Saturday, May 5, 2018

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (7x20)

I knew this was going to happen; I knew there would come a time when OUAT would trot out all the intense family feelings, calling back to the best moments of season one, and hoping nostalgia would be enough to make the audience forget any sort of wonky plot devices and unanswered questions of the current run of episodes. Congratulations, OUAT. It worked. This week's episode "Is This Henry Mills?" is exactly what I've wanted OUAT to be all year. It's character driven, it's full of pain and thoughtful consideration about what this show was and indeed still is to so many people. It's sappy but not in a cringe-worthy way; instead in a way that makes me remember why I stuck with this show even when it was terrible and I wanted to call it quits. At the end of the day, this show isn't about ships or plot twists or dramatic reveals. It's about two mothers who came from different sides of reality (the mundane and the magical) and the good/evil divide but still tried to raise a son in a complicated, often dangerous world. If the first season is about Emma's acceptance of her son and the kind of magic that love brings, then the last season is about that same son turning around and saving his other mother using the life lessons both parents have taught him. It's a love letter to the fraught and complicated but ultimately beautiful Regina and Henry dynamic that keeps the shows broader themes in mind and, surprisingly, sticks the landing. 

It's The Story Of Us

"Scratches are a part of life." This one little line from Regina at the end of the episode could pretty much sum up all the character journeys in OUAT. The heroes, the villains, the in-betweens, so much of the story of OUAT is about the emotional and psychological scars life leaves on the human soul. That sounds depressing but there's a flip side to this; it's what brings us together. Everyone has scratches in their life, moments of deep pain and loss and regret but it's the commonality of those scratches that makes us a community. When the show began seven years ago, Emma was a little lost girl without a home or a community. The people she met in Storybrooke became her tribe, her people. This feeling of loneliness and being untethered is something that united Regina and Emma even when the family drama kept them at odds. It's also something that we find in their son, Henry. I have lamented all season that Henry's motivation for wanting to go out into the world hasn't felt real. No one talks about going out into the world to find their story because they aren't in any book and this kind of language removes a sense of familiarity with the audience when Henry speaks in terms that don't resonate. But there's finally a moment where it all makes more sense: "they didn't accept the real Henry Mills." This line makes it so much clearer how much of a lie Henry would have to live every single day of his life if he ever dared to step outside of the tiny Storybrooke hamlet. This sort of reasoning feels real; it feels familiar because there are lies all of us tell the world and the weight of them burdens us. I can't imagine having to lie about my family, my upbringing, and my earliest experiences every single day of my life but I can imagine how very tiring it would be. Henry wanting to escape that fate, to find a way to build his own community where he could be Henry Mills--the boy kidnapped by Peter Pan, who's father was killed by the Wicked Witch of the West and who's two mothers loved Robin Hood and Captain Hook--and more importantly could be accepted for being Henry Mills. That's really just Henry following in his families footsteps. That's why it's so important that Regina is the mother Henry interacts with the most this season (putting aside Jennifer Morrison's departure); Regina, more than anyone, wanted a community that accepted all parts of her story, where she didn't have to live a lie. Her happy ending wasn't a romance or a romantic partner but instead finding a place in the world where she was accepted. How could Regina not want the same for Henry?

We've seen a lot of growth between Henry and Regina, especially after Emma's story took a more romantic spin in the later seasons. It feels so natural that Henry would look to Regina's own happy ending for what he wanted for himself. Henry message to himself (time travel!) is also a message to Regina that he learned from her. It's about community: "Home isn’t a place; it’s the people in it. And they will always be with you." If I can get ever so slightly sappy here, it's also a message to us, the audience. This story is ending. We have two weeks left and then it's over forever. The writers are having their own fits of nostalgia; they want us to remember the best beats and biggest themes and they are trying to reach out across a TV divide and ask us, one final time, to understand and believe in the message they've tried to convey all along. I'm not saying they've always conveyed it well; there's far too many Neal-sized holes in this story for community and family to ring one hundred percent true. But at the end of this very long road, while not always perfect, that theme of community, of family, is there. It's there when Henry takes a cue from Emma and kisses Regina's forehead to break the curse; it's there when Nook grabs Tilly's hand and Margot follows suit. It's there when Rumple realizes that he needs to help the family he still has left in this world because reuniting with Belle may never happen. People and our often strange, weird, complicated relationships are what make the stories of our lives. It's true for villains; it's true for heroes; it's true for Henry and Regina Mills. And it's true for us.

Miscellaneous Notes on Is This Henry Mills?

--Buckle up tight, everyone. I imagine that those feelings of nostalgia are only going to becoming more and more pronounced in these last two episodes.

--Big round of applause to both Jared Gilmore and to Andrew West for that Henry to Henry phone call. They sold the hell out of it.

--Regina trying to smash Gothel’s head in with a bat is also how I feel about Gothel and her overall plan.

--Robin and Alice are the absolute best thing about this entire season. I actually cheered and fist pumped when they were reunited.

--“You want to ruin me like the world ruined you; I’m not like you. I'm not an outcast, I’m not an orphan or a street rat or some crazy girl who’s lost her way….you chose hate. But I choose love.”

--Regina digging up a grave of a very recently dead woman to get a storybook is all manner of creepy and weird.

--I have no idea how I feel about Wish Rumple as the final villain. I’m worried about the execution because OUAT doesn’t often stick the landing when it does stuff like this, but Rumple wrestling with his demons–facing (literally) the man he was so he can prove that he’s not this kind of Rumple anymore? Sign me up.

--The time travel paradoxes are insane and the show would be better if they just had everyone live in 2045-2050 and make the argument that technology didn’t advance much in 30 years.

--Facilier’s sudden death is so unearned. We know nothing about him or what we wanted or what his connection to Regina is. Everyone from the "Princess and the Frog" fairy tale has been wasted.

--"...But that’s the thing about stories. They’re more than words. They live inside of us. They make us who we are. And as long as someone believes that, there will always be magic."

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