Monday, April 14, 2014

The First Reasonable Plan Since This All Began - Review of "Once Upon A Time: The Jolly Roger"

This post contains SPOILERS for Once Upon a Time Season 3, Episode 17, "The Jolly Roger." Read at your own risk!

Oh sweet mother of angels, pirates, and mermaids - Once Upon a Time, THIS is what you could be!

Last summer, I discovered ABC's show about fairy tale characters living in modern times and trying to get back home. That was when I'd initially finished watching Season 1 on DVD, which I quite enjoyed. I've since watched Season 2 and been keeping up with Season 3... and I'll be honest - it's kind of gotten dull. Most everything that can be done with the main characters has already been done and it was starting to feel like the writers had run out of ideas. Even the prospect of including characters from stories like The Little Mermaid and Rapunzel fell flat on their faces (well, the Rapunzel storyline more than The Little Mermaid - I mean, that princess in the tower could have been anyone. There was no point to all that hair). Honestly, the Charmings are bland, Henry's annoying, and that stupid love triangle between Emma, Neal, and Hook was just... ugh! The only characters I really like anymore are Regina, Rumple, and Captain Hook (and yes, I realize that all three of these characters are... not exactly "villains" - more of anti-heroes. But damn if they aren't compelling to watch!)

I often ask myself why I am still watching this show.  Even on weeks that I am most certainly NOT going to watch, I find myself catching up on Hulu. I guess I see how good this show could be and how much it is just not living up to its potential - instead of finding new ways to tell these stories, they just shoehorn the characters they've overused into these incredibly boring tropes.

However, last night's episode "The Jolly Roger" had me standing up and cheering again. Because THIS is what OUAT could and ought to be!  I even want to call out the writer - David H. Goodman - by name and publicly applaud him for this idea. Not to mention the actors - particularly Colin O'Donoghue and Joanna Garcia Swisher for stellar performances. Even Rebecca Mader - whose Wicked Witch of the West I haven't really been that enthralled with to this point - put in one of the most convincing villain moments at the end.

So - what made this episode different from all the others? For starters, the focus isn't on the Charmings. At all. Snow White isn't in the flashbacks trying to appeal to Hook's better nature and Charming isn't there doing... whatever the crap he does. In fact, the Charmings get to take Henry (who hasn't had a convincing thing to do since Season 1) off to run over mailboxes in David's truck and that's the extent of their involvement (I will say that this second half of Season 3 has benefited greatly from Henry not remembering anything about Storybrooke. He's just happy in the corner playing Xbox or whatever and I am happy for him to stay there. I'm counting down the days until they can send that boy to college and we won't have to look at him on a regular basis. He contributes nothing to the plot anymore). Regina and Emma go off to get Emma to figure out how to use her powers, which - IT'S ABOUT DAMN TIME!! How long has Emma known about her magic and she hasn't used it? Hell, if I had the choice between summoning fire to roast someone's ass or shooting them with a gun - I'd choose fire. Now that Neal's dead (oops - spoilers) it seems that Emma is going to be put to better use than sitting around debating her conflicting loyalties and pining for her baby daddy (sorry - I just kept waiting for Neal to do something interesting and it never happened. Other than him dying to resurrect Rumplestiltskin. In terms of Characters Who Actually Do Something, I say we viewers got the better end of that trade-off).

Thus, we are left with Captain Hook. Who also has been improved since Neal's death, in that his bid for Emma can be taken more seriously. Beyond that, though, Hook is faced with a choice. He remembers the past year that's been lost, but he's not telling anyone about it. This episode goes into why - at least in part. Hook's crew wants to go off and search for their ship The Jolly Roger so they can get back to their old pirating ways. Hook - well, Hook's had a taste of being one of the good guys and he's not sure that he wants to go back to being a scoundrel. Even before Season 3.2 starts - we have a flashback of him in a pub in the Enchanted Forest paying off a barmaid that his men gifted to him as part of a post-robbery celebration. Hook is not the dastardly pirate that he tries to pass himself off as - but neither is he this squeaky-clean hero-type.

Enter Ariel - who hasn't found Prince Eric since everyone was sent back to the Enchanted Forest. And since Hook has a reputation for being a good guy as well as a sea-faring pirate, Ariel thinks that he can help her find her prince, who also has a penchant for sailing the sea. Hook agrees, especially since there is strong evidence that Eric was captured by the same people who have his ship.

Back in Storybrooke, Ariel shows up again with the same problem. She can't find Eric - but Hook, Snow, and Belle (who is finally used to her utmost potential in this episode) come to her aid. Hook is a little reluctant to help, but he agrees since he is the one who knows the most of what happened during the "Missing Year." Snow eventually leaves the main action to be Henry's "not-grandma," leaving Hook and Ariel to look through Mr. Gold's shop for clues as to the whereabouts of Prince Eric.

I've got to talk about Belle here for a bit. Even though she doesn't have a whole lot of screentime, what she does have is used beautifully. In recent episodes, she's had to deal with Rumple's kidnapping and imprisonment by the Wicked Witch, but instead of moping and pining about it, she's going through all the things in Gold's Pawn Shop (which Rumple/Mr. Gold left to her when he thought he was going to die - long story) and organizing things, cataloging them, running the shop the best that she can. She provides the ray of hope that Snow White usually does, though to greater effect, since that's kind of becomes Snow's one and only character trait lately. But Belle's sense of hope is more pronounced because she has gone through so much and is still going through a lot. There is one line that sums her optimism out the best - when she agrees to let Ariel look through the shop for anything belonging to Prince Eric, Belle says "Maybe good news will be contagious." It was a small moment, but it was so indicative of the situation that all of Storybrooke is dealing with and we didn't need to gather the whole town in a room to look at each other with suspicion until Regina yells about... whatever.  It helps that Belle and Ariel have already established a solid friendship with each other (in the only episode from Season 3.1 that didn't have me throwing things) and I want to see more of that - not necessarily from these two characters, but I would like to see more relationships between these types of "secondary" characters.

Hook finds a cloak belonging to Prince Eric in Gold's shop - he recognizes it because Ariel had it in the Enchanted Forest when he met her before. Belle casts a tracking spell on the cloak which will enable the cloak to find Eric. The cloak flies off and Hook and Ariel take off after it. After a while, the cloak lands in the water in the Storybrooke harbor and disappears into the sea. They both take it to mean that Eric was lost at sea and Ariel looks devastated - but at the same time, she says that it's better that she knows where Eric is, rather than looking and never finding him.

Before I get to the climax of the story, I've got to end the Enchanted Forest storyline - the storyline that nobody but Hook can remember (and the one that he's not telling, but it's evident that he's not about to talk about it). He and Ariel find The Jolly Roger and Hook faces down Blackbeard, who's taken over the ship. They fight and Hook wins. He's about to kill Blackbeard when Ariel stops Hook because Blackbeard knows where Prince Eric is and if Blackbeard dies, Ariel will never find Eric. Hook ignores her and makes Blackbeard walk the plank anyway. Ariel yells at Hook - that he is not a hero, that he is just a scumbag pirate and that's all he'll ever be. Ariel leaps into the sea and becomes a mermaid and goes off in search of her prince, leaving Hook to think on Ariel's accusations and to regret that he is not a better man.

Folks - THIS is the kind of character that Once Upon a Time's Captain Hook should be. Hell, this is what they should be doing with ALL of these fairy tale characters. And I don't just mean putting princesses in pants and giving them weapons and making them warriors as well as eye candy. I mean giving them good backstories and motivations and doing interesting things with them (that have nothing to do with terrible home lives because that trope has been done to death and it's not even a surprise anymore - not just in OUAT, but in most fairy tale retellings. Gregory Maguire's Wicked started it and no one's had an original idea since). Captain Hook in popular culture is associated with Disney's foppish dandy who's obsessed with killing Peter Pan and scared of crocodiles. And this Hook kind of started out that way, but he's since been given a chance to expand as a character - he's a bit of a lovable roguish scoundrel (not unlike Han Solo or Malcolm Reynolds). Hook wants to be better, but he's not sure about leaving behind his previous life - whether or not he can do it, let alone if he should.

That brings us to the ending of the episode. Hook runs after Ariel to tell her everything that he knew of her during the "Missing Year" - that he made a mistake and it cost her chance of finding Prince Eric and that he regrets his actions and he's sorry for it. He also confesses that he knows what it's like to love someone and never having them. Ariel asks who it is that Hook loves and he says it's Emma Swan.

And here, my friends, is the best reveal that Once Upon a Time* have ever given us!

"Ariel" reveals herself to actually be the Zelena (the Wicked Witch of the West) in disguise. When Hook admits that he loves Emma, Zelena curses Hook so that the next time Hook kisses Emma, Emma's magical powers will be taken from her. Hook says that he'll warn Emma and Regina and everybody of Zelena's plans, but Zelena comes back with the threat that she will kill everyone that Hook cares about - including Emma and Henry - if he breathes a word about her plans. Zelena is at her absolute best in this moment. THIS is the kind of vengeful Wicked Witch I thought we would be getting. She's vindictive and nasty and just plain wicked (if I may use that term). And if I get more of this in the lead up to the season finale, I will forgive that stupid twist of her being Regina's half-sister (good grief - how much more convoluted can these family trees get??)

Hook goes back to the Charmings' loft, despondent and in despair. He finds Emma, who's been practicing magic with Regina. And she's actually getting quite good! She summons an image of the real Ariel, who found Prince Eric a long time ago and they're living happily on an island off the coast of the Enchanted Forest that was not affected by the Wicked Witch's curse. So, Hook is happy for Ariel, who found her happy ending, in spite of his screw-up.

Now, we've all seen this trope where a character keeps vital information away from the people they care about in order to save their lives (Harry Potter did it, Spider-Man did it - just to name a few). But this is the first time that I actually believe that Hook has no idea how to deal with this situation. He's never been anywhere near this kind of thing. He's been a pirate since time immemorial. Any goodness he once had is gone - even though he's slowly been turning over a new leaf, he's still not comfortable with admitting that to anyone, least of all himself.

This is the kind of meaty storytelling that this show is capable of and that I would love to see more of. I mean, they've worn out the possibilities surrounding the Charmings and Regina and Henry - let's delve into some of these other side characters that haven't had a chance to be fleshed out. We haven't seen hide nor hair of Cinderella since "The Price of Gold", which was the 4th episode in Season 1 (that was also written by David H. Goodman and it remains one of my very favorite episodes - I think there's a correlation here). Sleeping Beauty's been abandoned by the writers, Rapunzel didn't get much of a character arc (let's face it - that whole episode was just a waste) - bring back some of these characters and let the main ones rest for a bit!

At the end of the day, Captain Hook was given a marvelous character arc in this episode and all the little hints and plot threads that they've been weaving with his character - one key reason why I keep watching Once Upon a Time, in spite of all my complaints about the show - are starting to come together and I couldn't be more pleased (unless next week's episode continues this grand tradition and this wasn't a one-time fluke, that is).

This was a long post, but the episode gave me so much to parse and digest - that's the sign of a fantastic story! I hope I'll find cause to wax lyrical about next week's episode, but that's until next week. In the meantime - I've gotta go watch this one again!

This should have been my first clue that this episode was going to be amazing.
Hook disguised as a knight! *fangirl swoon*
*Given that one of those reveals was that Peter Pan is in all actuality Rumplestiltskin's father - I don't know that this was a terribly great compliment. Still, my point stands.

EDIT: I went back and watched older episodes of Once that featured Hook because, well, why not? And I find I have to amend one of my earlier statements - it's wasn't "Ariel" that was the only episode of 3.1 that didn't have me throwing things (because there was plenty of opportunity for throwing things there). The honor of being my favorite episode of 3.1 goes to "Good Form" which, given the timey-wimey way I watched Seasons 2 and 3, was actually the first episode I saw that really featured Captain Hook in any prominent way. Beyond being my intro to my eventual favorite character, I just loved how different it was to most everything else I'd seen. Especially seeing how dull Season 3 had been to that point - having an origin story for Killian Jones was just a lot of fun and I've since gone back and watched it four or five times. So - there's that.

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