Every fairy tale needs a really good villain. After all, a story’s villain is often the most interesting and fun-to-watch character in the narrative.
The creators/writers of Once Upon a Time not only get this, but have taken it to a whole new level by providing us with psychologically complicated villains whose motivations ring intellectually and emotionally true. In doing so, they are following the historical trend to a great extent: in medieval literature and drama (such as it was), three-dimensional characters were non-existent. As we move forward through time though, our stories have kept pace with our understanding of human nature and personality, and thus characters have become more emotionally rich and real.
But while this is true both for the good and the evil, it is far more interesting to watch evil at work. Evil is, after all, what drives the plot: evil creates the obstacles that must be overcome by the hero. And though we most often choose to identify with the hero, we are tempted by many of the same things that lead the less noble characters astray. By watching them, we see what would happen should we make the same decisions, and are therefore reassured that our choice to resist our baser instincts was the right one. There is such wicked pleasure in watching the wicked themselves, and we get to feel superior into the bargain. What’s not to like?
OUaT capitalizes on this by not only giving the evil depth, but by blurring the line between the saint and sinner. The show’s two baddies have very real reasons for acting as they do, and OUaT makes it difficult to condemn them easily or without fear of hypocrisy.
This week’s episode, “Into the Deep,” takes that difficulty to near impossibility. Both Regina and Rumplestiltskin appear to have been mostly declawed, and by the same thing: love. In Regina’s case, her desire to win back the love (assuming she ever had such a thing) of her adopted son Henry leads her to accept his injunction to straighten up and fly right and without the broomstick she’s so used to utilizing (magic). She is both pathetic and oddly touching as the mother fumbling through her rediscovery of trying to do the right thing. Likewise, Rumple appears prepared not only to relinquish his position as the most powerful character in Storybrooke, but to put that to the test by taking his beloved Belle on a date at the diner where Granny seems intent on verbally abusing him. Her failure to get a rise out of him leaves us feeling something akin to admiration for the Dark One.
But if it’s the wicked who move the plot, and the wicked seem to be taking a walk on the less-wild side, then how do you keep a story like OUaT moving? Simple: you come up with someone bigger and badder.
And Cora (Barbara Hershey) fills the vacuum exceedingly well. While a couple of her moves are on the ridiculous side (zombies? really?), for the most part, she is a worthy adversary for both the good and evil of Storybrooke (and the Enchanted Forest). Fueled by a desire for vengeance on her own daughter, and armed with both the magic and malice she learned under Rumple’s tutelage, Cora has no love, no loyalty, and apparently no limits. When Aurora (Sarah Bolger) tells Cora that Snow and Emma are not going to put the welfare of a near-stranger above their quest to return “home” to Storybrooke, Cora informs her, in a voice that drips with evil (and showcases Hershey’s impressive acting pedigree), “Your new-found companions, you may not know them, but I do. Snow and her daughter just can’t help themselves. No matter the personal stakes, they won’t let an innocent die.”
If Hershey’s delivery isn’t already enough to convince us of the implicit message—that Cora has no such compunctions in relation to sacrificing lives to achieve her ends—we’ve already seen a pointed reminder that it’s only been a week or so since she killed an entire village with little cause. When Rumple insists to Regina that he can handle Cora, we are, perhaps for the first time, willing to doubt that the only enemy that Rumple should fear is himself.
The very thought of Rumple and Cora inevitably battling it out is almost too delicious to bear.
What is difficult to take is the number of plot holes and contrivances in the episode.
For example, we are suddenly told that, despite the Blue Fairy having cast the spell on the Red Quill to take away Rumplestiltskin’s magic (which appears to have worked in “The Price of Gold”), that it was the ink that did it—ink that can only be retrieved from under the sea by a mermaid. And Rumple informs us that he just happened to have had his own supply of that selfsame ink on him when Cinderella used the Quill against him, and he somehow held onto it and secreted it in his jail cell in the dwarves’ mine. Really?
Captain Hook, neither in the original stories, nor in the Enchanted Forest, has ever used magic. And yet somehow, he is suddenly able to extract a heart magically, a skill we’ve only seen in master magicians Rumple, Regina, and Cora.
And why does everyone in Storybrooke assume that Aurora will not be coming back to the nether world and that Snow will take her place? Rumple’s explanation only accounts for the burns on Henry’s arm. He doesn’t even imply that whatever force tore Aurora out of that world will keep her from returning to it.
Finally, why on Earth does everyone think that sending Charming to the nether world is a better idea than allowing Henry, who has been there repeatedly, to go back, especially considering it requires the prince to be voluntarily cursed while his only antidote is trapped in a parallel world? Of course, Regina and Rumple have reason to be fine with that exchange. After all, having Charming out of the way (with Snow already gone, that is) means Regina has sole custody of her son now, making it far easier to earn back his love. And Rumple cannot help but benefit from the town’s leader going on ethereal walkabout. But while Charming has repeatedly shown he’s not the brightest bulb, would he really be so dumb as to allow Henry to be left, possibly permanently, in the hands of Regina? (We know his concern for the town itself is fairly minimal).
Next week’s mid-season finale may resolve some of these seeming issues, but my money is on only one being explained: the ink. That said, if you can, like Charming, have faith against all rational evidence, then this was quite a good episode: Cora is a force to be reckoned with, Hook is just Machiavellian enough to keep us guessing, and this whole ink thing could rewrite (sorry, totally unintended but I’
m not changing it now) the Cinderella story in some extremely promising ways. I’m hooked.
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