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!

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