Monday, May 16, 2016

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (5x22 and 5x23)

Remember back in season two when young, still-baby-faced Henry decided to blow up magic by throwing some dynamite down a well? It was a stupid plan then because it neglected to take into account all the good magic has done for the residents of Storybrooke and Henry, in his own naivete, didn't realize that magic is more a neutral universal force being wielded by flawed individuals for good and bad reasons. At the time, I rationalized it with Henry's age, his trauma from watching his mothers battle each other, and a rather sweet desire to fix his family by removing what he (at the tender age of 11) thought was the problem. What does it say about the emotional growth of characters on this show that two years later, at the age of 13 (maybe even 14), Henry still has the same impulse: bad things happen to his family and instead of calling members of his family out on their life choices, their actions, and their own shaping of the world, he blames magic and sets out to destroy it? It's season five finale time and in the two hour special, "Only You" and "An Untold Story," and, like Henry, we appear to be repeating a lot of the past. Like so many arcs of stories gone by, this science vs magic one (complete with scientist Jekyll and mad-magic-man Hyde) has potential because in many ways it's being cast as dark (science and magic) vs light (magic and science). A lot of science fiction deals with that almost invisible line between science and magic and how cultures put binary restrictions on those two. It's not exactly new for the show to examine the different personas of the characters and have them fight their inner demons but something about this upcoming arc does feel fresh--maybe it's because for the first time it won't be an internal struggle. That of course could fall flat on its face once its fully realized episode by episode.  But who knows. Maybe I'm wrong and season six will be the one that won't fall to pieces before the end. Grab a black cup and red serum and let's go! 

Suffer Me To Go My Own Dark Way

The above epigram is from "Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde" by Robert Louis Stevenson and, if I'm being perfectly fair, the small novella is actually a perfect launching point for the sixth season of our fairy tale show. After all, it is also "Jekyll and Hyde" where "all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil..." is written. Is that not exactly how OUAT has defined all their multi-layered characters in the past few years? The villains are sympathetic and redeemable while the heroes can be selfish, myopic, condescending and, when you least expect it, they snatch a baby from its mother and fill it up with darkness! The point, though, is that darkness and light exist in all the characters, as if they are actually two separate individuals. Of course, they aren't and that's rather important to the Jekyll and Hyde novella. Jekyll and Hyde are not two people; they are different aspects of one person and when you defeat one, you defeat the other. Identity is such that you cannot squash or destroy one aspect of yourself. It's always there, lurking under the surface, be it a kindly angel telling you to behave or a mischievous devil wanting your id to take over. Regina got it right in the first hour when she tells Emma, "I'll never be at peace with myself." Coming to terms with all parts of your identity--be they Evil Queen, Dark One, Mother, Pirate, Hero, Princess, Bandit, Farmer, and/or Knight--is supposed to take work and hardship. It's supposed to be incredibly difficult and to be perfectly blunt, it may never happen. There may always be a war within you. For some, it's easier to give in to one aspect than to put in the effort it takes to lessen the darker tendencies of man. Think about Dr. Jekyll in the novella; he truly struggles with his darker half; it's a psychological thriller about the depravity of man when it's unleashed. So much of these two finales are about the two original villains of OUAT--Rumple and Regina--accepting or fighting with their other identity. Can Rumple be more than the Dark One obsessed with power? Can Regina ever truly be free of the Evil Queen? All of this, naturally, is paralleled with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and what appears to be a rather complicated but modestly respectable relationship (at least, while they are joined together). For Regina, the answer to her problem of the internal identity war is to destroy that one aspect of herself that keeps her up at night. This bothers me quite a bit, if I'm being honest. Regina, more than anyone, has had a pretty decent redemption arc. While the show may not be concerned with justice (ie: caring enough about the victims to allow them any peace), it has made Regina suffer time and time again and had her pay for some (not all) of her crimes. In this regard, Regina's character development has been one of the better stories on the show. It's been a five season long struggle, flitting back and forth between the Evil Queen with the ready-made fire balls and Regina, the lost and lonely little stable girl. The idea that all Regina needs to be really free of her evil self is a magical potion that allows her to kill the Evil Queen persona (literally) isn't really keeping with any of the above themes I've mentioned nor with her character arc thus far. Regina's worked for her redemption; unlike Rumple she didn't need a magical hat-suck to rid herself of the darkness; it was a part of her but controlled, Regina having learned her lessons and fought her instincts anytime they threatened to overtake her (like when Hook magically comes back from the dead but Robin doesn't). This magical serum is a cheat not only because it doesn't keep in line with the original source material (it is actually rather antithetical to it) but because it shortchanges all that Regina has accomplished over the years. Suddenly, she got a magical fix to her problems that really only creates more ills than it solves, undoubtedly, with the Evil Queen coming to play and make mischief inside Storybrooke. Regina might feel free without the Evil Queen persona, but she needs to learn that the Evil Queen is always a part of her, and that she needs that fierce strength and determination but in more moderation than the Evil Queen would like.

While Regina might be trying to reject or destroy her own inner demons (er, inner demon in one helluva dress) Rumple is gleefully accepting his own darkness admitting, not for the first time this season, that he likes the darkness and it's as much a part of him as the light. In a way, this is keeping more with the Jekyll and Hyde manifesto. Do you know why people do bad things? Because it usually feels pretty good, either in the moment or even for long term. Why do alcoholics or drug addicts keep using? It feels good, it gives them a rush, it helps them feel more at peace, more connected, more at ease. We call it indulgence for a reason. This isn't meant as an excuse for mankind's less that savory aspects but behind every bad deed lurks some sort of good feelings (why do you think the moniker crimes of passion exists?). Bullies, after all, aren't miserable being bullies. They tend to relish it. Rumple likes doing bad things; he enjoys the control and the feelings of control that power gives him. For a man who was so poor, so downtrodden, that he didn't even have control over the life of his son or his own life, the power the darkness gives him helps him achieve that which was always out of grasp when he was simply a humble spinner. He can control his own life, his own destiny and because he became so consumed with that control, he started controlling other people's destiny as well (just look at Rumple in season one). I suppose if Rumple wants to let his inner dark flag fly, then that's his business (I don't have to like him for it) but there is one problem that he himself raises. He hides his little pockets of light in other people, first in Bae and then in Belle. Those two are his light, what keeps him from going so fully over the edge as to be totally consumed by the darkness. For centuries, Rumple's sole focus was Baelfire, a love for his son so passionate that it blocked out everything else. Bae was his light and he fought for it. Now that our dear Nealfire is gone, Rumple's light has been placed in Belle (hence his sadness earlier this arc that Belle learned the hard way that sometimes...darkness does win). One of Rumple's most famous lines about Belle is that she was a "brief flicker of light amidst an ocean of darkness." Placing all your goodness in others is problematic because people are fickle, cruel and y'know...die. Much like with Hook placing all his hopes for a happily ever after and redemption in Emma, Rumple needs to be good for the sake of goodness, not hope to find redemption in others because as it stands, Rumple has lost both of his sources of light. Baelfire is dead and Belle is lost to a land of Untold Stories (huh, that's kind of ironic isn't it? A character who gets no screen time and little development is now banished to a land of Untold Stories). Perhaps Rumple's quest to find the Belle-Box will help him find his own inner light? Perhaps it's not too late for him to break his own darkness or at least use it for good, especially with a magical serum floating around that can have Dark One Rumple confront Spinner Hero Rumple? Wouldn't that, more than anything, cause Rumple to change his tune? I say these things but then I remember that when push came to shove, Rumple chose to save the shard of plastic filled with magic over the Belle-Box.

Welcome To A New Land! Here You'll Find Plots For Season Six And Beyond! 

There exists, we are told, a Land of Untold Stories, a safe haven where all the lost and forgotten stories can find refugee. First off, does this mean that the people living there are aware that they are story characters? Because why else name your little corner of the world a land of untold stories if you're not aware of your own fictionhood. Do they think/know they are considered fictional in other realms? How does that mess with identity? Think about it--you know that you're considered fictional in other corners of the universe and that your story is unfinished or forgotten. Wouldn't it make you wonder about what your end is? Do you get to decide your own end? Does this new found agency make you non-fiction? See, this is almost smart of the writers (almost because I'm not sure if they intended these very meta questions). In a way, the writers are assuaging any doubt that the show has run out of steam. Nope, they say, look at all these random characters gathered in one realm. We're gonna tell their stories now; maybe we've used up most of the famous Disney-cache but we've still got more tricks up our sleeves! Aren't you just dying to hear all about these untold stories? See; they got me there cause I totally answered "yeah!" I'm actually really intrigued how these stories/characters are unfinished or undeveloped. What happened to them? Are they all part of the forgotten novels left on people's desks, abandoned because the writers couldn't make their plot bunnies work? Are they legends or myths? Are they Western stories or might we hope for other cultures? Are they fairy tales or science fiction (cause so much of the makeup of that world looked pretty Jules Verne meets H.G. Wells). Do they get to decide their own fate or do they need a Savior/Author team-up to finish their stories (which I'd be totally down for since the past season was way too lite in terms of Emma and Henry working together). I wonder if Cthulhu lives in the oceans around the Land of Untold Stories. Right now this land is pretty intangible because it's fresh and new and not even remotely like any fictional universe we've seen before--Wonderland, Neverland, the Underworld, and Arrendale were all familiar through our experiences with their original source material. What isn't so intangible, though, are Jekyll and Hyde; not unexpectedly, Hyde seems better fleshed out and developed and more likely to receive the bulk of the narrative next season. Here's a query: if Hyde brought all the forgotten stories to Storybrooke to get their happy endings, does that make him a hero? Is he writing his own story to cast himself as a hero? Is season six about him helping the Untold Stories complete their stories, even if the heroes are trying to stop his wicked ways? I know I'm asking a lot of questions, but that's how season finales are designed--to entice you into watching next season. Well, I'm a sucker because I'm here to stay. See everyone in September!

Miscellaneous Notes on Only You and An Untold Story

--"When you're upset, we follow you to Hell!" Regina slayed so much of this episode, especially her anger toward the unfair resurrection of Hook while Robin remains 6 feet under.

--How did all those OUAT book get into the library? That's actually a fascinating idea and I hope we explore that next year.

--Really Henry? Operation Mixtape?

--Regina doesn’t say goodbye to Roland. Mmkay. But Zelena, who raped Roland’s father and who pretended to be his mother, gets to. I repeat…Mmmkay.

--Neal, the guy with no unfinished business, had an unfinished quest to destroy magic and kept it all in a journal. And never mentioned it. Ever. Mmkay.

--“To be clear, I was fine running”

--Really great to see the Dragon again; continuity many years after the fact.

--Using the power of a wish to bring your family back invokes a certain Disney song: “When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, anything your heart desires can come to you….” That’s powerful. It’s one of the most powerful messages in the Disney-verse. I actually kinda teared up a bit thinking about this. Along with this, Henry encouraging everyone to believe using the idea of nostalgia, the idea that when we were younger and less jaded we were capable of belief the likes of which can change the rules of the world. Isn’t that what drew so many of us to OUAT in the first place? That nostalgia for our childhood stories, for a time when we believed in the possibility of magic and hope and happy endings? I don’t get sentimental about this show a lot (not anymore) but that’s powerful stuff.

--Violet’s dad is a Yankee from Connecticut who found himself in Camelot. That’s hilarious.

--Henry destroyed magic in 5 seconds flat. Like he literally held up a cup for five-ten seconds and POOF. ALL of magic is gone. LOL Okay. (Also, Ghostbusters much?)

How about some thoughts on S5B overall? I don't say this lightly, but this was easily the best and most fun arc of OUAT since Neverland (S3A). Yes, there are a host of problems including an unclear motivation for the seasonal villain, horrible morality, pointless plotlines that served no purpose, and some poor world building. But a lot of times, a charismatic character and an idea can override a lot. Look at the way I praise Sleepy Hollow (okay, except the S3 finale) and its spaghetti-to-the-wall writing; it's helped along by its dynamic twosome. Hades with all his charms, one-liners, and chemistry with Zelena made the episodes enjoyable; at least eclipsing the more eye-roll worthy aspects of 5B. While I still loathe that Emma's entire story is centered around her romantic relationship, while I still don't approve of Robin's death, and while I still find myself frustrated with the themes of redemption, atonement, and forgiveness being paraded around this show, there was enough intrigue, thought, and interesting otherness happening that it elevated an arc that could have gone bottom up much quicker than it did. There was also a surprising amount of closure between characters and storylines. Regina got to say goodbye to her mother and father; Emma had a better final moment with Neal; Pan is out of the picture of good. The writers took what usually works, the dynamics between the characters, and tried to craft a story around those moments. I applaud Rumple's story becoming (mostly) about being a father again; I like the way Belle's heroic black and white world is being tested; I like(d) Zades and exploring the idea of love changing a person. However, there were definitely bad parts, like the travesty that was the LGBT tokenism relationship, the underdeveloped backstory and motivation for Hades, the James/David storyline, and the super silly Hercules and Snow one-off. And of course, even though this should have really been Emma's moment to shine as the Savior of this little enterprise, it wasn't and the character is becoming increasingly hollow and pod-like. I started off this arc with one question: was the show worth it? After 111 hours of OUAT I can't say a resounding yes. But I can't honestly answer no either. There were gems here, buried under a lot of plot and some MacGuffins, but they are there. As long as they keep cropping up, I'm here for the long haul.

Final Rating for S5B: B

Final Episode Ranking for S5B

12. Last Rites (5x21)
11. The Brothers Jones (5x15)
10. Ruby Slippers (5x18)
9. Labor of Love (5x13)
8. Firebird (5x20)
7. Souls of the Departed (5x12)
6. Her Handsome Hero (5x17)
5. Only You (5x22)
4. Devil's Due (5x14)
3. An Untold Story (5x23)
2. Sisters (5x19)
1. Our Decay (5x16)


  1. I am picturing Neal in the Better Place just facepalming and saying "Really, Papa? You let your new kid fall through a portal before it's even BORN this time?"

    Probably just the latest in a looong line of facepalming he's been doing in reaction to his father's antics.

    1. Yes, Neal is most likely in a perpetual state of head-desking since S3B