Monday, May 2, 2016

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (5x20)

It seems, my dear readers, that we have reached the one episode in which I struggle to write a review. It invariably happens every season  And yes, they are typically Captain Swan episodes. How do I approach writing a critical review about a couple whom I find so distasteful that I simply avoid talking about them except when it is absolutely necessary? Last arc, my solution was an entire diatribe about emotional truths and how attempts to convince me of the sanctity of Emma and Hook as a romantic partnership was futile before examining the ways in which Emma's Dark Swan arc failed any conceivable test of feminism and logic. This year? Well this year I find that I'm enjoying the Underworld arc overall and don't want to suddenly be pulled into a long tangent about why I find Captain Swan so damning, though, almost without fail, that will happen somehow. But here we are, with the episode "Firebird;" roughly forty-two minutes of Hook and Emma facing some sort of ultimate test as though the show doesn't sell the same superlative song and dance routine about every story these two share. How about I just remove my own heart and try to do this as analytically as I can? Let's go. 

What's (True) Love Got To Do--Got To Do--With It?

I suppose we should get this out of the way; to make it clear, in language that cannot be confused or misconstrued: Emma Swan and Captain Hook are canonical true loves. We'll bypass over Henry and season one (cause goodness knows that the writers did the exact same this week) though, I should stress, that one should be able to have True Love with a child and a romantic partner and not be unable to tackle the "you-shall-not-pass" test. Instead of trying to force Henry into this situation, let's talk about Emma Swan. It was her episode, after all. When Emma was conceived as a character, at the beginning of all things, there were several archetypes and fairy tale-like jargon that got attached to our young blonde and leather jacketed heroine. She was, first and foremost, the Savior. In the cosmic good versus evil battle, she was the lawful good, able to take down evil, curses, and dark magic with her innate and in born abilities. Part of that Saviorhood, we learned, was that she was born of the truest love in all the realms, the love between Prince Charming and Snow White. This compounded her Saviorhood and made her even more of a force to be reckoned with. Emma's entire being is that of True Love--she is literally True Love in the flesh, an incarnate entity made up of the most powerful magic of all; this is why Cora couldn't remove her heart in Season 2 and why her magic is white. By that virtue alone, Emma Swan should be able to pass Hades' test to enter the ambrosia fields without needing confirmation that she and Hook share true love. And, for this review, I'm going to ignore the fact that Hook and Emma shouldn't even be true loves at all, and instead focus on how the writers took Emma--someone who's entire being is the most powerful magic of all, a powerful and unstoppable force unto herself--and reduced her to only having a heart full of true love when she's with her (4 month long) boyfriend. I'm harping on the parenthetical that Emma is True Love Incarnate because ignoring this factor has been a trend for some time on this show; the show has begun lessening Emma's own importance as a cosmic figure and emphasizing her romantic story as being the only thing that makes Emma complete, with season 5A as the culmination. Emma's been on her own heroes journey since the moment Henry showed up at her doorstep and called her off on an adventure and a big part of that journey (nay, the biggest part) is the conquering of death or the representation of death and chaos by the hero. This is such an integral part of the journey that I was actually excited for Emma to live up to her cosmic role and defeat death (and Hades) with her own self actualization and herohood. She doesn't need anyone else to be a hero; Emma alone should be enough, but OUAT takes this long standing tradition and warps it into something decidedly not feminist/representative of strong women and unworthy of the character they created at the start. There is nothing wrong with twisting well worn tropes when the author is trying to make a point about society or give commentary on those tropes and, again, this isn't to say that a hero (or Emma, specifically) can't have a romantic love story, but the fact that in order for Emma to be that cosmic superhero she needs the true love she shares with a romantic partner to (literally) open the doors is malarkey. To drive this point home and further complicate it ask your self what role Hook actually plays here. If you remove the romantic love partner from this equation how does the story play out? Emma, down in the worst parts of the Underworld, can't pass the test without Hook because without him she doesn't have a heart full of true love. No, I say, no. Emma's agency and importance are her own and simply being True Love Incarnate means she should be able to pass these Tests (capital T cause we're in Cosmic-land).

What makes this even more laughable and cringe worthy is that the writers couldn't even let the True Love declaration/confirmation happen organically and in any sort of natural way. Charming kisses Snow goodbye and awakens her; Zelena kisses Hades in gratitude and to show that she trusts him and his heart begins to beat; Belle gets Rumple to let down his guard and trust her for a moment and his skin changes. These are moments that make sense because they aren't just driven by the plot but because in that moment the two people have a deep connection and they aren't hoping to get anything out of a kiss in return. There is no prize to be won nor no goal to accomplish in other words. Charming doesn't know he's going to wake up Snow and Belle didn't know that she had True Love with Rumple but in that moment Charming and Belle know that kissing their partner is the right thing to do; it feels right. The show has twisted True Love to be a prize at the end of finish line, a goal that couples need to reach in order to be "valid." Hook and Emma aren't breaking a curse, they aren't declaring their love in a moment of passion and because the moment is right...they are doing it in order to open a set of doors in order to get precious ambrosia from a field so that they can get Hook back up topside. It's plot driven and it's incredibly clunky. Forgetting that Emma's heart and very essence alone should be enough to open the doors once it is set upon the scales, the confirmation only comes about because Hook was about to die in a firestorm and Emma's heart was being squeezed and Emma decides to save Hook from the flames by way of hug-tackle (that's what it looked like, it all happened pretty fast). And, because Emma chose Hook and the doors opened, they apparently have true love? But isn't this in and of itself a problem because if you were to replace Hook with anyone else (Regina, Henry, Snow, Charming, anyone with whom Emma has a passing realtionship) Emma would make the same choice (the Savior always saves) and then suddenly Emma's got true love with everyone (it's like her cosmic nature dictates that she's True Love Incarnate or something!) Hook is just a filler for anyone else; his very being doesn't actually matter but now the writers have canonically made Hook Emma's one and only. Why should I care that Hook and Emma are now True Love when the moment comes because of forced plot and could have happened with any other character? As for Hook's "sacrifice" at the end, I'm sure it means something to someone but not to me because I don't believe for one second that we won't see Hook alive again and topside with Emma. Death means very little on this show and the writers wouldn't dare part with a ship that they believe is compelling and the greatest love story of all time (hint: it's not).

On the flip side of all this, we've got two other true love couples muddling their way through deception and deceit. I've made note of this a few times already but Rumbelle and Zades are being pretty heavily paralleled. You have two men who have almost unlimited power and who have a chance at true love and a happily ever after if only they'd let go of their revenge and need for ultimate power. The question comes down to if they can let go or not (largely the overarching theme of this episode). Is Rumple capable of being a better man and a different man? Can Hades actually be something other than the Lord of the Underworld? Right now, it doesn't appear that either couple is going to make it to the finish line of S5 (and not because Belle is in a box). Unlike when Rumple killed Pan back in S3A, this "murder" wasn't done in the service of others, but more out of malicious intent. There is no sad goodbye, no kiss on the forehead, no tender parting. It's cruel and harsh, condemning his father to a life of agony in the River of Lost Souls. Pan deserves it, of course, but Rumple's casual murdering ways are a bit scary. What will Belle say? She knew the first time around that Rumple did it to save everyone and it was perfectly in line with her ideals of heroism--bravery, sacrifice, forgiveness--but this time, Rumple's motives are more in line with how Gaston defined heroism in 517--it's all about power. Is Rumple changing? Nope and given that the TLK he tried didn't work even a teeny tiny bit, I'm inclined to say he won't be having a switcheroo any time soon. But is there light at the end of the tunnel? Yeah, maybe, but only because the other couple in question is clearly going down before the end of the season( which is a shame because, as it stands, Zades is far more entertaining and worth watching than Rumbelle) and the writers have to give the Big Moment to one of them. I find myself glad that Hades and Zelena got their True Love's Kiss because even though their relationship is incredibly fast, it's entertaining to the point that I'm willing to over look the fastness (and we know it won't last, so enjoy the ride). I think Zelena has a case of heart-eyes right now; it's not as if Hades lied to her. Hades told her, point blank, that his plan was to leave the heroes in the Underworld and takes Zelena and her baby topside to the Real Storybrooke, which is what he did this episode, manipulating Emma and Hook down to the depths of the Underworld, and trapping Regina and company in the library. Hades made no promises about changing; he's been clear that his reformation is for Zelena's love and her love alone. Zelena's the one who got it into her head that her love could change him (perhaps a side effect of living among the heroes for so long) and I suspect that if Zelena were to clear her head a bit, she'd remember that she delights in the more wicked aspects of Mr. Blue Hair. Zelena and Belle are set for a pretty serious heartbreak, in other words, but only Belle (and Rumple) will come out the other side. Like Captain Swan, the writers wouldn't dare to break up one of their most popular, non-arc specific ships, but playing Rumple as the villain when need be is too tempting for the writers to ever let go of entirely. Hades may exit our show fairly soon, but Rumple-the-sometimes-peasant-killer is here to stay.

Miscellaneous Notes on Firebird

--"I came for is" I really will miss Hades.

--The flashbacks were mostly fine this episode though I am frustrated that the show keeps inserting important life altering people in Emma's life and then never has her mention them until the episode they are introduced. The origin of the jacket was a long standing question, but I hate that it killed a few headcanons I had.

--Regina can remove Emma's heart because...?

--Lots of mythology this week, both Greek (Orpheus and Eurydice) and Egyptian (the scale for the weighing of a heart; it's just missing the feather of Ma'at, the living concept of judgement and fairness).

--Cruella and the Blind Witch are now ruling the Underworld. That will end well.

--The Royal Navy teaches Ancient Greek to its sailors? Well, I went about learning it in a weird way then.

--Henry can now control the Author's writing abilities to the extent that he can write what everyone's unfinished business is? How does that make sense?


  1. I believe the test was specifically created for two people and based around their feelings for each other, so Emma's heart alone wouldn't have opened the doors. It likely depended on both Person A choosing to save Person B rather than take their heart back, and also for Person B to feel the same/willing to do the same for Person A. Without question, it would have worked with Henry too. It probably would with either Snow or Charming as well. Regina or anyone else, I'm iffy about (with Regina, it's mainly since I have never bought that her care for Emma is as strong as Emma's is for her, so even if Emma saved her the doors would probably stay shut since Regina would almost certainly go for her heart if the situation was reversed.)

    All in all, I don't really find the situation that problematic or non-feminist, if Hook was alive and it was his heart on the scale it would probably play out the same way, and it's not like past episodes haven't had Hook portrayed as someone who isn't worth much without a woman's love. It's poor writing, but it reflects poorly on both characters and not just Emma, they're both equally co-dependent and that's no good for either of them.

    1. As always, thanks for reading!

      I really appreciate the last part of you post about co-dependency because it's very true. I have a tendency to view things through a feminist lens so those instances always stick out to me more, but yes, Hook has said a few times that he can't be good without Emma which is a dangerous precedent.

      The test might work the way you're describing (though heaven forbid the writers actually put that in the text) but 1)it does quite a number on Emma's own mythology and 2) it's still a really strange way to confirm true love because, as you said, if you substitute out Hook with a great many other characters, it would still work. Emma is the Savior--she saves. She'd do the same thing for anyone she has a personal or cosmic concern for (which means it extends to her family, her friends, the town she swore to protect). And when the writers did have "the moment" to do a TLK--without any hidden agenda or goal in mind, unlike the hug-tackle--at the elevators, they still didn't give Hook and Emma a TLK even though that would have been the perfect moment.

      It's just...odd.