Monday, November 16, 2015

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (5x8 and 5x9)

On this week's episode of Once Upon a Time, the writers discovered lesbians! Oh, and Emma's plan was finally laid bare, but honestly, who care about that?! We had two hours (groan) of OUAT this week, mostly because ABC randomly ordered a second episode for inexplicable reasons and while neither episode fit together into one cohesive narrative (as opposed to, say, Smash the Mirror or the two part season finales) OUAT did attempt to and try to make inroads into exploring diversity and the many types of people there are, not only in their fictional world but in the real one as well. I say try because it was a mess (as was to be expected) and somewhat insulting that the tacked on second episode was given to planting the seeds for a LGBT relationship with the least amount of effort as possible, but hey--they did try. In the first half of the two hour extravaganza, "Birth," we finally got some much needed answers about what on God's (Merlin's?) green earth Emma Swan is even doing this season and why we were supposed to be worried about she of the dark leather and spray painted hair (seriously, I worry for the state of Jennifer Morrison's hair with all this white frosting-in-a-can. Her roots must be tragic!). And in the second half of the night, "The Bear King," not a single soul was shocked that Arthur killed King Fergus and the aforementioned lesbians were discovered, or at least teased, or alluded to. Sort of. We are almost--blessedly--at the end of this season and now we get one week off. So, everyone grab their favorite Magical McGuffin of the season (got my rape sand at the ready! But magical ale will do in a pinch) and let's trek down the path of Camelot meets Brave meets Heroes Journey meets who-the-hell-knows. 

The Villain Explains It All

Because this week we were treated (lolz) to a two hour session of OUAT, I'm really only going to pick up a few narrative themes and salient points for this review. Don't worry; I'll turn my critical eye to the LGBT exploration in a bit. But up first, have you ever seen a James Bond film? I'm using that as my launch point because I figure that everyone has seen at least one James Bond film in their life, be it a Connery or a Moore or a Bronson. The reason I bring this up is because in every Bond film there is a moment when the villain inexplicably explains all his diabolical schemes to Mr. Bond--usually while the MI-6 spy is chained, gagged, and in danger of losing his life, a limb, or both. It's the explanation portion of the movie. Up until now, the villain has talked in coded language (even though the villain is clearly in on the whole plot and plan) because we need to keep the audience in suspense. For the past seven episodes we've essentially had Emma Swan acting as a Bond villain in present day Storybrooke, talking in coded and secretive language in order to keep the audience in suspense (and, to be honest, tuning in) and to make the other characters--Snow, Charming, Regina, Robin, and Hook--run in circles trying to figure out what in the world the Dark One is playing at. This episode, then, is akin to Goldfinger tying Sean Connery to a slab and prattling on about Fort Knox and the Grand Slam (no, seriously, if you haven't seen a James Bond film, start with Goldfinger. Classic). I wonder if this makes Hook our Pussy Galore. Yeah, there's a really horrible joke in there somewhere, but I'll be polite and pass it over. All of this really boils down to one question: what is Emma Swan's plan? What has she been doing all season and why? Well, much like Rumple 200 years ago, Emma is atoning for a sin but unlike Rumple, who's sin was grounded in something human and sympathetic and deep and meaningful (you know, searching for his son), Emma is all about her main squeeze, the boy she's been dating for a hot second. That's right. Everything she's doing, the sin Ms. Swan is atoning for, is all about Hook. You see, Emma is really scared of commitment and she's afraid of what a future with Hook would look like until she is suddenly face to face with no future with him. I mean, I'm terrified of a future with Hook as well but that's because he is a patronizing, egotistical murderer who likes his eyeliner more than morals. But I suspect that Emma has something different in mind. Let's talk about how offensive this is. Yes, Emma's plan becomes to vanquish the darkness once and for all (by putting it in Zelena and then killing the Witch which is just straight up cold blooded murder, but the Dark Swan justifies this by reminding us that Zelena killed Neal because, all of sudden, Emma cares about that pesky detail) but in Camelot, Emma wanted to hold on to the darkness not because of some larger mythological plan but because of a boy. Her entire story was just downgraded from Savior/Dark One/Heroes Journey to "woman afraid of commitment with lover so does everything possible to run away" including turning her love interest into another Dark One.

I can promise you that I am trying--trying--not to turn this portion of my blog into a rant against CaptainSwan or Hook or even just the show but I am legitimately 100% confused and baffled by this turn of events. Emma cannot let Hook die, but she's willing to multiply the darkness and let there be two Dark Ones in existence (which is something that has never happened and something we are told cannot happen, but let's bypass that, I guess) in order not to lose her boyfriend. The father of her child, Emma will lose and let stay dead even when she goes back in time; but the guy she's been seeing for all of a few months, well him we have to save. I am going to try and frame my argument in a rational manner and not come across as someone who, under no circumstances, would ever ship CaptainSwan. I know that any criticisms against me and what I am about to say would be couched thus, but I shall endeavor to try and head those off at the pass. There is something so insulting about making Emma's hero journey, her path from darkness back to the light, all about her love interest. Now, would I say the same thing if it had been Nealfire? Maybe, but with a caveat that if it had been Neal, the narrative would have been weightier and more poetic. Nealfire turning into a Dark One at the hands of his true love, another father having to deal with being a Dark One to his son? Emma and Neal trying to work together to save each other? Henry and Rumple working to save both of them, their father/son and mother/Savior? That's poetry. That's storytelling that touches on so many of the themes this show began with, like family and sacrifice. But like so much this season, it felt as though the story was given to Hook only because the real character it was meant for is six feet underground. Now, I would have had issues with Emma's journey centering around a love interest and a man, even if it was Neal, because Emma is her own woman and her decision to go villain should rest on her own impetus, not born out of her role as a lover (as opposed to a independent woman, daughter, mother, savior or really any combination of those elements). But this is nothing new for OUAT is it? Regina lost Daniel; Cora was used by Jonathan and Leo; Zelena was rejected by Rumple; Ingrid was made to feel like a monster by the Random Kidnapper in the Woods and the Duke of Wesselton; Ursula had her voice taken by Hook; and Mal had her baby stolen by Snow and Charming. If you're an evil woman on this show, it's because of a man. It always comes back to the fact that men have control and power over women and when the guys hurt the gals or when women suddenly find themselves without their man, the natural course is to go evil.

If Emma's story was just about wanting to end the darkness by becoming darkness and defeating it from the inside, then it's a story worth telling. But that's not what is happening. Emma's desire to conquer the darkness stems, first and foremost, from the desire to save Hook. Emma was fine bringing Prometheus's flame to life and forging the sword with the dagger and then driving out her own darkness, with no thought of what to do with said darkness afterwards. But the second her boyfriend is in trouble, then she has to destroy the darkness once and for all--even going so far as to make Zelena to go into super early labor, kidnap the formerly green Witch, put the Darkness inside Zelena and then kill her. Emma's reactions are extreme in a way that makes her look beyond all rationality, almost akin to Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (bunnies of the world, look out!) And it's all for a man. Not her son, not her mother or father or even the world or cosmos at large: it's all for Hook. Suddenly Emma Swan's main story goes from being a Mother-Savior to being Captain Hook's girlfriend. You realize, I hope, that Emma hasn't even talked to her parents one-on-one in quite awhile? Like I said, insulting. At one point Emma asks Regina what wouldn't the former Evil Queen do to save Robin and I was reminded that Regina, 6 episodes back, decided to sacrifice herself to a Fury for Robin Hood--leaving her 13 year old son alone in the world. So it appears that romance is all that matters all around. I remember a time when the love from a parent was touted as the most important love on this show. Emma refusing to let Henry die? Fine. That works. But refusing to let Hook die? No. This is to say nothing of the ill conceived logic and yet another crack in the world building of the already flimsy world structure of OUAT. So suddenly there can be two Dark Ones? And if Hook is a Dark One then why hasn't he been hearing the Dark Ones voices? Why hasn't he felt the Darkness inside? Why hasn't he exhibited any powers? Why hasn't he been acting evil or even slightly out of control? Remember how fragile Emma was in Camelot when the Darkness was taunting her? She was treated like a patient with a terminal illness. There is a thing in stories called foreshadowing. I think Adam and Eddy used to know what that meant. Now, they clearly don't. For an episode that was supposed to answer all the questions, I am left confused, befuddled, frustrated and frankly disappointed that what started off as a strong season opener so quickly devolved into the cliche soap opera trappings that OUAT is ever so fond of. What does this mean now? Most likely that Hook will make the ultimate sacrifice and absorb all the Darkness and be taken to the Underworld and then it's Emma's turn to save him, like Hook tried to save her at the beginning of this season. Adam and Eddy will call it circular and poetic. I call it nonsense.

Enter The (Sort Of, Really Vaguely Alluded To, More Like New Buds) Lesbians 

The second hour of our two hour special was, without a doubt, one of the most pointless and thoughtless episodes of OUAT I have ever seen. There was zero point to this episode. It had no connection to the current arc of the Dark Swan or even, really, to Camelot, even if Arthur did appear. Outside of Zelena, none of the main characters appeared and instead the story focused on a character we've met a grand total of twice and who has never been built as a sympathetic character that I should be invested in. Oh, and the show tried to touch on an LGBT relationship in the most unimaginative way possible. And by that I mean that the chest-thumping Adam and Eddy were doing earlier this year about exploring an LGBT relationship is laughable since, in the end, Mulan and Ruby are less romantic interests and more budding friends who decide to go hunt werewolves together. There was no hint of a relationship between the warrior and wolf. There were no long looks, no hand holding and certainly no kissing. In fact, if you hadn't known that OUAT promised an LGBT relationship this season would you even have known that Mulan and Ruby were supposedly set up as one? If anything, Mulan and Merida had a greater connection and more chemistry and history between them than Mulan and Ruby. The girl-wolf didn't even enter the narrative until about thirty-five minutes in and, after that, she was a secondary character to Merida's story line. I'm not even sure why she was there helping out Merida! This is endemic of a much larger problem on OUAT: inclusion and representation. You can count on one hand the number of people of color who are still alive and not evil. Go ahead. Count. Did you get past Regina? I doubt it. She's it, folks! And even then the "not evil" iota raises certain eyebrows. How about gays or lesbians or transgendered peoples? None. Mulan is apparently bisexual but only in the most vague way possible. The writers make Mulan play the pronoun name, never explicitly stating that she was into Aurora, not Philip. They have never said nor had Mulan say, out in the open, loud and proud, that she is bisexual/pansexual/gay. It's the 21st century! It's 2015! We live in an age where gay boys and girls are being beat up, harassed, and are killing themselves for those they chose to love. Wouldn't it be great--wouldn't it be empowering--for our media to tell the LGBT people of the world that they are loved, they are equal, and that their stories deserved to be told right alongside straight peoples! But no. OUAT doesn't have it in them. They won't fight that battle, but they'll take the credit for being "bold" and pushing an LGBT narrative. Heads up, Adam and Eddy. You're part of the problem, not the solution.

Miscellaneous Notes on Birth and The Bear King

--I passed over a ton of plot points, I know. So let's try to hit some other things here in the notes, shall we? Emma sped up gestation and Zelena gave birth to a green baby girl. Let's name her. I'm going to go with Esmeralda because it's a "green" name. Also, I fully expect that motherhood will redeem Zelena, which is overly misogynistic and horrifying all at once. Looking forward to that one!

--Arthur and Guinevere casually sit around a ping pong table, drinking wine, in full regalia.

--How many Magical McGuffins were there in these two hours? Baby's tears, squid ink, the helmet, the flame, the dreamcatcher the sword, and the dagger. With special appearances by the cuff and Hook's hook. Did I miss any? Oh. Right: magical ale that lets you talk to dead people.

--Belle held a crossbow to Hook's head. Now if only she had gotten trigger happy.

--Is it mandated that people in Camelot can only wear one outfit for all of time? Shouldn't Emma's white virginal gown be filthy by now?

--Operation Light Swan can go forth and die, thanks. They got a house by the water. I want to set something on fire.

--Hook explained all his baubles. They were all taken from men he killed for petty and selfish reasons and then he kept trinkets as souvenirs. What a guy! Totally the guy we want in a love story that is being lauded and pushed in media as a love story of the ages.

--Dr. Whale's dye job! But he was acting more like Blaine on iZombie, a far superior show.

--I did like the magic fight between Merlin and Emma. It was overly short, but I'll take what I can get between the two most powerful magicians of all time, I guess.

--Speaking of, what happened to Merlin? Is he dead? 

--When in the name of sanity did the flashbacks for the Bear King take place? And why, for the love of all that is holy, was there a magical bean? Adam and Eddy swore those things off!

--I do not, for one second, believe that Ruby would go running off and leave her Granny all alone on the off chance that she might find some wolves. And neither Snow nor Granny have mentioned that Red went off exploring in the season since she magic bean'd her way out of SB?

--Why does the sword make Hook dark? I though the sword represented the light and the dagger was the darkness? Light and dark, two halves of a whole. That was actually a great narrative point back in the first episode. But this time, it made Hook...dark?


  1. Honestly, I think the downfall of this show was the decision to keep Regina, Rumple and Hook (and now Zelena) around because of their massive fandom popularity, all while still keeping them "evil" because the writers thinks that's more fun and interesting than good (I'm not even joking, they said as much in a recent IGN interview.)

    You make the point pretty clearly when bringing up Hook's murder trophies. That right there shows the problem, as does Rumple's murder and manipulation trophies that he keeps in his shop (including the dead wooden corpses of Gepetto's parents!), and Regina's vault full of hearts that to our knowledge has remained untouched rather than any hearts given back to their respective owners (assuming there are any still alive.) How do the writers and so many fans find these repulsive people worth sticking around town, let alone paired up with people who ought to be WAY too good for them?

    They should have either truly redeemed these characters, or killed them off (which could also be accompanied by redemption like it briefly was with Rumple before he was revived as his old horrible self.)

    1. Thanks for reading!

      It feels a lot like the writers want to have their cake and eat it to. They want their big bads to stay big bads because they find villainy more fascinating than they do heroism or even redemption; this is why the redemption of some of those characters is either through a plot device (Rumple and the Hat/Sword) or are non-existent (Hook, for me. We are told he's different but I don't remember seeing it).

    2. Same, though I'd say Regina for the non-existent part. There have been some episodes where it actually did seem that Hook is different ("Jolly Roger", "Poor Unfortunate Soul", or even as recently as "Siege Perilous"), yet then he goes right back into selfish douchebag pirate mode in another episode. Why make him a Dark One when there was already a story to be told concerning his obvious schizophrenia?