Monday, April 11, 2016

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (5x17)

Is morality relative? Do classifications of actions (right, wrong, good, evil, light, dark) really just come down to where you're standing and what view you take? Does it come down to your life experiences? Your past, present, and your perceived future? Can you justify any action that should be objectively wrong just because you can see the potential good of an outcome? Yeah, I know. Those are hard, serious questions to open this blog with. It's no shock that these questions are coming on the heels of a Rumple and Belle episode, this week's "Her Handsome Hero." These morally grey topics always come up, like flowers growing from decay(!), when Rumple decides to do a thing that ought not to be done but the thing in question is for some greater (and more importantly, human) reason. Should Rumple manipulate an entire realm and separate mother (Snow) and infant child (Emma) for 28 years? No, probably not. But should he do it so that he can find his own son and ask forgiveness? Okay, different ball game. In the last Rumple episode, I discussed how Belle's pregnancy, while squicky in terms of how the child was conceived, refocuses Rumple's character as a father who would do anything for their child. The issues come when we have to deal with those "anythings." Rumple may want to be the man who can use the darkness for light in order to prove to Belle that he's a better man, but he doesn't want to do that today. It's all relative on tonight's episode so grab a mirror designed to make evil flash and burn in the reflected's eyes and let's go!

I Bet He Uses Antlers In All Of His Decorating 

This new and (more) handsome version of Gaston may not be roughly the size of a barge, but his ego certainly is (wanna see how many "Gaston" song references I can make over the next few lines?). I mean, who does this Belle girl think she is? She has clearly tangled with the wrong man! No one's slick or quick like Gaston; no one's neck is so incredibly thick like Gatson's! He's perfect, a pure paragon. Okay, that's enough. Obviously, I'm a bit of a "Beauty and the Beast" fan and this was some low hanging fruit that I had to pluck if only for fun. I rarely say this about Belle, who is more a prop than an actual fleshed out character with a personality, but she showed some real spunk and drive in both the flashback and present day events this week. So often Belle is just some strange combination of Google meets Rumple's redemption and hunny bunny; her entire story arc revolves around how she affects a villain and her screen time is relegated to either her sexual and romantic relationship or to explaining some plot point to the rest of the characters before vanishing off screen, back to her books, because goodness knows Belle doesn't have any friends in town that actually care about her as a person. That sounds harsh but there is one trait that is consistent with Belle all throughout the show; the girl is constantly trying to live up to an idealized--almost fictional--version of what heroism means. We, in our modern culture, would imbue heroes with "good" qualities but we are also very capable of acknowledging that true heroism is rare, if not extinct all together. Our moral lenses are heavily fogged with our own perspectives. A war is necessary or evil and as a consequence the soldiers fighting in said war are heroes or murderers. A certain group of people are villains or simply misunderstood. Political parties or leaders are on the right path or dead wrong with their various ideologies. Idealized versions of people are types--archetypes even--and they don't exist in our bloody, grey, complicated, nuanced, and complex world. But to Belle, they do and can exist. People are capable of true heroism in Belle's world, with heroism and heroes defined by compassion, forgiveness, love, generosity, and sacrifice. It's those qualities that Belle herself wanted to uphold in her first appearance back in season one's magnificent "Skin Deep" when she gave up her home and family to go and live with Rumple forever.  To be a hero, in Belle's eyes, means clinging to those principles even when a darker path is easier or might even have a subjectively better outcome. Should she have just let Gaston kill the Ogre? Maybe! It might have prevented a war which undeniably killed dozens if not more of her people (though you gotta love the poetic idea that because she didn't let Gaston kill the Ogre, she was eventually freed of her arranged engagement and went off with Rumple which, in turn, let her discover true love). The underlying crux of this episode is how does Belle continue to live up to her standards of heroism but negotiate her identity when faced with an impossible problem, like protecting her unborn child from Hades without Dark Magic and continuing to love a man who thinks that turning the darkness toward the light is a fool's errand? The answer isn't actually a very hopeful one, at least not on the surface, something that seems rather shocking given what this show often tries to sell itself as--a message of hope in a hard world. Turns out, Belle may have to compromise her principles, she may have to let the darkness win sometimes. Can darkness be the right answer? Sometimes, yes. Our morals are all relative.

Honey, I Promise I'll Be Good; Just Let Me Kill This Fool First

I suppose we shouldn't be too shocked that this episodes ends up siding with Rumple. Afterall, this is the same episode where we watch Hades send a decayed flower--that smelled of hopelessness--to his love interest and we're supposed to read it as genuinely romantic. But, to be serious, there are few objective evils in the world. I've often argued that even murder can be rationalized in certain circumstances (we live in America, land of the death penalty and never ending wars; this is to say nothing of Emma's murder of Cruella being "justified" because she was protecting Henry). Rape is my objective evil, a violation and power play to such a heinous degree that there is simply no way to rationalize it without revealing yourself as a sadist. OUAT follows the same idea and arguably has since its inception. This is a show that humanized the Evil Queen by making her an abused child who held her first love in her arms while her mother crushed his heart; this is a show that turned Rumplestiltskin from a wicked imp into a regretful father; who made the Wicked Witch an abandoned and unlovable child; who will make the Lord of the Underworld a brother maligned with a frozen heart. This is a show that, for all its faults (and goodness knows I have no issue in pointing them out) has maintained that there is grey in the world; indeed, insisting that labels like heroes and villains are flexible and change based on, simply, who is telling the story. Let's be clear: some of what Rumple is saying in this episode is hard to hear. He's not giving way in his assertion that the darkness is a part of him, that it can be used to protect and save everyone and, simultaneously, help give Belle the kind of life they both want. Rumple's snark comes out in full force when he questions Belle's decision to break and enter Gaston's locker in order to figure out a way to defeat the rogue hunter. If this is acceptable then why not other times when magic is handy to have around? Why is it that Belle is the one who gets to decide when the ends justify the means? Is it simply because her body count is much lower than Rumple's? How about all the times when Rumple's magic saved the pair of them (and more!) from utter disaster or destruction? If "Devil's Due" refocuses Rumple's character as the father who will do anything--anything, mind you--to protect those he loves, then this episode is about unfocusing Belle's character, challenging her core and making her (and us) question whether or not she should bend to what it is Rumple is saying. What's that line from "A Tale as Old as Time?" As a friend reminded me earlier this week, "then somebody bends, unexpectedly."

 Of course, Belle doesn't so much bend as accidentally push Gaston into the River of Souls (which apparently feeds into the Bay in the Underworld? Okay, sure. We'll go with it.). This is where the episode stumbled a bit for me, though more because I thought it was a touch shocking and I'm not sure what it means for Belle going forward. It turns out that Rumple is right and, in the heat of the moment, you do what you have to do in order to save those you love. But should that mean that Belle is ready to accept Rumple's lifestyle and devil-may-care (pun intended) attitude toward Dark Magic? Well, I don't know. Belle, if that hug and sorrow at the end are any indication, is resigned to the fact that Rumple was right, she was wrong and now she has to live with what she's done to her former boyfriend/fiance. And yes, to an extent, that certainly is true and it would be interesting to watch her inner turmoil over damning Gaston to the River. There is, however, an issue that I hope (oh dear, that's contraband) Belle raises with her erstwhile husband: Rumple doesn't just use the darkness in the heat of the moment to protect those he loves! He uses it when he needs something, when it suits his (read: non-family oriented) ends. And this is really the problem with Rumple as a whole. His justification is always going to be that he's protecting his family, be it Baelfire or Belle and the new baby, but he said it best last week, "I love this dagger." He can't let go of that enchanted object, of the feeling of power and control he has over his own life that the dagger gives to him. So whether it be for his family or not, Rumple still makes bad choices and uses dark magic for nefarious and decidedly non-light reasons. Rumple's line that he wants to be the man who can use darkness for light "but not today" speaks volumes. When push comes to shove, he'll take the road he wants to take, consequences be damned. Gaston's end is an honest accident and Belle probably could have helped him move on by using her heroic virtues of compassion and forgiveness, but instead her lasting impression is not to refocus her own character by these high ideals but to accept Rumple's own relative morality, to bend to the idea that "darkness always wins." There is an in-between, Belle dear. We often call it a grey area and I bet, if you tried really hard, you could see it; sort of like how you saw the man beneath the beast and loved both at the same time. Understanding that morals are relative doesn't mean you can't strive toward those high ideals of heroism. It means it's harder than anticipated. But anything worthwhile usually is; and if being a true hero isn't worthwhile, then I don't know what is.

Miscellaneous Notes on Her Handsome Hero

--It's a new actor playing Gaston and he was 100% better than the previous actor who was incredibly wooden and unconvincing.

--Has anyone told Hagrid that his brother Gwarp is in the Underworld?

--I honestly didn't care about anything going on with Emma, Hook, and Snow this week. Emma's suddenly a prophet? Sure! But if everyone could stop enabling Emma and her really poor decision making, that'd be great. No, she didn't force anyone to come and rescue Hook with her, but honestly some discussion (especially given Hook's behavior in the final two episodes of the arc) would have been splendid. Also, apparently Emma "Walls" Swan has no issues.

--Hades, I'm a big fan but you gotta cut it out with that hair.

--Mirror of Souls is our required MacGuffin of the episode.

--"I'm his only weakness." In the week since Zelena/Hades' tale, I've realized that I really do enjoy this pairing and that's really disconcerting for me.

--'Sup, Red?

--I'd like Belle and Hades's coats, please and thank you.


  1. I feel so sorry for Belle. Her pathological obsession with living up to certain ideals has led her to be attracted to Gaston and Rumple, and as this episode shows they're pretty much the same type of guy: both human and beast. I think Rumple's demise by the end of the series is inevitable, and this episode drives that home further: Belle's love life is doomed to failure, and that's depressing. She deserves better.

    1. Thanks for reading!

      Belle does deserve better because, while I think morality is relative, her ideals are worth striving towards and unless Rumple has a total and complete change, Belle is doomed to forever be in his dark shadow. I'm not sure that fits with the "hope" thesis of the show.

      Rumple will either have to die a villain/antihero or live as a completely altered person, 100% free from the darkness and desire for power. And sad to say, the latter seems impossible at this point.