Tuesday, December 26, 2017

In Which I Review The Doctor Who Christmas Special (2017)

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays and Whomas! It's time, once more, for that most special of Yuletide traditions: the Doctor Who Christmas special. It's been an age since the show aired regularly and, as usual, it's more than a little bit nice to step inside the mad world of the TARDIS and our beloved everlasting Time Lord. But this year, as has happened before and shall happen again, we say goodbye to the current face of the Doctor and welcome a new--more feminine--face into this bonkers fairy tale world. This year's Christmas special, "Twice Upon a Time," isn't only the goodbye to Peter Capaldi as the titular Time Lord but also to Steven Moffat, a man who's steered the real life TARDIS through six seasons; a man who's tenure as said showrunner has been punctuated by brilliance but too often hallmarked by frustration. This is an episode less defined by the sugary sweet sentiments of Christmas specials past and more a writer trying to hang his hat up and finalize his message to a world of fans. Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat, we bid you farewell. 

Steven Moffat's episodes of Doctor Who are usually made up of a few key things: big, bombastic storylines with lots of flare, drama, and explosions; head scratching timey-wimey twists and turns and, fairly often, snappy dialogue and humor. This Christmas special had all of those; to wit, the First Doctor and the Twelfth Doctor accidentally run into each other at the South Pole where their personalities, mannerisms, and experiences clash; time freezes and almost inexplicably we end up on a hostile red planet with an angry Dalek. And that's all before the Doctor--portrayed by a man for fifty years--regenerates into a woman, an event that--when announced some months ago--sent shock waves of both anger and joy throughout the fan base, causing several internet explosions. But more than being a typical Moffat episode (which this episode absolutely is), the writer is attempting to lampshade, quite loudly to mix up some metaphors, the fact that this is his farewell episode and without being subtle (something Doctor Who almost never is anyway) explain to the audience how he wants his tenure to be remembered. For the sake of ease, forget the plot. The plot is a headscratcher at best that can only be rationally explained by scientific mumbo jumbo from a two thousand year old Time Lord. Instead, let's focus on what the plot is trying to say when we remember it in within the context of Steven Moffat's departure. The idea of Testimony--as presented by glass aliens who seemingly abduct the Doctor and his companions--is presented as evil; all plans the Doctor stumbles across are usually ill intended and in true Doctor fashion, he gives a marvelous speech about stopping Testimony and saving the Universe. The about face that comes toward the end of the episode is that, lo and behold, Testimony isn't an evil plot that the Doctor needs to stop by swishing his white cape and waving his magical sword. No, Testimony is Steven Moffat's way of saying that he, as showrunner, will live on in memory. That's perhaps a bit egotistical but Moffat's tenure is egotistical, which isn't always a bad thing; it means that his plot and often times coherence get lost because of the influx of ideas and themes. And nothing reads Theme-with-a-capital-T more than having an entire episode devoid of plot to focus on something as lofty as memory. Second, for a show that changes actors every few years and expects the audience to form the same attachment to the newbie, memory is vital. In fact, the word memory is dropped several times throughout key moments of the episode. Testimony's purpose is to lift people from the moment of their death, duplicate their memories and then put those memories in a glass figure so that the dead can live on amongst the living even while their physical selves die. Bill Potts, upon revealing that she too is part of Testimony reminds the Doctor, "what is anyone supposed to be except a bunch of memories?" Steven Moffat is a series of memories, not just his own that inform his own personal life--like being a long time Doctor Who fan--but the collective memories of TV watchers who now readily identify him through his works, both good and bad--Weeping Angels, the biggest library in the Universe and River Song, the Pandorica, Amy and Rory Pond, the 50th anniversary, Clara Oswald and Bill Potts. These memories, as treacly as it might sound, have been downloaded into us and we carry them forward, ensuring that Steven Moffat himself lives forever through these memories and works. And perhaps it might be overreaching but I also think that Moffat is asking that we remember him kindly; even as a showrunner who caused more than his share of controversy (to be fair, other showrunners of Doctor Who did not have Twitter and Tumblr to contend with, which isn't to say that some of the criticisms pushed on Moffat are not fair and accurate).

If the importance and immortality of memories is one sticking point of this episode, then surely the other is Moffat reminding us what the heart of Doctor Who is: a fairy tale. The First Doctor, brilliantly played by David Bradley, tries to remind those around him, including the Twelfth Doctor, Captain Lethbridge-Stewart and Bill, that the universe is not a fairy tale; there must be some logical reason why good triumphs over evil even though evil so very clearly has the upper hand. His way of looking at the universe is devoid of magic; the victory of good cannot possibly come down to the works of one bloke who drops down from the sky and fixes problems without ever asking for anything in return. "The real world," he says, "is not a fairy tale." Sometimes, good captains die in war on a cold hard battlefield, never to see their children again. Miracles are rare. And sure, that's certainly reality but it's not what Doctor Who is concerned with. It has never cared much for reality, especially at Christmas. At its heart, Doctor Who is a fairy tale with a hero who slays dragons. Steven Moffat uses the Twelfth Doctor to remind us that "the universe generally fail to be a fairy tale. But that's where we come in." And he's right! That's how to sum up the whole 54 years of this program. Moffat is reaching out across the fourth wall and asking, one final time, for us to understand his version of fairy tales. It might be louder, more explosive, and often a confusing jumble of plot points, but he tried to keep the fairy tale in mind. Think back on the various 12th Doctor finales of Moffat's tenure: he went to Hell and Heaven; he saved the planet; he sacrificed his life. He did what superheroes and fairy tale heroes do. Moffat, more than his predecessor, had the Doctor walking the Heroes Journey. The Doctor never lost sight of that, not for long, but fairy tales evolve and change. Sometimes there are robots as faithful companions. This, in turn, leads us to the next evolution in this fairy tale called Doctor Who: Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor. Finally, a woman! If Doctor Who is a fairy tale then the Doctor isn't just the dashing knight, at least not only a male gendered one. The Doctor is an archetype; he is above and beyond gender. The Doctor exists as we want him to exist--male, female, sexless and genderless, black, white, even green if we so chose. The archetype exists as a great series of bullet points, it's up to us (or Chris Chibnall, I suppose) to fill in the details based on what kind of fairy tale is going to be told next. And from this point onward, the fairy tale is mystery waiting to be told--or, perhaps it's better to say, to be retold. After all, it's been told twelve times before. Once upon a time....a hero fell from the sky. The rest? We'll just have to wait and see.

Miscellaneous Notes on Twice Upon a Time

--How about one big final round of applause to Peter Capaldi? While he wasn't often given the best storylines, his performance never suffered. He was truly a great Doctor.

--The other lampshading moment that I didn't touch on too much was the rather backwards attitude of the First Doctor with regards to women and their roles on the TARDIS, a relic of the 1960s much like some fans hangups over the new Doctor. Most of this provided us with some quality chuckles, but when the First Doctor threatened to smack Bill's bottom, that's when it went a titch too far.

--The Dalek was really pretty unnecessary, right?

--"I turn in to you?!" "Well, you have a few false starts but you get there in the end."

--Clara appeared for thirty seconds and because I was never a big fan of hers all I could think about was Queen Victoria and why she wasn't with Albert.

--I couldn't figure out the purpose of the Captain except as a way to make the Twelfth Doctor a Christmas hero until he revealed his last name. Tying the Captain to the Brig was a smart move.

--The Twelfth Doctor's final words read less as final words of a man dying and more like a showrunner exiting the building trying to pass on wisdom to his successor, which isn't to say that Peter Capaldi didn't deliver them beautifully: "never be cruel, never be cowardly. And never eat pears. Hate is always foolish, love is always wise. Try to be nice, never fail to be kind. Laugh hard, run fast, be kind. Doctor, I let you go."

--Welcome Jodie Whittaker. I can't tell you how pleased I am to meet you! Now, kindly get back inside your TARDIS, okay?

Saturday, December 16, 2017

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (7x9 and 7x10)

Yeah, I skipped reviewing last week's episode "One Single Tear." I realized, sitting in my living room watching it, that I had very little to say for a proper review. At least, very little that wasn't a series of critical questions involving poorly defined character motivations and feelings. The plot was mined from previous characters and the internal emotional struggles--which would have made the story not only more interesting but also helped with an audience only loosely invested in some of these characters--were lacking. In the end, instead of subjecting my readers and myself to a tortuously slow and meandering review, I skipped it and decided to do a two-for-one encompassing the fall finale, "The Eighth Witch." In hindsight, this was the right decision because two highly negative reviews in a row would have been exhausting. I began this year asking one question: is the continuation of OUAT through a reboot worth it? At winter's end, I believe I finally arrived at answer after changing my mind almost weekly. 


Gone Girl

Magic has once again been ripped from the Enchanted Forest. Sure, it's not the Enchanted Forest you know and remember from seasons past but these aren't the characters you know and remember; it's not the Curse you know and remember and it's not the show you know and remember. In other words, it's poetic that as magic is being removed once again from the make believe fantasy world of Once Upon a Time, the audience is getting a nice hefty reminder that the magic--television magic--has also fled. What would make this season of OUAT successful? That's the question I posed in most of my reviews, trying to figure out how much newness this show could withstand while also grappling with the question of how much nostalgia to hold on to. It's a precarious balance and I certainly didn't envy the writers the task. When a show has gone through as much change as Once Upon a Time has, trying once again to reinvent the wheel will usually only yield a very sloppy wheel. For example, you have original Once Upon a Time, which I denote as seasons one through the first half of three. The characters were well developed, logical, and the mythology made enough sense to allow the audience to keep abreast of new developments but also to theorize and try their hand at detective work (ie: who is Baelfire?) Original Once Upon a Time was like sitting down to read your favorite fairy tale only to discover that it had been upgraded to an adult fanfiction of the highest caliber. After the original came Secondary Once Upon a Time which stretches from the second half of season three to the end of season six. This is the era in which the characters stopped making sense, the storylines began focusing more on the villains and their redemption at the expense of the heroes, and the mythology became sketchy, unclear, and altogether unknowable. This was like sitting down to read your favorite fairy tale only to discover that a three year old had gone over it in Sharpie marker, replacing key points with poop emojis. Readable? Yes. Enjoyable? Less so. Now we have Tertiary Once Upon a Time, a story that I don't even know how to quantify yet. What exactly is this seventh season? Yes, parts of it are interesting and there's some really good work happening with the likes of Alice and Drizella, two characters who would easily blend into the Original OUAT but those two alone aren't enough to save what is ultimately a poor story. I hate discussing plot. I'd much rather talk about archetypes, themes, religion, character motivation, ect but I have to at least pause here and try to puzzle out the plot of this year so that I might touch upon those other ideas.

If I understand this correctly--and to be honest, I'm not sure I do--Gothel manipulated Drizella (having met her at some heretofore unmentioned time) and convinced her that there was a prophecy (is the prophecy real or made up to manipulate Drizella?) that the Curse (the Dark Curse? It's unclear) must be cast eight years after Lucy was born. Lucy, who by the way, more or less sprung from the head of Henry because the last time I checked, Henry and Ella has simply shared a kiss because a necklace told them to. They were nowhere near marriage nor sex. Gothel did this because, in the end, she wanted Anastasia--whom she believes is the Eighth Witch--for the Coven of Eight, which is an altogether stupid name to give a coven if you only have seven members. Somewhere along the way, Zelena and her daughter moved to the New Enchanted Forest; Tiana became a Queen; Tremaine joined the ranks of Henry and the heroes; Alice left her tower and Rumple became a stark raving loon. I can already head my readers crying "those stories are going to be told in the second half of the season!" and I'm sure we'll get answers to some of these stories when the show returns but none of the big plot--the casting of the curse, the reveal of Gothel as the Big Bad, Drizella's betrayal by Gothel, Rapunzel's dislike for her eldest child, or even something as simple as Henry and Ella's love story--felt like it was developed organically and in a way that made sense. The writers no longer write arcs; they write a beginning and an end and instead of trying to figure out the middle at the same time, they simply ensure that they reach their end come hook or crook. For example, they need Lucy to be born of Henry and Ella so they ensure that the audience knows they are true love, not through deeds and steady character development but because of a plot device necklace and then as soon as the audience blinks from that moment, boom! Henry and Ella have a child. The writers need a curse to be cast so they can have their new characters in the city of Hyperion Heights, so they come up with a Curse that resembles the Dark Curse except it's clearly not but instead of explaining the Curse and how it works, they simply have Regina cast it, hoping the nostalgia factor from Original Once Upon a Time is enough to keep us from questioning anything. It's not like this is new information, though, to be fair. The writers have often used the first half of a season to spin their wheels, building huge questions that they likely don't have an answer to yet, not until the second half. That's why the first half of an arc falls short when compared to the second, at least in my opinion (Queens of Darkness was better told than Frozen; Hades was superior to Camelot; The Black Fairy outshone The Evil Queen).

If it sounds like I, too, am spinning my wheels that's because I am. I don't know how to discuss this winter finale except to say that I hated it. There's nothing interesting to talk about. Will Regina end up finding a way to save both Henry and Lucy? Of course she will. The writers aren't going to kill either one. Will Gothel be taken down by season's end, with her plans foiled and Anastasia somehow returned to innocence? Yup, and I'll place a lot of money on all of that happening because of some MacGuffin that no one has ever heard about. Will Gothel likely get some sort of sob story? Probably and if history is any indication, it'll somehow revolve around how she was either rejected by her own mother or rejected by a man. In my season premiere review, I put forth the idea that Henry and Lucy's story is a clear reminder of Emma and Henry and that this was actually a smart move because of the circular nature of stories and archetypes in general and overall this argument still stands. This is only the middle of Henry's hero's journey in which he battles against the forces of death and chaos. I don't mind that sort of repetitive nature when it's in service of a broader statement about the nature of storytelling. Of course Henry's story is almost beat for beat the same as Emma's except for a few twists. But what bothers me is how haphazard (there's the famous key word from season six!) the actual plot-story is. The emotional journeys of Henry, Regina/Roni, and Rumple are bearable and in some cases enjoyable ("Beauty" being the best episode of the season and one of the best episodes the show has done in a good long while). But when too much plot that is too poorly executed and explained gets in the way, it's hard to be invested in those emotional stories. This is my truly round about way of saying that if the question on my mind for the past ten episodes was "is this worth it" my answer is a resounding no, which is a change from my initial maybe at the start of the year. Like Lucy, I guess I just don't believe anymore.

Miscellaneous Notes on One Single Tear and The Eighth Witch

--I'm sorry if this review doesn't actually discuss the episodes in question much. I'm slowly beginning to question my resolution to see this show through to the very end. Or at least to blog every single episode.

--“Right. Well, I’m not here to discuss timelines.” In other words, the writers would really like for us all to stop questioning how their world works and simply take it for what it is: under developed and at the whims of an external force.

--Why would you keep the frozen statue form of the woman who threatened to curse you inside your house on display?

--It’s pretty obvious that Alice and Robyn are going to be serious love interests. They can bond over the fact that their mothers raped their fathers in order to conceive them. (gags)

--Welcome back Zelena, I guess? I get what the writers are going for making Zelena engaged and having her choose her family over her life as Kelly but sometimes the writers take the whole “family over everything” throughline too far. Like, Kelly’s fiancee is her family too and Zelena even says she still loves him!

--The Eighth Ingredient is the never before heard of magic from a witch who crushed the heart of the thing she loves most. Good LORD. That’s the most oddly specific and dumb plot device since “blood of a man who’s been to hell and back.”

--Why should I even care about how powerful Anastasia is?. We literally just met her! And why is she even this powerful?

--Plot Device Battle: which is dumber? The magic from a witch who crushed the heart of the thing she loves most OR a white elephant that helps you remember your most important relationship?

--I usually review the arc as a whole during this winter finale wrap up but if my above review doesn't tell you all you need to know then I don't think another paragraph will do it. Needless to say, there are bright spots (Rumple and Belle's episode, Roni, Alice, and Drizella) but the overwhelming negatives outweigh all the good. The season continues the writers trend of biting off more than they can chew and not actually letting plots unfold at a steady pace leaving room for emotional growth and audience attachment.

Final Episode Ranking for S7A (lowest to highest)

10. The Eighth Witch (7x10)
9. A Pirate's Life (7x2)
8. Pretty In Blue (7x8)
7. Greenbacks (7x5)
6. One Little Tear (7x9)
5. The Garden of Forking Paths (7x3)
4. Eloise Gardener (7x7)
3. Hyperion Heights (7x1)
2. Wake Up Call (7x6)
1. Beauty (7x4)

Final Grade for S7A: C/C-

See you all in March!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (7x7 and 7x8)

Reveals on TV shows can be tricky; you have to lay enough groundwork for the answer to seem obvious and yet not so devoid of mystery that it's not satisfactory, emotionally and from the broader narrative standpoint. What these reveals should not be is a big "gotcha" moment where you upend everything the audience thought they knew, just for the sake of upending everything. And, perhaps most importantly, the reveal shouldn't involve a dumber than dumb MacGuffun who's only purpose is to cause the big reveal and upend said expectation. Then again, this is OUAT so of course there is a dumber than dumb MacGuffin and a twist that no one saw coming because none of that ground work was lain. And that's just in the first hour, folks! In this two-for-one spectacular, "Eloise Gardener" and "Pretty in Blue" OUAT does what it does best: use ridiculous magical items to fuel a big twistastic reveal while dispensing with some trite and pithy mottos about family and belief. Yeah, that's not really a compliment. 

Lady Gardens 

I really don't want to walk back what I said last week about the show finding its sweet spot and slowly becoming a more watchable hour of TV. I stand by that with regards to last week's episode. But I forgot the cardinal rule of OUAT that I wrote for myself at least three seasons ago--take it one week at a time, do not let the good week foreshadow the next week's episode. For example, I could never--in a thousand years--anticipate that a magical flower, that apparently grows babies after one night of passion, would play such an integral part in the big Eloise Gardener reveal. How could I? Such a useless, silly, nonsensical MacGuffin could only come from the minds of writers who are lazy and want easy answers instead of trying to write something more compelling that weaves heart and magic into one. To be fair, that is what OUAT does a lot--they introduce an object that will play no role in anything outside of one event and lets that object be the reason the story progresses. Over the years we've had necklaces, mushrooms, tasers, wands, gauntlets, and even some coconuts. We were bound to get a magic baby growing flower eventually not just because of the writers penchant for terrible MacGuffins but also because the writers have proven that they don't care for the realities of human gestation. Zelena had a magically sped up pregnancy, gave birth, and then ran around in high heels all in the course of an hour; Belle's son magically became a baby again, and way way back in Season Three the writers suggested that Snow was pregnant with Baby Snowflake for about a year. Honestly, the fact that a magically flower-grown baby hasn't happened yet is the real surprise. But I'll get off this magic flower shtick because while the reveal of who Rogers' daughter is--Alice--and with whom--Mother Gothel--is dumb (dumb dumb dumb) the first hour of OUAT did provide some interesting commentary into Hook's character, which is really what we're here for.

At the top of the hour, Weaver gives Rogers some advice: "An obsession can be a dangerous thing." Hook's first starting point as a character has to be his obsession with seeking revenge on Rumple. It's how he was introduced back in season two; before he was a love interest or a would be hero or even before he was Wish Realm Hook, his main storyline was of a man obsessed with taking down his sworn enemy, the Crocodile. Over the course of the show, we've come to realize that Hook's obsessive nature doesn't just extend to the Dark One. He was obsessed with "good form" when he was an upright sailor still going by the name of Killian Jones. After turning pirate, he had more than a passing fancy for rum, using the drink like a crutch (something even his Wish Realm Cursed persona is afflicted by, drinking himself silly the night Eloise Gardener went missing). And, while this might not apply to Wish Realm Hook, our Hook had a bit of an unhealthy obsession with various objects of his affection, Milah and Emma. Milah and her memory was the sole reason for his hundred/hundred and fifty year quest for blood and Hook has given a few eyebrow raising pronouncements about his love for Emma that border on the unhealthy and creepy over the years (not to dive back into that dreadful mess which is now, blessedly, behind us). But still, obsession is one of the traits at the heart of Captain Hook and it carries over into his almost manic search for Eloise Gardener, a women he feels responsible for, keeping her diary on him like it's a talisman and a reminder of his past. Rogers, deep in contemplation over why this case matters to him so much, even confesses that, despite never having met the poor girl, he really feels that Eloise is family, he knows her that well. And of course the catch here is that Eloise--Alice (also called Tilly because lets load up on all the names, shall we?)--really is family; she's his unbeknownst-to-him daughter (born of a magical flower over the course of one night! Yes, I'm still harping on that). But this obsession speaks to something that gets picked up in the second hour of the two episodes: family always finds each other, a motto that is as big a hallmark to OUAT as Regina's killer wardrobe, Rumple's dearies, and Emma's red leather jacket. Obsession can be a dangerous thing; when Rogers thinks that Eloise is dead, it drives him to the bottle and to a point of despair. But the writers are also making a commentary on how obsession over things less vile than alcohol--like family--can motivate a person to working for the good. After all, would "Eloise" (who is really not Eloise) still have been rescued and Victoria locked up if it weren't for Rogers' obsessive tracking of the diary? And while the former of those two results isn't great, the latter is.

This dovetails somewhat nicely into the second episode which was, overall, a much poorer episode (even though there were no baby making flowers! I'll be over it soon, promise). What I disliked about this episode so much was that while it was set up to be an Alice centered episode that explored what happened between her papa (cringe!) and herself--namely a never before heard of curse--it very rapidly turned into a story about Ella and the members of her family that have almost no bearing on this story. Yes, there's the motto of family will always find each other and there's the element of obsession in Ella's father and mother and their twin heart necklaces, but instead of showing us this backstory, the writers have Ella deliver all of this through exposition and--while I'm not trying to be cruel--the actress playing Ella isn't stellar at this. She has enough trouble acting emotions with her fellow actors but put a long winded, complicated, magic laden, story in her mouth and it turns into a dull reading. It also speaks to something that has been wrong on OUAT for a long time, telling instead of showing. The goal here is to bolster Ella's character and make her more likable to the audience; backstory usually helps with that and on OUAT it's not only nice, it's mandatory for every character to have heaps and heaps of backstory. But when the writers are simply telling me the backstory and not letting me live in the moment by seeing it first hand, my feelings toward the character in question will likely remain unchanged. To cap this lackluster character foray off, the writers turned to their old bag of tricks and brought out another MacGuffin to drive relationships instead of letting it happen organically. Henry and Ella have true love because a necklace told them so! Instead of Ella learning to open her heart and be open to love and to Henry by learning that he'd never hurt her the way Ella's father was hurt by her mother, the necklace told her she should take a chance and be with Henry. Ye gods that's lazy writing. While it's perfectly okay for a MacGuffin like that to appear after the characters are deeply in love (think the necklaces Cyrus and Alice wore in the original OUAT in Wonderland) they are there to symbolize that which has already transpired, namely the whole falling in love thing! In this case, the necklaces do not solidify the love that is already present but inform the two characters that they are in love instead of discovering it themselves. It's a shame because obviously Henry and Ella are being set up to the next iconic love story, complete with an unnecessary love triangle. I had just hoped that the writers would do better by the couple they are setting the flag of their new show upon. Ah, hope. I knew better!

Miscellaneous Notes on Eloise Gardener and Pretty In Blue 

--Alice selling stolen watches under a bridge seems exactly like something Alice would do.

--Should I even bother mentioning the problem of sexually untimid Rapunzel turning out to be Evil Mother Gothel?

--Giant Garden Gnome is super stupid but also super hilarious.

--–I normally really like Roni’s outfits but that polka dot necktie thingy is tragic.

--“I tend not to trust people who tie me up and drug me.”

--Henry is listening to "Bizarre Love Triangle" when he meets Nick in the bar. Incredibly on the nose there, OUAT.

--–“As much as I want to go to Storybrooke to get help, we can’t do that and they can’t know we’re here!” Because…..? Oh right. The whole cast quit a year ago.

--“Oh that’s cute. You think I’m going to villain monologue for you? Please.” Ivy is the best.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (7x6)

This show certainly does love its parallels, doesn't it? And no, that's not a criticism. In a show that is heavily built around archetypes like Evil Queens, Princesses, good and evil, it's natural that certain characters are going to gel together and feel like their stories are the same beats again and again. Of course Drizella and Regina get on like a house on fire; once upon a time, Regina was Drizella, a scared noble girl cowering before her overpowering and domineering mother who refused to let her daughter live her own life. It makes for a richer narrative to have Regina, older, wiser, and certainly seasoned in the art of coming back from the black, coach and try to help the younger girl down a path that won't lead to a dark heart. Regina has seen that path; she's walked it and she knows how lonely and repressive it can be. The sort of parallels on display in this week's episode "Wake Up Call" not only help inform Drizella, a new character that we're still parsing out, but also show just how far Regina Mills has come in the years since she strolled into Emma's nursery and watched, gleefully, as a world was ripped apart. 

Teachers and Students 

I need to hand it to Once Upon a Time; it's certainly making quite an eleventh-hour resurgence. Just when I thought nothing about this show could ever interest me again or induce anything either than boredom or revulsion, it has done the unthinkable: it made me sit up, really pay attention, and want more. Sometimes rebooting a show can breathe new life into it and I don't know if it's the new characters like Drizella and Alice, or if it's the fact that what I once found so terrible and tedious is not only gone but completely forgotten about, or if it's a lovely combination of both but, despite a few headscratching set backs, season seven is proving to be more intriguing than I originally thought. I rarely discuss plot in these reviews because, first, by and large I am unconcerned with simply spitting back the plot spaghetti of this weekly TV show and, second, OUAT usually dishes up something worth discussing that interests me from a feminist, political, social, or mythological standpoint. But I think I need to pause here and praise the show for delivering a plot that does feel familiar (Dark Curse, memory loss, ect) but is being spun in a new way. I've said this before both in relation to OUAT and in relation to other pieces of media but you need not always tell me a new story; you can always tell me an old story well. This is helped quite a bit by Adalaide Kane who is doing exceptionally well as Drizella. There's a pathos to her portrayal of young Drizella that is aided by the fact that the writers smartly paired her next to Lana Parilla, who is still doing amazing work as Regina. A character like Drizella, with her background, wouldn't come across as successfully as it does if it weren't for the six year history the audience has had with Regina. We instantly understand Drizella, the temptations she must be feeling, the suffering she's endured because Regina understands it and we understand Regina. Drizella doesn't need to be fully fleshed out over the course of several seasons because the character in her closest proximity has done all that work beforehand. OUAT understands this by reinforcing the past in its current narrative; Regina brings up her own horrifying upbringing and, just to really soccer punch the audience with understanding, Rumple randomly strolls into the middle of this little lesson and offers Regina some advice in the guise of her old teacher, reminding her of some facts Regina avoided. Wheels within wheels and it all works, even if Drizella's education with Regina and her turn to the darkside literally takes place over the course of one afternoon. We've seen what twists and turns it took for Rumple and Regina (and to less of an extent, Cora) to turn down their own dark paths. This doesn't save OUAT from a some measure of criticism, naturally, because Drizella's plot to kill the random prince in order to darken her own heart so that Lady Treamaine couldn't steal it to implant into Anastasia is...strange to say the least. Why not just kill Lady Tremaine? Or why not just end Anastasia's "life" (if you can call it that). Instead, Drizella goes to extraordinary lengths to not only cast the Dark Curse (can there be any doubt that she cast it?) but to ensure that even Regina wouldn't want to break it because of something sinister that we likely won't figure out for another few weeks. While the Prince plot was silly, the other questions once again bring us back to our parallels and to the character in closest proximity to Drizella: Regina. I used to ask the same questions of Regina and Snow; why didn't Regina just kill Snow, why go through the trouble of casting a Dark Curse to separate Snow and Charming? The answer is easy, if heartbreaking: because when you've been tortured and mistreated it's easy to get caught up in that pattern and want to turn that torture and mistreatment on the guilty parties instead of either forgiving them or taking a more direct approach. Don't forget, Regina's first successful attempt at hurting Snow was a poisoned apple that put Snow in a death-like sleep, but did not kill her.

Ivy's (sorry, Drizella) endgame is tough to riddle out, however. Surely she did not intend to end up her mother's lackey in this new world. Is that just the price Drizella pays for magic? I believe that Drizella wants Victoria to be awake but to still be under the effects of the curse; in other words Victoria believes she is the only person awake and is in control of Hyperion Heights only by Drizella's largess and design. Whereas, back in the Enchanted Forest, Drizella was powerless and Tremaine had all the power, here Victoria only has the allusion of control and power but Drizella is really pulling all the strings. But what made me sit up and want more this week was in trying to parse out what Drizella's endgame is. Regina didn't quite have one either when she cast the curse; she just wanted to to break up Snow and Charming's happily ever after and live her idea of happy ever after on her own terms. Ivy, by making sure the Witch in the tower is not only present in Hyperion Heights but awake and able to do at least marginal magic, must have some sort of end result in mind. An end result important enough to ensure that no one--should they awaken from the Curse--even try to break said Curse. Would Henry die if Regina tried to wake him up? Would Lucy? What terrible thing could possibly happen? These questions are plot focused but it's the first time in a long time when OUAT has made me want to question the plot in order to figure it out, not merely to criticize it. We are nearing the end of this first arc and I am hoping--against my better judgement--that the writers are going to deliver something that will keep this feeling of wanting more alive. It's nice to be reminded of what that feels like.

Miscellaneous Notes on Wake Up Call

--Bella Note has stray dogs hanging around it. Classic, old school, OUAT charm!

--Regina's black outfit in the Enchanted Forest might be my favorite thing she's ever worn.

--“Things are always more fun when you start in the middle.”

--Rogers’s storyline still feels a bit disconnected right now. I’m sure it’ll sync up but in an episode like this, it feels out of left field. Prediction, for the record: his daughter is Anastasia and Lady Tremaine was originally Rapunzel, hence why she keeps her hair short and why she thinks fear is the greatest weapon of all.

--I think OUAT is trying just a bit too hard with Henry and Jacinda. Holding a radio over his head is cheesy but also fairly cringe worthy for a guy who wasn't even alive in the 80s. There is very little spark between these two and I think it might come down to the lack of chemistry between the actors. I will say, though, that Andrew J. West's little victory pumps were adorable.

--I really need Alice and Drizella in a scene together soon because I have a feeling it would be dynamic as hell.

--Rumple refusing the wheelchair and kicking it as he walked by: somethings never change.

--Two hour episode next week and then we have two weeks off!

Saturday, November 4, 2017

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (7x5)

When it comes to the Disney Princesses, Tiana is just a bit different than your average pretty teenager.  In fact, a lot of purists wouldn't even classify her as a princess at all. More like Belle and less like Aurora, Tiana's main storyline in her movie, "The Princess and the Frog," rests not on finding true love or meeting a handsome prince, but instead on living her life on her terms. Belle wants adventure in the great wide somewhere, Tiana wants to open up a restaurant and serve her famous beignets and other New Orleans inspired cooking. Sure, true love comes along the way (it is a Disney movie, after all) but Tiana does not spend even a fraction of her movie seeking that out and lamenting her lack of a love interest. In other words, Tiana is a modern girl living a modern life. Love happens as Tiana lives her life, which is, more often than not, the case for us mere non-Disney girls. In this week's episode, "Greenbacks," Tiana learns that the hero she needs is herself, not some handsome prince who can save her kingdom. 

Do You Know The Number Of Times I Had to Look Up The Proper Spelling Of Beignets?

It shouldn't surprise viewers a lot, but Tiana's story doesn't match beat for beat the one you would see in the Disney film. Tiana's spunk is still there, though tempered just a bit too much for the live action version to truly resemble the animated one. Tiana, in OUAT, is a princess down on her luck, instead of a hard working serving girl trying to find a big break. Honestly, this doesn't do Tiana much credit because part of her animated version's charm is that she's a working girl; it makes her relatable. All of us can understand the hardships of having to work long hours to make ends meet, and while Tiana and her mother are facing financial ruin, it's not because they were poor to begin with but rather that their kingdom is losing money and they are forced to sell their many expensive goods. Tiana, in OUAT's version, is still traipsing around the woods in a ball gown and jewels whereas the animated Tiana spends a decent amount of time in an apron and waitress gear. Sabine, Tiana's cursed counterpart, has the working girl aspect down pat except she's lacking in the one thing that I think Tiana really needs: common sense. I get that a big part of Disney and of OUAT's borrowing of The Great Mouse is the idea that dreams come true; if you keep on believing a dream that you wish will come true. It's catchy, it's cute, it's schmaltzy and when you're a kid watching an animated princess and her tiny mouse friends sing about it, it's really easy to believe. It's also a load of nonsense. Sometimes, dreams don't come true. They just don't. Dreams require more than just hard work and pluck; they require time, effort, and most importantly money. Maybe I'm just a bitter thirty year old (entirely possibly) but Sabine'e entire idea that in order to make money--enough to pay off the newly escalated rent and, further, to buy a place for her, Jacinda, and Lucy--was to take over a fast food kitchen and make beignets is absolutely ludicrous. And, again, I get that this very in line with Disney and the projection of their brand and what it is they sell, but Tiana--like Belle--is a Disney character I consider to be, at the very least, practical. Sure, she thinks she'll accomplish her dreams someday and she is still a dreamer but she's got a levelheadedness to her that seems to be completely missing from Sabine. There are a myriad of problems with hedging your entire financial success on making some pastries. What happens when the manager of Mr. Cluck's comes back and won't let you work out of his kitchen? What happens when the demand for your beignets goes down after the novelty wears off? What happens when Sabine and Jacinda need to shell out more money to outfit the food truck with a stove, counter tops, and supplies? In a mythological realm, like the Enchanted Forest or even a Disney movie, these problems are rather nonexistent because reality in those worlds operates on belief and heart and not...y'know...actual reality. But Hyperion Heights isn't set in those worlds; it's supposed to be in the real world which is why I was so pleased to see Jacinda call out Sabine for her ridiculous ideas, at least initially. This is also why the Tiana side of the story--the flashbacks--felt a little more palatable than the Hyperion Heights side. Tiana's endgame--after much rigmarole--is to appeal to the prince for aid in her kingdom; she's no longer thinking about marriage or how a rich prince will save her but is taking matters into her own dainty hands, rolling up her sleeves and trying negotiation, something Sabine doesn't even consider for a moment when Victoria ups the rent. In other words, it makes Tiana look levelheaded and Sabine look rather dense, though given that the curse might break at any moment, I suppose that's not altogether bad.

Miscellaneous Notes on Greenbacks

--Can you tell I didn't have a whole lot to talk about this week? It wasn't a bad episode but the writers are still just throwing a lot of plot spaghetti at the wall and unlike in past years, I have little interest in trying to wade through it all. I am content to let it unfold on its own.

--Drizella is slowly becoming one of my favorite parts of this new season. I like her passive aggressive snark and her killer wardrobe.

--“I do have a few friends…on the other side.”

--The handsome prince and his lady love both turned into frogs! +10 for that twist; didn’t see that coming even a mile away! Actually started laughing hysterically.

--I’m not sure what it is, but I find the way Gabrielle Anwar plays Victoria to be really off putting. Maybe it’s her voice or slightly plastic-y face, but she’s just not doing it for me.

--"Ralph....wreck it!"

Saturday, October 28, 2017

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (7x4)

What is a happily ever after? It's an obnoxious question, I know, given that most people would agree there's no such thing, not really, not in this realm of existence. But bear with me because I think it's worth puzzling out. A happily ever after is as central to fairy tales as once upon a time. Every story needs a proper ending and the hero and heroine riding off into the sunset to live forever seems as good an ending as any. The problem comes in the fact that we, the outsiders looking in, tend to associate a sort of immortality to this happily ever after. Fairy tale characters are broad strokes, archetypes, and thus give off an immortal aura to them. We can't imagine, for instance, Snow White and her prince growing old, wrinkled, gray, and becoming doddering layabouts. They are forever etched in our mind as just married, young, vivacious, and head over heels in love. I think the main issue lies in the fact that when a story speaks of a happily ever after they attach a certain pesky word to it: "lived." And they lived happily ever after. We expect them to do just that: live ever after. But, unless you're Rumplestiltskin, no one lives forever. We might try to rage, rage against the dying of the light but it comes for us all in the end. So what exactly is a happily ever after and what does it mean to live one? That's the central question in this week's episode, "Beauty;" it's an episode that explores the idea that to live happily ever after is, simply, to live. 

Everlasting Love

I've been thinking a lot about the season one episode "Skin Deep" this week. It remains my all time favorite episode of OUAT and is really the reason why I jumped headlong into this show. Over the years, the writers have tested those fans who fell in love with their version of Beauty and the Beast. Belle became nothing more than a decorative object with a side of a Google search engine and Rumple went back and forth between good, evil, and gray, so many times that I feared there was nothing left to the cowardly but brave father and desperate soul that I once loved. By the end of Once proper, I wasn't even sure I wanted Rumbelle together at all. "Skin Deep" always felt like part one of a movie and while I suppose one could argue that the rest of the series has been interludes in that movie, this week's episode is its true finale. It's the one that makes the most sense--the re-orientates the two characters back to their best selves--because there have been plenty of moments with Rumple and Belle that flat out do not make sense except for the writers needing to create drama because, in their mind, Morally Ambiguous and Magically Addicted Rumple (copyright pending) was more interesting than mortal and trying for humanity Rumple. More is their loss given the overwhelming emotional heft behind this week's episode. What OUAT managed to squeeze into a few flashbacks could have been a several season arc of Rumple learning to be human again with Belle and his family guiding him. That's Rumple's story, in a nutshell. A man who crosses the line over into inhumanity for the love of his child and because of his own selfish desires only to find his way back, step by heartbreaking step, through the love of his family and their belief in him. I don't want to spend too much time harping on how very disappointing it is that the writers didn't go this route years ago, because if Skin Deep was part one of a two part movie, this week's episode does such a great job bookending it, complete with opening a curtain. For a long time Rumple's happy ending came in two parts: Belle and their growing family and, second, the dagger and the magic it grants. Rumple couldn't see a future without that dagger and went so far as to liken it to the true love he felt for Belle. The biggest issue there is that his love of the dagger was at odds with his love for Belle; magic or love which would Rumple choose is his most consistent throughline over six years. Surely there could be no happily ever after for Rumple (and consequently Belle and the rest of the GoldStiltskin clan) if Rumple clung to that power he so craved. Turns out, the writers realized this and decided to show us what Rumple's life was like without his dependency on that dagger.

This brings us back to what happily ever after and "they lived" means because at the end of this episode Belle French...dies. I can't say I was shocked because the show was telegraphing the passing of time for Belle pretty heavily with the (hilariously) applied grey streaks and all the "Up" parallels. But pause for a moment to think about what this means. We've had couples separated through death before: Neal and Emma, Regina and Robin, but whereas those deaths caused sadness, distress, and general disquiet, this death was, for wont of a better word, beautiful. Yes, it was sad to watch Belle shake off her mortal coil and pass over but she wasn't lying in the cold woods nor had she been struck down by an enemy. Belle died in a house she and Rumple built with their own hands--without magic!--, with her husband, thinking back on the life they lived together. It was a life full of odd twists, turns, the odd magical bear, and a chipped cup but it was--at the end of it all--a life lived. And that's what OUAT wants to stress with this happily ever after. Sure, they expect fans to be upset because Belle died but this isn't the end. Rumbelle isn't over; their love is everlasting. It transcends beyond death. Once a family, always a family. Once truly loved, always truly loved. This show has never been great at handling death; it has always felt like it had little consequence and was more just to wrap up certain plot lines but this death of a woman who was so often neglected narrative wise and shunted to one side, carried the full weight of what living happily ever after means. Belle lived, happily, and she'll go on living happily ever after in the next life, waiting for Rumple, her beast, when he can join her. And as for Rumple, he did the impossible, at long last; not only in refusing to use the dagger and magic, but in the truly Herculean task he's been trying to accomplish for years: he believed he was worthy of love. I know that's overly sappy but this episode wants to be sappy. It wants to tear you apart a little bit and ask you confront what death means. It's a great unknown and it's scary and Rumple is now looking at perhaps a long wait to see his beloved again but, to quote a certain wise old wizard (and if the heroes journey teaches us anything, it's to listen to the wise old wizard!) "to the well organized mind, death is the next great adventure." It's the new great wide somewhere. That's what happily ever after is for Belle and Rumple, knowing that their love is strong enough to transcend magic and addiction and loss and death. It has been a long time since I felt such sincere emotion from OUAT; most weeks I'm rolling my eyes through the episode and struggling to find a reason to go on watching. But this episode did so much right and I would be lying if I said I wasn't crying during a lot of it. Well done, show. Well done.

Miscellaneous Notes on Beauty 

--Okay, there's actually a lot of random plot spaghetti I guess I have to talk about somewhere so here it is! Alice is Roger's daughter. I have a lot of negative feelings about that reveal because first, it was clumsily done, and second, I think Alice being Rumple and Belle's daughter would be a much richer narrative given Rumple's past experiences with his children.

--Alice is gay! I wonder who her love interest will be, though. She mentioned having an ex who worked for Victoria Belfry, so my money is on Ivy.

--Speaking of: Ivy is a much more rewarding and interesting character than previously established. Her vulnerable side was refreshing after being nothing but snarky.

--"All I want is a life with you, Rumple...."

--“I took the dagger for one son; I won’t give it over to another.”

--I hate random prophecies inserted into narratives because the writers have written themselves into a corner. But I do like the name “The Edge of Realms.” Feels very fairy tale. Likewise, I'm going to ignore whatever plot noodle this "guardian" is until it becomes more relevant.

--Lucy's costume actually consists of a paper bag over her head.

--Of course Roni makes a cocktail called "Poisoned Apple."

Sunday, October 22, 2017

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (7x3)

Once Upon a Time has always been concerned with defining heroism. Emma's growing heroism, Regina's turn toward it, and Snow's unwavering belief in it have been part of the center of the show. After all, every good story needs a hero. Both Jacinda and Henry are struggling this week to be the heroes Lucy wants them to be. Henry doesn't believe in Lucy's fanciful stories and Jacinda doesn't have enough conviction in standing up for what she knows is right to follow the heroic path. It makes saving a town--or even just a garden--a little more than difficult. Sometimes, though, what a hero really needs is another hero to remind them that being such a powerful force for good isn't a walk in the park; it means making hard choices and learning to live with them. You can't burn the petition or murder the kind cobbler, in other words. This week's episode, "The Garden of Forking Paths," wants to remind us that Jacinda might be on her way to herohood but first and foremost, she's human and a mother, just trying to be with her kid. 

Seeds of Discontent 

I suppose a story about resistance isn't totally apropos of nothing. Not in this day and age, not in this American political climate. The word "resist" and "resistance" have been bandied about so much over the past year that they've become a definitive touchstone of said year. When people speak of 2017, the word resistance will be woven into that narrative. Good fantasy, science fiction, or any sort of story, incorporates real life drama and issues and finds a way to speak some sort of truth about those touchy topics. Star Trek is probably the best example of this, from racism to sexism to ageism to elitism and all the -isms it used the genre of science fiction to parse out those topics. By using the term resistance so freely in this episode, OUAT finds itself in a precarious place. It has to find a way to both show and tell the resistance of Ella, Tiana and the others against Lady Tremaine and Victoria, while not making this resistance seem foolhardy, silly, or unimportant. The resistance here in the real world is too important for too many people and to see it reduced to a vague plot point only brought up as an afterthought is not a good direction to go in. That being said, it's also not necessary to have an over the top bad guy (or gal) who has no depth or emotion or character (the real resistance already has one of those sitting in the very real White House...) which is why it's nice that the show has done the smart thing and given their audience a nice, big, juicy bone to gnaw on instead of spinning their proverbial wheels on Lady Tremaine. I'll pause here to mention that making Lady Tremaine's motivation for everything--the Curse, if she cast it, her hatred of Ella, and her general bitchy demeanor--relate back to motherhood is wearisome. The show has done mothers to death from Emma, to Regina, to Snow, to Belle, and even to Zelena and those are only just the main cast of the past six years. Motherhood is one of those tricky themes that never quite lands as well as the writers want it to; sure, it had several bright and shining moments in season one but those moments became few and far between over the years as motherhood became the only way to redeem a lady villain. OUAT often sees women in two extremes, the much maligned Madonna or Whore trope. If you're a good person or on your way to becoming a good person, it's because you found a child/had a child/are learning to make up for lost time with your child. If you're still in villain mode, then you've likely severed all ties with your children and it is your children who are trying to save you. Lady Tremaine/Victoris has been like a classic fairy tale villain--mysterious but ultimately broadly drawn--until you learn that she's trying to save her fourteen year old daughter who's being kept "alive" inside a magical coffin. Too often, OUAT makes motherhood out to be the ultimate saving redemption for any and all women, which is more than just a little bit backwards, at the very least, and overtly misogynistic at the worst.

However, with that said, while I don't particularly like this particular return to form (a return to the mothership, if I might be so bold....) I am glad that some sort of motivation and character color has been added to Victoria who, thus far, has been one note and not a good note at that, in her Mayor Mills knock off clothing and personality. The real meat on this bone, though, goes to Ella who opens up more as we learn that, like a certain lead princess of seasons past, she too feels responsible for Victoria's turn toward villainy. We don't know what happened to Anastasia when she was fourteen (she did not, apparently, run away with Will to Wonderland, marry a King, and then have one hell of a redemption arc--not that I'm bitter about the original show continuing to ignore their spinoff...) but we do know that by having Ella blame herself, the relationship and story between Ella and Tremaine is made complicated which usually makes for more enjoyable TV. For example, this complicated relationship brings Ella face to face with what it means to be a hero: does she kill an innocent like Henry or the nice shoe maker in order to assuage her guilt over Anastasia and make a mea culpa to Tremaine? Or does she forgive herself for whatever happened as a child and protect the innocents from the wrath of Tremaine? Just like in Hyperion Heights, Jacinda is put to the test: does she choose the easy way out of being with her child in a swagtastic new apartment or does she stick with her convictions of what is right and what is wrong and save the Community Garden. Heroes are born in those quiet moments, these every day moments. It doesn't have to be when facing down a dragon or saving the world from Chaos Incarnate. It can just be in deciding fight for what is right. That is really what the resistance is--slay the dragon, if you can, be most importantly...just fight.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Garden of Forking Paths

--Henry in his muddy red coat looks a lot like the coats Neal and Emma have worn in other episodes.

--Regina Mills: the character growth the show has mostly succeeded on. I loved watching her tell Ella that sacrificing one person for a whole cause doesn’t make it “right” and later telling Cinderella to forgive herself.

--Emma Booth’s character is very interesting! I get strong Rapunzel/Witch vibes from her and Victoria's final scene and I think Victoria is in the Rapunzel role, even though that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Sorta blows the hole in my running theory that Rapunzel is Wish Realm Hook's daughter, though?

--“The key to bringing down Victoria Belfry is a bearclaw!”

--A shocking number of people who did not care about the upkeep of the community garden are lined up to sign the petition to save it….

--How does one leave a letter inside a well….?

--UGH, the lampshade moment of Lucy’s “hey this is exactly like when you and Archie went down into the mines in Storybrooke! Remember that!?”

--"And here you are...in a bar..."

Saturday, October 14, 2017

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (7x2)

How do you solve a problem like Emma Swan? When Jennifer Morrison announced that her six year tenure on OUAT as its leading lady were coming to an end, the question was not how would the show go on but rather should the show go on. Season seven might be ruminating on new versions of beloved fairy tales but it's also deeply concerned with the question of life after Emma. Just think about it; this is only the second review for this season and both reviews have opened with me contemplating a character who is--literally--no longer on the show. In this week's episode, "A Pirate's Life," Emma Swan gives us her--wait for it--swan song. This is the last episode Jennifer Morrison will be in, or so she's said. If OUAT was a six season book, this episode is the epilogue that says goodbye to the first hero and pushes the new hero into the fold. It's all red leather jackets, mother/son reunions, and really horrible looking wigs (seriously, OUAT costuming department...you couldn't find something a little bit better than that?) as we say goodnight to Emma. 

Mama....Life Had Just Begun

There are some nights when I don't quite know what to write about this show. Tonight is one of those nights; I went into the hour thinking I knew what I'd want to discuss after the episode aired. It mostly involved contemplating if the transition from a female-centered drama to a male-centered one was a good idea. Even with all the history between the audience and Henry, as I talked about last week, this is a show that has prided itself--somewhat foolishly--on having strong females at its center. Would it not be better, from that standpoint at least, to make Cinderella the center of season seven, not Henry? This think piece would then lead into a discussion of Emma's final moments in the show in which she's asked to do precious little besides fret over Henry, make eyes at her husband, and announce that she's pregnant. It's not as if Emma being pregnant is a surprise; Hook and Emma did just get married (because the passing of time is weird on this show) and it's natural that they'd want to start their own family. What's odd about it is the fact that it was clearly written as a way to placate certain sections of the fandom. Not for a single second is Baby Captain Swan going to matter to the mythology of this show. The baby will be born off screen, possibly announced to Henry via a phone call at the end of the season and never seen nor heard from. The baby doesn't herald anything except the writers needing to appease rabid fans who frothed at the mouth all summer about their ship being taken away. The baby makes no narrative sense outside of that. However, I'm not going to spend this blog ruminating on any of that. Neither the idea of transitioning to a male centric show nor Emma's agency and questioning whether this was a ever a strong female centric show are important because the episode itself relegated them to footnotes. Season seven will be male-centered with flashes of different kinds of females interwoven in: the two "old guard" ladies in Regina and Victorian, both vying to remain dominant but for different reasons; the two plucky new combers in Jacinda and Sabine. Emma's agency remains as it ever was post season four or so, which is to say that her agency is mostly given over to Hook and the Captain Swan relationship, which is now blessedly over or at least off our screens forevermore. The topics this episode should have brought to bear are so minor and inconsequential that writing at length about them would only be tedious for writer and reader, both. Instead, this episode decided to go full balls to the wall crazy with plot spaghetti.

Has anyone else ever heard of "keep it simple, stupid." It's a nice way of saying that your story or your idea shouldn't be so overly complex as to be incomprehensible. This doesn't mean it shouldn't be deep or full of twists and turns. The very best writing in fantasy is usually chalk full of subplots, dramatic reveals, and devastating turns (think, A Song of Ice and Fire). But any story at its core must at least make sense. Your audience shouldn't be scratching their head trying to puzzle out how something is even possible. OUAT is not known for its worldbuilding. It usually gets hammered from critics and fans alike for taking an almost perverse delight in shattering previously established rules or worldly logic. I guess in that regard I shouldn't be shocked that the writers decided to bring back Wish Realm Hook and implant him into the larger seasonal story and then also heap a whole mess of plot on him. Except it does shock me because of the total lack of sense it makes. The Wish Realm was always something bizarre that was best left in its own two part episode but to now say that a character from that Wish Realm (a realm that was born into existence in a millisecond after the Evil Queen made a wish on a newly formed Aladdin-Genie) somehow managed to cross universes, have meaningful interactions with characters in one realm of this new universe and have a complex backstory involving a missing daughter is more than a bit much. I lost track of the number of times I had stop and actually think about which Hook was talking to Henry or Emma. To sum it up: Wish Realm Hook, who is not longer a drunken louse, somehow managed to find his way to "Another Realm" which is in a different universe than any of the realms previously known. It also turns out that he has a daughter who has gone missing and we will only know her by the chess piece she keeps on her person at all times. Because that's something normal people do. Here's my bigger question (outside of what on earth were the writers thinking): why should I care? This isn't Hook, not the Hook that has been on your screen since season two. That Hook, dislike him though I do, has at least come along somewhat since he went around knocking out princesses and stealing their hearts. That Hook is not this Hook. It doesn't matter that they are both played by the same actor and look exactly alike. This Hook in Hyperion Heights has none of the rich character history that original Hook does and yet I am asked to care that he has a missing daughter, a plot that was hefted on the audience in a stunning example of random exposition and plot dumpage. And to some extent I get what the writers are going for here; they want the non-Hook fans to like this new version of Hook so they are untangling him from Emma and Captain Swan and using an old trick giving him a missing child (the Rumple special, if you will). They are hoping that this will lessen all the vitriol that gets hurled at Hook and his romantic attachments. But is it it he best narrative choice?

What this episode should have done is keep with the basic themes that makes OUAT what it is (or was?). I know the Captain Swan fans would have lamented Emma and Hook being split, especially after Emma dropped the baby bomb, but this show is about sacrifice and family. Those are some of the themes at its core and having Hook (real, non Wish Realm Hook) go with Henry, telling him that he'd keep Henry safe and help Henry find his family would be much more poetic. A stepfather helping his stepson to find his way in the world, to honor Baelfire and the love Hook bears Henry's mother? Yeah, that's your plot, writers! That's the real meat you could have chewed on for ten plus episodes. Remember: keep it simple, OUAT writers. We already have a ton of plot in Henry, Cinderella, Treamine, Drizella, Tiana, Alice, and whatever is going on with Rumple and Regina. We do not need a magically spawned daughter of a character that has only existed for less than half a season.

Miscellaneous Notes on A Pirate's Life

--I love that Henry’s apartment has tons of knick-knacks like Neal’s NYC apartment did.

--Andrew J. West is still doing good work as Henry; I find him cute, endearing, and slightly silly, which is basically Henry all over. He’s got that cute flustered stutter thing that Emma used to do.

--Regina doesn’t even blink at Henry being in his thirties! That’s just not a normal reaction for a mother. She should be lamenting missing all that time with her son. I find it extremely hard to believe that Regina and Emma would not have gone after Henry after a certain length of time had passed.

--“I never thought Captain Hook would find love…” Look, Killian Jones may have taken a new moniker but he still loved Milah, for crying out loud.

--Henry asks about the entire town of Storybrooke and his family except for Rumple, Belle, and Gideon. Ouch, Henry. Ouch.

--I didn't notice it so much in the premiere but Lady Tremaine's accent and mannerisms really bother me.

--So who's Hook's daughter? And who is the mother?

--I will take more of devious cop Weaver, please and thank you

Saturday, October 7, 2017

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (7x1)

Once upon a time, there was a woman named Emma Swan. Emma had a lot of adventures, full of loss and love, death and birth, misery and happiness. But this is not Emma Swan's story. Not anymore. This is the story of what happens after Emma. Shows get re-imagined all the time. Sometimes it works as in the manner of Doctor Who where change was built into the mythology of the show and is not only expected but often encouraged. Sometimes change doesn't work, like with Sleepy Hollow--another mythology heavy show that jettisoned their lead actress and moved the story to a new locale. Going into season seven, the major question rests not on anything plot related--that will slowly unravel and reveal itself in piecemeal like every other major plot arc of OUAT--but rather lies in pondering what it will take to make Once Upon a Time: The Next Generation succeed? Is success based on shifting the focal point to Henry Mills, a character who has been around since the opening moments of the first season; a character with a rich history and multiple connections to the past? Is success based around maintaining similar themes running throughout the series thus far, like hope, family, belief, and happy endings? Or is this an instance of needing distance from the past, creating a totally new story with only the barest hints of what came before woven in? The easiest answer is, of course, that it needs to do both. If this sameness but also newness sounds paradoxical, it's really not. After all, Star Trek: The Next Generation remembered its past but very much became its own creature when it refused to be enslaved to said past. A new book opens and it's time to see what is in store for Henry Mills in the season seven premiere--and launching point for an almost entirely new show--"Hyperion Heights." Perhaps for the (first) last time ever...let's go! 

Circle Of Life

Stop me if this sounds familiar. Long ago--but not so long ago as to be the mythological past--a boy and a girl had a chance encounter in a far off magical land. The encounter was not one that instantly led to true love, but one filled with snark, sass, and obvious wait-for-it chemistry. Meanwhile, in the vaguely sketched present day of a totally different realm, the boy and the girl were separated by some nefarious means. One of these erstwhile lovers met a child with the power of belief in their heart who tried to convince them to undertake an adventure. No, it's not season 1 of OUAT, it's season seven but all those too familiar beats of Emma, Henry, Snow, Charming, and Regina are there in Henry, Lucy, Cinderella, and Lady Tremaine. It's easy to criticize this set up as too expected and too much of a rehash of OUAT's former seasons (and, to be blunt, former glory) but there's a different angle to all this: the universality of the hero's tale and the common threads that are found within that trope no matter who is playing what role. Sure, Lucy showing up at Henry's door and asking him to believe in magic and curses and then to bring back the happy endings to a bunch of down-on-their-luck fairy tale characters is almost beat for beat the same as Henry showing up at Emma's door six seasons prior but, broadly speaking, the woe begotten, despondent hero being called off on an adventure to save the world/universe/people because they are the only ones who can...is exactly how this story should start. It's how the vast majority of hero stories begin. Fairy tales are, after all, built on tropes that exist across multiple stories and cultures--the hero, the villain, life and death, monsters and the supernatural, good and evil--and to criticize season seven's opener because it's telling a very familiar story would be failing to recognize the commonality of all stories. Because these legends and fables are so common, with only hints of divergence based on culture mores (Cinderella's famous slipper--glass, wood, or fur for instance) it's fitting--if a bit of a head scratcher at first--to have a different Cinderella and Alice appear in the opener without having to retcon portions of season one and--almost laughably--the entire spin off series, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland. In the Original Enchanted Forest, Cinderella may have been a blonde, blue eyed serving girl who found happiness with her Prince, but in this New Realm Enchanted Forest (I will pause here to say that the language we, as fans, have to invent to talk about the new season is cringe worthy) Cinderella is Latina, doesn't want anything to do with the Prince, and is possibly an assassin of some sort. Original Alice might have been an adventurer who fell in love with a genie and is currently living happily ever after in Victorian London, but this Alice is a rogue and epic badass who really doesn't want to be associated with just Wonderland (I mean, you take one trip and it's all your known for!). This new set up and introduction of new characters does cause some whiplash but it fits with how fairy tales operate here in our reality. There are different versions of all these "well known" stories as both young and adult Henry point out. In other words, to sum up what I'm saying, Henry's story doesn't need to be brand new; it is possible to tell an old story well and that's where we need to focus for this episode.

So was it well told? To be fair, this only the first episode out of 22 and any season opener tends to throw lots of spaghetti at the wall and hope the audience sticks around to see it slowly peeled off. There's plot galore here from a new curse, a love story, a gentrification of a small Seattle suburb, Henry's bildungsroman, the ever present mystery of what happened to our previously known characters, getting to know the new cursed iterations, trying to figure out what makes our villains tick and so on and so forth. The strongest beats in the season premiere come from character interactions and building the relationships that are going to shape the rest of the season as we untangle the plots. There are three or four major ones that are set up in the premiere and, as OUAT is wont to do, they are generational. Henry and Lucy are Emma and Henry down to their bones. It's a mark of good writing and careful character work over the past six years that seeing Henry forlorn and unbelieving in curses, magic and also hope tugs at the heartstrings, though he's now being played by a completely new actor. Lucy is just as earnest and sweet and full of hope as young season one Henry, though there's a fairly marked difference in that Lucy has one parent who loves, trusts, and cares for her whereas Henry and Regina's relationship in season one was strained, to say the very least. Henry and Lucy's interactions are written to callback to Emma and Henry; the writers want you to smile at the dramatic irony that Henry has a child who's doing to him what he did to Emma. The second relationship would be the growing love story between Henry and Cinderella (Jacinda in Hyperion Heights). If Henry and Lucy are Emma and Henry, then Henry and Cinderella are Snow and Charming. The similarities are numerous and while I've already praised the idea of emphasizing the universality of fairy tales, I do have to ponder if it can go too far. Hearkening back to Snow and Charming is fine, but at some point Henry and Cinderella need to be their own people with their own story (and, yes, the same can be said of Henry and Lucy). We met Cinderella in the middle of her story so we know almost nothing about her relationship with Tremain, Drizella, or even the Prince that she was about to smite with her dagger. It's hard to fully invest in her because she's such a blank slate with too many question marks, but her interactions with Henry were...endearing at the very least. OUAT often doesn't get it right with romance; either it's too lackluster and underdeveloped (Robin and Regina) or it sends a lot of bad messages (Rumple and Belle, Hook and Emma). Snow and Charming, at the start, were epic and awe inspiring but slowly fell into drudgery as the writers grew bored of them. I want Cinderella and Henry to have a classic, well told love story but fear what the writers will do them if the show continues past this year.

And finally we have the classic case of the evil stepmother and her poor, long suffering, step child. Regina broke a whole world to get back at Snow White and it appears that Tremaine/Victoria did the same, though I urge caution in believing so readily that Victoria cast this version of the Dark Curse. There's a difference here that I find intriguing. When Regina cast the first Curse, it left a hole in her heart that could only be filled by Henry. However, Victoria already has at least one child in Drizella (whom I'm trying very hard to not call Mary, Queen of Scots) and appears to care--if only in a minor way--for Lucy. For Victoria to already have something resembling family love then I'm interested in what exactly happened between her and Cinderella, or what happened just to Victoria, that caused this dark nature. There's a Cora-like streak to Victoria as she proclaims that magic isn't power because magic can be taken, but fear lasts forever. People who talk about fear like that are people who have experienced fear first hand. At any rate, she's got a killer wardrobe and excellent taste in footwear. As for the rest like Hook (sorry, Rogers), Regina (sorry, Roni) and Rumple (sorry, Weaver) there are only giant question marks but it's also not their story anymore. They got their happy endings and now they get to play supporting characters in Henry and Cinderella's stories (though, this doesn't stop me from wondering why Detective Rumple is causally drowning suspects). If the question is "was this story well told" then the answer, at least for the opening chapter, is "yes, mostly." It's a decent season opener and now we just follow down this path to see if it can remain so.

Miscellaneous Notes on Hyperion Heights 

--Welcome back to the weekly reviews! While I was glad for the break this summer, I've missed writing so it's nice to have something to sink my teeth into again.

--Should we ponder where Henry gets his gas in the Enchanted Forest for his mothercycle?

--I think we're gonna skip right over the big "where's Emma Swan" question. I'm sure we'll get that answer sooner rather than later.

--Henry has the swan keychian on his keyring. Cue my sighs and sobs.

--Mr. Cluck's Chicken Shack is a delightful reference to LOST. I wonder if Jacinda ever heard of Hurley.

--As much as I loved Original Alice, I was instantly taken by New Alice. She's the perfect blend of surprise, mystique, and intrigue. Anyone else wanna place bets on her being Belle and Rumple's daughter because I got strong Stiltskin family vibes from her.

--Let's not try to figure out when "present day" is exactly, mmkay?

--"My wings!" "I cut them off when you were sleeping. Surprise."

--Quite possibly the worst version of Bippity Boppity Boo ever, amiright?

--Who does Jacinda think Lucy's father is? Since she clearly didn't recgonize Henry she must have some idea who fathered her child.

--Did Hook's curse fully break or was Rogers just jolted at seeing Emma?

--Operation Glass Slipper. Because...of course.