Monday, May 11, 2015

In Which I Review Once Upon A Time (4x21 and 4x22)

Hello. My name is Jacquelyn and I have very conflicted feelings about Once Upon A Time. That's a bit of an odd statement to make, I know, especially since I opened this S4B (Drag) Queens of Darkness arc by declaring myself to be someone who Anger-Watches OUAT. Now, I don't know what I am. Very slowly, over the past few episodes, my anger, bitter resentment and, yes, sometimes hatred, for this show has changed. I don't quite know what it has changed into but it has changed. I guess I have an entire summer to figure that out. All I've ever wanted was a good story; something campy and clever, something light and dark, something relaxing and thought provoking. OUAT was all that for me for a long time. And then they went and screwed it up and pushed plot and romance over heart and family (and, if you think about it, that's exactly what we got in this finale. First half: heart and family. Second half: ALL THE SHIPS).  The season four finale, "Operation Mongoose part 1 and 2" (epically stupid name, by the way) was a good story. There. I said it. The first half of this two part season finale was incredible. It felt exactly like the show that I had fallen in love with all those years ago. I couldn't tear my eyes off the screen: It was a good--nay--a great story. It was exactly the sort of thought provoking, philosophical discourse I once expected from this show. It took concepts that are far older than you or I and recast them to engage their audience in an almost Socratic way; what is a hero? What is a villain? What is love? What is sacrifice? The story of the season is one of the oldest there is--light vs dark. It's archetypical; it's universal; and I can't help but say that I enjoyed it. And then the second half happened and it was all I could do to not rip my eyes from their sockets, Oedipus style. So, I guess that evens it all out, right? Does a good first half mean that I forgive OUAT for the banality of season 3B or season 4A? No. Does that mean that I forgive them for killing Neal? Certainly not. It doesn't even mean that I'm looking at the show differently, but rather that for one hour--one shinning hour--it felt magical again. So, grab your favorite hero, villain, morally grey, intricately complex character, hug them tight and let's go! 

The Author Is Dead 

Let's not mince words: Issac is the avatar of Adam and Eddy into their own fictional universe. When it came to the Author in this two part finale, everything felt incredibly self aware and so very meta. I mean, this might be the most meta I've ever seen on any show outside of Supernatural. Isaac actually said #NoSpoilers (and if you follow the writers on Twitter then you know why that's significant). I honestly expected Adam and Eddy to appear, walking merrily along, waving and grinning. It's...interesting. I'll give the writers that. Isaac's story is pretty remedial in the end: he was a bitter employee who didn't like being taken for granted and denied what he thought was his bright future. He had a mean dictatorial boss who wanted Isaac to do things a certain way (or else!) and Isaac had to kowtow until one day he was chosen by Star Publications and started crafting his own stories--with a magic quill that made everything come to life. I am going to say this as clearly as I can: this is the story of Adam, Eddy, and ABC. Writers are clever and as much as I harp on Adam and Eddy and their now tawdry, soap opera filled show, they were (are) clever. They know how to say something without really saying it. The Author has always been Adam and Eddy's insert into their own story but never more so than now when they wrote Isaac making villains heroes (AKA: season two of OUAT and onward) and the heroes villains (just look at what they did to Snow White and Prince Charming this season). The Author even has rabid fans who demand that their favorite character(s) get happy endings while dressing up in cosplay.  But in his heart, the Author is bitter that he wrote stories that no one ever wanted to read--that what he originally had to say wasn't good enough. What Issac ended up writing was a book that took all his frustrations over being told that his original ideas weren't good enough and used them to get some of his own back a little. If you know anything about this fandom and its politics--or anything about TV as a business--then you know that rumors circulate (and to be fair I don't know if any of this is true) that ABC demanded that Adam and Eddy push certain story lines over others because of fandom, because of popularity, because of what the media consumed and reported on, even though it wasn't what Adam and Eddy had in mind. A lot of that played out, I thought, in Isaac's story.

All Isaac wanted to do was tell his story--the story he probably dreamed up in some hotel in Boston (again, if you know the story behind the story of OUAT...)--but he was denied that because of forces greater than himself. However, unlike Isaac, Adam and Eddy aren't going around and killing children or trying to feed them to ogres. There's reality and then there's fiction and the fact that this episode ended the way it did--the world "righted" so that the changed, non-original story staying the same--felt like Adam and Eddy surrendering to their fate. It might not be the story they wanted to tell, but it's the story they are going to tell fervently and zealously. I'm trying to figure out if how I'm reading Issac's story grants me any peace. I've always believed that ABC more or less demanded a change in the story; it's no secret that the show has morphed into something else. Even if you still love it (and, for the record, that's fine!), the writing and the style and way the story is being told has become markedly different. There is a lot more plot, a lot more focus on the hot and new, and a lot less focus on what was the heart of the show: a family trying to heal from years of conflict and strife who just so happened to be fairy tale characters. So Adam and Eddy may be inserting the real life situation, the story going on behind the scenes, in a very meaty and meta way and at least it gave me some measure of peace and understanding that the show wasn't supposed to go like this. But...doesn't that hurt more than never knowing? It begs the question, if the writers had never hit the reset button, if they had never done XYZ...what show would I be watching?

Both Sides Now

I just spent a fair amount of time trying to understand if the writers of this show were inserting their own personal drama into their own creation, so let's turn the page and go elsewhere: an alternate universe. In this AU, I am going to praise the living daylights out of the writing, the acting, and the story. I know. Shocking. This AU was amazing. I mean, actually amazing. Hello Dark Snow, can you stick around and be totally cool cause OMG! Here's a question, was this really the villains happy endings? Not...really, right? Regina was kind of miserable living her bandit life in a forest where she didn't feel welcome. Robin (a hero) was marrying a woman he clearly loved until he laid eyes on Regina. Hook (a villain) was a ship's mate who didn't know how to use a sword and spent his time scrubbing floors, which I would say is not his happy ending even if it was comedic gold. How exactly did the villains win and the heroes lose? I think ultimately it wasn't about the villains winning but about Rumple winning. This was, more or less, his happy ending--everyone else be damned. Rumple's AU was a life in which his dead son could be proud of him; he was married to Belle, and had a new family. He fought ogres, he saved little boys and whole villages, and he was a white knight (and apparently the Light One). It was everything Rumple has always wanted: to be the dashing hero and to get the girl. He's always been jealous of Charming. The most fascinating character, to me, was Snow White. Or Dark! Snow (Tar Pitch?) Finally, the writers let Ginny Goodwin out of the tiny box they've been keeping her in and let her have some fun. I wonder if they got the idea for this after seeing Snow during the Curse of Shattered Sight and how much fun Ginny obviously had during that. I'm not even bothered (much...) that we were never given any reason for how Regina upset the James and Snow (ew!) love story; I guess we're supposed to understand that the beginning chapters don't matter much, only the final (which might say something overall about the (Drag) Queens of Darkness plot this season). However, it doesn't matter because Ginny played Dark Snow so wonderfully that I found myself grinning every time she was on screen--who cares about the backstory, it was fun. Along with Dark! Snow, I loved the Dark Dwarves and Charming, the heartless boy toy in all black. Bandit Regina with the heart of gold who sacrifices herself for a kid that claims to be her son (but whom she doesn't really believe) was incredibly powerful and fits with what I've always believed Regina's happy ending should be: Henry. I'll even say this--Hook's character in the AU even made sense. Rumple made him a coward, unable to hurt anyone with his sword, the same sword used to taunt Rumple, the humble spinner, back in the day. That all fits in line with this reality actually being Rumple's happy ending and not the more general "villains happy ending."

Emma's story in this AU did feel a little lackluster since she was robbed of all her Savior-hood. I don't think a person's fundamental makeup should change--after all, even as a hero, Rumple chose the wrong path, the selfish path, something we've now seen him do time and time again. He was still the same man, hero title and clothing notwithstanding. No one should be able to alter Emma's heart and status as True Love Incarnate and render her moot. But for some inexplicable reason, Isaac was able to change that and so Emma's main role was flirting and setting the stage for Regina's big moment. Instead of Emma saving the day, it was the heady combination of Henry (go Henry!) and Regina that undid Rumple and Isaac's story. The one thing I could have easily done without was Zelena, a character so annoying that her insertion not only into this finale but this entire season was beyond unnecessary. Zelena and her pregnancy and her miraculous resurrection added nothing to this story, either the Queens of Darkness tale or the Author one. It was just for OutlawQueen drama but doesn't do anything except make Robin look bad and make the entire situation look incredibly squicky. One of the hesitations I have about AU's in TV shows is that there are often little to no consequences. The world is righted by the end and none of the characters are the worse for wear, sometimes they don't even remember their AU lives and thus never learn any kind of valuable lesson. I am so happy to say that this was not the case with OUAT this year. Everyone remembers, which means that now heroes know what it's like to be villains and villains know what it's like to be heroes. It changes the dynamic of the show in an interesting way. I think we're now officially past any reemergence of drama between the so called heroes and villains. I wouldn't expect Snow and Regina to be anything other than family at this point, for example. That's exciting because it does mean that there has been a modicum of growth and development (though, I'd argue that a lot of that happened at the 11th hour and with some bad storytelling along the way) but on the other hand, doesn't this mean that the show is going to have to continuously introduce new big bads over and over ad nauseum? Yes, it probably does. Which takes us to....

Black Swan 

Emma Swan, new Dark One. Shocking, right? No, not so much. They've been setting up all season that Emma could go dark and, full disclosure, but I knew in advance since I keep track of all the spoilers. But even if the writers hadn't hinted at it, and even if I didn't know all the spoilers, I still wouldn't be surprised. Why? Monomyth. There is a road and Emma's walking down it. Ease on down that Monomyth Road Emma Swan. Ease on down.  At its heart, the monomyth is a basic pattern that has found its way into stories all over the world by using universal themes, symbols, and archetypes. From the Natives of north America to inhabitants of Mesopotamia, certain stories are repeated time and time again without the any interaction between these cultures telling the same story. The most popular outline of this pattern was codified and described by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 work, “The Hero With a Thousand Face.” It is, easily, the most popular way to understand the heroes journey and is readily used by storytellers who want to tell the oldest story there is–one of light vs dark. There are a lot of stages in the monomyth and while the hero does not have to undergo them all, there are some ones that are more important than others. I'd argue that what we saw from Emma tonight, tethering the darkness to her using the dagger, was the first stage of her apotheosis. Coming from the Greek, apotheosis recalls the move to divinity, normally preceded by either literal death or metaphorical/ spiritual death. The hero is raised to a god like status.  For Emma this step is where the season is took us. Emma died, metaphorically, and once reborn she will become a fully realized savior. All the fantastical, divine, magical powers that a Savior can wield, she’ll wield. We might also expect to see some sort of descent into the Underworld here where the Hero meets with dead loved ones and gains knowledge needed to move forward (Odysseus, Gilgamesh and Aeneas travel to the Underworld in their epic poems, for example). This is often called the katabasis from the Ancient Greek and is a fairly common theme in the hero journey. I would note here that modern interpretations often have the hero undergo a metaphorical katabasis instead of a literal one: a dream, a journey to a crypt or tomb, some sort of vision that takes them to the great beyond, ect. In this case her first step toward true Savior-hood is to fall prey to the darkness, but that's okay, all Saviors walk a fine line between being light and being dark, between temptation and resilience. 

I am going to admit this rather freely: I find this to be exciting. The idea of a Dark Savior (and one we care about since I don't particularly care about Lily in the end) is fascinating. All the powers of the Dark One coupled with how powerful Emma already is has some fascinating overtones. Where did Emma go? How will she come back to Storybrooke? Can her new Curse be broken (and not by the pirate, even though I know that is where this is going)? Personally, I think Emma was taken to Camelot. With the (super heavy and awkward) plot dump of the dying Apprentice (handy!) we learned that the Sorcerer is Merlin, for....reasons. Is there a new Arthur movie coming out by any chance? It turns out that the Sorcerer fought the Darkness long ago and in order to defeat it, tethered it to a human vessel (um, that was rather shitty of you Merlin, geez) and thus the first Dark One was born. If Merlin has been keeping an eye on things for awhile (and that appears to be the case) then I think it's likely that Merlin zapped Emma to his realm because she's the new Dark One and I'm sure that upset some sort of cosmic balance or something. Honestly the whole Merlin reveal felt like a let down because I honestly expected something more, less cliche and more meaty. But isn't that the story of OUAT in general? How will she return to Storybrooke? I'm not even sure if she will. I can see Hook, Henry, Regina, and Snowing going to find Emma in season five (which, yes, is official). We haven't world traveled as a group in a while, so why not now? Go to Camelot together. I'm sure there's a plot device they could use!

Miscellaneous Notes on Operation Mongoose Part 1 and Part 2

--Obviously over the course of two hours, there was a lot of plot. So my notes will be more extensive than normal. Let's start with Henry. I love this kid. He has come so far and I wish the writers would give him more to do now that we've really seen his acting chops. Henry asking the Apprentice if he could use the pen to bring back Neal gave me a lot of complex feelings. On the one hand, I cried a lot because it’s about TIME Henry finally talked about how much he misses his dad. But on the other, it was rather heartless for the writers to bring up Hook’s non existent death in that moment and compare it. From a purely fandom perspective, that’s…going to create waves. People can talk about how Hook wasn’t really dead since it was in a book and thus doesn’t fall into “dead is dead” (and I get the argument) but, again, from a fandom perspective, it’s only going to make matters worse. And in a lot of ways, it felt like the final slap that we can’t let Neal’s sacrifice be in vain (to quote Emma last season) but Hook’s sacrifice can be reversed and Emma is even begging for it to happen. I’m not even asking for SF….sail on CS, go be true love. I’m asking for Henry to have his father back. And yes I am well aware of MRJ's commitments to another show and that he will never come back.

--EXCUSE ME BUT NEAL TAUGHT HENRY HOW TO SAIL A SHIP, NOT HOOK.

--Forgive me for what I'm about to say, 'shippers, but seeing Captain Hook die was one of the greatest joys I've ever gotten from TV.

--I am literally going to ignore everything about CaptainSwan for my own sanity. 

--And now I have to talk about Rumple. Well. Here goes: I hate the way his arc was finished this season. Having all the darkness sucked out of him is *so egregiously* hand wavey, it's insane. You mean to tell me that Rumple couldn't have figured out a way to do that himself to save his own life? Really? So Rumple can raise hell for an entire season but all it takes is a magic sucking hat and now he's human again? They couldn't even give him the "beast" ending from Beauty and The Beast. Also, why do I get the feeling that he'll be in that coma for a good long while?

--What was the point of Will Scarlett this season? What. Was. The. Point.

--Mal doesn't know who Lily's father was cause it was done dragon style. I can't even. However, OUAT isn't exactly a deep story so it's obviously Merlin.

--While the dragon and black tornado were graphically good, the background towns of the Enchanted Forest continue to be cringe worthy.

--Are Snowing just going to throw Isaac in a jail cell and that is that? What happened to August? Can he be turned back into a boy? Does Blue know anything about Merlin? If Emma had all her darkness removed then why did the Chernabog chase her? Where was Mal during all this? Henry is still the Author but broke the pen, so is he the Author in name only?

--Final thoughts on S4B: the Queens of Darkness were a mere distraction to the real story: the Author and the role reversal of the heroes and villains. Ursula and Cruella were really just around to kill time. Mal got more screen time and more development but that was only because of her ties to Lily who, after her own centric, ended the season with a whimper and not a bang. So much for that anti-Savior idea. This season felt far more organic and natural to the series as a whole because it tried to distance itself from the villains of the arc (who were, again, not really the point of the season) and focus more on the fundamentals of good and evil. However Adam and Eddy and the show continue to get bogged down in their own shipping drama and in their need to have big shiny Tweetable moments as opposed to quiet and introspective ones. But, it was a hell of a lot better than Frozen and Oz. 

--Overall Rating for S4B: B

--Episode Ranking

Operation Mongoose Part 1
Sympathy For the De Vil
Darkness On the Edge of Town
Operation Mongoose Part 2
Lily
Best Laid Plans
Mother
Poor Unfortunate Soul
Unforgiven
Enter the Dragon
Heart of Gold

2 comments:

  1. Technically, Hook DID teach Henry to sail. Neal's scene of explaining the basics to him was deleted, and even if it wasn't Hook was the one who gave Henry the hands-on teaching just like he did with Bae. I don't care much for Hook (though I don't hate him and didn't enjoy his brief death like you did) but that was always one of his better moments, teaching Henry to sail but using the opportunity to share more about Henry's dad with the boy rather than as an attempt to bond with him personally.

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    1. The scene of Neal and Henry sailing together was not all deleted; the opening moment of the Miller's Daughter is the ship pulling into SB territory with Neal and Henry at the wheel: Henry holding the wheel while Neal smiles. There was some teaching going on, even if the dialogue was cut. We've never seen Hook actually teach Henry how to *sail*. I know that it exists in Off-Screen-Ville, but the only thing we've seen is Hook teaching Henry how to use a sextant. The point is that the writers deliberately made it out that Hook was Henry's sole teacher which is not true at all, and once again attempted to erase Neal from the picture. Henry easily could have said, "you and my dad taught me" when he was referring to his teacher(s). But in that moment the writers chose to completely forget about Neal which brushes against Henry's own internal struggle to bring him back at the end of the episode. The writers haven't had Henry remember his dad *at all* this season, including in this sailing moment, but then suddenly throw in a rather emotional scene about Henry wanting Neal back. It's a disconnect. I get what you're saying but I still my outrage is rather justifiable.

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