“I have a feeling our prince is working on something right now.”
Most of the twitter-verse’s focus on this week’s OUaT centered around the reappearance (in flashback) of Regina’s mother Cora. To say that she dwarfs her daughter’s cruel ways is only beginning to scratch the surface of what promises to be a wickedly wonderful exploration of what it takes to turn kind young Regina into the Evil Queen. More surprising was the tender turn we see in Regina in the last moments of the episode. The juxtaposition of how Cora turned Regina into a self-serving bitch and how Regina denies herself the one thing she seems to want most is quite effective and what most reviewers have focused on.
But the thing that struck me most about this episode was the part Charming played (or didn’t). When Red, who has suddenly become an effective community organizer, utters the line above, it raises a whole host of questions. The most central one is “Why Charming?” What claim exactly does Charming have to the leadership of Storybrooke?
In flashbacks to Enchanted Forest, we’ve learned several relevant facts. First, there are several kings in Storybrooke, or should be. While King Leopold died in fairy tale land, it would appear that King George and King Midas, along with Cinderella’s unnamed father-in-law, are all living and therefore must have Storybrooke counterparts who remember their regal status. Even assuming that all three have decided that they no longer wish to serve in such a capacity (which would be quite surprising, especially in the case of King George) and it fell to a prince to lead, Charming is a pretty unlikely candidate. After all, Prince Thomas seems a fine young man, at least in the Enchanted Forest. And Frederick, who we must assume is a prince (if Abigail wanted to marry him and her father approved), has been nothing but a hero (and a statue).
Charming, on the other hand, is only truly a prince by marriage. Sure, he’s been a prince’s body double, but he is actually little more than the son of a peasant farmer. We’ve never seen him lead, and his behavior in both worlds shows that his judgment is depressingly lacking. So why do Red and the rest of the town turn to the man who betrayed both Snow and Kathryn to save them? Yes, he’s slain a dragon. But Regina and Gold are far more deadly than a fantastical reptile.
And from the start of his tenure, Charming seems committed to doing the wrong thing over and over again. Rather than work with Red to pull the town together, Charming rushes off to see Regina, to chastise her about Henry and question her about the Hatter’s portal-opening hat—again, his passion for Snow blinds him to everything else. Regina’s response strike quite close to home: “I will not listen to childcare lectures from a man who put his daughter in a box and shipped her to Maine.” Granted, Regina is the reason said child was FedExed to the Pine Tree State, but still… Yet he wastes his time taunting Regina (a dangerous proposition considering the introduction of magic into our world) rather than heeding the pleas of Henry, Red, and others for his attention to the logistical and emotional nightmare of a newly woken, displaced, and trapped populace. In the end, he actively misleads them all, promising a plan that he doesn’t have.
And instead of sitting down and coming up with said plan, he instead runs off again in pursuit of his lost love, this time dealing with Rumple and the Mad Hatter, and leaving Henry (and the rest of the town) at the mercy of Regina, who has since regained her powers. She attacks several of them and is only mollified when Henry agrees to go with her to save the town. That’s right: ten year old Henry must step up to cover for his grandfather’s conspicuous absence, and sacrifice himself in a way that Charming appears unable or unwilling to do. Even when confronted by Red with the fact that the Evil Queen has his grandson and her destructive magic back, Charming still insists he must find a way to reach Enchanted Forest and Snow, and bring her back.
“Back to what?” Red points out. “The town is coming apart. You’ve got to do something.”
It is at this point that he instantly reforms and dashes off with Red to head off the mass exodus from Storybrooke. Cutting off the townspeople on the road and screeching to a halt, Charming leaps into the bed of his truck to deliver the least compelling speech ever from an assumed hero. His message: I want to be both the self-absorbed prince and the adulterous wretch. And you should want to be both of your personalities, even if one of them is a bitter and hostile dwarf like Grumpy.
And so more surprising than Regina’s final sacrifice is the fact that the townspeople respond to this confused and unattractive argument, turning back to Storybrooke to reopen their shops and head out to mine.
Don’t get me wrong. The Regina storyline was both revealing and thought-provoking, and thus luckily made up for much of what the Charming storyline lacked. And while the exploration of Charming’s essential weakness could be equally captivating, it has to be done right. You cannot ask the audience to believe that someone can change overnight and with virtually no compelling incident or argument. Our glimpse into the relationship between Regina and Cora clearly illustrates that it can take years to force people to turn their backs on who they have been. That Charming appears to do just that in the blink of an eye seems, when taken in context, less a product of heroism than an essential weakness of his character—in both senses of that word.
Laura Akers is a teacher by calling and a geek academic by nature. Her sporadic but often too-lengthy writing for Comics Bulletin (and her own personal musings) tend to revolve around issues of gender, sexuality, identity, politics, religion (and all the other things you’re not supposed to bring up in polite conversation) in TV/film/webseries narratives. You can get topical whiplash and occasionally offended by following her at @laurajakers