't any better. It's a rivalry, though I suspect each one misunderstand what the other is fighting for. If Jafar is fighting for his fathers love and acceptance, Mirza is fighting to make sure he remains the Crown Prince and that Jafar "stays in his place." Mirza is a nasty little boy; after Jafar humiliates him in front of foreign dignitaries, Mirza pays a visit to Jafar where he strikes him in the face several times and reminds Jafar that he is a lowly servant boy. To add insult to injury, the Sultan then shows up and tells Mirza to continue hitting Jafar because someday he will be ruler and his people must fear him. In other words, the Sultan is encouraging physical and emotional abuse on his other child. Back when ONCE's "Think Lovely Thoughts" aired I joked that the writers of the show needed therapy but after tonight's episode I'm convinced they're all nutty. Happy families just don't exist in this universe, do they?

This situation of having Jafar under his roof comes to a head when the Sultan realizes that Jafar will always pose a threat not only to his son but probably to himself. I think there is more to this story than we know. I suspect that Ulmia was more than just a random one night stand with the Sultan. Those happen all time with royal men. But maybe Ulima and the Sultan fell in love and he could not be with her because of her status so, really, Jafar's presence is a reminder of what he had and lost. Am I trying to make the Sultan sympathetic? Maybe. But only because after the beating portion of the episode, the Sultan comes back to Jafar's room and drowns him in a bucket of water. I'm not kidding. He holds down his son's head until Jafar goes limp and lifeless and then proceeds to tell his guards to "throw him out with the rest of the refuse." Did Jafar die? It certainly seemed like it. Let's backtrack and talk about what happened when his mother died. As soon as Jafar's mother passed over the ring to her son, wind started blowing and the second she died some sort of odd glow-y magic thing (I have no idea how to describe this) seemed to settle on young Jafar. And then just before Jafar returned to life after the drowning, the same thing happened: wind, glow-magic thing. Jafar has obviously aged like any other mortal, unlike say Rumple, but can he die? Is this ability tied to the ring his mother gave him?

Jafar, having now been thrown out like garbage, goes about his life like we saw in his previous centric only to return one day, serpent staff in hand, to confront his father. Jafar's demands are simple: it isn't give me your throne, give me your power, make me your heir. It's something that the Sultan can easily do and save not only his life but the life of Mirza: "call me your son." That's it. Just openly acknowledge, not even in public and to your people, that I am your son and that will be that. The Sultan refuses and says once more "I am not your father and you are not my son." I gotta give credit to Naveen Andrews here. The tortured expression on his face when the Sultan refuses to give in was tragic to watch. Even if the Sultan doesn't mean it, if he just said it, everyone would be spared, including Mirza who chose to run away and not fight for his father. Jafar is seen as having bad blood because he is not born of the Sultan and the Sultana, but in the end Mirza's pure blood wasn't enough to stay and fight for his father. And this is, of course, how the Sultan ends up in the cage next to Cyrus. I think we all saw it coming but up until now I've been convinced that the Sultan was a good guy; maybe he didn't know that Jafar was really his son but after this episode the humble, cuddly, poor Sultan-in-a-cage is being placed only slightly below Peter Pan in terms of "father of the year." At least Malcolm let Rumple live! The Sultan actually tried to kill Jafar, and when Jafar in the present day asked if the Sultan had any regrets about their relationship, the Sultan responded with "I only regret that I didn't hold your head under water longer." Wow, but at least now we know what law of magic Jafar wants to break: he wants his father's love. One of the rules of magic is that you can't force someone to love you, but if Jafar can get Cyrus's bottle he can break that law and have his father's love. Are his actions just? It's a very human need, to want someone's love. But does that excuse all the pain and hurt Jafar is causing in the present? Speaking of present day, another father and child duo had a little heartbreaking reunion as well.

The Second Wish

Alice and the Knave, having escaped the Boro Grove, are now nearer to Jafar's palace but run into one small problem: it's on floating island. And lacking wings, Alice and the Knave do the next best thing: birdbark tree. Which apparently floats so that they can make a hot air balloon. Go with it. However, there is another not so small problem that arises: Edwin, Alice's father. He has been brought to Wonderland by Jafar in an attempt to make Alice use her second wish. Alice, as we discovered in the last Jafar centric episode, cannot see people in pain. Alice has a streak of compassion that prevents her from watching anyone she cares about suffer. The tricky thing Jafar discovers is that Alice and her father don't exactly get along. So Jafar's plan to use Edwin to bait Alice won't work if Alice doesn't care about her father. Enter step one of plan: reconciliation. For Jafar to get Alice and Edwin to reconcile, Jafar decides to transform into Edwin with (essentially) a Polyjuice potion. Once "Edwin" stumbles into Alice and the Knave, things are a bit rocky. Alice doesn't want to forgive her father (and she shouldn't) for the way he treated her: like she was crazy, locking her up in the madhouse, never even trying to see her. Sophie Lowe did an amazing job with trying to convey the despair Alice feels about her father's neglect: "I needed you to believe me, to believe in me," she cries. Obviously we are supposed to be drawing a parallel from Alice and Edwin to Jafar and the Sultan. Both have suffered neglect at the hands of their father, both only want to be acknowledged and not treated like an unfortunate burden. Jafar knows just what buttons to push to get Alice to start to be open to her father.

The button is a dragon, but's a fantasy show. So yes Jafar in an Edwin suit summons a giant dragon which almost eats him but of course Alice steps in, thereby proving that even when he doesn't deserve it, Alice will save her father. Step two of the plan: threaten the real Edwin in front of Alice. Jafar was bound to make a mistake in trying to portray Edwin and when he finally does, Alice catches on and she and Knave go running. Jafar takes this time to collect the real Edwin and then: showdown! I'd love for there to be more showdowns between Alice and Jafar. The Red Queen at this point is more or less a simpering little fool but Jafar is the one I really want to watch. Dangling the real Edwin off his magic carpet, Jafar tells Alice to make her second wish. And this leads to a heartbreaking conversation between the real Edwin and his daughter. He tells her not to do it; he doesn't deserve her mercy or her compassion or anything else. He was a horrible father who blamed Alice for the death of his wife, he locked her in a mad house, and he never believed her fantastical tales. So instead of begging for his life, Edwin decides to give his daughter the one thing she really needs: hope. Edwin tells her that Cyrus has escaped Jafar's palace and is looking for her. This makes Jafar rather unhappy and he left Edwin go, dropping him to the icy depths below. Alice, of course, makes her wish and send her father back home. And, in a truly gut wrenching moment--because all magic comes with a price--Edwin thinks his entire adventure in Wonderland is a dream and all that development between Alice and her father is gone.

And Cyrus, alone on a beach, wakes up knowing that only one wish remains.

Miscellaneous Notes from Bad Blood

--Best episode of the season. Hands down.

--Where do Aladdin and Jasmine fit into Jafar's story? Are they a part of it at all?

--Love the Knave's lines. LOVE that he has Granny's keys in his pocket. And a stale peanut. 

--The bunny jumping through the portal was hilarious. I get the feeling the White Rabbit doesn't actually enjoy doing that.

--Almost no Red Queen but what we did of her wasn't nearly as annoying as in the past.

--Only one wish left and Alice promised that to Knave at the start of the season! 

--Next week is the winter finale. There will only be 13 episodes of Once Wonderland and it will most likely return in the spring for its final 5 episodes. I wish it had done better but I think these last episodes will be great, especially after this one.

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