Once Upon a Time – Skin Deep

Source: ABC.com. Copyright 2011 by ABC.

Written by Jane Espenson
Directed by Milan Cheylov

From ABC.com: When Mr. Gold’s house is robbed, Emma suspects he is planning to seek vigilante justice; Ruby, Mary Margaret and Ashley plan a night out on Valentine’s Day; Belle makes a deal.

Quite a few months ago, I wrote a review of the Jane Espenson-penned That Still Small Voice. I believed at the time, and still do, that the eponymous episode was poorly-written, formulaic padding. The strength of Once Upon a Time had been characterization, and That Still Small Voice did not rise to the high standards already exhibited by the series.

I feel that I must now offer apologies to Ms. Espenson. She has written two more episodes since then, and both have been excellent. Both have also made good use of Robert Carlyle, which only makes things even better. I have a belief that the quality of an episode of Once Upon a Time can be judged by the amount of screen time given to Mr. Carlyle. He never disappoints.

If you haven’t seen the episode, you can watch it or read the synopsis on the ABC website. It built upon the development of Rumpelstiltskin in a way that was believable. Initially, I was reluctant to see the show delve in to his background. I liked the idea of Rumpelstiltskin being a force of nature, a trickster who was mysterious. Any background information would take away the enigma. However, the show has done a good job of having it both ways. Whether due to the writing, Carlyle’s performance, or both, Rumpelstiltskin is one of the most fascinating characters on the show, and Skin Deep not only shows the internal struggle that rages within him, it shows an external struggle that had only been hinted at until now.

Based on this episode, it seems one of the major themes in Once Upon a Time, a theme that appears again and again in mythic storytelling, is the conflict between power and love. Wagner used it in The Ring Cycle. It is a struggle that constantly assails Christianity. It works out in the lives of the residents of Storybrook and the fairy tale world. Rumpelstiltskin was forced to choose between love and holding on to the power that he had gained. He is, arguably, the most powerful creature in the fairy tale world, a position which makes him a target of The Queen. Tricksters can be defeated, but only through trickery. If Rumpelstiltskin had chosen love, his powers—the result of a curse—would be gone. The Queen would win.

The Queen also faces this choice. In The Thing You Love Most, she must choose between her revenge and the love she has for her father. In the end, the power to take revenge trumps love for her. Even in Skin Deep, Regina chooses to confront Mr. Gold rather than continue to keep Henry and Emma apart. Facing her old nemesis was more important than controlling her son’s relationship (which is a perversion of love).

So it would seem, with this episode, one of the central conflicts is that of The Queen versus Rumpelstiltskin. We already knew of her fight against Snow White. This new revelation adds more depth to the show, but also gives us plenty of new plot threads. Can the writers handle them?

As We Move Forward: From the episodes I have seen so far, it seems the best deal with the conflicts mentioned above. Jiminy Cricket’s story felt like filler, as did Hansel and Gretel’s story. When the episodes give us more pieces that relate to The Queen, Snow, and Rumpelstitlskin, the show feels like it is going somewhere. I still like the idea of a season-long arc which resolves and ushers in a new story (possibly one not related to the curse) in the second season. I have no idea if the writers will go in this direction, but it seems, based on what we have so far, they could easily do so. It would be immensely satisfying.

Once Upon a Time – The Shepherd

Written by Ian Goldberg and Andrew Chambliss
Directed by Victor Nelli

The amnesiac David Nolan must decide to return to the wife he doesn’t remember or Mary Margaret, whom he is deeply attracted to.  

“I think this belonged to me.”
“Really.  Are you sure?”
-David and Mr. Gold

For the most part, this episode was a return to form.  And while Emma Swan was rather irritating and the CG was terrible, the emotional struggle of David and Mary Margaret made the episode satisfying.  First, I was nervous as to how this struggle would be dealt with.  All too often, the Hollywood answer is to “follow your heart.”  But how does one follow their heart when they exist in a dual state?  Prince Charming was married to Snow White, but David is married to Kathryn.  So far as we know, this new world, this mundane world, features fully-realized relationships.  How does one reconcile faithfulness?  Ultimately, David’s greatest crime is, as Mary Margaret said, leading her on.  Ultimately, David chose his reality, and that reality was Kathryn.

Rather than recap the story (which is still available on ABC’s website), I wish to engage in some wild speculation.  You see, I’m still holding this show at arm’s length.  The writing (for the most part) is good, but American television tends to fail on the long-running arcs.  I’ve mentioned before that I feel the best path for Once Upon a Time to take is to deal with arcs on a season by season basis, but I feel this is quite unlikely as we have been told that when the curse breaks the final battle will begin.  This leaves only two large arcs: Break Curse, Fight Battle.  Fair enough.  However, I would like this show to do something unexpected and mind-bending.  We have been told (in the opening sequence) that the fairy tale characters are now living in our world, but how much more interesting if they weren’t.  What if it is the same world?  What if the only thing that has changed are memories and perceptions of reality?  So what would this mean?  I believe that the rules would be the same.  We have seen that agreements hold, regardless of where they were made.  We have seen remnants of the old world (glass coffin, most of Mr. Gold’s shop).  If this were a different world, why would the old world exist in it?  I believe we are being told what Regina/The Queen believes to be true.  Mr. Gold / Rumplestiltskin may have crafted something more deceptive: two worlds which are really one.  Storybrooke IS the fairy tale world.  The greatest hindrance to breaking the curse, then, would be if everyone decided to stay because they chose Storybrooke as reality.  This may all be incorrect, but it would certainly be unexpected and so far, it fits certain clues we have been given.

What do you think?  Is my theory crazy?  Can you see evidence that I am wrong?  Comment below.

Once Upon a Time: That Small Still Voice

Written by Jane Espenson
Directed by Paul Edwards

Source: ABC's Once Upon a Time websiteI almost look at the first four episodes of Once Upon a Time as a courtship.  Now that I have finally committed to the relationship, That Small Still Voice airs and I get the undeniable impression that Once Upon a Time is no longer trying to impress me and is letting itself go.  This episode was as by-the-numbers as an episode could get and I can’t help but wonder if TVTropes was consulted as a writing guide for crafting an episode.

Let’s start with what works.  The scenes between Mary Margaret and David are excellent.  The two have great chemistry and their dilemma is an intriguing one.  We know that Henry’s belief is true, that these two people are Snow White and Prince Charming.  But what does that mean for who they are in our world?  I’m sure at some point it will probably be revealed that the “real world” relationship between David and Catherine is a lie orchestrated by Regina, but the moral dilemma is certainly one worth exploring.

Henry was also fairly well written in this episode.  For a character that I was initially apprehensive toward, I’m beginning to warm to his passion.  And I truly believe all the actors in this episode did the best they could with what they were given.  The problem, for me, is that the script was mediocre and trite.

One thing that irks me about this story is that we are given no reason for why Jiminy held beliefs contrary to his parents.  A child’s view of the world is largely dictated by his parents.  In this case, Jiminy should have been a smaller version of them.  We are given no reason for why he felt his parents were wrong.  We saw nothing that made us believe that he had formulated a stronger morality than those who raised him.  Sure, we can tell a story in which he commits a great evil which causes him to change his ways, but the episode insists he was a good man prior to the deaths of the Gepetto’s parents.  Apparently he was just a weak man.  I don’t believe his character.  I don’t believe his journey.

Source: DVD screen capture
Moths, Dalmations . . . all animals are amazingly prescient and magical and can find people trapped in wells or collapsed mines. But they will still pee on your carpet.

Then there’s the cave-in.  I’ve read a few reviews that make a big deal about the connection to Lost in the episode.  By this, they are referring to the Apollo chocolate bars that Henry takes with him on the expedition into the mine.  What they miss is that this episode mirrors The Moth the seventh episode of Lost.  In this episode, Charlie, feeling disrespected confronts Jack in a cave.  The ensuing argument causes the cave to collapse, trapping Jack.  Charlie is able to crawl through an opening and helps Jack get free of the rock that has pinned him, and the two later find another way out by following a moth.  The experience empowers Charlie and he decides to kick his drug habit.  It is also interesting to me that Charlie was the moral core of his band Drive Shaft.  His experiences with the band caused him to compromise his convictions.  And similar to Archie in That Small Still Voice, Charlie was led astray by family.  While these two episodes are not the same beat for beat, they are very similar in pace and formula.

I acknowledge it is hard to come up with anything genuinely new in television (or any fiction writing for that matter), but you succeed or fail based on what you do with your version of the story.  Sadly, this episode was predictable.  The beats for this type of story dictate that Henry would not quite find what he is looking for, which means the final shot of the episode would confirm his belief to the audience (in this case, Snow White’s glass coffin).  The cave-in plot was so formulaic as to be dull.  I can’t help but feel that this episode, which was meant to be an episode that empowered the conscience of the fairy tale folk, was filler.  The overall plot (The Curse) slowed to a crawl.  The sense of urgency present in the first four episodes seems to have diminished and it may be possible that we can all sit around and wait for the curse to break now that Emma Swan is in town.  And is it going to turn out that every resident of Storybrooke has had a deal with Rumplestiltskin?  There was no point to Jiminy’s involvement with the trickster.  This story of shaken confidence could have easily been told without him.  But I guess if you are going to pay for Robert Carlyle, you may as well film him.  Similarly, the logic behind Jiminy’s desire to become a cricket doesn’t make much sense.  Why a cricket, Jiminy?  “Because I liked them when I was a child. They represented freedom.  I’m probably lucky I didn’t like houseflies or dung beetles.”  And why does Archie growing a backbone cause all the crickets in Storybrooke to start chirping once more?  Magic?  Because Jane Espenson says so?

Jane Espenson . . . . The first time I encountered her was in the Battlestar Galactica reboot, and I honestly didn’t feel one way or the other about her.  I loved the show and I felt she must be a great writer because I loved the show.  Having seen some of her work in Torchwood: Miracle Day and here, I’m starting to wonder why nerdom seems to think she can do no wrong.  Is it because she worked on Buffy?  I’ll give her credit, the Miracle Day episode Immortal Sins was very good and one of the best of the series, but the rest of her work on Torchwood ranged from plodding to adequate.  Is it possible that she needs a strong show runner to push her to do her best work?  Should we blame Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz for this lacklustre episode?  Is it the fault of the director for not excising some pretty bad dialogue and ramming the emotional development down our throats (“HE’S MY SON TOO!”) I know enough about television to know that every episode is a collaboration.  No one person can take full credit or blame for a failure, and often times the final product in no way resembles what each person saw in his or her head.  But this was truly a bad episode.  It was melodramatic, formulaic, and just plain dull.  After riding a high for three straight episodes, That Still Small Voice was a disappointment.  It was unimaginative, and I can’t think of a greater crime for a series about fairy tales.

This episode killed the momentum.  It offered up trite characterization and poor dialogue.  It honestly felt like filler.  It felt as if this episode was the inevitable “well, we’ve got to do something to fill the 22 episode order from ABC, so we may as well do this one.”  If we get more episodes as weak as this one, I will not continue to watch.

Once Upon a Time 1×02 – The Thing You Love Most

Written by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz
Directed by Greg Beeman

In which we find out how the Queen got the curse and what she was willing to sacrifice to cast it, and Emma finds herself the target of Storybrooke mayor Regina.

“A horse?  This is the curse to end all curses!  You think a horse is going to do?”
-Rumplestiltskin to the Queen on her choice of sacrificial victim

Now I didn’t expect that.  No, after a pilot that failed significantly to impress me, a pilot that made me want to revisit a similar story that I felt was better told, I expected to find more reasons to pick apart Once Upon a Time.  I expected to find the show good but a pale comparison to Fables.  But no, this episode completely negated the lackluster pilot, proving once more that one should never judge a show by its pilot.

The device that worked so well for the early seasons of Lost were the character flashbacks.  The action on The Island would usually focus on a particular character and would be intercut with flashbacks to the character’s life before the plane crash.  Once Upon a Time is using this device to great effect.  I admit to being apprehensive when it first started, but Kitsis and Horowitz are doing great character work.  Once Upon a Time is quite reminiscent of Lost’s first season.  Characters are more important than plot.  And honestly, I think that is a good move at the moment.  This is what hooked me on Lost, the character studies, and it seems to be working in this show as well.  Exploring the motivations of The Queen really helps us to sympathize with her real-world counterpart Regina.  And because of the revelations in this episode, she is made into a tragic figure, a woman who chooses to destroy herself by pursuing revenge.

While I enjoy the flashbacks, I’m still apprehensive about the meta-narrative.  I don’t mind the existence of the curse and the before and after worlds portrayed in the show.  What worries me is that, given the trend in American network television, narrative cannot sustain a show long term.  While Lost continued to work (and frustrate) by revealing layer upon convoluted layer, the narrative of Once Upon a Time is quite simple and straightforward.  The Queen cursed all the fairytale people.  The curse must be broken.  Emma Swan is the one who can break it.  Sure, we can spend a good part of season one exploring the lives of the characters we have met so far (The Queen, Snow White, Rumplestiltskin, the sherif-who better not turn out to be a wolf), but the overall narrative of the curse cannot believable sustain the show for more than two seasons, and I think I’m being generous with that estimate.  What I would love to see is the curse plot resolved by the end of the season and a second narrative set into motion.  Perhaps we find out that the fairytale world still exists and is still inhabited.  Maybe Mr. Gold/Rumplestiltskin can travel between the two.  Maybe the power vacuum led to some sort of takeover.  Granted, the latter would begin to delve even more into Fables territory, but the point is that the writers should do the unexpected by changing the plot from time to time.  This show doesn’t have big mysteries on the scale of The X-Files or Lost, and it shouldn’t pretend it does.  Let the characters grow and be amazing while giving us story-arcs with actual endings.  British shows do this more than we do and, surprise, surprise, it actually works!
So, where does this show stand at the moment.  One vote for and one vote against.  I’m thinking of giving it best out of five.  If I still like it, I’ll keep with it.  I don’t really have enough time in my life to keep with a “decent but not great” show.  And at the moment, it could go either way.

Once Upon a Time – Pilot

Written by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz
Directed by Mark Mylod

Source: http://abc.go.com/shows

This show must overcome two major obstacles if it wants to win me over.  First, it was created by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, both of whom wrote for Lost.  Now, this isn’t a bad thing, per se, but while I loved the majority of Lost, I still am somewhat unhappy with how the show ended, and that taints my view of Once Upon a Time.  I admit, however, that this is a small bag compared to the other baggage that stands in the way of my enjoyment of the show, and that is the Vertigo comic Fables by Bill Willingham.  While Once Upon a Time and Fables do seem to be telling very different stories, the basic concept of fairy tale characters entering the modern world is a common core between the two.  Once Upon a Time deals with Maleficient cursing the fairy tale characters at Snow White’s wedding, a curse that forces them into an existence without happy endings . . . basically, our world.  Fables deals with fairy tale and folk lore characters escaping their realm of fantasy after a fable character becomes a tyrannical emperor who conquers the Fable kingdoms.  The exiles set up in a ghetto of New York and try to get along while hiding from the emperor.  So yes, similar but different.  Unfortunately, I really like Fables, and it is hard for me to set aside this enjoyment to let Once Upon a Time work it’s spell on me.  I keep expecting well-dressed wooden soldiers to appear or for Bigby Wolfe to be lurking off to the side, cigarette in mouth.  I also keep expecting Hugh Laurie to walk into scene and start telling blond jokes to Emma Swan.  I want to play fair with you, Once Upon a Time, but you are making it so hard.  Especially when I can boil the entire concept down to a paraphrase of The Sixth Sense:  “I see fairy tale people.  They’re everywhere.  They don’t know they’re fairy tale people.”

Source: http://beta.abc.go.com/shows/once-upon-a-time/photos
Source: http://beta.abc.go.com/shows/once-upon-a-time/photos

But let me focus on the good, an that is Robert Carlyle.  He is a great actor, no matter what he is in, and he works wonderfully as Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold.  He dominates his two all-too-short scenes, and I look forward to the show delving more into his character.  You see, Once Upon a Time, this is where you have a chance to hook me.  So long as you continue to give me compelling Robert Carlyle I will continue to watch your show.  You have a chance to win me over, but you have to do something amazing.  I’ve watched your pilot, which is primarily set-up.  Now hook me.  In the meantime, I need to dig out my back issues of Fables.