Monday, March 7, 2016

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (5x12)

And lo, Once Upon a Time did celebrate their 100th episode with the maudlin and macabre title "Souls of the Departed" and we all bore witness to the main cast of characters (except Belle, of course) literally take the show into Hell. How's that for a meta commentary? Yes, our favorite (loosely speaking) fairy tale show is back for another round of what I'm sure will be stellar, logical, and heartfelt family narrative. Or, you know, not. I've done a fair amount of thinking this winter with regards to this little show; not necessarily about how I approach the show anymore; that was decided last season (one episode at a time with little to no hope for anything decent), but more along the lines of whether or not, after 100 episodes, this show was "worth it" to begin with. In other words, was season 1-3A worth all the heartache, confusion, anger, and disappointment that came with everything that happened after episode 315 (Neal's death)? Do a few mostly okay, sometimes pretty good, episodes like Shattered Sight, Sympathy for the De Vil, Operation Mongoose part 1, and The Dark Swan, balance out the rest of the show with its rape culture values, misogyny, and focus on romantic love/ships over family? I suppose to put this in OUAT episode terms: was Skin Deep/Manhattan worth Quiet Minds/Swan Song? I don't have an answer. I wish I did, but I don't. At any rate, those big questions aside, the show has gone to Hell (not in a hand basket, but close enough) and we all better settle in for Emma's quest to save the Pirate Wonder by splitting her heart into two. I will repeat something I said at the start of Season 5A: this has potential. Not the romantic Captain Swan aspect of it (that I couldn't care less about), but rather Emma traveling to the Underworld and going against Death. That's cosmic and mega and mythological, everything Emma's story should be. The question is whether or not the writers can keep this arc focused on Emma and not have it devolve into being all about Hook once more. We shall see. Grab your favorite long lost enemy and let's go!

Didn't We Kill You A Few Seasons Ago?

We, the entire human race, are haunted. We are haunted by our pasts, our regrets, things we did and did not do. We are haunted by ephemeral ghosts of yesterday who follow silently behind our footfalls until, at long last, they catch up with us. They always do, in the end. I, for one, am haunted by what this show used to be and what it could have been before it rebooted itself into a show that is a sad parody of its former self. Hence all my big questions at the beginning of the review. There is no denying that the rather in-your-face prominent theme of this episode was unfinished business; how many times did different characters says those two words? Neal, Cora, Rumple, Henry Sr, and I think the list might go on for a bit. The Underworld isn't so much the fire and brimstone Hell we imagine (though, there is some fire in Mount Doom--no really, didn't that look like Mount Doom?) nor the mostly calm realm of the dead in Greek mythology, so much as it is a limbo of people who are waiting to crossover to another place--be it a better or worse location--because they have unfinished business. In a way, this sets up a really interesting premise for the season. If it is true that all the souls can be saved--as Henry Sr was in the end--then Emma's real arc here isn't so much about finding her dead boyfriend, but rather saving the people in the Underworld who can't cross over. It's a meaty and enticing storyline that keeps with her Savior mythology quite nicely. After all, Emma's role as the Savior isn't just breaking curses, it's bringing back the Happy Endings, be they of the small mundane worldly ones or the great cosmic ones, like moving on to receive your ultimate punishment or moving to receive your reward of peace and tranquility. That story beat brings Emma's narrative back to her and her cosmic significance instead of relegating her to someone's girlfriend, which is a much needed shakeup after the disaster that was her own Dark Swan arc. Now, I say all this knowing that Emma will be more focused on Hook than on saving the souls of nameless individuals who haunt the streets of Hellbroke, but it would be nice if her quest to find Hook turned into a quest to save all the souls trapped in this Limbo-like domain. So what--or, maybe better, who--haunts our cast of intrepid characters? Their family of course.

It's certainly not shocking that we see a lot of familiar faces in Hellbrooke (clever name, fandom, I'll go with it). I expected to see Pan and Cora at least; they are the most famous of the seasonal arc villains--the two who really fit into the messed up family dynamic of the show. One of these appearances works far more than the other, though. Cora's mayoral role is tinged with bitterness. It's the part she always wanted to play; Cora's in charge, she's ruling for Hades, sitting in the seat of power. Much like her Wonderland role, she finally got to be queen of a little domain. The difference this time around, however, is that being the mayor-lite isn't what she wants anymore. Regina would have been enough and now Cora needs to see to it that her daughter isn't harmed by the Underworld, a place where Regina is certain to run into some familiar faces. What's disappointing is that Cora hasn't quite learned all her lessons yet; she's still ruthless in her desire to give Regina what she thinks is best for her daughter, including tossing Gollum into Mount Doom. There's a question I asked while I watched this episode and that's "do these people deserve to be saved?" Henry Sr, yes. His death was a tragedy and he himself acknowledges that his greatest regret was not intervening with Cora and Young Regina earlier. And that's basically on par with how most of the fans have read his character; he's a villain by neglect. He doesn't physically or emotionally hurt Regina but Henry Sr never protected her either, as is a parent's role in this world. Cora claims to be giving Regina her best chance by forcing Regina's hand and getting her out of the Underworld but it's really Henry Sr who is giving Regina her best chance--her chance to make amends, to prove her bravery and how far she's come. She's not the Evil Queen anymore who once longed to crush the heart of Snow White; now Regina's working in tandem with her former nemesis to save another soul (whether or not that soul deserves to be saved is another question, and we all know where I stand on that). Henry Sr got his ever after; he crossed the bridge into--oh whatever shall we call this place--paradise, heaven, the land of shiny light and fluffy clouds? But what about Cora? She might have her heart and care more about Regina that she did whilst she was alive and living it up in various red dresses (does the woman own any other color?) but her heart hasn't changed her. She's still willing to do reprehensible things in the name of love. Love might not be a weakness to Cora anymore, but her expression of it isn't exactly on the level.

I'm harping on this because, honestly, the emotional beats between Regina and her father were by far the heaviest and most meaningful and if that sort of resolution can be gotten from other characters over this arc, then it might not be a total wash. You just have to wonder if Cora is capable of the same self-awareness that killing others in the name of love isn't exactly loving. The appearance that did not make the same splash was Peter Pan, though it is always nice to see Robbie Kay back in this role. Like Cora, Peter Pan hasn't quite learned all his lessons. He still only cares about himself; his smooth talk to Rumple about wanting to start over absolutely rings false; it's an obvious contrast to what is happening on stage left with Regina and Henry Sr. I don't even know what to make of Pan's plan because I don't see it happening. I don't see Emma and the others letting Pan switch places with someone (even Dark One Rumple) to allow Peter Pan (a sociopath if ever there was one) back out into the world. Peter's appearance here feels like the writers knew they had to have him back, but couldn't think of a proper storyline so he gets stuck with one that isn't ever going to happen. Maybe I'm wrong, though. But it wouldn't be the only appearance from a dead character that was for the sake of the 100. But, I think we'll save Neal for the notes. I might be too tempted to go on at length otherwise.

Honey, We Gotta Talk About Your Hair

So this isn't James Woods. Thought I'd just get that out of the way in case anyone was confused. It is, however, Hades. It's hard for me to get too firm a read on him since his scene was at the very end and I was distracted by the random pedicure (really, a pedicure?). But Hades does appear to be a fun villain; he was menacing but he has a certain charm about him, like Rumple did back in season one. You were scared, but you couldn't look away because you weren't sure if he was going to smile and grant your every wish or slaughter you where you stood. I get the same vibe off of Hades. However, just to be clear, that CGI hair is appalling, especially when viewed from the side. Hades, here in OUAT, has more of a Devil-Lucifer vibe to him rather than the Greek god for whom he is named. He is set up to be an enemy to life. His domain is full of the dead and he likes it that way. He cannot stand the tick tick tick of the clock as another soul exits the Underworld. I think more than anything, Hades is set up to be the antithesis to Emma. One is a servant of cosmic good and life, and one is the lord of cosmic evil and death. What are the chances that Hades created the Dark Curse, that which ruins lives and happy endings? If Emma's main story this arc isn't so much saving Hook but turns into saving everyone, then Hades has to be stopped. This is really the heart of the hero journey. While the hero goes on epic quests and fights some sort of villain figure, it's really their victory over death that proves them to be the Chosen One or what have you. It's like the writers are killing two birds with one stone; Emma fights a big bad, and the big just so happens to be the representation of death. It's really the big good vs evil battle that has been teased before but always gets watered down to smaller stories. It would be nice if this time it really came down to the ultimate showdown. But, yeah, Hades--turn off the hair. You look ridiculous.

Miscellaneous Notes on Souls of the Departed

--So, shall we talk Neal? It's very hard for me to be objective about this scene, especially since it induces both rage and love. A winning combination, I know. On the one hand, he should absolutely be part of the 100th episode. Baelfire is a huge reason for the show and to not have him there would be a disservice to everything the show was. It was also just beautiful to see Emma and Neal together, catching up and talking about things that matter--like Henry. On the other hand, the scene played as a "writer insert excuse." What I mean by that is that while there were some really nice emotional moments, the real reason for the scene was to tell the audience that Neal had moved on because he has no unfinished business (malarkey. Absolute malarkey) and that we wouldn't be seeing him in the Underworld and can't save him because he's in a better place. In other words, the writers are trying (one final time) to tell their audience (who keep wondering) why Neal can't come back, if not for Swanfire then for Henry.

--Emma would have come after Neal too but she didn't know she could go to the Underworld. Okay, sure. But you could have let Rumple fix history like he wanted in the S3 finale but instead you told him that Neal died a hero so he has to stay that way (while now claiming that Hook is a hero and needs to be rescued). It's a bipolar world you live in, Emma Swan.

--Henry trying to find his dad and not getting to see him hurt me more than I wish it did.

--"Your questions are pointless." Because the writers are making this up as they go?

--Adding to the special 100th episode appearances were the Blind Witch of season 1 fame (Gingerbread or Children?) and James, who totally made out with Snow in Hellbrooke's version of Granny's.

--Adding to the confusion of the show's mythology, the Underworld-That-Is-Not-Really-The-Underworld is surrounded by 5 rivers, just like the mythological Hades. 

--I'm sorry, but Jiminy is in Snow's shirt because....?

--How did Henry Sr get Snow's heart and switch it out with another?

--Welcome back, everyone. It's been a quiet hiatus and now we've got another 11 episodes ahead of us. Here's hoping we make it out of the Underworld without too much rage.

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