I’m eschewing a traditional recap of the show because I’m at a bit of a cross-roads. Every show has natural ups and downs and not every episode can be a classic. And then there are shows like Once Upon A Time, which seem to be deliberately abusing not only their great premise, but also the audience’s goodwill.
Let’s (really) bitch it out…Two weeks ago ‘True North,’ the Hansel & Gretel episode that revolved around Emma’s (Jennifer Morrison) attempt to come to grips with giving up Henry (Jared Gilmore), aired. At the time I took the show to task because ‘True North’ failed to reveal anything new about the characters and felt like a pointless waste of 41 minutes before the introduction of the stranger (Eion Bailey). Some readers disagreed, claiming that it was a character piece for Morrison’s Swann, and revealed that her presence was making a difference in Storybrooke. Personally my opinion wasn’t swayed, but I respected the fact that some would feel that way.
Last week we had ‘7:15 am’ our first Snow (Ginnifer Goodwin) & Charming (Josh Dallas) episode of the new year. I’ve never tried to hide my bias for these two characters or the actors that play them, but I think that this was one of the strongest hours of television that the show has produced thus far. Sure I poked holes at a few bits (it’s what we do here at Bitch Stole My Remote), but on the whole the episode felt like an indicator that the show was getting back on track.
And then there’s this week, which feels like we’re back to ‘True North’ territory. We’re back into that dark territory where the plotting is obvious, the Fairytale flashbacks fail to reveal new aspects of our characters, and interesting characters are cast aside in favour of inane or boring ones. This show is becoming the television equivalent of whiplash: one moment I’m having a great time, and the next it’s all gone to hell.
Instead of directly addressing ‘Fruit of the Poisonous Tree’, I’m going to discuss what I consider to be two very big problems with the show:
Problem One is also the show’s biggest selling feature: the dual narrative device (previously employed in Lost). When used well, it has the capacity to highlight how our characters have grown or changed from their Fairytale existence, how they’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes, or how they’re slowly “waking up” (for lack of a better expression) to the fact that they’ve been stuck in a time loop by the curse. When used poorly, these flashbacks feel like filler, revealing little we didn’t already know or telling it in such a way that we simply don’t engage with the material. (E.g.: the presentation of the Hansel and Gretel story in ‘True North’, which was more or less unaltered from popular legend and served simply to remind us how guilty Emma felt for giving up Henry…something we knew from the end of the pilot on).
‘Fruit of the Poisonous Tree’ demonstrated both extremes: the reveal that Sidney Glass (Giancarlo Esposito) was the genie in the lamp was interesting. Everything else, however – the deception of the queen (Lana Parilla), the snakes coming from the genie’s home country and his unrequited love imprisoning him in the mirror – was an exercise in obvious storytelling. We not only knew what would happen in the Fairytale, but the ‘twist’ that he was still working for Regina in Storybrooke was so clear I doubt a blind viewer didn’t see it coming.
And what does it tell us about our characters? That Regina is duplicitous and evil? The show has hammered that point home for weeks, forcing poor Parilla to utter wooden dialogue worthy of a C-grade James Bond villain.
What about learning that Sidney is in cahoots with her. Umm, yeah, we knew that from the election episode. The attempt to convince us that he sought revenge against the Mayor (which was once again told to us, as opposed to shown) was laughable and unbelievable. The only other element that was addressed is Emma’s daftness, which brings us the other major Once Upon A Time problem.
Problem Two is that the lead character, Emma Swann, is a blithering idiot. This is a character that the show asks us to cheer for despite the fact that she’s so far out of her league that she’s too dumb to know when she’s being played. We’re told (and in the pilot, we actually witness) that Emma is a badass bounty hunter, and yet she’s inept in any kind of deduction. Her special power is supposed to be that she can tell when someone is lying, and yet people lie to her face all the time. She’s a completely flat character (hobbies? Interests? Favourite television shows? She has none of these!). She exists solely to react and submissively obeys the demands of others (twice in tonight’s episode alone she says she won’t do something until someone says she should, at which point she immediately caves). She is led astray by even the simplest of suggestions and seems unable to function in even the most simplistic of social circumstances.
So why do we want her to be with Henry? At this point, the show seems to suggest that it is simply because we don’t want him to be with Regina. It certainly isn’t because we think Emma is a great parent or even role-model. This is a woman who argues about responsibility and cites judicial practice, until someone mentions Regina being mean and then she not only breaks the law, but openly confronts her nemesis with the flimsiest of evidence (in a public forum no less!). I’m sure we’re meant to hiss when Regina makes her look the fool, but damn if Emma doesn’t make it hard not to simply sigh and exclaim “What did you think would happen, you idiot?!” She’s starting to make the police from The Killing look like Rhode Scholars, which is no mean feat considering Linden and Holden routinely found themselves making asses of themselves. And yes, I am comparing Emma to characters from the #2 worst show of 2011 for both TVangie and I. That’s how dumb I consider Emma Swann.
It’s problematic because this is a character that comprises the main crux of Once Upon A Time. Everything hinges on the stupidest character on the show changing the outcome for the others. So instead of privileging interesting characters such as Snow, Charming, and Mr. Gold (a completely wasted Robert Carlyle), we have to put up with Emma and her amazingly inappropriate Sheriff uniform comprised of leather jacket, condom hat, tight skinny jeans and fake-looking badge. Although I’m not ready to throw in the towel just yet, the show’s inability to deliver well-written (read: not obvious) episodes with any consistency or make use of its great cast* is incredibly frustrating. Even if an argument can be made that this is a show written for children, or even family audiences, that doesn’t give Once Upon A Time an out for lazy writing or poorly drawn characters. That’s simply an excuse…one that the good episodes (like last week’s ‘7:15 am’) disprove.
*I’m including Morrison in this statement, since the House actress can only do so much with what she’s given.
- Despite flip-flopping in characterization from kindly to suspiciously paranoid in the blink of an eye, Richard Schiff’s King Leopold remains a sight for sore (West Wing) eyes. He continues a tradition of the show attracting great guest stars to portray lukewarm characters. Note to showrunners: If you’re inviting this kind of talent to spend time on set, at least give them something to do.
- Some of my frustrations with Emma definitely stem from the fact that every moment we spend with her is at the expense of other characters, one of whom is Regina. Despite being given some of the worst dialogue on the show, Parilla is selling the crap out of her one-dimensional villain, who deserves a more fleshed out backstory. At this point we still have no idea why Regina has so much hate, or why she’s driven by a desire for power. Recent shows featuring anti-heroes have proven that – when done correctly – these misunderstood characters can be fascinating, engaging and powerful. The inability to turn Regina into more than a stock villain suggests that the writers have yet to figure out what to do with her.
- Ditto for Mr. Gold. As mentioned above, Carlyle is completely misused (or criminally underused) on the show. Consider how much more fascinating this show would be if it were Gold vs Regina instead of Emma? Now you’re starting to see why the show loses energy everytime she wanders onto set in one of her two dozen leather jackets. I’ll get my wish granted when the next new episode airs as we tackle Beauty and the Beast with Gold/Rumple in the “Beast” role.
- We seem to have stalled on the Stranger’s storyline, aside from the revelation that he is now in possession of Henry’s book (shocker…oh wait…no, yawn). Bloggers overwhelmingly believe him to be the author of the book, so what purpose he might have for reappropriating it is up for debate (chime in below if you’ve got an interesting theory).
What do you think, readers – am I out on a ledge by myself here? If you’re watching from the “family friendly” point of view, is the show more palatable? Am I harping way too much on Emma…or not enough? And who would win a snark-off: Regina or Gold?
We’ve got a few weeks to ponder these questions as the show takes a break until Feb 12, so sound off in the comments below!