Last week, I talked a bit about the basic good-vs-evil (or perhaps good-vs-power) conflict in Rumplestiltskin and how the show balances those conflicting pulls so that we’re never sure which side will win. So this week caught me—and based on the chatter in the Twitterverse, everyone else—off-guard.
There is little evidence of Rumple’s better angels this week. Short of very tiny nods to his drive to find his son, what we instead see in him is precisely the lengths he is willing to go to and the depths to which he is willing to sink in order to be reunited with his son. And we start to see exactly how much of the tragic genesis of Storybrooke he is actually responsible for.
Almost every episode of OUaT introduces us to a new inhabitant or adaptation of a traditional storyline in the Enchanted Forest, and this week both is and is not an exception. In “The Doctor,” we are presented the OUaT version of Frankenstein. This is a departure for the show. While the series has gone beyond fairy tales when it introduced the Mad Hatter, a character from Lewis Carroll’s novels, they were still dealing with characters and stories targeted at children.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, however, is not a book for the young. Rife with morally ambiguous violence, murder, and still-controversial questions on medical/scientific ethics, the novel explores issues of parental responsibility. And in that way, it seems a natural fit for a show so much about those relationships.
And yet, the way in which the show deals with the Frankenstein motif is surprising. In the novel, Dr. Victor Frankenstein is a scientist who becomes obsessed with the idea of creating new life. The societal and perhaps spiritual rules he breaks evoke several moral issues, but the central question is what responsibility a creator has for, and to, that creation. On OUaT, there are three different stand-ins for the novel’s main character, Frankenstein–each positing a different outcome.
The novel itself begins at the end of the Frankenstein story, as Victor is briefly rescued by an ice-cutter as he makes his way across the Arctic ice in pursuit of his ‘monster’; he plans to kill him in order to stop the destruction that it, and therefore he, has wreaked. It then flashes back to how the monster was created and then abandoned by the doctor. OUaT does the same thing—we already know the resulting devastation; this week, we are shown how things got so bad.
One of the outstanding questions in the series is how Regina evolved from an apparently kindhearted young woman to the craven, manipulating witch who curses the inhabitants of the Enchanted Forest into our own world. As it turn out, it is Rumplestiltskin himself who made her into a monster, carefully using fairly complex subterfuge (including use of the Hatter) to convince her that only by crossing certain moral lines can she hope to achieve the happiness she seeks.
That happiness comes in the form of the lifeless corpse of her lost love—a corpse she hopes, ala Frankenstein, to reanimate. Rumple and the Mad Hatter lead her to believe that this can be accomplished through the intervention of a third party, and when that fails, we find out that she is still pursuing the possibility, even bringing his body to Storybrooke in order to eventually try again.
And that third party is, of course, the doctor himself. He has been seeking the ability to breathe life back into the dead, evidently in order to save his deceased brother. And it is made absolutely clear that no moral concerns constrain him in his search for the key to doing so.
What OUaT ends up doing with Frankenstein is exploring three alternative outcomes to Shelley’s original story. In the first, we see Frankenstein creating the monster, and then training it–not to live in society but to give it the tools and the will to destroy it. This is Rumple at his most evil to date. In the second, Frankenstein also succeeds in creating the monster only to realize the torment she has visited upon it. In a sob-inducing flash of redemptive goodness, she releases the monster, the man she loves, in order to spare him any more pain. And finally, we see an unrepentant Frankenstein, tragedy and heartache left in his wake, determined to continue to pursue his goal no matter what the cost. The good doctor has learned nothing—save that he needs magic.
Yet, with all this going on, the episode still manages to advance the main story-arc dramatically. We have learned much about how Storybrooke came into existence and about the two characters most central to that genesis. Writers Horowitz and Kitsis have again succeeded in shaking up our perceptions of good and evil with great storytelling. And given us our most hopeful view of Regina ever. It seems she truly is on the road to the redemption she talked about earlier in the season.
Or maybe that’s just what Horowitz and Kitsis want us to believe…for now.
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