Can a 44-minute drama be salvaged by a final 15-ish minutes of badassery when the first 30-ish of shlock made me want to be anywhere else but in front of my television?
I was preparing my most epic of rants near the halfway mark. I was ready to bash the show’s inability to brand itself: who are you OUAT? Are you the cornball cheesefest parade of Disney characters masquerading as a mystery drama? Or are you the genre-bending brain child of LOST creators that uses parallel worlds and fairy tales to challenge our conceptions of good and evil and “happily ever after?”
But then my mind was blown a bit, and I jumped off the pulpit. OUAT isn’t ambitious, no matter how much I want it to be. There will still be overarching themes, subtext, and symbolism; but this should not be mistaken for an attempt to televise high-end children’s literature. The success of this show hinges on how fun and inventive the fairy tale allusions are, week-to-week. Let’s face it, not much headway has been made in “Operation Cobra” a.k.a Tell Storybrooke residents they used to be fairy tale characters. To be frank, most of the real world happenings that have earned their keep had to do with relationships and next to nothing with mythology. The last time I can recall a significant development in understanding the connection between FTL (Fairy Tale Land) and present day Storybrooke was Regina’s collection o’ hearts that she stows underground.
Therefore, with so much “riding” on the subversion of familiar legends, Red needed to blow the house down (see what I did there?). At first I was underwhelmed and even perturbed. She whined about Granny’s overprotectiveness—she hatched down all the doors and sat by the fire with a freaking crossbow—because she was separated from the handsome meathead, Peter. Granny justifies her tyranny claiming she had a run-in with The Wolf as a child. It slaughtered all the men in her clan and left her scarred, emotionally and physically (bite marks on her arm).
When Red finds Snow White in her chicken coop, her reclusive lifestyle is shaken up. When Snow hears that the wolf’s terrorism is keeping her from true love, Snow’s romantic tendencies arise and she’s adamant that Red must overcome. With puppy love blinding her, Red decides they’ll scour the woods for the wolf during the day, since he’ll probably be taking his savage beast nap. As Red follows the tracks (by scent, the first clue) their fear heightens as they discover the remnants of a massacre, several blooded bodies strewn over a white snow blanket. Part of my annoyance was how they hyped up this wolf so damn much. They kept panning back and forth to both their awestricken faces, and saying things like, “What kind of monster are we dealing with!” and none of the horror felt earned.
The tracks lead them back to the cottage and it becomes clear that Red’s puppy love is actually werewolf love as he was the last person other than them (other big hint I missed) that would have come footprints leading there. Then more over-dramatization: “This is so bad.” “So do something!” “You’re right, I have to.” I mean, come on, that’s just awful, and uninspired, and just a waste of script. Then overwrought dialogue just becomes ridiculous when Red informs Peter of his supposed alter ego and her plan to spend every night with him helping him cope with his ferocious ailment. “All we have to do is tie you up during the wolf’s time. I know where to find rope!” Oh, how resourceful you are Red Riding Hood. It’s a plan that ensures disaster.
Across the dimensional planes, or however they eventually explain it, Emma is conducting her static investigation of Kathryn’s disappearance. After David’s extravagant and public arrest, Emma simply releases him because she’s the human lie detector and she can’t charge him with anything. Red’s Storybrooke self, Ruby, quits her job at Granny’s diner because she totally like, oppressive: giving her more work and junk. Emma takes her under her wing and Mary offers their place while she figures out her future. She tries her hand at policework (despite Henry’s repeated suggestions that she try a messenger job, because he’s the prince of irony and thinks he’s clever, but he’s just a precocious little twerp) and helps Emma track David, who since his release from police custody has been spotted in the woods in a catatonic state or “dreamwalk” state by Mary Margaret.
When Ruby happens upon David he’s passed out. They jolt him awake, and he has no recollection of the past day. Emma gets a hunch that he might have wandered to the toll bridge like he did last time he “dreamwalked.” Aiming to boost Ruby’s self-esteem, she sends her on the erran and what Ruby finds nearly paralyzes her with fear. Remember those tiny treasure chests of hearts I mentioned before? Well, it’s one of those, with Kathryn’s heart inside! Duh duh DUH!
Snow, under the alias of Mary (because OUAT’s goal this week was to make me groan as many times as possible), covers for Red as she tends to Peter the wolf (ugh, seriously). But when Granny pulls back the red hood and doesn’t find Red, she panics. The reason for her captivity wasn’t to keep her from love at all. Are your ready? RED IS THE WOLF! THE RED CAPE WAS MADE BY A WIZARD TO STOP HER TRANSFORMATION! Yeah, they fooled me on that one. I knew it wasn’t Peter, but I suspected Granny since she described with such precision how the wolf decimated her family. Turns out my instinct was right, and Granny passed on the werewolf gene and withheld the secret so she wouldn’t have to shoulder that burden. Crossbow-yielding Granny does subdue her, but not before she’s ripped her boyfriend to shreds with her teeth (a man’s worst nightmare). Obviously, this traumatizes Red, but we leave her in agony and I fully approve of this. As I’ve mentioned, I LOVE when FTL goes dark. I’m the eternal optimist and it would be awesome if the show ended up going the route of championing the real world, where fairy tales are possible without the aid of sorcery and just the magic of love. Yeah, it’s shameful how sappy I am.
Turns out the awesome 180s don’t end in FTL. Emma reveals that the box was marked up with not David, but Mary Margaret’s fingerprints! I’m not at all convinced that my sweetheart Ginnifer Goodwin is capable of murder, and we already know those boxes belong to Regina. I’ll admit I’m digging the ruthlessness the Evil Queen has displayed with this act, as opposed to her usual nails-on-a-blackboard fits of wrath. There isn’t as much suspense here as they’d like to think, all we need to know is how she planted the prints and what motivation she has to frame Mary Margaret for this crime.
Ruby ends her rebellious phase and returns to Granny, resolved to never encounter a human heart buried in the ground ever again. Nothing like gore to make you run back to Grandma. She evens cleans up her appearance ditching her booty shorts, belly-baring tops and red streaks in her hair for flannel, jeans and a more professionally styled hairdo. Granny takes her back, admitting she only wanted to assign her more duties so she could prepare her to take over the diner when she’s gone. I have to at least commend the writers for one of their more subtle, less wink-wink, parallels. Ruby, like Red, discovers a side of her she didn’t know she had, but chooses to suppress her sleuthing skills in exchange for a humble existence with those she loves. Granted Red’s dark side is more tragic, but I believe extrapolating and exaggerating the woes of their real-world counterparts should be the objective of the fairybacks, therefore I condone its usage this week.
It’s hard to ignore the utter irrelevance and lack of bite (I’m so darn pun-ny!) of the majority of this episode though. A twist done right, can be masterful, but I had no desire to invest in where Red’s story was going until her genetic monstrosity was uncovered. Perhaps if her adoration for Peter felt less fleeting, or if her defiance of Granny were less juvenile and rooted in a purer ambition I might have cared, but when you’re focusing on a fringe character whom you’re hardly invested in, motivation becomes key. And it was clear to me they glossed over it and were banking on their audience sticking around, feeling their viewership would be vindicated in the final revelations. Though they certainly altered my perception of the episode, my memory of time wasted was not erased. My main issue was illustrated perfectly in one particular scene, where Henry explains to Emma that Ruby has a lot to offer because she’s goddamn Red Riding Hood (my words). Emma replies, “Yeah, she’s pretty badass.” And by that point, I had not seen that in the slightest. At that point, in both worlds, she was a timid girl on a defiant kick, with little ambition other than to stick it to Granny and have people affirm that’s special. If I don’t believe that she has any fight in her, why would I take it on good faith that she would prove herself to be vicious?
Much of last night was spent confirming what is needless and infuriating about the Once Upon A Time premise: obvious allusions, character of the week structure, and unfounded causes for alarm in the seemingly low-stakes secluded village of Storybrooke. For a thrilling conclusion with legitimate surprises, and a glimpse of how both worlds can conjure up their own immediacy, I will jack up the grade on an otherwise boring detour from the primary question: when will they find out the truth? Truth is, I guarantee its dragged out past the season finale, but if the fairybacks can offer a more palpable, less tangential interest in their backstories, and they ramp up the tension in the real world it might not matter. But with little to hang on to besides a missing persons investigation, my mind continues to wander. Red’s possession by demon doggy carries a mediocre episode into B- territory.