Monday, April 25, 2016

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (5x19)

Readers, I have a question I'd like to put forth: will you make chaos with me? Say what you want about the lightening fast and crazy maelstrom that is the Hades and Zelena works, for reasons that I'm not sure I can fully explain. A lot of it has to do with the sparkling chemistry between the actors and the other half has to do with the writers and actors both embracing the loony tunes show that is Zades. Do you know what else works? When the show remembers one of its founding principles: that everyone, no matter if you're a hero or a villain, needs a community in order to flourish. We are shaped, changed, enhanced, torn down, and rebuilt by our family, be they of the kind bound by blood or by affection. Without a place to plant our feet and know that we are home, we are adrift and outcasts. And what, really, is the Underworld if not the weigh station before you reach your final destination? This week's episode, "Sisters," remembers this worthy family-first motif by looking at people who don't belong to any sort of community and contrasting them to someone who does. Brothers they may be, but James doesn't have a bedrock like Charming does. Sisters they are trying to be, but Zelena is torn between the new fledgling community she could be a part of and the insular twosome with her Lord of the Underworld while Regina's remarkable transition from enemy to member of the community is given weight. And at the heart of it all, a mother tries to forge a connection with a daughter long since cast out. Things were revealed, the ante was upped, and important themes were pushed to the forefront. After last week's major disappointment, I'll take it. Let's go start some chaos! 


The James and David portions of this episode left a lot to be desired because the show spent most of its time elsewhere on more compelling sibling drama. I don't blame them for this; Zelena and Cora are far more meaty and vital to our show than James ever was and it shows in how little I cared that he got shoved into the River of Lost Souls to spend all of eternity in torment. James' complaint against Charming rings as fairly hollow, doesn't it? At least, it does at first when you leave it as is and don't try to get to the root psychology behind it. James had glory; he was a warrior, a favorite son, and the only hope of a poor and broken kingdom. Yes, it was highly political; King George forced his hand, and maybe James had other plans for his life, but the show has never given James any real color or introspection so it's hard to tell what James thought of his father's plans for his only child. Did James have any sort of love (not including his bed and giant-robbing partner, Jack) that would have made him happier? James' true love is really himself; he needs to be the best and so he does everything in his power to prove his prowess. Maybe that's really the heart of the problem for James in retrospective, since he has only recently learned that his birth parents gave him up over his twin brother. For reasons unknown, to everyone, his mother and father chose to give him up over David. Why? Isn't that the real question that plagues James: why wasn't I good enough? Why wasn't I chosen? What was it about David that was better, more worthy, more lovable that I don't posses? A child that has been forsaken or abandoned has a very hard time accepting love from anyone in their adult lives, lest it be ripped away from them again--just look at Zelena's lament that Cora gave up the wrong child or even early Emma Swan being closed off from everyone, including her son. James is, in essence, over compensating by seeking out his brother for an imagined fault that James doesn't actually have; Ruth and her husband did not make this choice based on some perceived sin or error of baby James; they just simply made it and we will likely never know why. In James' mind, he needs to prove his birth parents wrong, to show them that they gave up the wrong child and that he was the "better" of the two. If he can defeat David, he can retroactively prove to Ruth and his father, and, probably more importantly, to himself that he is the better twin. It's actually pretty deep and interesting psychology so it's a shame that the show took the easy way out and pushed James into the murky depths below Underbrooke instead of letting him come to understand that the fault lies not in him, but in his stars.  

...And Sisters

I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised to learn that Regina and Zelena met earlier in their lives. Let me be briefly harsh here before I turn to gushing over some really outstanding moments: a lot of this flashback plot is convenient nonsense. So that we are all on the same page: inexplicably, and without warning, Regina gets hurt by a magic wand, needs healed from a blood relative (but not Cora cause of reasons) so enter young Zelena (and like last week's Red and Mulan, how did Cora get to Oz?) and then both sisters forget it all because a river from the Underworld just so happens to run by the Mills' house? That's so much convenient in one place that I can't help but wonder if the Enchanted Forest is really in the Forest of Coincidence (Galavant reference!) It was like the writers wrote the present day drama and then realized they needed a flashback (because what would this show be without its mandated flashbacks) and so they came up with something on the fly that could easily be wiped away in a manner of moments with a lazy handwave about magical waters. However, I am actually very willing to over look a lot of this eye-roll worthy flashback because of the raw power of the present day Mills women reunion. I've never been a big fan of Regina; I leaned so heavily toward Rumple so very early on in the show that Regina became his absolute antithesis and, in my eyes, mostly irredeemable; however there is no denying that her character arc and journey is one of the better conceived and more well thought out ones. Cora is magnetic even if ruthlessly coldhearted (or, in her case, literally heartless). Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I hate Zelena with the power of a thousand suns (except for this season because of how delightful she and Hades are together--and yes, this makes me question my own feminism). So three characters I don't have strong attachments or feelings to and they reduced me to some serious blubbering during their emotional reconciliation scene. That, my dear readers, is the power of good writing and it's what makes OUAT so damn frustrating sometimes. Every now and then, there are little sparks of brilliance, little reminders that the show could once reach inside your chest and squeeze your beating heart (much like Cora!). And shockingly enough, most of the time, it's not when there is some sexual-romance agenda being pushed.

The writing here might be too on the nose, like when Cora allays Zelena's fears that it is too late for her to join in any sort of community by telling her eldest daughter, "it's never too late, you never stop being connected," but it's the kind of clear message that this show often needs when it gets too muddled in plot and shiny tokenism (still not over last week, guys). What I loved most about these present day mother and daughter(s) scenes was the way the three characters know each other and can cut each other to the quick in a matter of moments because while OUAT is all about reminding us that no one can heal you like family, it's also eager to touch on the fact that it's also family who hurt you the most. Zelena can tell Regina that her younger sister is cut from the same dark cloth as their mother and it's true! Regina even gets to say some of those iconic lines that Cora has uttered over the years, like knowing what is best for someone, even if the person in question wants something totally different. Regina has no qualms about poisoning her sister if it means "protecting" Zelena from Hades, a man her sister does truly love! Sound familiar? It should because Cora had no problem killing Daniel, a man Regina truly loved, in order to ensure that Regina led the life Cora mandated. Cora, meanwhile, gets right to the heart of what she really did to Zelena all those years ago when baby Wicked Witch was just an infant being left in the woods. Cora doesn't need Zelena to explain how it felt to be so abandoned, Cora can explain Zelena's emotions: "what I did left a wound that's been festering for decades." Even better, Cora openly admits she did it for ultimately selfish reasons, because she was young and ambitious and didn't want to be saddled with a baby when she could have a better life. It wasn't noble, it wasn't kind, it wasn't like Snow giving up Emma so that everyone could have their best chance, it was a self-centered decision based on Cora's needs, Cora's wants, and Cora's desires. Add to this that Cora finally changed her mind about her life long doctrine that love is weakness and called herself a fool for ever believing that love can't be selfless and can't help more than it hinders and we are left with a sweeping but logical transformation that really did take Cora many years to go accomplish. This is a very big step and piece of character development for a character who has only ever been in a handful of episodes and it goes to show that often times the writers do remember the important themes and motifs of their colorful cast of characters, that they can get them to an organic and logical point when the writers drop all the shiny pretenses and the wonky MacGuffins and the tired shipping moments and focus, instead, on community, on family, and on being connected through blood, through affection, and through all the hardships life has to offer. Zelena isn't necessarily redeemed and whether or not Cora should have gone to the better place is a big debate that bears a lot of thought (it'll be in the notes, guys) but this really was a step in the right direction for the thesis of the entire show and trying to get back to the last semblance of what it once was. But, before I get too hopeful, someone throw a burlap sack over my head and take me far far away.

Miscellaneous Notes on Sisters

--Does Cora really deserve to go to the "better" place? Not really. It goes back to what I was saying in episode 515 about whether you can have true redemption and forgiveness without first facing any punishment or consequences of your actions. Cora did a lot of bad and the only true apology she made was to two people--yes, the two people to whom she did the worst bits, but still only two. I don't know that it deserves an eternity in the River of Lost Souls, but I don't think she should get the fluffy cloud treatment.

--How about one final round of applause for Barbara Hershey who has deftly played Cora since season 1?

--I'm so glad Emma has a superpower that allows her to tell when people are lying. Seriously, Sheriff Swan, how did you not catch on to the James/David switcheroo?

--"Why is everything in the woods with you people?" And then Cruella punched Emma in the face. Attagirl!

--Hades setting up his little dinner date for Zelena, complete with his practiced dance moves, was adorable. I'm gonna miss this crazy blue-haired guy when the show invariably sends him packing.

--Hook thinks killing Zelena might be a step in the right direction. Will he keep her jaunty feather hat as a token to remember that kill by??

--So Robin has literally been in the woods with an infant in a car seat and the heroes have been bringing him baby wipes, formula, and diapers?

--I have no comments on Rumple's actions this episode.


  1. No comment on Rumple's actions? Well can you at least give a shout-out to Robbie Kay, who killed it even with just a few seconds of screentime and one line?

    1. Ah yes. Robbie Kay always deserves a good shout out. His one line was delightful. I would really like to see Peter and Hades in a scene together, actually.

      My commentary on Rumple's action would be akin to a GIF of someone banging their head on a desk over and over. The fact that he didn't even *try* TLK.....

      Thanks for reading!