This week’s OUAT prompted me to do something it hasn’t often. Think, real hard. I pondered an idea that hadn’t even entered my realm of possibility since the first frames of the pilot. What if…Fairy Tale Land (FTL) doesn’t exist?
I understand it seems like a given, the whole premise of the show centers around The Curse that has imprisoned them in “our world,” but what if that world is just imagination? What if it’s just a memory of a time that never was? “Lost” has tested the boundaries of alternate timelines/dimensions and life and death before, why not now? Heck, what if Storybrooke isn’t real? What if that isn’t reality, meaning an external world outside sensory experience, and they’re trapped in an psychological illusion, a la “The Matrix?” OUAT has proven to be a much more “accessible” program than “Lost” was, but could Kitsis/Horowitz be secretly constructing another sci-fi mindf**k?
Probably not. But even if the show is influencing the mere consideration that’s a huge positive. Since the pilot set up the structure of the two universes—one in the past and one in the present, existing as two separate worlds (even that is shaky when you think about the existence of magic and remnants of FTL materializing in the real world)—that relationship has gone unquestioned and untested. Until last week, when FTL memories bled into real world factuality.
This week expedited that bleeding by introducing the Mad Hatter a.k.a Jefferson (Sebastian Stan). In Storybrooke, Jefferson is a lonely man in a mansion who knows about The Curse, and believes his only way back to FTL is through his magic hat (which normally serves as a portal to Wonderland). During his real world stay he hasn’t been able to make a hat that works. The magic is absent. But he believes the good sheriff, Emma, is his glimmer of hope. When she came to town, the clocks started working (I guess they hadn’t been for like, ever) and this was proof to Jefferson that she possessed magic and he’s had a telescope fixed on her office ever since. That’s a normal reaction, right?
So, when Emma goes out looking for escaped suspect Mary Margaret, he walks along the road waiting to stage an accident. He’s not one of those freeloaders trying to get a settlement, he wants to earn the sympathy of Sheriff Emma and a ride home so he can drug and kidnap her. And well, that’s basically what happens. And surprise, surprise: Mary Margaret is there too, all tied up and stuff! It is worth noting though, that after Emma has been subdued by the sleepy tea (tea’s his thing, remember) she wakes up bound and gagged, but escapes from her restraints wicked easily. It was kinda badass. She uses her mouth to move a pillow to the floor, stomps on it so a tea cup falls off the coffee table, then uses the jagged edge to cut herself free. Where has resourceful Emma been all this time? Now I’m much more sold on her leading a police force if she can evade capture so well.
Over in FTL, it’s a hard knock life for a retired Mad Hatter who is also named Jefferson (more shattering of boundaries!). He’s a poor fellow who struggles to provide for his daughter, Grace, and she’s his whole world. So when the the Evil Queen (EQ) comes knocking, asking him for a favor that requires his special talents, he’s tempted. EQ could ensure that Grace never want for anything, but he decides abandoning Grace would be more detrimental than their current financial woes. Still in need of his skills, EQ (whose fairyback look was absolutely boobtastic this week) manipulates him by disguising as an old woman selling a stuffed rabbit at the marketplace. Grace thinks it would be a perfect addition to her dinner party (HA!) but Dad’s short. The cruel, masquerading queen doesn’t allow him to haggle and denies the girl her toy. This inspires the change of heart within Jefferson to help out EQ—just this once—in order to better his daughter’s life.
At the manor, cunning Jefferson intercepts the ladies as they escape, holding them at gunpoint. He forces Emma to tie up Mary Margaret again. He directs Emma to another room where he relays his Curse knowledge. Emma is still in denial, despite Henry’s insistence and frankly some damning evidence. Clearly, Jeff’s creep factor is through the roof, but we know he’s right and not crazy. But we’ve been conditioned to trust Emma’s judgment, and though he is separated from his daughter—she belongs to another family in Storybrooke that he spies on with his other telescope—a sane person doesn’t hold people at gunpoint to get what he wants: unless you’re Liam Neeson from “Taken,” or Jack Bauer on “24,” or…pretty much every man searching for his family in the movies or TV, ever. Therefore, I’m inclined to not believe him, but that would defy one of the fundamental truths of the show. The psychopath does make a salient point, however, about the dialectic of stories and truth and how the distinction is blurry at best. He also makes a poignant critique about how most people seek out a magical solution for their problems, but refuse to believe in magic. These sorts of philosophical questions are uncharted waters for OUAT, and probably too heady for its audience and too loaded for its breezy subject matter, but their bold attempt did not go unrecognized.
While holding Emma hostage, demanding she use her apparent “magic” to make his hats work again, he’s also escorting the EQ to Wonderland. She needs to retrieve something the Queen of Hearts stole from her. Upon entering, a expertly CGI-ed hookah-smoking caterpillar appears atop a giant mushroom, but then it speaks and CORNFEST 2012 begins. Roger Daltry (of The Who) lends his voice, and what do you guess he says? “Who…are you?” Am I the only one who finds this to be just the WORST case of needlessness? He literally says one line and it’s one of his song lyrics, and an unnecessary piece of dialogue in the first place? I know their budget has seen an influx due to ratings and it’s done wonders for their VFX, but REALLY? Rant over.
Jefferson and EQ approach the Queen Of Hearts’ maze, and we learn suddenly that the EQ can shoot fireballs from her hands. I wish they would outline exactly what her powers are, because at this point I assume she can get out of most situations. What she retrieves after she burns through to the center of the maze is her father, in a box. No, I’m not just making things up! This, however means tragedy for Jeff. Only the same amount that entered can leave Wonderland, and EQ has no qualms about swapping him out for daddy dearest. An odd detail, EQ shows remorse in her face when she breaks the news that he’s stuck, but her words convey cruelty, saying if he really loved his daughter he never would have left her, a bitter pill to swallow. ALICE IN WONDERLAND REFERENCES ALL DAY! Sorry.
Captured by the Queen of Hearts’ men, Jefferson initially withholds information of how he arrived in Wonderland, but then in a too-hot-for-TV move, a knight cuts his head off. But alas, no blood and he lives. They promise to reattach his body only when he shares the truth, so he tells them about the hat. Turns out to be a bad move since now he’s trapped in Wonderland until he can make the Queen of Hearts a new hat. And he lacks the magic necessary. So we’re left with the haunting image of Jefferson surrounded by mountains of misfires and mounds of failures.
Emma starts to question Jeff’s madness as she tries to craft him a magical hat, and she seems to empathize with his quest to reunite with his kid. We’re also treated to some weird chemistry between the two. Their breathy speech and close proximity imply they could kiss at any moment, but it might just be the palpable desperation on their tongues. And just as we start to believe Emma believes, she whacks him upside the head with his telescope. After a struggle, Mary Margaret kicks him out the window. When they look below to see the damage, his body is gone and his hat is bottom up. Did the hat work? Has he crossed over? No, John Edward get out of here! Oh, that’s a reference to the TV medium John Edward…oh never mind.
Flipping Mary Margaret the keys, she gives her the choice to run or trust that she’ll exonerate her. She implores she also stay because she doesn’t want to lose her family, “or friends or whatever.” So they hurry Mary Margaret back to the cell before Regina knows she left and Regina scolds Mr. Gold for not holding up his end of the bargain. Shocker of shockers, she was behind the planted key and Gold put it there. Apparently, he’s a double agent, which makes sense given he never scratches a back that won’t scratch him back, but I do believe he has taken a side. I’m unsure which, but my money is on him wanting to usurp Regina.
Our final scene is with Emma and Henry at a school playground. Grace, whose name is Paige in the real world walks by. Emma recognizes her from mad man’s telescope and asks Henry if she can inspect his book. The picture of Grace is a side profile, so there’s no guaranteeing a match, but Emma requests she keep the book. Is she FINALLY believing? It seems like this is the season’s ambition is to finally turn that tide, but I hope not. There needs to be a bigger payoff then “Emma’s on our team!” For the most part though, this was a harmless episode. It neither excited me, nor incited my wrath save a absurd use of a rock legend. It was equal parts detoured into Wonderland and focused on the main story. I’m anxious for the trial to be over and so relieved that next week they’ll finally address: what did Snow White do to ruin EQ’s life? They have laid such importance on this event that it will be hard for them to live up to expectations.
Sebastian Stan owned his spotlight this week, not overselling the madness or drowning out the established voices. Though Mad Hatter’s fairyback was par for the OUAT course, using a child as motivation, I liked that Jefferson acknowledged that the Curse is not being in the real world, it’s being separated from the ones you love. That detail might prove important later on. I could imagine a difficult decision down the road where a character might have to choose between the worlds. All speculation now, but thematically it’s significant that we have this consistency in message for the fairybacks. It’s an acute lens through which we can view them going forward. For keeping the ball rolling on the “bleeding realties” track and for maintaining a grave tone without frolicking into cheesy sentimentality territory, as the series unapologetically tends to, I’ll give credit where credit is due: there’s some magic in Storybrooke.