Friday, September 25, 2015

My Love/Hate Relationship with Once Upon a Time: The Hate Begins

In season 2 of Once Upon a Time, my love started to tilt toward love/hate. The end of season one had left me excited. I couldn't wait to see what life in Storybrooke was like now that the people had their memories back and knew who they really were. How would they react to what Regina had done to them? How would they cope with life in modern America? And what about the Charming family -- Emma finally believed that Snow White and Prince Charming were her parents, and they finally knew who they were and knew who she was, and had the weird, bittersweet awareness that they'd missed their daughter's entire childhood, and now, thanks to the time freeze of the curse, they had gone seemingly in an instant from having a newborn to having an adult daughter who was the same age as them.

And then the show barely dealt with any of that. In the season premiere, Emma and Snow were sent away through a portal. There was one angry mob scene, but after that everyone seemed to have forgotten about Regina tormenting them. There were mentions of Missing posters and an attempt to register the various fairy tale people to help them find their loved ones in this new world, and there was one episode in which most of the people considered leaving the town so their memories would be re-set to their cursed selves so they wouldn't have to cope with basically having two identities stuck in their head. And that was it. As a fantasy writer, this drove me insane. How could they create this incredible situation and then do absolutely no worldbuilding with it and not mine it for all its potential? There's a whole town full of people with two identities in their heads, a fairy tale persona and a person who grew up in modern America. We know of at least one married couple who were split up and put with other partners by the curse, and at least one child put with a different family. Were there more? How would they cope with this? There's someone you spent 28 years married to -- though without the sense of time passing -- and then there's the person you were married to before that. Did people try to go back to their fairy tale occupations or stick with what the curse gave them? There was potential for so much fun here -- did fairy tale elements start creeping into the town and come up against the modern American elements now that people had their fairy tale memories? How would these fairy tale characters incorporate modern American stuff? The town should have ended up as an odd hodge-podge as people chose various things to keep or discard from their lives.

However, when I got the DVDs after the third season aired, I found that I quite enjoyed the first half of the second season. It wasn't what I wanted it to be, and there were so many missed opportunities, but there was still some good stuff there. I like Emma and Snow White's chance to bond as they tried to make their way back home, and Emma getting to see her mother in her own element and not as the mousy schoolteacher the curse had made her. Regina's mother, Cora, made for a fun villain. And then there was Captain Hook. If you've read my books, you've probably figured that I have a type, and while he wasn't immediately obvious as my type (I don't do bad boys, and the black leather does little for me), we soon started seeing something beneath his facade, and yeah, he was my type. In season two, he fit the Shapeshifter archetype, as you never were sure exactly where he stood. He could lie with a straight face, but was also the character most likely to cut through the nonsense and speak the truth. He had a laser-like focus on his own agenda, which meant he switched sides often, teaming up with whomever he thought was most likely to help his cause. He had an odd mix of swagger and vulnerability. You never knew for sure what he would do or how he would react. He was a villain, but his cause was actually somewhat sympathetic, and they kept his karma in balance because every time he did something wrong, he immediately got smacked down.

But then the second part of the season hit. When I look back at this series, I suspect that I'll still believe that the show's Jump the Shark moment came in mid-season 2, when the narrative focus seemed to make an abrupt shift and the morality got massively wonky. That was when Emma and Snow returned home and the family was finally reunited, and the camera focused on Regina looking sad as her former victims all went off together for their first family dinner, ever. The way it was framed made it look like they were just a bunch of meanies excluding poor, sad Regina, the victim, and in interviews the writers are actually proud of this scene because they think they've created a complex, sympathetic villain. And that was when everything shifted. From that point, poor Regina was the biggest victim who ever victimed. She never took any responsibility for her past crimes. The good guys were made to grovel at her feet for any perceived wrongs done to her, but she's yet to really apologize for what she's done to them or even indicate that she knows she was wrong to do what she did to them. Even after that point in the story, she went on to set things in motion to kill all of them, so this wasn't even a real turning point for her. She didn't change, but the tone of the narrative around her did. 

They talk about how there's not just black and white, there are shades of gray, and it's all more complex and nuanced than in the fairy tales, but in this case they actually made it more black than in the tale. In the fairy tale, the Evil Queen was only shown to do bad things to Snow White. There was no indication that she had her husband murdered, slaughtered entire villages, or destroyed a civilization with a curse. That's what Regina has done. She's actually worse than the fairy tale character, and yet we're supposed to see her as more complex and sympathetic. In the writing for this show, that "there are shades of gray and it's more complex" only seems to apply to villains. If the heroes put one foot wrong, they're terrible, horrible people -- and things like telling a secret are seen as equal to mass murder. That's why I say this show's morality makes A Game of Thrones look like Sunday school because even though that show depicts evil in graphic detail, it never tries to make evil look sympathetic, never tears down people for being good (for being stupid, maybe, but not just for being good).

Somewhat related to this is the way that around this period in the show, they quit letting most of the characters have realistic emotional reactions. Regina got to cry and look sad over every little thing, but the good guys weren't allowed to be upset at all. Their lives had been totally disrupted over a misplaced vengeance quest, people they love have been murdered, there have been murder attempts made against them, and they don't act like any normal person would in response. When they do respond realistically to news of a betrayal, it's shown as a sign of darkness. This gets increasingly frustrating as the series continues and the characters start looking like plot devices instead of like people. They're so seldom allowed to react to things and have real feelings. We have to lurch onward to the next big twist.

And there are some other warped things, like their attempt at the Beauty and the Beast relationship. I'm okay with them conflating some fairy tale elements -- I think making Red Riding Hood also be the wolf was brilliant -- but they made Rumpelstiltskin, the overall villain of the piece, also be the Beast, as in Beauty and the Beast, and as in the story, Belle sees the goodness beneath his fearsome exterior. Except we never really see any goodness in him. He's utterly selfish and driven by a need for power at all costs. He doesn't want his curse broken because he wants to keep his power. When Belle first showed up in season one, she realized that he chose power over love and left him, essentially saying "call me when you're not evil." But in season two, she's back with him, and nothing seems to change her mind about him, not seeing him do evil things, not learning that he was deliberately keeping her away from her father, not learning that he murdered his first wife for leaving him, not watching him beat people nearly to death. She still constantly bleats about his good heart, which makes her look like one of those women who write love letters to serial killers.

I almost rage quit the show when Snow White had a crowning moment of awesome in taking out the villain in a creative way that was loaded with poetic justice, and the show (and all the characters) told us that was wrong, and she ended up groveling in apology and wallowing in guilt about it. The only thing that kept me hanging on for season 3 was Hook's big turnaround -- actually admitting that his entire revenge scheme had been wrong and that he'd been wasting his life -- and the voyage to Neverland that ended the season.

From there, things got better for a time, and then we got to the point where I no longer fast forward past the scenes I don't like. I have to fast forward to find the scenes I do like.

1 comment:

amo said...

I'm so with you on the scene where Snow White takes out the villain and then is made to grovel for it. That's so stupid. Wasn't that an awesome scene in this current season, though, when they're hit by the curse that makes all their bad sides come out, and Snow White goes: "I killed the evil queen's mommy, and I said sorry - BUT I DIDN'T MEAN IT!" Too bad she went back to her grovelling self after that.