Monday, September 26, 2016

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (6x1)

Let's go back to the beginning. Once upon a time (pun!), a little girl named Emma, newly born to Snow White and Prince Charming in an enchanted kingdom overrun with villains and evildoers, was sent away to a land without magic, to grow up until such time that her people needed her magic and abilities as a Savior to break an evil curse. Since then, lives and loves have been lost. Children have been born and parents have died. The show has also become a shadow of its former glory; the plot has become convoluted and contrived, and the characters act unlike their once vibrant selves. Can you really go back to the beginning? Can you recapture the magic? Can you refocus your plot and narrative and themes to bring us all home again to the quiet, quaint town of Storybrooke, populated by your favorite fairy tale characters, where family and community are at the forefront of everyone's personal stories? Can Once Upon a Time be...Once Upon a Time again? That appears to be the main meta textual question at the heart of season six's opener, "The Savior." While the characters might be grappling with the darker sides coming to life, while everyone is focused on defeating another bad guy, and while we ponder if Savior's get happily ever after's, the writers, sitting back in their room, are dealing with the questions of their legacy and what made their show such a dynamic hit in its first few seasons. Can they bring us back to the beginning in what seems (likely) to be the final season? Can you ever truly go home again? Who knows. But we've got another 22 episodes to figure it out. Grab a flying carpet and let's go!

So You Wanna Be A Savior? Well, Whoop-De-Doo

As Mr. Hyde sits in an oft-used padded cell, taunting our Savior-In-Residence, Ms Swan, he utters the underlying problem of this new season: it is the destiny of all Saviors to die at the hands of their villain. It doesn't matter what the Savior does to avoid it, or how they try to fight it, the Savior falls while doing their Savior-thing. As someone who loves classic literature, tropes, archetypes, and all those cliches, I must politely disagree with Mr. Hyde and ask which heroic tales he's been reading. This isn't to say that the hero (or heroine) doesn't often die; of course they do, especially if they are undergoing a literal katabasis in their heroes journey. What's usually important to remember is that the Savior defeats Death or its bodily representation--rising like a proverbial phoenix-- and comes back from their own underworld; should they die for real, forever, it is done in service of their quest, their friends, their family, their country, their god, and/or their purpose. It's not a vain sacrifice, but one that brings the Savior to the end of their story, coming full circle and accepting that this is their ultimate destiny, a self actualized individual who understands their role in the cosmos. Would Emma die for her family? Sure, it's a feat she's been seen to undertake in several situations already. However, I cannot stress enough, that for every Savior or hero that does die at the end of their journey, more often than not they live. Buffy, Luke, Harry, Frodo, Aragorn, Odysseus, all come back home at the end of their tale. They return with a greater sense of understanding not only of themselves but of their roles in the universe.  I honestly expect Emma Swan to be no different. The season premiere opens up questions, some of which I touched on above in the introduction; it ponders not only can you come home again, but can the Savior--who's life so far has been one villain, one problem, one death march after the next--really find any sort of happily ever after when evil never takes a holiday? Is Emma Swan destined to die? Even with all things being equal and probability weighing the odds, the title that follows Emma around like a bad smell would protect her. At least on this show; a show in which the writers time after time have Emma absolved of all her sins, forgiven all her wrongdoings, and have her escape almost impossible situations; a show that harps on hope and happiness and family. They've put Emma through her paces, had her go through her katabasis and to add this unforseen, unforeshadowed death threat is anti-climatic. Are there really stakes here? Does anyone really and truly believe that Emma Swan will die in a sword fight with a hooded figure when she's faced down the darkness in herself and the Lord of the Underworld? The narrative stakes need to be present in a story for it to be worth telling and this year, I just don't feel those stakes yet. Emma might be in danger but no more so than normal.

However, what bothers me more than this new low stakes threat is the way Emma reacted to it. How many times have I asked this question over the past few years but has Emma Swan really developed at all? Every year we hear about her Emma-sized walls and how when she gets scared her walls go up and walls, walls, walls. I am so sick of Emma's walls. But, also, every year we hear about how there is one character who manages to knock down her walls--Henry, Neal, Regina, Hook, Elsa, Snow and Charming. But, yet, here we are again: Emma and her walls. Upon seeing her shaking, uncontrollable hands Emma goes into defense mode. Maybe this is normal for people; we get scared and we close ourselves off. I do actually sympathize with that reaction as someone who does it as well, except that this is par for the course for the writers when they approach a new season with Emma. It's like they don't know how to write Emma beyond "walls." They have a basic idea of who Emma is as a person--an orphan, scared, alone, but ultimately hopeful that things can get better once she starts to let people in--and then the writers get to the next stage of her evolution (like a Pokemon!) in which Emma admits that person X broke down her walls; then the writers, just in time for a new season, retreat back to their safe space of Emma and her walls because I honestly don't think they know what happens past that. If this were the first time they had taken Emma back to square one, I'd be more forgiving because for Emma this is a scary situation and it's natural to retreat both from it and from the people who want to assist you through it, but because this isn't even close to being the first time the writers have moved Emma's character back, I can't muster any understanding or sympathy for the way Emma is acting except to say "writers prerogative" and then chastise them for it. Y'all expect nothing less from me, I'm sure.

Fetal Impersonations

Sometimes, this show is painfully silly; I have nothing against visions of the future, time travel, ghosts of future past or what have you, but to have a fetus (who is really no more than a few cells right now, given the time constraints of this show) impersonate a god in order to wake its mother from a sleeping curse while trying to outwit its father is all bit too much for me. I was rather confused by a lot of the Rumbelle plot this week, but it seems that Belle's baby, still inside its mother's womb and said mother still being inside Pandora's Box, managed to overhear Hyde tell Rumple to travel to Morpheus's temple to enter Belle's dream world; this not-yet-a-fetus decided that in order to save his mother from falling for his father's lies and manipulations again, Sperm-And-Egg-Baby would set up a test to remind Belle that Rumple has hurt her over and over again and falling for his pretty words will neither benefit her nor the unborn babe. My god, that baby should be president of Mensa. This is silly, right? But what is maybe even sillier is Belle's dream world--in which she envisions her life at Rumple's castle as one of terror and fear, that the Beast she lived with was lurking around the corner, ready to pray on her vulnerability at any given moment. This is not how I remember the story of Rumple and Belle. Was Belle really terrified of the castle? And her life there? She saw through Rumple’s Beast persona in the beginning. She saw that he wasn’t as dark as he tried to make her believe–that was sort of the point of Belle. On one of their first outings, to retake Robin Hood (who was not yet Lucifer!), she refuses to believe that Rumple is as dark as the mask he wears to the world; she has faith in him, she stands up to him and even challenges him. And even when Belle does see the Beast, she loves those parts of him too. Belle isn't scared of Rumple or the life she chose. Belle sees herself as the hero who sacrificed her own desires in order to rescue her people, and while she had to give up her opportunities to see other lands or to travel, she found Rumple fascinating and intriguing and worthy of her attentions. The retconning of their love story in order to cast Rumple in nothing but villainous shades, to present Belle as an unsympathetic shrew, and to delay any sort of happy ending for this pairing is frustrating and beyond wearing thin. Though, maybe not as frustrating as a baby that can apparently hear through a metal AND fleshy boxes.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Savior

--I mentioned neither Jafar nor Aladdin but as they are both total side characters right now, I'll wait and see what the show has planned for them. However, if the writers ignore Wonderland, I'll be quite unhappy.

--How did Zelena even know to move into Regina's house? When did this conversation take place?

--Regina doesn't blame Emma at all for Robin's death. I'm really tired of the writers letting Emma's misdeeds be absolved by those around her as if she can quite literally do no wrong. That's not how you write interesting characters.

--It's always good to see Archie and Pongo!

--The Red Bird is Iago, right?

--"For you I would be the best man I could be." You know, Rumple's being quite honest here. The best man he can be is still someone who loves the dagger and loves the darkness. But we've reached a crossroads with these two and I don't see how they can navigate it together.

--"The only story I heard was the one I kept telling myself."

--I need a fair amount of eye-bleach after that opening Storybrooke scene. #SorryNotSorry