Monday, March 6, 2017

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (6x11)

All stories, at their core, are about transformation. This isn't really a startling revelation but it is is certainly axiomatic. Once Upon a Time has had this transformative thesis as one of its centers for a long time, along with hope and the importance of finding one's community. The narrative of the show transforms our characters from one of despair to one of hope. Emma has transformed from a friendless orphan to a Savior with an extended blood and non-blood kinship. Regina has morphed from an innocent to a villain to an anti-hero struggling for the light. Whether the story is a positive one or one of breaking bad, all stories are about change. Stagnation does not for riveting narration make. The spring premiere episode, "Tougher Than The Rest," is all about characters making subtle and not so subtle decisions that change their destiny, their fate, and their story. These attempts at agency may cause the story to take a turn, to transform, into something that is decidedly a poorer fate but our OUAT characters would argue that it's making the choice that is the real difference. The show itself has transformed several times, most notably from a family driven story in which the villains were nuanced but still villains to a romantic driven story that centers on the villains and their psychological makeup while casting the former heroes as morally grey. It is possible that as we stare down the final 11 episodes of this season that OUAT is trying once again to transform itself. Into what, I don't know. But maybe it's making that change that will be the difference. Grab your lucky swan and let's go!

A Swan By Any Other Name....

The tale of the Ugly Duckling was never one of my favorites; I always felt sad for the "unfortunate" creature who was so unloved because of how his physical appearance was perceived and could only be self actualized once it had been welcomed into a community of like minded souls. There are two lines of thought when it comes to this fairy tale, both of which are mentioned by young Emma and teenage August--because when you're living on the street, there's nothing like a good philosophical discussion about the nature of self worth and belief. In Emma's young mind, the duckling had always been a swan but it couldn't see its own inner (and outer) beauty because of the various hardships of its sad life. It absolutely makes sense that this is Emma's perspective. Her life, at the tender age of 10 or 11, has been nothing but woe upon woe. Her birth family abandoned her by the side of the road; she grew up in miserable foster homes, feeling unloved, unworthy, and unwanted. If there is a beautiful swan hiding behind Emma, she can't see it because everything in life is solidifying her own worthlessness. Teenage August--who apparently kept such careful tabs on Emma that he could find her hiding under an overpass in the middle of a mega American city?--has a bit different perspective. When we revisit August as a character there is usually one hallmark characteristic: his belief in magic, hope, and transformation. August believed, even back in season one, that Emma could become the Savior if she, in turn, just believed as August did. Belief is at the root of any good Pinocchio story; a father who wanted a child so badly that a puppet came to life and a puppet who wanted to be real so badly that he eventually became such. August's take on the Ugly Duckling reflects his own story and experiences. For August the Ugly Duckling needed to believe, and never stop believing, that it was a swan before it could become one. It was the power of belief that changed the Duckling into a Swan. This suggests that the Ugly Duckling really was ugly and alone--that society's perception of it was spot on. It was only because the duckling never stopped believing that it could be better that it eventually became better. Let's pause here and discuss the actual tale of the Ugly Duckling as recounted by Hans Christan Andersen. The story is pretty sad (as all Andersen tales are) but what I think is important here is that it is Emma's take on the story that is more true to the original. The Ducking, through a life of solitude, does not realize that it has always been a swan. It's only when it finds a pack of swans that accept the duckling for what it has always been that the duckling finds its happily ever after. That's Emma's story, is it not? Emma was always a Savior, was always Emma Swan, just not fully self-actualized because she had no community; we've seen evidence of her magical abilities, not to mention her compassion and her need to help those in need. Emma has never not been Emma Swan, Mythical Savior, but it took finding her community to recognize it. It took Henry's love, Mary Margaret's friendship, Storybrooke's acceptance and Emma's own quiet desire for belonging to see herself as the who she truly was. I'm not sure that August's story is necessarily bad--and as I pointed out, it fits with August's own experiences about the nature of belief. What I find tedious and a bit disconcerting is that it is August's perspective that is given more weight and credence. Indeed, Emma only becomes "Emma Swan" because of August.  Emma adopts the surname Swan because August encourages her to never stop believing that she could eventually become the Swan in the story, implying that Emma was the Ugly Duckling to start which isn't strictly true. It's also yet another example of Emma's story being moved down the chess board because of a man, not because of Emma's own agency. I would have loved if Emma took the last name Swan because of her perspective on the story of the Ugly Duckling--that she was always a Swan, but needed to find her community. It fits with Emma's overall story even if young Emma didn't know how strongly the fairy tale would match her own.

Sure. Let's Confuse the Mythology Even More 

There are a few other key transformations in this episode from Robin looking to change his destiny by coming back to Storybrooke with Regina to Rumple openly admitting that he doesn't want his son to kill Emma because he recognizes that such deeds are a cry for help against unimaginable pain which, for the first time in forever, pushes Rumple back to his transformative phase that he was undergoing before everything went to hell. But the other biggest transformation outside of Emma Swan is that of Gideon (Gold?). Gideon's story is his never ending belief that he can be a hero and a Savior if he just takes his destiny into his own hands, a bit of a neat parallel with Emma who is likewise trying to take her own destiny into her own hands. It's interesting that Emma's perspective on the Ugly Duckling would work well for Gideon. He's likely already a hero if we can define heroism as survival against a villain (which I think we can) and working hard to end corruption and evil. Gideon could also be a savior if we define savior not in terms of mythology but in terms of action. If Gideon were to save or rescue the realm of the Black Fairy from dear old grandmama then would he not already be a savior? Regina was called a savior figure in season 3B because she saved Storybrooke from Zelena, so the same applies to Gideon. Emma's perspective on the Ugly Duckling works with Gideon but Gideon takes quite a different perspective. Is anyone else super confused on the nature of Savior magic and mythology after Gideon spills the beans on his plan? In what part of the OUAT universe does Saviorhood work like the Dark One's Curse? It never has; Emma is a Savior because she's the product of the truest love and because of Rumple's machinations with the Dark Curse. Aladdin is a Savior for some vague handwave-y reason involving being a thief with a heart of gold and a "diamond in the rough" (whatever that means). Emma's Saviorhood and Aladdin's Saviorhood has little in common but it does have that neither of them had to kill another Savior in order to gain their status as Savior. Gideon is motivated by his own horror of a childhood and some sort of innate goodness that fuels his desire to save others from the Black Fairy--which in and of itself is interesting and a good narrative jumping off point--but confusing the Savior mythology (even more than it already is after the introduction of Aladdin) calls Gideon's character into question. You could theorize that Gideon's belief that killing the Savior would make him a Savior came from the Black Fairy but if Gideon has shrugged off all of the fairy's other lessons (like hatred and evil) then why would he follow this one? I hope there is more to the story and that under no circumstance Saviorhood works the way Gideon believes but until such time Gideon's narrative is much like other tales in OUAT: too much, too fast, and disregarding what has been shown or stated in the past.

Miscellaneous Notes on Tougher Than The Rest

--The Wish Realm drives me absolutely bonkers. It's fun but with no substance. It raises a lot of questions (Hook came back from Neverland when? Why? Did he give up his quest for revenge against Rumple? How do August and Emma even know each other?).

--The final conversation between Rumple and Belle was a breath of fresh air after all the angst and drama of last season. They seem to finally understand that they must work together to save their son. I also deeply appreciate Rumple's perspective on Gideon's plan. He recognizes how addicting darkness can be and how it's really just a cry for help.

--Old, fat, and drunk Hook is really the only good kind of Hook.

--"A tree?" "A magic tree." "Oh, well, forgive me."

--So Robin's soul traveled to a "not real" alternate-wish realm and inhabited a new version of Robin? Does that make any sense?

--"I am fated to die. And I will die. But not today."

--Belle died of starvation in the Wish Realm and all that's left of her are her bones. It's like the writers couldn't think of anything interesting for her character in this new world of infinite possibilities.

--You know Gideon is going to be trouble because he broke the clock tower.

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