Monday, November 9, 2015

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (5x7)

Here is something readers of my blog may not know: I have a Masters Degree in Comparative Religion, specifically in Early Christianity. I say this not to be a braggart but rather because I want to make something clear; I know what I'm talking about when I discuss Christian history. I spent four years in undergraduate, two years in specialty training in the classics, and two years in my Masters program to say, with absolutely certainty, that Jesus of Nazareth was not a realm jumper. I do not, for a second, believe that Jesus had a spinning top hat--a la Jefferson--and that he could zip from realm to realm, having tea with Cora and falafel with Jafar. Is it possible that Christ, the divine spirit that Christians the world over believe in, could travel to other realms? Sure, if they exist. I mean, why not. Gods will as gods will. But I'm not a theologian; I'm a scholar and again, I can state that Jesus did not travel to different realms! But, putting all that aside to say that, in short, this week's episode "Nimue" finally answered some of the shows biggest questions about the Dark One, the Dagger, and how these various green-scaled beings came into existence. As one would expect, it was because a woman did a stupid thing. Remember what I said about strong women and OUAT last week? Buzzwords, y'all. Buzzwords. Ready for some heavy mythology, a cheap love story, and a lot of Magical McGuffins? Awesome. Let's go! 

Women Always Ruin The World 

Here is something shocking: I am not going to go on a feminist rampage about how egregious it is that Nimue is the sole cause of Darkness being in the world. Pick your jaws up off the floor, y'all. I mean, yes, it is pretty offensive that a woman who watched her life and family vanish before her eyes and only wanted to ease her own suffering and pain is going to be torn down as the reason why there is suffering in the world; why so many people have died and why all our lives suck, but why would I complain about that? Why would I want to point out that, not for the first time, OUAT has shown that women are irrational, emotional, illogical, and never actually listen to good sense (usually coming from a romantic interest and always a man)? Why would I want to spend time and energy to demonstrate bit by bit that, once again, women who are "good" and "pure" are presented as light virgins but women who fall from grace are suddenly cast in dark colors, ugly skin, and as vile seducers, trying to lure the unexpected into their dens of iniquity? Why would I do that? No, instead, I am going to go another route and talk about archetypes (what. Me? Talk about archetypes? Surely you jest!) Specifically, I am going to talk about the archetype that I will call "the first woman."

Now, I rag on OUAT as being fairly paternalistic and condescending in their approach to women (because they are) but, to be fair, it's not as if OUAT invented the idea of paternalism and the juxtaposition between what makes a good woman and a bad woman (for references in media, women are easily divided into three groups: the virgin, the mother, and the seductress. Because that's all women are, you see). No, these views and images of women are old. Insanely old. Biblically old, we might say. For me, the "first woman" archetype really boils down to two easily recognized figures: Eve and Pandora. There are more, to be sure, but those are the ones that everyone really knows. How about a quick refresher course? Eve is straightforward and there is no nuance outside of what you learned in your standard Vacation Bible Program: she of the Garden and the Apple and a vile serpent. Pandora is an interesting one because her story is referenced tonight without actually naming her. Prometheus has an intriguing tie to her: together they are the downfall of mankind. Everyone knows Prometheus stole fire from heaven and everyone knows that Pandora opened a box (jar, really) and let out all the evil contained therein into the world, but did you know that Pandora was sent as a punishment because of Prometheus? I mean, yeah Pandora gets all the blame (and so does Eve) but it was a combined efforts of both man and woman that screwed us all. My point is this; throughout history and mythology there is typically a figure who is "the first woman"--a woman who is beautiful and lovely and a great gift to the world, but somewhere along the way, she allows darkness and evil into the world. I know that OUAT isn't necessarily trying to paint a picture of women as negative (at least not with Nimue, they do that well enough with other characters) but, instead, are playing with some very old tropes and ideas. And while I had thought at one point that OUAT would, instead, subvert those tropes and spin them in a different manner, it turns out that they can't resist millennia old story ideas. The larger issue I have, outside of Jesus the magical realm jumper, is that Merlin eschews any culpability here. He's blameless and innocent. Prometheus stole the fire (even if Zeus was a right git) and Adam ate the fruit, but Merlin was just a guy who was in love and never wanted to live without that love and who tried to battle the darkness (blah blah blah) but lost only because the darkness was stronger. He wasn't strong enough, but it's not as if Merlin wasn't good enough. And that's my problem in this narrative. If OUAT wants to walk the well trodden "first woman" trope then that's unfortunate but ultimately not something that's solely on them. But to make it seem as if there aren't multiple parties and blame to go around isn't fair. Vortigan is the worst kind of plot device, an undeveloped one. He exists literally to to give Nimue impetus. Vortigan is a prop; he has no meaning, no story, no form outside of pushing Nimue into doing the deed of crushing his heart and becoming the first Dark One. He's not too blame because he is just an evil object. What could Merlin have done? Not tell Nimue about the Grail. Not taken Nimue to the holy site. We have choices in the world. Merlin chose wrong, but he shares none of the blame. Woman, the seducer, the one who would not listen, does.

So, I covered the feminism bent to all this, how about the mythology we got? For years, people have been wondering how the Dark One and his curse came to be. Like many other big reveals in the show's history, it felt as though it was made up specifically for this arc and not a long thought out process. Henry's adoption? Given during Pan's storyline to parallel Regina doing anything and everything to save her son. The book and the author? Given during the (now in hindsight totally random) Queens of Darkness story line because, really, the writers wanted to do an alternate universe after exploring time travel the year before. And now we have the Dark One mythology and it's largely because at some point (probably during season 4 and not sooner) the writers decided that the Sorcerer was Merlin and he had helped create the first Dark One. This isn't to say that the story is not, in many ways, good (it was. I know, I'm shocking myself) but rather it feels less organic to the show than I would have hoped. Until season 4, we had never heard of a Sorcerer or even the idea of Excalibur being tied to the Dagger. Sure, you can't lay all your cards out on the table but there are clues that it wasn't always planned, like Blue being the highest in the order of magic in season one, only to slowly tick down as the seasons go on to the point where Merlin (a man!) is suddenly the Ubermensch. But, I'm going in circles, my actual point is this: a lot of this mythology reveal is handwave-y (something about a spark and an ember?) and relies on surprise and gasp worthy moments (shock! Nimue is not dead! Shock! Surprise flashback to moments earlier!) but it does feel mythological, doesn't it? The idea of the first woman and The Sorcerer/Immortal Man going off to try and get around immortality only to have one of them succumb to death and then, in a twisted way, defeat death. I'm not quite sure that I agree with the idea that the Darkness (capital D) existed but, what, was just floating around? Hanging out in space? What was the entity we know now as the Darkness doing? Are we really supposed to believe that Merlin had no darkness in him? I thought we all had darkness in us? Isn't that one of the biggest themes on this show? Okay, I'm starting to talk myself out of liking these parts of the show, but to round this out to a nice even landing, it felt mythological largely because the show was playing with some very old story ideas and while it didn't exactly feel totally organic, it still answered a great many questions about Merlin, the Dark One, and how violent acts are often done because of pain of the heart and not because of simple cruelty. Nimue, the desperate soul who loved her family, set the bar for all the Dark Ones to come.

Miscellaneous Notes on Nimue

--I know I'm passing over quite a lot of plot and narrative that happened elsewhere in this episode but that's because the main focus really was Nimue and Merlin. Also, because Zelena tethering the sword Excalibur to Merlin so that Arthur could control him was simply weird and strange. Who knew Zelena could do that?

--Let's go back to Jesus, the magical realm jumper. I'm not bothered by Christian themes: light versus dark, Savior, temptation, ect. Never have been. I expect those by the bucket load on my shows (really, have you read my Doctor Who blogs??). What I'm bothered by are the very overt Christian symbols and icons that appear in the Enchanted Forest. You know, like the Holy Grail, a chalice said to have been the cup Jesus passed to his disciples during the Last Supper and was later used to catch Jesus's blood as he was on the cross. I have no problem with there being a magical cup in OUAT and, more specifically, in Arthurian mythology, but to call it THE Holy Grail is incredibly problematic because it suggests that Jesus existed in and had the same influence on the Enchanted Forest as he did in our very real world. Christianity is not sui generis; it did not form in a vacuum completely devoid of outside forces and therefore could equally form in another universe. What outside forces you ask? Judaism, for one. Polytheism for another. History between those two forces, for a third. All of that (and so much more) led to the rise of apocalyptic Judaism and, eventually, to a preacher named Jesus (Joshua, really) who roamed around ancient Galilee, trying to tell people that times were ending. This is to say nothing of the apostle Paul who is responsible for Christianity going out to the Gentiles where it really took root (Jewish-Christianity fading away as the city of Jerusalem burned). If any of that--Judaism, Greco-Roman culture, the interaction between the two, and Paul--happened in the Enchanted Forest, then we've never seen it nor heard of it. And, like I keep saying, Jesus was not a realm jumper.

--The timeline is a disaster. So Merlin was in the tree for 1000 years; but he become immortal 1000 years ago. Rumple was the Dark One for at least 250 years, but Nimue became the Dark One 200 years before present day. this even possible?

--The show really doesn't know how to do romance anymore. The relationship between Merlin and Nimue was almost as fast and unexplored as Lance and Gwen. One conversation and suddenly Merlin can easily say that the best moments of his 1000 year life were with Nimue. Great. Maybe you could show some of them so that I find their love believable.

--Hook's a survivor because he spent 250+ years in Neverland hanging out on a ship in a realm where time does not pass. It's not because of some stupid bauble. But no, go ahead. Say it's because of some silly ring. Lemme guess. We're gonna get some sort of backstory to it. Goody.

--Did Arthur just invent acid?

--Zelena kicking Snow was one of the funniest things I've seen on this show in a good long while because good God, Mary Margaret. You are as dumb as a pile of rocks.

--Continuity issues? We heard that the Dark One was created at the Vault (nope) and that Merlin battled the Darkness before tethering it to a human being (not really).

--Creepy men in hoods with glowing eyes are super creepy!

--Emma forged a sword. Now what?

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