The end of Breaking Bad doesn’t work for me because it lacks the courage of its own convictions.
A brief note now to warn that spoilers, as ever, follow. Continue reading
The end of Breaking Bad doesn’t work for me because it lacks the courage of its own convictions.
A brief note now to warn that spoilers, as ever, follow. Continue reading
So between school, work and hospital stuff, we’ve not been writing a lot about OUAT here on Organised Freedom, mostly just going about our respective lives and realizing that for all we absolutely enjoy dissecting pieces of pop-culture and seeing what fortunes we can read in their entrails (we did make a blog for just that purpose, after all), it’s becoming more and more apparent that OUAT is basically a pop-cultural scarecrow, a story-shaped thing propped up in the middle of a field to simulate a thing: oh, certainly it has characters and events which happen one after another each of which affect the characters in different ways but ultimately it’s all straw and borrowed clothes with nary an ounce of flesh beneath.
In the most recent episode, “Ariel”, for instance, we spend half the episode running through OUAT’s abbreviated take on The Little Mermaid, which primarily involves the eponymous mermaid making no massive, existential sacrifices to walk on land so that she can be with her prince and making much about her being unsure she’s willing to tell said prince about how she’s a mermaid so Snow White intervenes to tell her maybe she should tell him the truth. This “will she/won’t she” truth-telling subplot in the flashback sequences is meant, I think, to reflect the episode’s MacGuffin quest to have the cast save Neal in the Cave of Echoes by revealing all sorts of Deep, Dark Secrets to one another (none of which are all that deep or dark to this viewer’s tastes)—the season-long MacGuffin, saving the innocent child who’s been stolen by Peter Pan, being pushed to the side for the time being so that Henry’s biological parents can, I guess, be the ones to save him, avoiding the apparently frightful spectre of single-motherhood being considered heroic in any way, shape or form.
And, y’know. It’s fine. It is what it is. Regina is snarky and pragmatic, Emma is driven but bland, David is a liar we’re supposed to forgive because he’s so noble or whatever and Snow is whatever the plot or the values of the writers need her to be in the moments she appears. The flashback does nothing that two to five seconds of dialogue couldn’t do just as well for the lore of the series and tells us nothing we don’t already know about the main characters, instead introducing new characters to a cast which had recently—and wisely—shrunk its cast down to a handful of main characters. Which, again: it’s fine. That’s just how Once Upon a Time rolls. But again, we’re brought to the point where the flashback tells us nothing we don’t already know about the established characters (Flashback-Snow is ostensibly sweetness and light where Flashback-Regina is a doing her best Ming the Merciless in contrast to her earlier dalliances with Complex Villain With Motivations-dom, the two facets never seeming to meet in any one episode) and adding nothing to the plot except to explain that Snow White doesn’t believe in lies, something the later exposure of Deep Dark Secrets would have done just as well in a fraction of the time.
And I know I keep coming, again and again, back to the question of the way OUAT uses its allotted time and, honestly, it forms the crux of my problem with the show. See, you might not imagine it from how long-winded I can be, but I’m a big proponent of narrative economy: everything that happens—every line of dialog, every twist of the plot, every character interaction, every individual chapter—should have a place in the larger metanarrative if, indeed, a metanarrative is to be had. That’s pretty much the nature of multi-chapter books, after all, and if the show is going to justify spending a full season (or, perhaps, half of one?) on the story of “Emma Swan, et al, shall brave the Lost-esque Neverland to save the son she once gave up”, every episode should see the cast moving toward that goal in one way or another. Instead, each episode offers one digression after another, usually with ostensible villain Peter Pan providing tips on how the heroes can get close enough to him to thwart him or taking diversions to have each character spend an episode explicitly describing their motivations because “save the kidnapped child whom we all love” is apparently insufficient. Each episode is less about the heroes shoring themselves up to fight the villain or finding his secret weaknesses or figuring out how they could convince him to become their ally and more about the writers crafting reasons why the confrontation between Peter Pan and Our Heroes must be put off for another week, which can be interesting for an episode or two while the drama builds but after the sixth, it really begins to feel like fucking about. It’s not to say that I want action action action all the time but after a certain point, something weighty should happen every episode or what was the point of the episode? By the end of each episode, the characters should be at a different point relative to their proximity to their goals, either closer or further away, depending on the interplay between the force the protagonists can bring against the antagonist and vice-versa. Instead, we get a lot of portent and interplay between the protagonists wherein they discuss their interrelationships for episodes at a time, usually with one or more of them asking at one point or another why they’re hanging around talking about their feelings when they would be better served working to achieve their goals (which is to say, overcoming the antagonist and procuring the MacGuffin/saving the damsel), a question we here at OF often ask ourselves. And, again, all of even THAT thin gruel attempt at storytelling falls to the wayside because half of each episode is wasted in flashbacks to other, smaller conflicts which bear no real relation to the plot at hand—even if they did relate to a future plot, it’s that thing again where it could be fixed in a maximum of five minutes in a later episode. “Who is The Goddess Ursula?” “I am! And X years ago, you committed a crime against my kingdom!” “Oh crap, this looks like a conflict we will have to resolve before we move on!” would about cover it.
And it’s not as if OUAT is the first show to try doing this sort of thing; serial television has been the way of things for decades in daytime soap operas; even if we only wanted to apply the serial narrative structure to the fantasy adventure genre, the road has been paved by everything from Buffy to Battlestar Galactica to Lost (which, again, many of the writers worked on). Fair is fair, though, I can’t actually speak to the quality of the metanarratives of Galactica or Lost because there was rarely anything in them to interest me. Indeed, it’s not even as if it’s the writers’ first time at the old serial narrative rodeo. Showrunners Kitsis and Horowitz worked together on the short-lived Tron: Uprising cartoon which followed a small cast of absurdly archetypical characters trying to reach their own goals—goals which come into conflict with one another throughout the series until, finally, they come to a head in the season finale (which would turn out to be the series finale because very few people actually care about Tron as a franchise). Why they seem to have so much difficulty in OUAT when, honestly, the basic requirements (set archetypical characters into conflict with one another; keep them in conflict for a season) are the same is a source of constant confusion and wonder whenever I go to watch the show.
For me, however, that confusion has ceased to be fun or even remotely interesting. There’s no joy in saying “fuck this show” when the show doesn’t even feel as if it’s trying to mount a defense of itself. It’s no fun trying to mock the tenuous thematic connections when the show takes no stances on anything but the importance of the creation and exultation of the (biological) nuclear family unit. Going in and really trying to get into the meat of the series just feels like an empty exercise because there’s no meat to be found; just moldy straw all the way down.
Due to a confluence of school for myself and some other responsibilities for Ellie, there will be no “Fuck This Show” for the last couple OUAT/OUATIW episodes. The former we’ve watched and… well, it certainly was 45 minutes of televisual information featuring actors, sets, costumes and special effects where some plot points were moved around, flashbacks were flashed and backed and in narrative terms almost nothing of note happened.
There was going to be a discussion of the difference between a story and a series of events or possibly of intent vs. outcome. Those will probably happen as well but neither of us quite have had the time this week.
I am sure you are heartbroken.
Come back next week when we’ll continue to poke holes in a show we’d both very much like to enjoy, what with how it’s a really great high concept. I may also get into comparing it to the bland wretchedness that is Disney’s ABC’s Marvel’s Joss Whedon’s Agents of SHIELD which shares with OUAT some large, ambitious ideas but a frightfully thin execution.
It’s nice to see that there’s an attempt in every bit of OUAT-related media to build every episode around a theme. Whether or not that theme is a cohesive part of the overarching story is another matter entirely but as we’ve discussed with OUAT before, cohesion isn’t exactly a massive part of What It Is They Do. This week on OUAT in Wonderland, the theme was “trust”. Does Alice trust in her love of damsel’d genie Cyrus? Does she trust the Knave of Hearts who’s broken faith with so many other people? Do the Red Queen and Jafar trust one another? Can they? Can John Lithgow’s White Rabbit trust that the Red Queen will ever not break her promises? And for a second episode of a series which, like its predecessor, insists that it has a long and complex backstory and whose characters are a bit unsure about each other, it makes a kind of sense. It builds up the relationships between the characters, it allows for some incremental changes in those relationships and generally gives us a better sense of what each character is about. It’s not The Wire but it does its job.
But the theme of trust is also an ironic thing for this series because the thing that struck me hard this episode is that it doesn’t really trust its audience.
See, the premise of the show—the thing you have to accept in order to have any engagement or investment in the lead character—is that Alice and Cyrus are in love (twuuuu wuuvvv…) and that Alice has to do her best Super Mario impression (eating mushrooms to change size, fighting through fantastical environments, getting various upgrades along the way) to get to the final castle, beat the boss and save her prince. And for all she has friends and everything, her True Love is what’s gonna keep her going through the long and winding road that will lead to the castle; a love that’s deep and powerful and profound and it’s the kind of True Love which is so amazingly affecting that you could never ever love again or move on or change or grow or anything ever again at all. Regardless of your stance on that definition of True Love (it makes me shudder but there’s no accounting for taste), that’s the setup the show’s got and it’s the one it’s going forward with and it’s one of the central conceits you need to accept, on the same level as “magic is real”, “some rabbits can talk, wear suits and burrow through time, space and reality” and “Naveen Andrews, John Lithgow and Roger Daltrey are really into telling this story and not just showing up for that Disney cash”.
But this episode, in the lamentable style established by the original OUAT, it felt like a good quarter of the runtime was taken up with flashbacks showing the badly-written (or perhaps badly-acted? The cast seems to have some charisma even if I don’t see the chemistry) romance between Alice and Cyrus which has more in common with the romance in Star Wars: Episode II than any big, romantic fairy tale I could think of off the top of my head. And once more (I worry that I’m something of a broken record upon this subject) I have to ask what point there is to the extended flashbacks as, more and more, they just reiterate things the audience already knows. No amount of eye-gazing is going to convince me that those two love one another in a way that traipsing across a green-screen Wonderland, fighting monsters, defying evil royals and thwarting wizards couldn’t. I don’t need to know how Alice became a badass warrior: it’s one of those things I signed on for when she made the daring escape from the mental hospital and generally necessary in the lead of the fantasy adventure series.
And, watching it, I just couldn’t escape the feeling that it was all there because the writers (or the producers or the directors) don’t trust the audience to buy into their central premise. Either that or they’re just bad at their jobs and want to spend lots of time faffing about, breaking the rules of narrative conservation by spending an hour telling an audience things they’d already taken as given by dint of watching the show. It’s one of the many truly frustrating things with the show (or, really, both of the OUAT shows) because if they’d just believe in their audience the way they want the audience to believe in magic or True Love or Alice herself, the show would have a lot more going for it.
I said earlier that the show wasn’t The Wire. I’m a brave enough man to stand behind that but what The Wire shares with every big TV show that’s well-remembered and which rose to greatness (or even very, very goodness) is that it trusts its audience to keep track of what’s going on. There are elements in The Wire which don’t pay off for multiple seasons, character developments which are never announced, whole strains of plot interaction and consequence which is never lampshaded because it believes in the audience’s capacity to follow along and make connections. Even less well-made shows (please keep in mind: pretty much every show is less well-made than The Wire) have done this well: Buffy trusted its audience, as did Fringe, Firefly and The X-Files. They’re all, to my thinking, in the same fantasy adventure genre (even if some of them are about science-fantasy instead of magic-fantasy), they’re all buoyed by ensemble casts and built up around fun-sounding concepts; I know that there can be good or even great fantasy adventure shows on TV but to get to that point, the writers (or directors or producers) have to start trusting the audience.
‘Cause for serious, this thing where we spend episodes not even properly exploring an already-established fact but just plain reiterating it, presumably to make really sure that we understood what they mean—no, really understood it, did they explain it well enough, here’s the thing again just in case you missed it, did you miss it that time well here it is again, let’s all talk about what we’ve learned—is getting really old really quick.
The second episode of this OUAT spin-off began to hit more of the things which I find endlessly frustrating with the main show, namely the POWER OF LOOOOOVVVEEE, and the unconvincing and uninteresting lead characters.
Alice very quickly becomes a kind of wish fulfilment self-insert character than even Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way would be embarrassed of.
And I just don’t care about her, or her love for Cyrus, the genie. And frankly the more time the writers insist on showing me how mediocre and pedestrian their love is, the less I care about it. Or them. Which is unfortunate given that at least half of this episode was flashbacks of Cyrus trying to please his magical captor and keep her happy and therefore ensure that she will keep him in a larger prison with more freedoms… oh wait… I mean it was totally showing us how in love they were.
And regarding ‘love’…
I know we talked a little more extensively about love regarding OUAT s03e03, but the word’s wielded like a sledgehammer in this episode of OUATIW and to poor effect.
But… unlike OUAT, Wonderland has the Knave of Hearts, who has been burnt in love by a mysterious woman called Anastacia, which has led to his bastardly ways, and yet he still has a base level of compassion:
And it has the Red Queen, who… are we even taking bets that she’s the Anastacia who broke the Knaves heart? It seems such an obvious link, even though classically the poem would have it that the Knave stole from the Queen… Which I wouldn’t put past him. Which makes their eventual reunion all the more interesting:
These two are the most interesting and coherent characters so far. Which, I know, I know, we’re only two episodes in and they can mess it up (and oh how badly do the writers mess up when they do), but after sitting through so much OUAT it’s a relief, an actual relief to have characters I like. Multiple characters that I like.
The Knave continues to have a bigger heart than he’d like, and the Red Queen continues to be fabulous. And in a stunning turn of events the Red Queen out manoeuvred the wonderfully menacing Jafar in a strategic move entirely (and fittingly) reminiscent of chess (even if they did use card-game terminology). With the White Rabbit as her pawn she’s secured sufficient collateral to turn the game of cat and also cat to her advantage.
And I, for one, am looking forward to their eventual battle.
And I’m pleased, I’m really pleased to say that I’m actually invested and excited for the next episode of Wonderland, which is more than can be said for OUAT.
Love: The most powerful thing in the fairytale universe if the last episode of OUAT ‘Quite a Common Fairy’ is anything to go by. (Not to mention the most recent episode of OUATIW – but that’s a whole other thing).
Aleph’s talked about the redemptive power of love in regards to my Queen, Regina over HERE. But there is always, always a flip side to this.
Love. Any kind of love. Has the power to destroy.
Regina has killed for love. She has killed those she’s loved for a greater love. She has turned her whole world upside down in her grief for her dead true love. She’s bathed in the misery of those who had caused the demise of the man she loved. And given the heavy-handed emphasis on the importance of true love within the OUAT universe, I don’t think I can begrudge her this. Despite all this, and despite the message that you only have one true love, and only one shot at it, Regina loved again, in a different way. She found love and her own path toward redemption in loving another person, her son, unconditionally. And thereby neatly rejecting the idea that true love can only be 1) reciprocated, and 2) romantic. Yet, also for this love she will destroy worlds. The enormity of Regina’s ability to love and the lengths she will go to for the (very few) people she does love is something that is not directly addressed. But the kind of off-spring producing vanilla ‘true-love’ of David/Snow or Emma/Neal doesn’t have the same level of power to me. It doesn’t inspire that kind of awe that the love of woman such as Regina could. It’s something terribly magnificent, and it’s something which sustains her. Because I don’t think that her love turned to hate, not the way the show tries to imply. It’s more like the strength of her ability to love turned it from a fluffy safe marshmallow into a brilliant sharp diamond.
Tinkerbell’s love for herself is something which I adore. Even whilst hating the fairy-nuns (with the blue fairy as a mother-superior fairy-nun) who as a whole are the worst and most judgemental and nasty bunch of things. I get the impression that OUAT is confusing fairies with angels, a not uncommon thing from the US as I understand it where there isn’t the rich history of elfin fae-folk. However, this Tinkerbell is more akin to a classical European fairy: capricious and self-interested. Her use of other people to pursue her own goals leads to her own demise and so strong is her self-delusion and her inability to take responsibility for her actions that she berates and tries to kill Regina. Tinkerbell tries to kill the proto-Wendy for a slight that consisted of nothing more than Regina being afraid to love again. A slight which Regina could not reasonably be expected to think was a slight, nor even a thing which would cause any problems. After all, in her selfish and manipulative ways, Tinkerbell was trying to use Regina. To cure the evil Queen (who seemed more neglected and isolated than evil to this viewer) as a way to redeem herself for past misdeeds, and to redeem herself for stealing the pixie dust she used on Regina. Again… I’m failing to see that the blame for any of this falls anywhere other than Tinkerbell’s own shoulders. But her own opinion of herself, and her self-infatuation is so grand that she can’t see this. Even after spending a goodly length of time as a non-fairy, her selfishness and self-centredness has left her stewing and stealing herself for revenge. Unlike Regina whose love destroys outwardly, Tinkerbell’s focuses inwards on itself and in doing so brings destruction down on its target.
Even in the realms of our true-love pairings harm is dealt. David lies to, and manipulates, Snow White. And whilst on occasion she calls him out on his shit, often his lies remain a manly masculine super butch secret to be kept hidden from the woman he loves in case… no, there’s no good reason for him not to be telling her that he’s been caught with the deadly poison. The only reason for him not telling her is that he thinks she’ll fall apart and be a burden, except it’ll be painted as romantic and all “I didn’t want to worry you.” And we’ll be meant to sigh over how wonderful and perfect they are as a couple, except we really should be talking about how unhealthy their relationship is. Neal meanwhile persuades a very reluctant Robin Hood to offer up his son as bait for the Shadow, so that Neal can find a (quick) way to Emma (and Henry – although let it be noted his primary motivation is reuniting with Emma at this point). The menfolk talk it out in a fatherly fashion “My son is in peril, you have a son so you understand why I must endanger your son to rescue mine.” Basically… Neal, as much as I like you, you’re persuading a man to do a shitty thing for your own end. Do we feel bad for you? Yes. Does that mean you get to endanger a kid that doesn’t have any say in what’s going on? No. No it does not. But there again is the danger of love. What if Robin had utterly refused? How far would Neal go? How desperate would his love for Emma (and Henry) make him and who would he be willing to harm along the way?
And then we have Emma… who. I’m going to be honest here and say that I find Emma the most difficult character to relate to. I have a very difficult time understanding where she’s coming from and what she wants, because the overall impression I get from the writers is that they don’t know. Emma tells her companions that she wants her son back, she’s very adamant about saying that… yet it’s not a thing that ever seems to come out in her actions. She’s a bail-bondswoman, and Henry is purportedly the first person she’s ever properly loved. (What does this mean for Neal – who knows, I don’t think the writers have thought this through either?) Yet Emma seems to spend her time being patronised by Snow and/or David, berating Regina, or staring into middle-distance. I never get any sense of urgency from Emma; petulance? Yes. Stamping her feet in a tantrum? Yes. Willing to go to the lengths of the earth to find her son…? Not so much, even though that is what the writers have her actually doing. What is her love capable of? What can she do? So far the only real result we’ve seen from her love is that she lifted a curse that Henry had accidentally fallen under. True love and a mother’s love being one and the same in that particular moment… and also a thoroughly unpleasant poke at the illegitimacy of the adoptive parents love, seeing as how Regina’s love for Henry wasn’t sufficient to wake him with a kiss. Yeah, don’t even get me started on that.
Less ruled by their libido, out in the Enchanted Forest, there is the much less explored Robin; whose miserable existence living in a castle with his son and a band of merry men and really not actually seeming very worse the wear… is apparently Regina’s fault. Except the impression I got from Robin was more that old chestnut, ‘I want a mother for my son’, also known as, ‘I wanna go out and do fun stuff but I can’t when I’ve got to look after my kid’. So… I don’t know that I’m particularly invested in him. I am however, invested in Mulan who subtext decrees is in love with Aurora, and boy is that some hefty subtext. But until Mulan’s love for that princess is made explicit I’m not interested. It’s not brave of Disney to hint towards a thing and not show it; that is queerbaiting for viewing figures without having to risk offending any viewing homophobes. And that is a thing enough mainstream television shows do, and have done successfully. It would have been brave to make it explicit. There is still time, and the writers might let the audience know that Mulan actually does like ladies too and that that is okay. Might. I sincerely hope they do…but… I’m used to being disappointed by OUAT. Instead what we got was, I presume, Mulan’s love for Aurora leading her to keep quiet about those feelings when Aurora reveals she’s pregnant by Philip. Mulan’s love for Aurora means that she’ll go into a kind of voluntary exile with Robin Hood and his band of men… becoming a quasi-Maid Marion. (A continuing tradition of OUAT of debasing and devaluing Mulan’s actual story – she was the general of an army who led her men against the Mongol invaders!!!) Romantic? No… not so much. A decision we can understand? Maaaaaybe. Even if it would be more satisfying to put those characters into a situation where the feelings are clearly expressed and they are discussed and handled like adults. I’m just saying, Mulan, Aurora, and Philip would make a beautifully polygamous relationship…. Yet I’d sincerely doubt we’d be seeing that any time soon.
Which… leads me to my final point, and my incredibly unhealthy relationship with OUAT. I love everything OUAT could be, I love its potential, and in fleeting moments I love what it is. Yet it insists on being the most painful of my TV watching experiences, the most frustrating, and the most exhausting. OUAT is a show that I want to love more, I want to love it properly and thoroughly. I want it to be a show that I hold up to people and can talk excitedly about and say “You really must see this, it’s excellent.” And if you scrub away the gross obsession with the American ideal and the tilt towards maintaining the status quo and only doing your duty and never wanting more and never being more and accepting that if it’s your role to be miserable you should just be miserable because it’s probably your fault… If you sweep all that off it. If you shake out all the worst traits of the show, it’s good. But like any unhealthy relationship, getting to the good parts, acknowledging and dealing the bad… it takes it out of you, and in the long run, it’s destructive.
There have been three major roadblocks to my enjoyment of Once Upon a Time and this week’s episode, Quite a Common Fairy, exemplified one, defied the second and, in so doing, made the third all the more frustrating.
The first issue has long been the weird structure of the show, which prizes flashbacks to explain the current episode’s plot in excruciating detail, often to the detriment of the ostensible A-plot; there’s a lot to be said for worldbuilding, to be sure, but the problem is that it makes each episode into two stories: one which has a beginning, a middle and an end and another which is slowly muddling forward in ways which echo those first stories, which means that the echoing story—which is to say the primary story—is in a constant state of thematic and tonal flux in order to serve the needs of the b-stories which jump back and forth between places in the series’ backstory, slotting events into place in the background which all lead to a conclusion we already know. Throughout the series we encounter changes of detail but the real outcome of the flashbacks are never in doubt. Were the characters besides Robert Carlyle’s Rumplestiltzkin written or acted better, this might not be a problem but the characters in the flashbacks are largely the same as the characters in the present action, which means that the flashbacks and any revelations contained therein are rendered moot.
One of the show’s other big problems is that its inner morality is, for my money, just plain backwards. Now, by this, I don’t mean that murderers are celebrated while charity is spat upon, that theft is lauded and generosity decried nor that love is hated and hate loved; I only mean that the “cart” of morality, if you’ll pardon my descent into analogy, is often put before the “horse” of action. The heroes are defined as heroes first and their actions are set in that light. Heroism or villainy are defined against their roles in the stories the show pretends to deconstruct rather than against their current actions. As my blogging partner in this increasingly ill-advised venture has pointed out, one of our heroes is someone who is the first to resort to torture while in the world outside of ABCDisney’s fantasy, anyone advocating torture is to be reviled. Similarly, there is no good deed, no potential sacrifice of self, no word of kindness, no experience of cruelty or desperation which can be said to mitigate the actions of someone described as a villain; the focus of this episode and more than a couple before, has been the convergence of outside forces on the character of Regina and the machinations of various parties (including her own mother) to drive her desire for domination and her rivalry with Snow White. We may agree that she is a villain (identity-stealing curses and the odd murder) but she is not the same sort of beast as either her manipulators (her mother, Rumplestiltzkin) nor her current enemy, Peter Pan; indeed, she seems quite intent upon redeeming herself for her past misdeeds but there is no redemption found in the eyes of the rest of the cast.
My last issue comes as a result of the first and the second coming together, which is a lack of consistency. A character might make a declaration one episode which they will contradict the next, an action which was of major import one episode will be largely forgotten three episodes later. Storylines come and go and it’s often quite impossible to tell which part is or was important in any given episode. Of course, this is a massive problem because in serial fiction—especially the kind which is supposed to come together as a larger, cohesive story—everything is supposed to matter. This fact has so sorely afflicted superhero comics as well as a large swath of other, similar, media by creating shackles against certain kinds of stories for fear of repeating one’s self and also by making it necessary to keep complex maps or dedicate large chunks of story real estate to explaining how two seemingly contradictory events could both take place within the same universe while being in no way contradictory despite all appearances to the contrary (see: the moral discussion above, Ellie’s piece on Prince Charming). This is not a problem so much in most serial fiction because most of the big examples are (relatively) short enough that that sort of thing never comes up or written deliberately enough that those contradictions never come up—usually a result of a good series bible, sometimes just a result of a good writer’s room and a lack of interference from the higher-ups.
And this brings us to the episode proper.
This episode is built around the main cast (Emma, Snow, David, Regina and Killian/”Hook”) finding out that the magic map received last episode is a fake (making the whole episode that much more redundant) and going to find Tinkerbell because Tink is a believed to be a source of fairydust which could, conveniently, solve all the problems the main cast has; it will bring lost Henry to them and heal the poisoned wound which is threatening David’s life but which he won’t tell anyone about for reasons I don’t entirely understand. Regina advises the crew to go on without her because she and Tinkerbell have a rough history. The episode’s flashbacks, therefore, revolve around the relationship between Regina and Tinkerbell; Regina, pre-Queenly villainy, is isolated by an unloving husband and a castle full of people suspicious of her and is, in secret, learning the secrets of the dark arts from campy Robert Carlyle because, according to him, without anger at her treatment, there would be nothing left of her; at the same time, Tinkerbell is setting about to defy her boss, Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy (aka Mother Superior at the Storybrooke Convent), in an attempt to make supposed Evil Queen Regina into a not-evil queen by helping her to find some real happiness in the world which would, ideally, make her be awesome or at least not-evil; the Blue Fairy is against this because Regina is irredeemably evil to her core and against the expenditure of fairydust—which is apparently a rare commodity held by fairies instead of producing it themselves—in the apparently-doomed undertaking of making a villain into someone value-neutral. 
Which, for my money, is a bit silly if only because convincing someone you believe to be an evil dictator-to-be to turn from the path of evil dictatorship, thus saving the lives of all the people who would have been subject to their evil rule seems like exactly the sort of thing you’d save the magic, transformative power of fairy dust to do.
At any rate, Tinkerbell’s plan is to find Regina’s One True Love (because you only get one; or at least the fairy tale people do. Also there is nothing you can do about it), get those two crazy kids to hook up and bada-bing, bada-boom, bibbity-bobbity-boo, no more evil queen! I guess this plan also involves kings not being revenge-crazed in some way when they feel humiliated about their wives run off with strangers and other sorts of things working out ways they tend not to but I at least sorta dig the idea.
Naturally, we know that Tinkerbell’s plan fails because if it succeeded, the show could not have its story, robbing the flashback of its drama by definition. But what about the other half of the show? The part where the debatably repentant villain (or debatable villain ‘round these parts) is made to come to terms with the results of her misdeeds?
Well, despite the deep-down bizarreness of the whole thing, it’s where the episode—or, perhaps, just the writer, Buffy alum Jane Espinson—shows some more admirable morality. Now, there is a big problem in the writing in that Regina’s massive “crime” against Tinkerbell was that she, the granddaughter of a poor miller who was raised as high into royalty as one can go and who had been manipulated by a fair few supernatural entities in her time, failed to throw her whole life away because a fairy she’d never met claimed to have found her a new man who was perfect for her. It’s framed as Regina being afraid to risk for a new life and therefore the results (read: Tinkerbell being taken to task for her own crime of fairydust theft and the larger crime of defying the will of authority figures which you should never do ever as it’s a crime in and of itself unless it’s to find your true love I guess) are on her shoulders. But putting aside issues of crime and accountability, the writer—and I am seriously putting all this on Espinson because I’ve long been a fan and rather incredulous that a lot of her output on this show was been, well, on this show—does a wonderful and understated take on the theme of being redeemed by love from an outside source by framing the thing which has made Regina a better person as love of an outside source, which is to say her son.
There’s some weird stuff one could read in about motherhood being a prerogative of the female gender and while I can certainly see that interpretation, it’s never stated outright (a rare thing for a show as big on conservative values as this one) and since I’ve assigned myself the task of watching every episode and saying something about it, I’m going to go with the least bad interpretation. But even inside those conservative values, there’s something to be said as the thing which makes Regina a better person was not the love of a man nor, debatably, the love from her adopted son, but the fact that she has someone in her life who she loves and that the act of loving her adopted son, irrespective of what he feels for her, inspires the baseline empathy and capacity for self-sacrifice which make honest redemption possible.
And in its way, that’s a really great message for the show to give. Love should more often be talked about not only in its capacity as a transformative agent when the individuals involved share those feelings for one another, but also in its capacity to inspire self-improvement and how the act of loving can be, in itself and irrespective of the actions or feelings of others, more than just people staring into each other’s eyes or making big speeches.
But remember that bit up top? About frustrations? Or about how this feature is called “Fuck This Show”?
See, in isolation, this is a good thing.
In the context of the rest of the show and what seems likely to happen moving forward, however, it’s suck on toast because it’s so damn jarring with the rest of the show’s morality as I’ve understood (and hated) it for the last two seasons. If Regina was redeemed by the power of caring about someone else’s life and happiness, why is this the first time we’re having it acknowledged out loud? And if it’s not the first time, it was an affirmation made away from the main cast, who will continue to treat this redeemed character the same way they always have, which is to say: as a villain who is currently useful to their needs; an obstacle which has temporarily become an opportunity. And as much as I’d like to see the show actually start to actively deconstruct its own assumptions about the nature of good and evil and how we apply those labels (as Disney did once in Enchanted, a mediocre-to-good film about a Disney princess in real-world New York which deconstructs a large number of classic Disney fairy tale tropes and finds something far kinder underneath), I just don’t see that as very likely. The show’s entire story is built around that deep-down ugly morality that says that the roles people have in our stupid, simplistic childrens’ stories are the same roles they have in life which is just not true; and no matter how much individual episodes or performances might butt up against that, the narrative itself is still about the fairy tale baddies getting punished for being fairy tale baddies by the fairy tale goodies who are good because they’re good because they’re good.
Episode elements like Regina’s redemption through love don’t fit the story; hence the last-minute blame laid on her shoulders for the destruction of the life of a man she never met; all her actions must lead someone else to ruin or else she is not the villain of the story. To have done otherwise would fly in the face of the established morality and would, if only for the sake of narrative cohesion, have to be written out or otherwise ignored because to do otherwise will call the central moral compass of the show (and by extension its heroes) into question. And while I personally think that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, it’s not something very likely, which is in itself a kind of frustrating.
And for all I joke about this whole “watch and comment upon every episode of OUAT” being a foolish endeavour, it’s also incredibly instructive about what makes a serialized narrative work or not.
1: There’s also some stuff about moving plot-pawn Neal into the main story and a bit where it looks like Mulan is going to go tell Aurora that she loves her—the first canonical same-sex attraction in a show built around Disney-esque versions of public domain characters—but doesn’t because Aurora’s gonna have a baby with a dude so Mulan, the general of legend, runs off to join Robin Hood’s band of Merry Men but that was just frustrating in a more classically OUAT-ish bit of wretchedness and talking about that would have just resulted in me stating what happened and saying “fuck this show” a whole bunch and I’ve gotta pace myself if I’m gonna see out the season. There’ll probably be a short thing on authorial intent vs. produced work later at any rate as that conflict is sort of the root of my horrified fascination with all things OUAT.