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."

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