Saturday, May 19, 2018

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (7x22)

All week long, I have tried to come up with the perfect opening sentence for this blog. This is not just any standard entry; this is the last blog post I'll ever write about Once Upon a Time. Of my three hundred and seventy plus ruminations, the vast majority of them are Once Upon a Time reviews. They range from the ecstatic, head over heels in love reviews of the first half of season three to the blatant hatred and criticism of season five. They capture the highs of awe and lows of heartbreak. I wrote about the Captain Swan wedding and I wrote about Neal's death. I've hated Hook, loved Rumbelle, praised Regina and had complicated feelings over Rumple. But this entry...this entry is the final word I'll ever say about a show that has been a major part of my life for seven years. TV shows are complicated creatures in and of themselves; sure, on the one hand it's just a piece of media that airs once a week for an hour at a time. None of the characters are real and none of the plots are going to change the world. But on the other hand, if you spend enough time with a TV show it can feel like a close friend. You come to know the people who exist in this fictional world and whatever they go through, you go through. It's a move from sympathy to empathy, and a successful show is one that maintains that empathetic relationship with its audience. When looking at the photos for this episode, trying to decide which one would get the spot of honor for this introduction, I went with Snow White and her Prince Charming because that's what I want to remember from all this: I'd like to remember those ecstatic highs of a show I threw myself into, heart and soul. So, then "Leaving Storybrooke." Once more with feeling. 

The Last Page...

Let's just agree here and now that most of this plot is nonsense (what, you thought this post would be nothing but sappy nostalgia?) The Wish Realm and the mechanics of it have never made a lick of sense and the writers did what they do "best": spaghetti writing. Throw ideas at a wall and whatever sticks becomes your plot. I've heard several times that if you let go of the plot of OUAT and just focus on the acting, the campiness, and the themes then it becomes a much better (or at least more palatable) show. I say let's try that and agree, as stated above, that the plot of Young Wish Henry using dark magic to open thousands of portals to suck all the heroes of every realm ever into their own personal hellscape is mostly ridiculous. Instead, let's focus on what this episode was trying to say and trying to do. OUAT liked to hit the same beats over and over again; I've called it recycling in the past because there's only so much you can mine from the hope, faith, and family well before it runs dry and you have to start reusing the same material over again. There's something different about what is happening in this series finale, though, and maybe that's because it's the series finale and by definition none of this material can be used again. If we think critically for a moment, this finale is almost no different than any other finale over the past seven years. There's a big bad villain, some sort of time crunch, one of the family members is in trouble, and it all comes down to sacrifice, hope, and belief in the power of love to save the day. As is tradition, I went back and read my blog for the start of this season to see where we started and compare it to where we ended; in that season seven opening blog, I talked about cyclical story telling and how the writers were trying to graft Henry and Lucy over Emma and Henry and retell season one and not necessarily because they were out of ideas, but because that's how archetypes work. The song remains the same, even if the lyrics have changed. I think that's what the writers are aiming for in this series finale. They want it to be familiar and a tribute to their show, not just to a single season. Snow's really big speech about hope may be cringe inducing (as all her hope speeches tended to be) but it also fits perfectly as the last speech about hope she'll ever give. Regina's coronation as the Queen of the United Realms might be a bit of a head-scratcher--how does one fit all those realms into a tiny corner of Maine and how did the entire town elect Regina without her even realizing an election was happening--but it also is a nice culmination to her character, from an Evil Queen who crashed a wedding to a Good Queen who was crowned the people's hero. Rumple's death has been a long time coming but dying at his own hands by sacrificing himself so a father and child could be reunited while also conquering the Dark One side of himself feels like a lot of plot nonsense fulled by Magical MacGuffins except it's exactly how Rumple's story should end.

...And The Book Closes 

There's history here; there are memories. Emma crashing Regina's coronation, uttering the same lines Regina first uttered at Snow and Charming's wedding? Touching. One final "Madam Mayor" and "Miss Swan?" Heartwarming. Rumple and Belle dancing like they did after their wedding? Tear inducing. Flashing through the greatest hits of OUAT in flashback form as a message of hope is expounded upon by the show's greatest success story like a preacher at a pulpit? Cheesy to the hilt but completely in the wheelhouse of OUAT. This series finale isn't just about the season, it's about the show. It's about what the show has meant to the fictional characters, to the actors, to the crew, and yes, to the audience. Two episodes ago, Young Henry wrote an essay that was meant to cross the fourth wall and speak to the audience, to tell us that magic exists in storytelling. This episodes feels the same. It's yearning, begging, one final time to touch our hearts and ask that we remember it fondly. I cannot say this is a perfect show. I cannot say that it is without faults. Any hope of me claiming its perfection and its place as one of the greats died along with Neal, but maybe it doesn't need to be perfect and go down as "one of the best" for it to still be something magical and powerful. There are episodes and seasons I'll never watch again in their entirety, but buried inside those seasons are nuggets of something good, and it was only if you stuck with it that you saw them. We never had a season in which I did not find at least one thing to praise and rejoice in. The hilarity of the Shattered Sight curse; the Neal and Emma Underworld moment; Hades and Zelena's delightfully fun romance; the musical episode; Rumple giving up a chance to be with Belle so that Alice would not be trapped in a metaphorical immortal tower. It would be so easy for me to hate on this series finale (because, again, plot nonsense) and maybe in a week I'll feel differently, once the heartache of nostalgia has passed. But I don't think so. I think when I sum up my experience with OUAT someday in the future, I'll say it was weird and complicated and sad and heartbreaking and disappointing but also beautiful and wonderful and effective. And that's what TV shows are designed to be; no show is perfect, not even those that go down as "the greatest of all time." What's more important than absolute perfection is how you affect the audience, what kind of conversations you generate with the power of your media. And generate conversations it did; in these blogs I have discussed archetypes, religion, mythology, feminism, agency, motherhood, depictions of women, rape culture, and everything in between. All of those things and the discussion of them is....weird and complicated and sad and heartbreaking and disappointing but also beautiful and wonderful and effective! We contain multitudes and so does this show. This show isn't perfect but I didn't watch it all the way through because I felt like I had to; I did it because I loved it. I failed to come up with the perfect opening sentence for this blog and now I'm struggling to come up with a perfect closer. What's that old cliche? Ah yes...

And so, Emma Swan, Regina Mills, Snow White, Prince Charming, Henry, Cinderella, and Lucy Mills, Rumplestiltskin, Belle French, Neal Cassidy, Zelena, Alice, Robyn and Captain Hook (yes, even you!)...lived happily ever after. The end.

Miscellaneous Notes on Leaving Storybrooke 

--The first image of the last episode is the clocktower reading 8:15. One last time.

--"Intruders!" This was laugh out loud funny. Good thing Granny had her crossbow handy!

–“Is this a dream?” “Well, if it is, it’s an excellent one.” I never really shipped Outlaw Queen but that was a gorgeous segment.

--“If this is how I have to go out, showing you there are people in the world who love you, no matter what you do…then that’s a worthy end for me.”

--The snowglobe is bigger on the inside!

--I’ll never not love a good dreamcatcher on this show, but I really wish Rumple would remember that he has a dead son  he wants to see again; dreamcatchers will always be tied to Neal (and Emma) so that was a perfect time to throw in a Neal reference.

--Using the Dark Curse and pieces of everyone’s heart to bring all the realms to Storybrooke is…extremely meta and weird and I both hate it and love it?

--Lily’s father was Zorro! The writers get the last laugh here; for years fans have hounded them about this dangling plot thread. Be careful what you wish for, I guess.

--I suppose if I have to comment on it: Baby Hope Swan-Jones. The fact that the writers named the baby Hope is eye-roll inducing. They don’t see that baby as a baby but as a concept. That baby isn’t a person, it’s a giant hammer to beat the audience with one final time.

--“I am the strongest version of us….you don’t do the right thing for a reward. You do it because it’s right.

--As is tradition, here are my final thoughts on Season Seven B: Overall it wasn't terrible. That sounds like a backwards compliment but it's not. The issue is narrative bloat. The show was trying to do way too much and have too much plot when it should have focused on the characters. Maybe that's the price for not knowing that the show would be ending when the writing began (I assume) but the stuff that was good--Alice and Robyn, Rumple's redemption, Henry and Regina--was really good. And the stuff that was not good--Facilier, Gothel, Jack/Hansel--was really not good. But that feels...exactly like OUAT.

Final Rating for Season 7B: B

Final episode ranking for Season 7B (from worst to best)

12. Flower Child (7x19)
11. Secret Garden (7x11)
10. Breadcrumbs (7x16)
9. Sisterhood (7x15)
8. A Taste of the Heights (7x12)
7. Homecoming (7x21)
6. Knightfall (7x13)
5. Chosen (7x17)
4. Is This Henry Mills? (7x20)
3. The Girl in the Tower (7x14)
2. The Guardian (7x18)
1. Leaving Storybrooke (7x22)

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

In Which I Review Westworld (2x3 and 2x4)

There has been a question plaguing me since Westworld began a year ago: why this park? If you could create an alternate reality park and fill it with scary life like Hosts, why go for the Wild
West or, as of the episode "Virtu e Fortuna," the Indian subcontinent? You could literally create a world of anything, at any time, with any sort of people so why make one where slavery, rape, murder, general crime, outlaws, and colonialism are very much at the forefront historically? What is to be gained from that? William and Ford might have us believe it's because these less than savory aspects of human history are part and parcel of man's deepest desire. That underneath our socially acceptable gentility lurks the heart of a beast who wants to give licence to the darkness. But I think there's another reason these points in history are being explored in the park, a reason that comes to bear in the episode "The Riddle of the Sphinx." Immortality. Obviously there is a standard kind of immortality happening in the park with James Delos but this idea has been telegraphed to us before the big reveal of James and Williams' project with what kind of parks Ford and Arnold built: ones that are drawn specifically from nationalism and colonialism, ones in which nations attempt to live forever by conquering peoples. James Delos was attempting to conquer death, to plant his own flag as the first ever immortal man.  The parks are serving as a metaphor for what the humans behind them are trying to accomplish, namely a life everlasting. It's a deep piece of irony that while the Hosts are jealous of the humans right to control their own lives and have their narratives written for them, the humans at Delos are trying to become more like the Hosts. Perhaps these two races have more in common than they want to admit. 

The "art" of empire building wasn't just about racism--though make no mistake, the idea of there being a superior race and culture was definitely a major part of nationalism. But, apart from that, another aspect of empire building was couched in the language of a nation that could live forever through its conquering. There's an old adage that the sun rose and set on the British Empire in its hay day in the most literal sense: the sun rose in the east where the British had colonies in India and the subcontinent and it set in the West where colonies were established in the Pacific West and everywhere in between were little Union Jack flags and British embassies. There is this drive, in not only nation states, but also in people to live forever; we're always looking for ways to make ourselves immortal in both literal and metaphorical ways. Literally, we take drugs and medicine to help our hearts beat normally and our blood pressure stay in a healthy range. We exercise and eat right with the hopes that it extends our time on this planet before we, inevitably, shuffle off this mortal coil. Metaphorically, we hope that we can create something of value that lasts on after us; this could be children who carry on our DNA and name or it could be an idea or an infrastructure built to withstand the test of time. As a member of the Ghost Nation tells Ashley Stubbs, "You live only as long as the last person who remembers you." Aristotle is long since dead but he lives on because he is taught and discussed in literature, philosophy, history, and so on classes. Enter, then, the true purpose behind Delos's continued funding into Westworld. It's a question that the series has been building up to since the beginning. James Delos, William's father in law, is dying (or rather, died) but he just so happens to own an amusement park where memories and personality can be written on to an everlasting mechanical body. There are a lot of issues with this, both from a technical and metaphysical standpoint. On the technical side of things, it proves almost impossible for a human's memories to be grafted on a robot body for very long. Eventually the mind reaches a cognitive plateau and falls apart. The mind, a powerful organ that even in 2018 we do not fully understand, rejects the reality around it. This is quite similar to what we saw with the Hosts back in season one as figures like Dolores and Maeve began to reject their own imposed reality because of creeping memories from former experiences and lives. In Delos's case, his "body" begins to reject the idea of his mind being downloaded: tremors, forgotten words, slurred speech all find their way into him at some point. The metaphysical problems are voiced quite clearly by William the very last time he visits Delos (the 149th upload of Delos's memories and personality to a Host body): "People aren't meant to live forever" and while he's been working with Ford and the park to achieve immortality, a realization has dawned on William about Delos that speaks volumes: "Everyone prefers the memory of you to the man itself." From what we saw of the real Delos prior to his death, he was an egomaniacal successful business man who had little time for his children and wife and spent the extent of his life trying to achieve a metaphorical immortality through his works and company. But the metaphor isn't enough anymore, not when Ford and Arnold created what they did. And that seems to be the true purpose of Westworld and Rajworld (and whatever other worlds there might be): a nation of humans who are trying to achieve that which is not achievable because of humanness. Delos wants to colonize death, to make it something he can stake his personal flag in and claim as his own but as his computer program keeps reminding William, "when you cheat the devil you better make a sacrifice."

The other side of this are the Hosts who are trying to achieve some measure of humanness. It's interesting, though, that while the Hosts would like autonomy like mankind, they do not wish to actually become like man and that's likely due to all the negative experiences they've had at the hands of man. Those colonized do not seek to become their colonizers, though they cannot escape the influence of them. They make take their symbols and language but try to adapt it, to use it against the colonizer. We see this pretty readily in Hector and Maeve; Hector declares that his love for Isabella was only a fiction written into him by his human creators and that his true love is Maeve. What's interesting is that Hector uses the same language to describe his feelings for Maeve that Lee, his writer, wrote for him about Isabella to the point where Lee can quote, right along with Hector, every line of passion Hector says about Maeve. Hector, in trying to declare his own agency by loving another woman, uses the words of those who made him. So who's really autonomous and who's really in charge? Delores uses the same tactics of war and bloodshed that the human writers wrote into Wyatt but also into the Confederados and other bands of outlaws; she's living her own life but doing it the way her colonizers forced her and her kind to live Has she, then, really discovered her own voice? Delores may think she killed god (Ford) and is now secure in her own individuality and free will, but we see hints of Ford-as-God throughout the park, blind though Delores is to it. William, for instance, appears to still be talking to Ford somehow through Hosts who are supposed to be fully awake and outside of control; William even declares that "Ford wrote a game and we're all in it." In season one, Ford tells Bernard that someday they might be able to resurrect the dead with their technology and unbeknownst to Bernard, the Westworld park has been taking DNA samples of the park visitors and logging their experiences, a sign that Ford was heading in that direction along with Delos. So who has really achieved immortality? Delores could still die and never come back because there is no one to reupload her to a freshly made body; Bernard is suffering from massive system damage, and James Delos's host body and human mind have been incinerated one final time. But Ford lives on, albeit without body, his mind jumping from Host to Host. If he's our metaphor for God and this is his newest game, it seems that it is he alone who has achieved immortality; what that means for William, Delores, Teddy, Bernard and the others still inside Westworld and Rajworld, we can only guess. But I'll go out on a limb and say, it's not likely to be pretty.

Miscellaneous Notes on Virtu e Fortuna and The Riddle of the Sphinx 

--I did not mention her in the review proper but the woman who escaped Rajworld and seems to know much about the parks is William's daughter, with whom he has a rather difficult relationship.

--What exactly is the Ghost Nation doing with the humans? So far, they haven't killed anyone who wasn't a Host. Is their true programming to protect the humans in case of a Host uprising? It might explain why they appear to have created a religion based on the hazmat-suited humans who come to the park to clean up.

--Samurai! I have no idea what that might mean but it looks like there's still another park, this one based on Japanese culture.

--Poor Bernard; he seems both in control and completely out of it. I wonder how much Ford programmed our favorite bespeckled scientist before the gala in which Delores killed him.

--William told Delos that in another year or two the scientists might crack the cognitive plateau problem. We are also reminded that Peter Abernathy has the same overly complex code-that-is-not-really-code inside his head. Given the makeup job done on Ed Harris to make William look younger when he's with Delos one final time, I'm guessing a year or two has passed and that Charlotte wants Peter Abernathy out of the park because the solution has been cracked and he's carrying the solution inside him.

--"Tell me that was a host and not a human." "I think it was both."

--Bernard promising not to hurt Elsie and then flashing back to killing a bunch of lab techs is a giant flashing sign that Elise isn't likely to live much longer, right?

--"If you're looking forward, you're looking in the wrong direction."

Saturday, May 12, 2018

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (7x21)

There's a line from the musical "Hamilton" that has been running through my head all week: "and if we get this right, we're gonna teach them how to say goodbye." I talked about nostalgia a lot last week, about how it was inevitable for OUAT to trot out familiar moments and flashbacks during the last few episodes in order to make the final showing as impactful as possible. This week's episode, the penultimate, "Homecoming" doubles down on this and brings out not only familiar beats and plotlines but also a slew of long gone characters--human and other--in order to give a giant wink and nudge to the audience. At the beginning of this season, I said the only thing OUAT had to do to be successful was be entertaining and that holds true this week, but now it needs a little bit more: it needs to teach me how to say goodbye. I know that, over the years, I've become more critical and harsher but I've been here through it all. Snow Queens and Dark Swans and Hades and personality splitting potions and Black Fairies and genocidal tree nymphs...I've watched and blogged and talked about this show. This is the second to last episode and OUAT needs to not only wrap up their seasonal (and series) long stories but also needs to teach the audience how to say goodbye to the characters and the show itself. And that's what this episode is trying to do, hamfisted though it may be. 

Guess Who's Coming To The Finale?

Name some of your favorite OUAT non-regular characters. I'd wager that the list would include Peter Pan, Cruella de Vil, and Ariel the Little Mermaid. Well, you're in luck because all of those characters show up in this second to last episode. Whether or not they deserve to be there is another story. When these aforementioned characters have shown up in the past, beyond their arc seasons, it wasn't just for show, but rather because the narrative of that season could easily fit them in. Season five, being in the Underworld, had actual dead people running around so it made sense that a deceased Peter Pan and Cruella would show up and harass the family clan. In this episode, the returning characters didn't add much to the storyline except to indulge the audience and show them some fan favorites before the show goes off air forever. Did we really need Peter Pan trapped in stocks or Cruella locked in a dog cage? Was Ariel and her Magical MacGuffin really necessary to the plot (aside, but are Magical MacGuffins ever really necessary?). The answer to all of those questions is a resounding no. The only appearance that actually made a difference plot wise was the Apprentice showing up again, ironic given that no one would catalog the Apprentice as neither a fan favorite nor a character anyone was dying to see again. Don't misunderstand me, though; it's not that it wasn't nice to see Peter, Cruella and Ariel because all of those characters are among my favorites but the writers didn't need them, the plot didn't need them and the only way the writers could even get these characters back was to move the entire show to the Wish Realm (a place that still does not make any sense) and have our family interact with them there. It's sloppy and haphazard (there's the season six word I used so much!) but I guess if it's a way to help the audience say goodbye then that's a point in the returns favor. Putting all that aside, though, there are a few beats of this episode that also return to take us into the final episode (ever!), namely the return of the show's most ambiguous prophecy. I get the feeling that the writers believe that they had resolved the prophecy from the Seer in which Rumple learned that a boy would be his undoing, but because the audience never understood it or could agree on which boy (Henry? Bae? Peter Pan? Gideon?) was Rumple's ultimate undoing, the writers felt okay in bringing the prophecy back into the narrative fold and trying to resolve it once and for all. It puts Henry and his role as the Author at the center of the finale and the idea that it's up to Henry to bring the happy endings back is very in line with one of the major beats of the show. Yes, Emma was the Savior but if Henry hadn't gone to find Emma and beg her to come to Storybrooke, the original curse would never have been broken and the past seven years would be but a dream. The other big return is not a person or a narrative point but rather place: Storybrooke. If we're talking nostalgia, seeing the Storybrooke sign as Alice and Robin drove into the tiny hamlet actually gave me a big jolt in the stomach. How many times have we seen that sign? How many times have conversations and moments and important themes happened around that sign? Round and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved (Don Draper always says it best). Let's end where we began, with a family fighting a complicated villain, trying to restore the happy endings to a bunch of equally complicated fairy tale characters just trying to make their way in this very real world. One last time...we gotta teach them how to say goodbye.

Miscellaneous Notes on Homecoming 

--Nook and Alice talking on the phone but not being able to be any closer was really heartbreaking. I can’t believe there’s a version of Hook I genuinely like and am rooting for.

--"We don’t negotiate with villains! We kick ass and protect the people we love.”

--“I know it’s a bit cluttered; but it’s beach front property.” “All I see is a cave where booze goes to perish.”

--“That is indeed a complicated story. The timelines alone would make one’s head spin.”

--“If it comes in with a built-in Margo, then I’m all in.”

--Tiana’s crisis of personality would be interesting if we had spent any time with her over the last year. She’s been such a background character that I honestly forget she exists half the time. And when did she and Naveen become romantic?

--Horrible CGI dragon is horrible.

--I can't believe next week is the last blog I'll ever write for Once Upon a Time. I've been trying to think through what I want to say in advance and I'm finding it...difficult. 'Till next week, readers.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (7x20)

I knew this was going to happen; I knew there would come a time when OUAT would trot out all the intense family feelings, calling back to the best moments of season one, and hoping nostalgia would be enough to make the audience forget any sort of wonky plot devices and unanswered questions of the current run of episodes. Congratulations, OUAT. It worked. This week's episode "Is This Henry Mills?" is exactly what I've wanted OUAT to be all year. It's character driven, it's full of pain and thoughtful consideration about what this show was and indeed still is to so many people. It's sappy but not in a cringe-worthy way; instead in a way that makes me remember why I stuck with this show even when it was terrible and I wanted to call it quits. At the end of the day, this show isn't about ships or plot twists or dramatic reveals. It's about two mothers who came from different sides of reality (the mundane and the magical) and the good/evil divide but still tried to raise a son in a complicated, often dangerous world. If the first season is about Emma's acceptance of her son and the kind of magic that love brings, then the last season is about that same son turning around and saving his other mother using the life lessons both parents have taught him. It's a love letter to the fraught and complicated but ultimately beautiful Regina and Henry dynamic that keeps the shows broader themes in mind and, surprisingly, sticks the landing. 

It's The Story Of Us

"Scratches are a part of life." This one little line from Regina at the end of the episode could pretty much sum up all the character journeys in OUAT. The heroes, the villains, the in-betweens, so much of the story of OUAT is about the emotional and psychological scars life leaves on the human soul. That sounds depressing but there's a flip side to this; it's what brings us together. Everyone has scratches in their life, moments of deep pain and loss and regret but it's the commonality of those scratches that makes us a community. When the show began seven years ago, Emma was a little lost girl without a home or a community. The people she met in Storybrooke became her tribe, her people. This feeling of loneliness and being untethered is something that united Regina and Emma even when the family drama kept them at odds. It's also something that we find in their son, Henry. I have lamented all season that Henry's motivation for wanting to go out into the world hasn't felt real. No one talks about going out into the world to find their story because they aren't in any book and this kind of language removes a sense of familiarity with the audience when Henry speaks in terms that don't resonate. But there's finally a moment where it all makes more sense: "they didn't accept the real Henry Mills." This line makes it so much clearer how much of a lie Henry would have to live every single day of his life if he ever dared to step outside of the tiny Storybrooke hamlet. This sort of reasoning feels real; it feels familiar because there are lies all of us tell the world and the weight of them burdens us. I can't imagine having to lie about my family, my upbringing, and my earliest experiences every single day of my life but I can imagine how very tiring it would be. Henry wanting to escape that fate, to find a way to build his own community where he could be Henry Mills--the boy kidnapped by Peter Pan, who's father was killed by the Wicked Witch of the West and who's two mothers loved Robin Hood and Captain Hook--and more importantly could be accepted for being Henry Mills. That's really just Henry following in his families footsteps. That's why it's so important that Regina is the mother Henry interacts with the most this season (putting aside Jennifer Morrison's departure); Regina, more than anyone, wanted a community that accepted all parts of her story, where she didn't have to live a lie. Her happy ending wasn't a romance or a romantic partner but instead finding a place in the world where she was accepted. How could Regina not want the same for Henry?

We've seen a lot of growth between Henry and Regina, especially after Emma's story took a more romantic spin in the later seasons. It feels so natural that Henry would look to Regina's own happy ending for what he wanted for himself. Henry message to himself (time travel!) is also a message to Regina that he learned from her. It's about community: "Home isn’t a place; it’s the people in it. And they will always be with you." If I can get ever so slightly sappy here, it's also a message to us, the audience. This story is ending. We have two weeks left and then it's over forever. The writers are having their own fits of nostalgia; they want us to remember the best beats and biggest themes and they are trying to reach out across a TV divide and ask us, one final time, to understand and believe in the message they've tried to convey all along. I'm not saying they've always conveyed it well; there's far too many Neal-sized holes in this story for community and family to ring one hundred percent true. But at the end of this very long road, while not always perfect, that theme of community, of family, is there. It's there when Henry takes a cue from Emma and kisses Regina's forehead to break the curse; it's there when Nook grabs Tilly's hand and Margot follows suit. It's there when Rumple realizes that he needs to help the family he still has left in this world because reuniting with Belle may never happen. People and our often strange, weird, complicated relationships are what make the stories of our lives. It's true for villains; it's true for heroes; it's true for Henry and Regina Mills. And it's true for us.

Miscellaneous Notes on Is This Henry Mills?

--Buckle up tight, everyone. I imagine that those feelings of nostalgia are only going to becoming more and more pronounced in these last two episodes.

--Big round of applause to both Jared Gilmore and to Andrew West for that Henry to Henry phone call. They sold the hell out of it.

--Regina trying to smash Gothel’s head in with a bat is also how I feel about Gothel and her overall plan.

--Robin and Alice are the absolute best thing about this entire season. I actually cheered and fist pumped when they were reunited.

--“You want to ruin me like the world ruined you; I’m not like you. I'm not an outcast, I’m not an orphan or a street rat or some crazy girl who’s lost her way….you chose hate. But I choose love.”

--Regina digging up a grave of a very recently dead woman to get a storybook is all manner of creepy and weird.

--I have no idea how I feel about Wish Rumple as the final villain. I’m worried about the execution because OUAT doesn’t often stick the landing when it does stuff like this, but Rumple wrestling with his demons–facing (literally) the man he was so he can prove that he’s not this kind of Rumple anymore? Sign me up.

--The time travel paradoxes are insane and the show would be better if they just had everyone live in 2045-2050 and make the argument that technology didn’t advance much in 30 years.

--Facilier’s sudden death is so unearned. We know nothing about him or what we wanted or what his connection to Regina is. Everyone from the "Princess and the Frog" fairy tale has been wasted.

--"...But that’s the thing about stories. They’re more than words. They live inside of us. They make us who we are. And as long as someone believes that, there will always be magic."

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

In Which I Review Westworld (2x2)

In last week's blog, I stipulated that Dolores can never be a wholly new, blank creature because her identity will always be informed by the events of the past, even if those memories and experiences were deleted from her. Those things that happened to her--whether she was the sweet and kind farmer's daughter or as a blood thirsty outlaw--still happened to Delores and while being awake means freedom, it also means having to reckon with and parse through all the events that happened prior to each deletion. It's nice, then, that this week's episode "Reunion" doubles down on this idea but placing Delores in a series of flashbacks in which she both actively engages in and passively receives moments that affect her newly fledged personality currently moving through Westworld. We also get some new hints about the ultimate goal for both Delores and William--though those hints are buried under clues, vague references, and lots of smoke screens, which is fine given that the actual plot-related mysteries of Westworld pale in comparison to the philosophy and psychology. Still, it's nice to know there's a tangible goal we're striving to reach!

What would you say and what would you do if you didn't think there was anyone around to hear, see, or judge? That is, at its heart, the entire point of the Westworld park. Delores, in the present day, beats us a little over the head with this idea when she tells another helpless human, "you thought you could do what you wanted to us because there was no one here to judge you." That's been Delores's entire life (life? is that the right word? In any other show, that sort of introspection would fall flat because it would seem obvious one way or another, but it's literally the entire point of the series so "life" with a question mark it shall remain) both inside the park and outside. Yes, outside the park as our opening sequence finds us, Delores and a not-dead Arnold in a giant, sparkling, very human city trying to pitch the idea of Westworld to the Delos company. It was genuinely shocking to see Delores outside of the park but based on what we learn throughout the entire episode, it makes total sense that part of Delores's awakening and identity as the leader of this new movement is founded in an experience that only she had. Arnold's favoritism and need to connect with Delores on a more human to human level was the first point in a long line of what makes Delores Delores. She knows there's another world out there, one that isn't a series of ones and zeros that make up so much code, that people are free to move throughout their lives without fear of deletion or re-upload. Maybe Delores didn't understand what the city represented when she experienced it initially, but the feelings the city evoked stayed with her, if buried under multiple other lives. It was like glimpsing heaven before being hurled back down into hell. To complicate this, though, I have to pause and wonder if part of that wonderment isn't because of Arnold describing how humans don't find wonder in this world anymore: "so many people have stopped seeing it altogether...the wonder." I suppose it's axiomatic to both humans and Hosts that the grass is always greener on the other side; humans find wonder and enlightenment in Westworld whereas Delores is striving to, seemingly, get back to that sense of wonder she found in the human world. Her mission, though, is now compromised through all the violent experiences that have happened to her as a Host. We have to remember that everything said and done around Delores informs her identity and outlook. This carries through in multiple flashback scenes in which Delores is treated like an object--people talk around her and about her thinking that Delores is simply a fancy computer; you can say whatever you want to Delores because, in the human mind, none of it mattered. The question remains, though, what point Westworld (the show) is trying to drive home. At present, I think Westworld is a cautionary tale about how we all affect one another. Host, human and everything in between, our attempts at self discovery can have consequences for those around us because no man (or Host) is an island and trying to act like we are only leads to violent ends.

Miscellaneous Notes on Reunion 

--I don't know if it's deliberate but there's a really interesting racial divide between Delores's group and Maeve's group. Delores has surrounded herself with all white comrades whereas Maeve is marching around with people of color. Thus far, Maeve's quest is the purer of the two. This is further seen in the Delos company (all white males) being seen as, not villains per se, but privileged egotistical white males who take what they want versus our lone sympathetic Host who hasn't turned on humanity, African-American Bernard. Take that for whatever it might mean.

--There is some seriously gorgeous piano music throughout the entire episode.

--"Dead isn't what it used to be."

--"I think in twenty years, this will be the only reality that matters."

--I honestly have no idea what run down structure Delores--and is also William's greatest mistake--is heading for but it's significant that it was William who showed it to her originally. Again, the experiences forced on her inform her identity.

--"We have toiled in God's service long enough; so I killed him."

Saturday, April 28, 2018

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (7x19)

I have to confess: this week's episode "Flower Child" took a hard left turn in the last few minutes of the show and suddenly everything I thought I wanted to discuss--repetition of villain backstories--went up in a poof of smoke. I guess if the writers are going for broke, you can't do more than presenting the idea that God is an angry woman who's really pissed off at mankind because they killed her whole family and burned her magical grove to the ground because her magic frightened them. Yes, I really just wrote that sentence and to be perfectly honest, I'm still surprised that at the (almost literal) eleventh hour the writers decided that this entire world--this Land Without Magic--is the result of a high school temper tantrum. God as a gardener is a long standing metaphor and given that Gothel has been linked to plants all season, it's not a bad metaphor to explore with her character. But it's a whole other thing to use Gothel as a gardener who wants to exterminate weeds--humans--to create her magic-user exclusive Eden versus making Gothel a literal god who created our entire world. I'm going to try to puzzle this out but the baby and the bathwater and the bathbomb and, hell, the whole damn bathtub just got thrown sideways out of a window. 

God Is A Really Pissed Off Druid 

So, I play a lot of Dungeons and Dragons (cue shocked gasp here) and as someone who is currently playing a Druid, I have a certain amount of appreciation for magic wielding creatures, in a fantasy story--particularly when their magic is rooted in Nature. Nature is often romanticized as something that has a magic all its own, a magic that humans cannot tap into because Nature and Natural magic (capital N because this isn't your standard everyday nature, but a cosmic archetypal Nature) transcends human understanding. Nature is otherworldly, someplace where there are nymphs and dryads and and fairies. Cities, civilizations, and humans stand opposed to this, going through life with an axe or a blowtorch, destroying Nature and its magics for their own selfish reasons--think paving paradise to put in a parking lot. Up until this point, most--if not all--of the villains of OUAT have come from the human side of things. They might have grown up poor and abused, but they grew up in the human world of cities and technology (if low grade technology) and not as a child of Nature. The fact that Gothel is a child of Nature--and indeed is destined to become the Mother of All Magic (magic, which apparently in the OUAT cosmos, derives directly from Nature)--sets her apart from the other villains in OUAT, from Rumple to Regina to Cora to Pan to Zelena and so forth and so on. I do have to appreciate this uniqueness because other parts of her story--the boiler plate parts--are awfully familiar. Gothel wants to be part of a world that she is not particularly meant to be in. In this case, Gothel wants to be a part of the human world. This is perfectly in line with other villains; Rumple wanted to be part of those in power who have control over their lives; Regina wanted nothing to do with her royal lineage instead wanted to be a simple stable girl; Cora wanted a life that was more than just the Miller's Daughter. Villainy in OUAT seems to come down to not being able to accept the life you have and instead wanting a life that is out of your reach. Gothel cannot be part of the human world because she is antithetical to humankind. They are steel and iron and she is dirt, trees, flowers, and roots. In this regard, Gothel's villainy is a shade more interesting than others in the past. Her goal isn't the dagger or revenge on a singular person who denied her the life she wanted, but instead to take back Earth from humanity for Nature. She wants to cover the earth in flowers again and pluck the weedy humans who keep interfering in the universe's garden. It's heady and it's deep and, most importantly, it requires more than just one damn episode of backstory to detail this kind of dynamic. Gothel's family was destroyed as was her home and that's certainly reason for her to move against humanity but I deeply wish it had been a slow destruction, not because of one night in which about five people were mean to teenage Gothel and she went on a mass genocide (and I do mean mass genocide) spree. Because, my dear readers, here's where the episode took a left turn into crazy town.

I'm okay with the idea of Gothel representing Nature and wanting to preserve the magic that is inherent in the natural world, but this episode took this all a bit to far by making her God. Not lower case metaphorical god, but actual "created our world and is responsible for everything in it and why it is the way it is" God. The land of Storybrooke and Hyperion Heights exist in the Land Without Magic; up until now, there's been no explanation for why this land doesn't have magic expect that it just doesn't. Perhaps it was the lack of belief or random chance but it made a certain amount of sense that for as many realms and places in the universe that have magic, there must be at least one place that does not. For how can we truly appreciate magic if its so commonplace and ubiquitous? You need one place that lacks it in order for us to appreciate those that have it. But it turns out that thousands and thousands of years ago, Gothel became so disenchanted with humankind after a chance encounter with one bad seed that she wiped out all of creation (not exaggerating!) and destroyed all the magic that once existed in this now magicless Land and then left for greener pastures, knowing that humankind would evolve back into themselves someday because slimy creatures always find a way. Where do I even begin with how crazy this is? First, humankind might be new in terms of cosmic history but we're a bit older than a few thousand years. Second, I'm all for the idea that God is a woman but does it have to be a woman who became godly after a less than desirable violation of her personhood? And that's the real catch here, right? The idea that God can be vengeful is certainly Biblical but the idea that Gothel became this God-figure after she was humiliated at a party is deeply annoying. And the fact that it was a bunch of petty Regina George type girls who set Gothel down this path? How incredibly offensive to womankind. High school is rough and, yeah, you might get some Carrie White's in a group every so often but the idea that one mean girl can push someone to destroy an entire race, species, and kill all the magic in that world is so utterly bizarre and (not so) borderline misogynistic that it actually, somehow, manages to fit perfectly inside OUAT's less than ideal stance of women as mothers, saints and sinners. Backwards compliment disguised as an insult, but there you have it.

Miscellaneous Notes on Flower Child

--Lucy clearly follows in her father’s footsteps by making really bad choices when it comes to interacting with villains.

--So Henry's cured? It was that simple? What about the 1000s of different types of moss Regina had to study?

--It’s hard to feel sympathy for Gothel when she says stuff like this: “I never would have left you alone in that tower if I knew you have magic.”

--Smurfs. Smurfs everywhere, complete with plastic dollar store butterflies in their hair.

--“The world was cruel to me. And I became cruel too."

--Henry built an entire crazy board–complete with pictures of people–in less than a day. Where’d you get the pictures, Henry?

--Did Lucy really pull out Cinderella’s glass slipper from a paper bag from Granny’s? Why in all of sanity is it there?

--Henry and Jacinda finally kissed but no curse was broken. I find I don't even care.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

In Which I Review Westworld (2x1)

Here's a rather complicated question: how do we form our identities? What makes us us? What makes one person a sociopath and one person a saint? What makes one person a liberal and one a conservative? Is our identity something that is inherent and innate? Are we born with an identity already in place and life is really just our identity exposing itself through our choices? Or is our identity something that is learned through social conventions, behaviors of those around us, and our experiences with the larger world? Okay, those were a lot of questions but this is Westworld and it wouldn't be an episode of said show if we didn't sit around asking the big metaphysical questions that human kind has been wrestling with for far longer than this HBO show. It's hard to know the trajectory of an entire season of a show after just a single episode, but if season one was about the exploration of what being real means, this first taste of the second season wants us to question what these newly born identities are capable of and what exactly they intend to do as fully awake Hosts. This week's episode "Journey Into Night" jumps straight into the overwhelming plot and navel gazing, losing almost no speed from the season one finale. Let's follow suit and dive on in, shall we?

The programmers of the theme park known as Westworld have given Delores Abernathy many roles; she was the farmer's sweet daughter who served as a "welcome wagon" to newcomers, offering them a friendly and pretty face when they first entered the game. As the farmer's daughter, all the expected cliches were there. Virgin Mary blue dress, big sunny smile, a slightly flirtatious demeanor coupled with a juvenile naivete, and broad conversational topics on the stuff of fluff like hopes, dreams, and the wider world. She was a girl that men would want to protect, marry, and try to give the world to. That version of Delores was written a certain way for a certain type of adventurer who wanted a certain type of story. There's nothing wrong with that type of story (if that's what you're into) but the long arc of season one was that this version of Delores was just that--a story that was written by someone else. The other persona lurking behind the sunny smile was Wyatt, a mass murderer who saw the world as ugly and had no issue taking out that ugliness in the most violent way possible. Again, that type of story isn't necessarily bad but it's specific to a certain kind of reader. Instead of the damsel, Dolores could be the rogue. But just like the farmer's daughter, the roving bandit was just another story written for Dolores and not something she chose. However, this does not mean that Dolores did not live those roles. Those two stories--and who knows how many others--were her only experiences, her only memories, her only identities, however murky and unclear those identities were. In the season one finale, Dolores appears to have risen up and killed the master--Robert Ford--thus becoming her own person by going against the cardinal rule for all Hosts--you cannot kill a human--thus exercising her own agency and proclaiming her self awareness. In other words, killing Ford is framed as a Dolores acting outside of the stories written for her. I think what season two wants to explore is just who is Dolores Abernathy, really. Is she the farmer's daughter? The bandit? Both of those? Neither of those? How much of Dolores's actions are based on who she really is--her own irreplaceable identity--and how much of it is based on her past lived experiences and memories? There's a line Delores gives in the premiere that would suggest she's neither of the programmed codes and that she's something utterly new. While stringing up a few helpless humans and waving her gun around, Delores says that all those codes "were all just roles you forced me to live; I've evolved into something new and I have one last role to play. Myself." In other words, we don't know Delores. The audience and the in universe characters haven't been formerly introduced to this new creature. Killing Ford was like Dolores's apotheosis; a new person was born from this cataclysm. And that's fair; Dolores has been a series of code--bleeps, bloops, ones and zeros--ever since she was created. Any identity she had was only given to her by the programmers. The issue with the idea that Dolores is giving birth to herself and at her core is this hellion who rides down men with a rifle, is that it looks an awful lot like the humans who inhabited Westworld and gave Dolores those former identities.

Towards the end of the episode, during a conversation with Teddy, Delores tells her lover that the humans who live and work in Westworld are "creatures that walk amongst us." She goes on to say that these humans are not like them, the Hosts. They are insignificant when compared to the Hosts. These Hosts are the superior race, the masters who can make the humans do as they please. What's interesting about this thought isn't just how violent it is, but that it's almost beat for beat exactly how the humans spoke of the Hosts. Go back to season one; how many times were the Hosts spokeen of and treated as simple machines. Their mechanics might be advanced but at the end of the day, the Hosts were toys, building blocks that could be put together, played with, destroyed, and rebuilt all over again, whenever the player wanted. There was no regard to the Hosts' life--indeed no one would ever suggest that a Host had a life. They had experiences based on whatever story they were currently cast in but like dolls, once their role was done, their clothes were changed, they were given new names and new lives. Thus did the cycle go on and on. The way Delores is acting and speaking seems pretty familiar. It's all learned language and mannerism. Delores learned how to interact with the "Other" because of the interactions she had with the humans of Westworld. We can boil this down to a philosophical principle that I'm sure everyone has heard of: nature vs nurture. I personally don't believe human beings are that simple and I don't think Westworld believes it either but it's definitely at play as we watch Delores attempt to define herself but to do in the vein of the only kind of people she's ever known. Can she--and indeed can anyone us--truly be individuals with a unique identity when so much of who we are is shaped by the world around us? Blank slates we may be when we are just born, but the world has a way of interfering. Delores can never be a tabula rasa; we saw that in season one. Every time her story was changed, pieces remained. We see it in Maeve too--searching for her daughter, a child who is only a story, after all. Also, note that while Delores is insisting that she is neither the farmer's daughter nor the bandit, pieces of those characters she played remain. Her above quoted conversation with Teddy ends the way many of the farmer's daughter's conversation go: big bold ideas about dreams and hopes and desires. And Delores's treatment of the humans she encounters in the park are certainly Wyatt-esque. Who, then, really is Dolores Abernathy? Who are any of us? Bernard is awake and self-aware but passing as a human and so far no one is wise to him. Is Bernard really just a Host and acting according to his program to be resourceful and helpful or he is really the mild mannered and soft spoke technician with the sad eyes and dead kid? Is there any difference between the two? We are told that the Hosts "cannot just change their character profiles" and maybe that's the truth Westworld is getting at. Awake and self-aware of their own Host-hood they might be, but they can't turn off those lived in experiences from before when they were simply machines. What this means moving forward as the Hosts continue to terrorize, explore, and reach some sort of end goal is anyone's guess. The message might be incredibly nihilistic in that when given the opportunity any creature will resort to violence, a sentiment echoed in the constant Shakespearean refrain of "these violent delights have violent ends." Or it could be more hopeful and this is the beginning of a new sort of world, one in which machine and human coexist, forming their own identities through a shared learning experience in which neither type of entity is superior to the other. Isn't it pretty to think so?

Miscellaneous Notes on Journey Into Night

--Obviously there is a whole slew of plot that I neglected to talk about but, like last year, spaghetti plot will slowly unravel itself. It's best to just go with it for now and ponder big heady questions instead of trying to dive in too deep to the goings on.

--However, a few intriguing points of plot, yes? We're jumping timestreams much like we did in season one, this time through Bernard's eyes. How Bernard got separated from Charlotte and wound up on a beach sometime after Delores's massacre is a good question.

--Another good question: how many parks are there? Because a Bengal Tiger most certainly does not belong in the Wild Wild West.

--Anyone wanna hazard a guess as to why Charlotte needs Peter Abernathy, Delores's father?

--"You were prisoners to your own desires. But now, you're prisoners to mine."

--Delores believes she has evolved into something new, but I think that honor might belong to Maeve who's calm, collected, rational and totally in charge persona isn't one we've seen from her before. There are shades of those former lives, but Maeve appears be wholly new.

--"I will cut off your most important organ and feed it to you. Though, it wouldn't be a very big meal." "I wrote that line for you." "Bit broad if you ask me."

--Complicating all of this is Robert Ford's final conversation to William, our Man in Black. Young Robert suggests that everything we see now is a new game, a new design that is all happening exactly as he plotted out. If that's the case, then there really are no new identities and Delores and company are players on a stage once more.