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 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.

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