Monday, December 7, 2015

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (5x11)

Here we are again. Eleven episodes later and we've reached the end of another arc and with three months off ahead of us, it's time for me to sit down once more and ponder how effective the storytelling on OUAT has been for the past 3ish months. I suspect we all know where I'm going to come down on that question. As I normally do, when faced with the end of an arc, I went back and read my review of the season opener in preparation for this week's midseason finale, "Swan Song." The thing that struck me most on my re-read was how I wanted to take each episode one at a time, that my judgement of the show and its narrative would and could only be looked at as it was presented to me live every week. However, now that we've reached the end of our Dark Swan/Camelot arc, it seems easy to say that while episode 501 was mostly successful and the best of this season, the episodes following were mostly disastrous. This entire season was messy, sloppy, careless with little regard for established mythology and, maybe worst of all, really boring. I'm going to be honest: I don't know if I have the energy for this. This episode was a wasteland in poor morals and poorer storytelling. I don't know how much longer I can watch this. I swore to stick to it until the end, but we're so far from the glory of season one that it's getting harder and harder to keep my promises. Ah well. Grab...I don't entire bottle of wine and down it quickly because, dear readers, here we go. 

Meet PapaJones   

Captain Hook has father issues. I am awash in shock. Really, this was really the most surprising part of the entire episode (sarcasm). The entire point of this (badly shoehorned) flashback is that Hook, after abandonment, became like his father and that the man he chose to be was not a good one (again, shocking. News at 11). In present day, he remembers this and chooses to be something that is perceived as a good man. If you're a Hook fan, then it's sure to give you warm squishy feelings, but I'm not so it doesn't. Honestly, this entire flashback was so flat and uninteresting that you could have boiled it down to the following and not missed a beat: Hook's father left; Hook later kills his father after *mumble mumble* magic sleeping curse saved PapaJones long ago. See, that's really the crux of it all. Hook's a villain who committed patricide in a heated moment when he is re-traumatized by memories of his father leaving in contrast to his father refusing to leave his new son (whom PapaJones stupidly named Liam, like Hook's brother. Dude, you were almost asking for a hook through the heart.) This is supposed to give Hook's character more color except it doesn't. It stretches the narrative so that you now know the entire story and history of Hook and his Papa, but it doesn't add any emotional depth to the main character of Hook. We knew he had father issues. We knew his hook "had tasted the blood of dozens" and that he was hell-bent (unintentional pun!) on revenge against Rumple. All of this we have known since season two and Hook's introduction. And I could almost forgive the boring backstory that adds nothing to the character in question--because that's how all flashbacks go nowadays--if it wasn't for the awful shoehorned in feeling. When was this supposed to take place? In "Queen of Hearts" Hook and Regina meet for the first time and it's followed by Regina explaining her plan to Hook about Cora; it's moments after said first meeting (you remember... the one where Hook beats Belle unconscious and almost kills her). There's no costume change, no change of scenery but suddenly, in this week's episode, Hook is outside in a field with a goblet of wine (for reasons!) waiting for Regina, who appears in a totally different outfit. This is one of those cases when the writers make their lives so much more difficult than it needs to be. You don't need to set this new information in the moments before the original Dark Curse. You could set it 100 years ago when Hook is running an errand for Peter Pan and meets his father inexplicably in a bar. Logistics: solved! At any rate, that's all I have to this flashback. Nothing was gleaned for Hook's character by this flashback. It was repetitious and tedious. But, one question, what happened to the kid? Did Hook just leave baby Liam 2.0? Has Hook ever tried to find him? Is the Kid on the Forgotten Character Island Orphanage along with the season three Lost Boys?

Just Die Already (I Mean The Show)

I want to start off this part of the analysis with something that has nothing to do with OUAT. At least, not directly. I want to talk about emotional truths. This is not something I came up with on my own but is the result of reading a lot of Hulk Critic, in particular one of his posts about rape culture and its intersection with media and pop culture. For me, emotional truths are why having any sort of meaningful discussion in fandoms never goes anywhere. It's why the OUAT fandom has become a cesspool of stupid, full of infighting, anger, rage, and some truly appalling logic and rationalization. To be fair, it's from all sides, all ships, and a majority of fans. When fans debate characters or ships or storytelling, it is not an objective facts-and-just-the-facts debate (it's a lot like politics, really). It's a subjective emotional debate that begins to feel incredibly personal, like you and your very self are under attack if you are "canon-warping" how you read a text (as if there is any such thing as a strict right or wrong way to read a text). What is emotional truth? It's my interpretation of a text that I will argue to be true, in spite of any evidence that someone else might present as part of their emotional truth. It boils down to my emotional truth vs your emotional truth and how when all people do is argue their emotional truths, the debate will never go anywhere because we aren’t arguing facts. We’re arguing feelings and you can’t know my emotional truth and I can’t know yours. But because it’s YOUR emotional truth, it’s real. And because it’s MY emotional truth, it’s real. In other words, we aren’t even speaking the same language anymore. This entire fandom stopped speaking the same language some time ago. Yes, this is some little silly show but this is how people digest media. And we go in circles–over EVERYTHING–because we’re arguing emotional truth instead of anything that might be factual–and my emotional truth and your emotional truth might be far from the factual truth, but it doesn’t matter. Our emotional truths are real and true to us. And this, essentially, is why debating in fandom is so…tiring. We’re never going to get anywhere. We “agree to disagree” and pat ourselves on the back and continue to believe our own emotional truths.

I am bringing this up for a very specific reason. Last week, my review focused quite a bit on the similarities I see between Killian Jones and Kilgrave from "Jessica Jones" and the parallels between CaptainSwan and Kilgrave/Jessica. My review was found by someone who is (probably) a CSer and they really (really) went to town on me. I chose, at that time not to respond because, you guessed it, emotional truths. I respectfully left up their comments because I believe strongly in freedom of speech and in being able to argue emotional truths, but I want to stress something to readers, just in case it hasn't been made apparent: I am not a Captain Hook fan nor a CS shipper. I have heard every argument under the sun for why CS is shippable and why Hook is redeemed. I have argued against both of those ideas for years, here and elsewhere. No matter what evidence you present, you are not going to persuade me otherwise. I respect your emotional truth, but mine is not yours and it never will be. Why am I saying this now? Because Hook is dead and Emma's going to Hell for her boyfriend because "not fair!" and I weep for the end of feminism, logic, and good storytelling on this show. If that particular CSer is reading (or any CSer in general), I hope you enjoyed the show; I hope you continue to enjoy the show; but I'm not going to buy into any other argument. My emotional ain't changing just as sure as yours isn't going to change.

Unfortunately, for this episode, I can't avoid talking about Hook. It was all about him, after all. In fact, most of the season was about Hook, was it not? This season was sold as part of Emma's hero journey. Season 5A had potential and I was prepared to see it out and accept it had it stuck to its original intent to be Emma focused and all about her individual heroes journey. Sadly, this did not happen. It turned on its head about 7 episodes in and became all about Hook. Sure, he's a character and a leading one but so much of this season and arc were supposed to be focused on Emma's self actualization. Her war against the darkness wasn't because she's the Savior and inherently light and therefore at odds with said darkness, but it was because of her boyfriend. Emma even went so far as to speed up a pregnancy (and who knows how that will affect baby GreenHood) but also then to plan and almost execute (pun!) an attempted murder of Zelena--granted, a low character who revels in her villainy with no hope of redemption, but premeditated murder nonetheless. And all of it was for her boyfriend. Not her son; not her mother nor father; not even the town of Storybrooke that Emma is honor bound by cosmic reality to defend. Just Hook. Sure, if you're a shipper then I guess it speaks to you about love and overcoming the odds--even cosmic forces--but to me it's taking Emma Swan--strong feminist, independent but still vulnerable Emma Swan, who's story was about her family and her home and her son--and making her into a Mary-Sue Magical Vagina who heels poor sob story boys with the power of her...womanhood. There is such a level of emotional manipulation with Emma and Hook, who are being touted as an epic love story, that it is truly sickening for me. Hook can only be good if Emma loves him and is with him. When the Darkness infects him, he becomes one of the worst examples of the Dark One that we've seen (though major props to Colin for really going to town with this role). He's a true black-hearted villain who says and does some truly appalling things. But it can all be forgiven because at the last second he saw the light? Emma should kill Hook. Not because of the Darkness or the various Jawas Dark Ones in Storybrooke with whom Hook is cavorting, but because he was a villain who terrorized her, her family, and her town. The same with Cora and Pan, both of whom Emma knew she had to stop without getting all wishy washy. Hook asking Emma to let him die as a hero bothers me so very much because he doesn't get to be the one to dictate the manner upon which he is received after death. Seeing the errors of his ways at the last second and deciding to take on the cost of Darkness himself does not a hero make! It means he realizes how badly he messed up, but it doesn't mean he's a hero!

As for the ending and the journey to Hell, yeah yeah yeah, it's a katabasis and we all know I love those. Honestly, they are some of my favorite things in literature. But for Emma to say that she has to go and save Hook (and resurrect him by giving him half her heart) because it's not fair to Killian that he remain dead just brings up all the bile in my throat. You want to talk about fair? How about Henry who misses his dad and wishes Neal was around to talk to but whom you insisted, Miss Swan, had to stay dead because he died a hero? You couldn't go to the Underworld then? You couldn't let Rumple change history? I don't care about the ships anymore; I don't want Nealfire with this version of Emma Swan, but this show used to be about family and having Neal be alive, with his son and father, breaking the cycle of abandonment, is good enough for me. Also, Emma, did you fall down and hit your head on something hard? Did you forget how Hook spoke to you last episode? Did you forget his cold blooded murder of Merlin? Did you forget how Hook used the love you bear for your child against you in this episode in order to get the shiny sword? Did you forget how, thanks to him, your entire family was almost sucked to Hell? Emma thinks Hook's death is not fair but I call it comeuppance. Hook doesn't have to pay for any of his crimes, does he? Not killing his father; not working with Cora to destroy the heroes; not taking Aurora's heart; not beating and shooting Belle; not speaking to Emma in such a vile and abusive manner. Nope. He doesn't have to pay for any of it. In fact, Hook's going to get rewarded with some Emma Swan lovin' because this show is officially morally bankrupt. Where is your self-worth Emma? Where is your respect? Remember back in season one when Emma issued a laudable creed to Ashley that, "People are gonna tell you who you are your whole life. You just gotta punch back and say, 'No, this is who I am.'" Instead of living by that code this season, Emma lets herself be Hook's emotional punching bag. Her response to Hook telling her that she'll always be an orphan should have been claws-out defense of her family, her son, and her town, all of whom love her so much that they traveled realms to find her. And then to have the audacity to say that precious Killian needs to be saved from the Underworld and brought back to life...I need to move on now, don't I? Fine one more thought. Domestic abuse in narrative, in TV storytelling, can work. It really can. When the writers are consciously aware of what they are writing and making a commentary on the effects of abuse, the signs of abuse, and how to handle it, it works well enough on TV. The writers on OUAT are not self-aware that this domestic and emotional abuse. They are romanticizing it. And it's appalling.

Repetition, Thy Name Is Rumplestiltskin

I thought about leaving this for the notes, but I really need to speak my mind on this low blow. There is something to be said about circular storytelling. When we conceive of the heroes journey, it's often depicted as a circle. The hero sets out, they encounter a strange new world that they are somehow destined to save, they conquer death and rise again, the master of both worlds, fully realized and then they arrive back home, at the end of their journey, the hero and not their former archetype (farmer, lost boy, son, or more often than not, orphan). That's a example of good circular storytelling. It has a beginning, a middle, and an ending that feels earned and organic. Rumplestiltskin being the Dark One again (by some weird mechanics that I don't fully get) is neither earned nor organic. Last season, the writers went as dark as they could with Rumple. He was full on villain, trying to destroy everyone's happy ending. It cost him everything, having already lost Baelfire, his heart darkening to a lump of coal, and losing Belle in the process. What happened after that was a bit of a transformation--granted at the hands of a plot device, but a transformation nonetheless. Rumple's darkness was sucked out of him and he became, against all odds, brave and a hero. A hero worthy enough to pull Excalibur from the stone. He faced off against Dark One Hook. He even tried to give Belle the life she deserved by granting her the means to leave Storybrooke forever and go have adventures in the great wide somewhere. And in the end, it turns out that none of those lessons--the losses, the transformation, the bout of heroism--stick. Not even a little bit. This is not circular storytelling. This is repetition at its most egregious. What the writers should write is Rumple trying to be a good man, live the rest of his life, without magic holding him up. But no, instead, we revert back to Rumple as the Dark One. Literally, back to square one. To add insult to injury, Rumple's new-but-not-really-new status as the Dark One, was revealed after Belle came back to him, believing that he had changed, and they had wild sex in the shop. Rumple has gone to the lowest low there is; he's joined the ranks of characters on OUAT who participate in wonky consent. Rumple lets Belle believe that there is hope for him and their new life together, that he's a hero, and then undoes his fly and proceeds to make the beast with two backs. It's so...disgusting. It's so...disheartening. This used to be my favorite character. This used to be the character I wanted to see redeemed. Rumple wasn't the great Cosmic Evil; he wasn't the Trickster archetype. He was the Father, looking for his lost little boy and doing highly questionable things in the process. It was deep and complicated and complex and both sympathetic and not and it made this show so fresh and interesting. And now? Now Rumple is just straight up villain, no redeeming qualities, no hope, and nothing more than a black hat with no depth. This show was once so complex and nuanced. Now, it's drudgery and as insulting as it gets. Long gone are the strong women, the morals, and the poetry. Now, we're left with parents who leave their kids with fairies to be raised while these so-called heroes go to Hell to break "dead is dead" one more time for Captain Guyliner and all his rape culture values.

And on that note, see everyone in March.

Miscellaneous Notes on Swan Song

--It's a truly bizarre world when Zelena is my favorite character in an episode. She got in some great lines, though. Robin will now be "Robbie!" I suspect we'll see her again, right around the middle of S5B.

--Adam and Eddy: try all you want, but you'll never be Joss Whedon. So, maybe stop trying. This episode was an insult to the amazing "Becoming" (BtVS season 2). 

--Words cannot even begin to describe how scared I am for what this show will do to Greek mythology.

--The Snow and Emma conversation in the vault was really good, but it was also the one and only meaningful conversation they've had all season and it really is too little, too late.

--Um. Where's the Camelot Crew? Did the heroes really just leave their town with Arthur and MindRaped! Guinevere are still out there? With Merida?

--PapaJones was in a sleeping curse and fell in love with his nurse. Mmmmkay. Oh, she died because of the plague. That’s convenient. And seriously, what happened to Liam 2.0?

--The Lake…is Purgatory? I don’t…understand.

--Emma doesn’t break her own darkness. Hook does. Sure, not by TLK, but Hook nonetheless. It would have been *such* a strong message if Emma had done it herself

--How about some thoughts on S5A overall? s5A had potential when it was going to be Emma focused, but it wasn't. It was all about Hook. Even the Camelot Crew, in the end, didn't matter at all. They mattered so little that the show didn't even bother seeing them home. This is to say nothing of all the horrible Magical McGuffins, the continued disregard for the LGBT community, the ongoing racial and class problems, MORE rape and wonky consent story telling, clunky dialogue in which the characters stood around rationalizing and explaining the plot instead of having anything resembling human emotions, horrible timing in which the story either slowed down to a crawl or sped up so fast as to be confusing, and the disregard for previous established mythology. It was sloppy and ill conceived. It feels very much like the writers got bored halfway through and began planning for 5B instead of focusing on 5A. Also, I have never denied that romance is an important part of OUAT (and fairy tales in general) but there is a point when you need to put the brakes on all the romance! And s5A really needed to learn that. Emma had next to no important or significant conversation with her parents but heaven forbid she be separated from Hook (or Regina) for more than an episode. Remember when this show was actually about the power of familial love?

Overall Grade for Season 5A: C-/ D+

Final Episode Ranking for Season 5A:

11. The Broken Kingdom (504)
10. Swan Song (511)
9. Birth (508)
8. The Bear King (509)
7. The Bear and the Bow (506)
6. The Price (502)
5. Broken Heart (510)
4. Siege Perilous (503)
3. Nimue (507)
2. Dreamcatcher (505)
1. The Dark Swan (501)

1 comment:

  1. To play devil's advocate, I think Hook talking about dying a hero was less about fixing what he set in motion (since yeah, that wouldn't make him a hero) and more about destroying the Darkness and setting Emma free from it, problems which he was not responsible for, so fixing them at his own expense is actually heroic. Idk, the whole issue is messy due to Emma forcing the Darkness on him when he begged for her not to, I have difficulty in blaming him for what he did as the Dark One because of that.