Current dramatic television owes a debt to The X-Files (more than one, really): the myth arc. The myth arc did not originate with The X-Files, but it is thanks to Mulder and Scully that we have the term. A myth arc is a storyline that not only flows across all or most of a television or movie series, but explains it at a fundamental level. In Star Wars, the myth arc is the rise, fall, and redemption of Darth Vader. In Babylon-5, it was humans trying to find a way to live as citizens of a very large and dangerous universe. And in The X-Files, it was…well, honestly, I’m still not convinced that one ever really made sense (curses, Chris Carter!).
The myth arc was not, in The X-Files, the subject of every episode, however. Between those episodes, we had the other type: the Freak of the Week episodes. These focused on a side story: Mulder and Scully chasing some mutant or supernatural or just weird being and saving the rest of us from the danger of being attacked by volcanic beasties and the like. This is not meant to imply that there is anything lesser about the Freak episodes or that they contributed nothing to the flavor of the show. Many of the very best X-Files episodes were Freak of the Week ones: “Tooms”/”Squeeze,” “Humbug,” “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” for example.
With this week’s episode of Once Upon a Time, the question arises as to whether the show is made up of the same mix. For the most part, what we have gotten thus far is more akin to Lost—each episode adding new elements to the larger storyline to flesh it out a bit more. (One hopes that OUaT would succeed where Lost failed—avoiding the writerly weakness of cool ideas presented and then abandoned with no explanation.) However, “Child of the Moon” suggests a more X-Filian approach: the episode does little to advance the larger story, choosing instead to focus the vast majority of its attention on Red/Ruby’s backstory.
In and of itself, this does not single an episode out from the rest of the series. Virtually all episodes of OUaT tell the back story of one character or another. But in most cases, that backstory is part-and-parcel of the myth arc. We have to know Rumple’s backstory in order to understand what motivates one of the many drivers of the myth plot. Unless we see what happened at Snow and Charming’s wedding in flashback, we could never hope to make sense of the entire Storybrooke part of the series. But other backstories are not necessary to the arc: how Jiminy became a cricket, why Grumpy is grumpy, and now, why Red is so afraid of who she is.
So when we look at a Freak of the Week type of episode, I think we have to ask three questions: Is the story worth telling? Does it improve the overall myth of the series by adding flavor? And finally, does it work in and of itself?
“Child of the Moon” gives us the second piece of Red’s backstory. The first piece was a bit cliché when you find out the secret; this second piece may be as well, but like the first one, there is a beauty in the story itself and the way it is told. It feels like a Russian fairy tale with its snowbound and dark imagery. And it tells us one important thing: keep your eye on Ruby, because she’s a lot more than you think.
In this second piece, we learn just how much Ruby was not really Red, and perhaps why the Red that we see in post-magicked Storybrooke is so very different. Ruby is a teenager, if not in years, then in attitude. Red was much like this when we see the first part of her backstory: she’s disobeying her seemingly overprotective Granny and running off to meet her boyfriend. But neither of these jive with who Red suddenly appears to become once Storybrooke’s residents awake from their cursed amnesia. Immediately, this rebellious teenager morphs into a community organizer, one more focused and concerned about the problems of the confused and frightened populace than their supposed leader, Charming. At the beginning of the season, in fact, this newly responsible Red is specifically used as a foil to Charming: if she can get it together, why can’t he?
But that only points out the extreme personality change in Red herself. Charming doesn’t actually change all that much, while Red does. “Child of the Moon” clearly explains why she suddenly seems to care more about those around her than she does about herself. The episode also has Charming coming to the rescue of Red, showing him actually emerging from his constant obsession with Snow to see what needs to be done here and now. And it allows him a bit of a mulligan on how he treated Snow in similar circumstances. Red may be a minor character, but she is highly functional in telling the larger story of OUaT.
Unfortunately, when it comes how well the episode works in and of itself, “Child of the Moon” does not deliver as we might hope. Red’s storyline really works both as a plot and in how it adds dimension to the myth arc. Had the writers stopped there, I think the episode would actually be one of the more successful ones of this season. Unfortunately, the intrusion of a myth subplot about the “red room” pulls the focus too much and leaves those scenes feeling tacked on. This artificiality is a little patronizing. It is almost as though the writers felt that they had to have something from the myth arc or we would lose interest in the arc itself—that we could not handle a true Freak of the Week episode.
As The X-Files has already shown, this is not only the not the case, but the opposite may be true. Many X-Philes entirely gave up on the myth arc and yet kept tuning in. Why? Because we liked the characters, the world, the flavor, and the Freaks. OUaT has given us complex characters, a great world premise, lots of atmosphere, and Red is a hell of a Freak. That’s enough to keep us going through Freak episodes. And as with The X-Files, if the writers of OUaT can step away from the arc when it’s cumbersome and narratively artificial, we may come to think of the Freak episodes as some of our very favorites.
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