“Once Upon A Time” just might be too damn cheesy for some. Let’s face it, blue and pink fairies floating above the clouds, dropping fairy dust on a giant egg, from which a dwarf is hatched—that’s an acquired taste. That sort of cornball, nonsensical mythology is not necessarily new to “genre” television, but with such a Disney-fied sheen, it might alienate many viewers. But judging by the ratings and the resulting raise in the VFX budget (much more respectable CGI), this concoction seems to be working it’s (brace yourselves) magic.
Tonight’s formula didn’t quite work for me, mostly due to the absurd love story at the center of the episode. The actors were troopers (genre vet Amy Acker as Nova the fairy, and Lee Arenberg as Dreamy/Grumpy) who didn’t mock the material and tried to inject genuine, and not overblown, feeling into a largely forgettable story. It’s upsetting too, because as I’ve begrudgingly foretold, I love me a good true-love-conquers-all tale. But since Snow White met up with the dwarves in “7:15 AM” (one of the best episodes so far by the way) we’ve known that Grumpy was once “blinded by love.” We knew that somehow the relationship would be doomed and his “Dreamy-ness” would be shattered. I’m bumming myself out with how cynical that sounds, but it’s true. I found it hard to root for a relationship that I knew wasn’t exactly “Too Big To Fail.”
Also, to be even more of a killjoy, Dreamy never really loved her. When Nova clumsily spilled her fairy dust on him, she accidentally made him fated to fall for her. Now, we could get into a lengthy discussion of which came first, the dust or the egg (rimshot). Sorry, I had to. But no, seriously, I would gladly hear an argument that maybe the fate of Dreamy and Nova’s love pre-destined her dropping the fairy dust and it randomly falling on his egg, but this felt less Romeo and Juliet (us and our destined love against the world) and more like mythical negligence. And even if you disagree, and feel like nothing can tear at the fabric of this dwarf-fairy union, fine. But in terms of storytelling, this dramatic irony didn’t work for me.
Using Romeo and Juliet again, yes it’s stated blankly in the prologue that they will die, but that’s a play with layers of tragedy to unravel. It doesn’t become less enjoyable once the end is spoiled, it becomes all the more intriguing. There’s the fighting families, there’s the flawed nature of both lovers, and I don’t think Shakespeare makes the argument that these were two people who belonged together. They were two kids who fell head over heels and let their conceptions of love overwhelm them and cloud their reason. Dreamy and Nova can’t be together because…dwarves are culturally denied the right to love? Because Dreamy feels Nova should put her career first? Actually, now that I think of it, that was less of a tragedy and more of a commentary about the shift in our modern conceptions of love, wasn’t it? NAH.
Regardless, the show would be hard pressed to trump their own use of dramatic irony in the instance of Snow White/ Prince Charming. Here the construction is the opposite. There is less of a tragic element because we know they WILL end up together. But where the engagement happens is the multi-episode arc in which they get together against all odds. Since we’re clueless as to how they get together, the writers are free to orchestrate a intricate, obstacle-riddled path to their happily ever after. Where my investment starts is when Snow and Charming start to experience the painful longing, and they question whether the fight is worth it. You want to convince me that true love exists? Integrate it’s spell into parts of our world. Use emotional anguish, use hopelessness, and use that resilience that keeps you from quitting on someone because losing them would kill you, even though you’re already dying, just to see that someone again. Even in the age that equates optimism with weakness, happy endings work. They just need to be earned. And so do the sappy ones, you won’t gain my appreciation just by denying Dreamy his dream.
Dreamy’s Storybrooke doppellanger is Leroy, the town drunk (because in the real world, if you’re a grouch it’s because you drink too damn much). Generally, a grump (surprise, surprise), Leroy is bitten by the love bug. Of course, he can’t have her because she is the real world equivalent of an untouchable fairy—a nun. As Mary Margaret berates, “Could you possibly pick anyone less available?” Not gonna lie, I lolled. Anywho, he’s smitten with her prudish and naive charm and offers to help sell candles to raise money for the nuns’ rent, which slightly sketched me out. He joins Mary Margaret in the effort, but they sell zero candles because they’re social pariahs. It’s all very biblical actually. Afraid to disappoint Astrid (the nun that has seduced him into paying his rent…still sketchy) Leroy lies and says he sold all of them, $5,000 worth. So how will the town drunk and town harlot sell all the candles before it’s too late? Tune in next week…or paragraph. Either way.
Well after searching for the answer at the bottom of a glass, our kooky friend, Leroy decides to take an ax (ah, subtle link between the worlds) to the transformer, putting out all the lights for blocks. So, basically, they threatened them into buying candles. Huh. This show is dark. Astrid is impressed though, but nothing really becomes of it because, well she is a nun. So they live happily, but celibately ever after.
Relegated to not nearly enough screen time is the matter of Kathryn’s disappearance. Emma investigates the scene, and even calls the law school, and determines that she was definitely abducted somehow. When she interrogates David, she feels he is honest when he says that he hasn’t talked to her at all since the accident. But when Regina pulls the phone records, it tells a different story. Emma must then go against her instincts and her allegiances and take David away in her squad car as a suspect. The episode ends on this “cliffhanger,” but it felt extremely anti-climactic. He isn’t being arrested. She has evidence that he might have lied (he could have pocket dialed), but nothing linking him to the crime yet. Why Mary Margaret was looking on as if her world had come crashing down seemed like forcing emotion out of the preliminary stages of this investigation.
In addition, there was a detail that bothered me. I understand that Emma operates alone, in a small town, but when you have a case where a wife goes missing, wouldn’t the side chick be the first one you question? I understand Mary Margaret is her mother-friend, but you have to hold up the integrity of the law. At least go through the formality of asking her questions even if you are going to ignore the answers. Jot some stuff on a notepad, help her come up with an alibi, SOMETHING! When Sidney Glass mentioned this explicitly, I was irate. They just completely dismissed it, like “No, I know her, she’s a good person.” SO?!
Implausibility was a huge issue for me here. I’m willing to suspend disbelief so that I can enjoy an artful mythology or relatable characters, but disregard for logic? I can forgive dwarves hatching out of eggs (which in hindsight was kinda awesome, and a clever way to explain their work-dedicated life without some half-assed slavery allegory). What I can’t forgive is manufactured feeling. Is destroying a transformer supposed to be a romantic gesture? It’s not only illegal, but irresponsible. Candles don’t solve the problems of food going bad in the refrigerator. And what if the hospital was within that radius? I hope he sells some extra candles to pay for the generator! And as I mentioned already, I was impressed with the actors who played Nova and Dreamy-turned-Grumpy, but as written there wasn’t nearly enough payoff for me to get my “Awwwws” from the him brandishing a new ax that dubs him Grumpy. Plus, I saw it coming a mile away once I saw that he was originally dubbed Dreamy in the same manner.
It’s not impossible to make me care about a dwarf and a fairy falling madly in love, but when you explicitly discount their feelings by saying it was conjured by fairy dust, how am I supposed to feel the magic? For falling short of the expectations they had raised in recent weeks, of delicately rendered love stories and dynamic flashbacks with sophisticated spins on the childhood standards, I must regretfully whistle as I work to forgive the dull stone they mined this week. But knowing what Kitsis/Horowitz are capable of, and looking ahead at a sexy, Red Riding Hood fairyback next week, I’m sure the gleam will be restored. Until then, C+