Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Anti-Heroes, Anti-Villains, and Fairy Tale Madness - Why Elsa Belongs in Storybrooke

NOTE: The 24 stuff is coming, don't worry. But a lot has been happening on the Once Upon a Time front and I've had some of my own theories and ideas that I want to pose before Stuff Starts Happening to make it obsolete. After all, as I said on our most recent Five(ish) Fangirls podcast - part of the fun of fandom is theorizing and speculating. And filming on Season 4 starts tomorrow, which brings the requisite set reports and spoilers, which will probably render all my ideas moot anyway.

(SPOILERS for Once Upon a Time - all aired seasons)

A little over a month ago, I squee'd myself silly over the Season 3 finale of Once Upon a Time (for those shenanigans, go here). I thought those two episodes closed up this initial character arc for Emma Swan perfectly, plus it opened the doors for some further exploration of other characters, while also adding to the Once mythos, which is what the show needs to do to stay fresh and interesting.

Also - I've gushed about Frozen in the past as well. For various reasons, Frozen has become my newest favorite Disney movie in a way that Disney has not captured my attention in recent years. I mean, I loved Tangled and Meet the Robinsons and a few others besides - but nothing took me back to the beautiful and enchanting Disney movies of my youth (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King - just to name a few). Not until Frozen, at least. I love Elsa. I love that she's conflicted about her powers and that she has to go through so much in order to learn how to live a full life and find goodness in something that is so much a part of her, even though her family and others see it as a major problem - something to be hidden away and protected against. And as wonderful as Frozen is, I felt that we were missing some core backstory from Elsa's point of view. There is some deep and interesting stuff the writers could have gone into with Elsa - but, this being a Disney movie, room must be made for reindeer and snowman antics so the kiddos can be sufficiently entertained. (seriously - look at the teaser trailer. I mean, it's cute and all, but would you have guessed this movie was based on The Snow Queen, simply by looking at this thing? Didn't think so). I did speculate what a potential Frozen 2 could be about - with more focus on Elsa's character growth and her personal journey. And while I still want that to a certain extent... I think it makes so much sense to let Once Upon a Time tackle that particular side of the story (and given that there was a certain mysterious casting announcement today - part of me wonders if that might be the way they're going with it. Which would please me to no end).

Not everyone thinks so, sadly. There have been grumblings online (who here is shocked by this?) that the creators of Once are merely trying to cash in on Frozen's popularity. That they should have waited a few years for its "classic" status to be cemented and not just jumped on the bandwagon for the sake of jumping on the bandwagon. To which I reply - if that's how you feel about it, then you don't know this show at all. Let me 'splain.

Initially, I started watching Once because I heard "Fairy Tale Characters Living In the Modern World." Dude, you don't need to give me anything else - I am there! I didn't even need to hear the qualifier that these fairy tales had Disney plastered all over them (though that was an added bonus). While the initial premise caught my attention, it was the characters that kept me there. Particularly the "villains" (and I use the term loosely, but I'm getting to that). In the first season, Rumplestiltskin was the most interesting, because there was backstory for him that absolutely no one knew about. Rumple is a trickster. He's evil in many ways, but in others - he's Loki (for all intents and purposes). He aligns himself with the side that's going to get him what he wants - some days he'll ally with the heroes, other days he's with the villains, still other days you're not sure what the hell he's doing, but you're going to sit there and find out. Through the first two seasons, I never quite knew where I stood with Rumple. Not in a frustrating or annoying way - but in a way that I actually felt sorry for him, even while I secretly hoped that he would lose because him losing would mean other characters I loved would be happy (thinking specifically about Rumple tricking Snow White into killing Cora so he could survive being poisoned - yeah, that wasn't complicated at all).

Next on my list of Villains-Who-Aren't-Villains (not really), there's Regina (the Evil Queen from Snow White). In Season 1, she was the Big Bad (though Rumple was pulling the strings, unbeknownst to... pretty much everyone). Her motives were pretty simple at first -  she was out for revenge and anything she could do to ruin Snow White's happiness - even when Snow White didn't remember who she really was - was fair game. Regina was the stereotypical Big Bad, for the most part - villainous plot, gonna enact revenge on the good guys, looks like she's winning half the time, but then stuff happens in the end to foil her magnificent plans. Season 2... well, things get a little murky from there on out. We've learned that Regina, at her core, is a good person who just wants her own happy ending but she's a little fuzzy on how to go about doing that (happy endings don't come easy to her and I can understand her being a little jealous of Snow White, who's seemingly had happiness and joy served to her on a silver platter on a near-daily-basis. That's not the case, but look at it from Regina's point of view). The problem is that Regina only knows how to use dark magic to get what she wants. She almost doesn't trust light magic, because honestly - what's it ever done for her? Better to stay with something she's familiar and comfortable with using. She even appoints herself The One Who Will Do The Dirty Work during the #SaveHenry in Neverland story arc because Snow White is too squicky about doing what needs to be done. Like stealing the heart of a Lost Boy so he will deliver a message to Henry that his family is coming to get him so he doesn't give into despair and lose hope. I mean, Snow White wasn't pleased about the idea, but to be fair, her unicorn stickers and sunshine lollipops weren't doing a damn thing and I was getting a bit bored at that point in the season. But give Regina the freedom to do her thing and Shit Gets Done. And the fandom rejoices (that moment came during an episode that I count as one of my favorites, but for other reasons that I'm going to expound upon in a bit).

However, Regina's dependence on dark magic doesn't last forever. In the second half of Season 3, we meet Regina's heretofore unknown half-sister, Zelena, who is known as the Wicked Witch of the West (given what the Big Reveal was in Season 3.1, this was a bit of a letdown - but it got better). Regina and Zelena's character arcs are pretty comparative, except that where Zelena had the chance to give up her anger and jealousy and reclaim her innocence and become more powerful that she could ever imagine (which, Glinda gives the All Too Telling Line that "innocence reclaimed can be just as powerful as innocence born"), Zelena ultimately loses that battle and becomes even more corrupted. Regina is given a similar choice when her son, Henry, suggest that she try to use light magic to defeat the Wicked Witch toward the end of Season 3. At first, Regina says that she can't because dark magic is all she has. But in the middle of the Final Boss Battle, Regina suddenly starts using light magic, even asserting that she has finally changed who she is and is well on her way to getting rid of the darkness in her heart. Even more powerful statement on her character - she refuses to let Rumple kill Zelena because that's not what heroes do.

Of course, character growth is not true character growth if it's not tested. And at the very tail-end of Season 3, one HUGE development came that looks like is going to test Regina's newfound morality. Some wonder "Why do that to her? She just found her happiness - why can't you give her a break for a bit?" Well - it's time to see if the new Regina is really here to stay. Will she make the same choices that she did in the past that led her to become Evil? Or will she choose another way? How much of that changing was because it was convenient? Personally, I'm thrilled with this opportunity that Regina has to prove that she really is one of the good guys. Maybe not 100% squeaky clean like Snow White (I can't live without Regina's snark), but she can be better. And I'm eager to see where that goes.

Okay - I blathered on about that more than I intended to. Because I've got a third sort-of-kind-of-not-really villain to wax lyrical about. Well, I've talked about him before, but of these three anti-villain characters (and as much as I adore Regina), my absolute favorite is none other than Captain Hook. To start off - just the imagination and creativity they've taken with this character impresses me to no end. I love his backstory (what little we have of it - here's hoping we'll get more in Season 4!), I love that he's a romantic at heart, I love his sarcasm and his snark, I love how he looks (okay, I admit, I'm kind of shallow), I love how earnest and honorable he is, I love that he's more villainous by reputation than by actual villainous deeds (again - still waiting on that backstory, guys!) Like Regina, Hook didn't start out as a bad person - circumstances and events led him to become a villain. One of my hands-down favorite episodes in all of Once is "Good Form," where we find out that, before he became the infamous pirate, Hook was once a Lieutenant Killian Jones in the royal navy under his brother and they were quite the awesome little heroic team for king and country. Until the king sent them on a mission to retrieve a deadly poisonous plant that they were told actually had magical healing properties. In the course of their mission, Killian's brother was poisoned by the plant and eventually died, which lead Killian to steal the ship he now has command of and become a pirate and steal from the king. His transformation in that episode from bright-eyed, idealistic (and, frankly, adorable) Lieutenant Jones willing to follow his captain and his brother into whatever danger as long as it's honorable, to the broken, betrayed, and untrusting pirate captain is so remarkable and compelling to watch. Conversely, watching the fearsome Captain Hook, who once loved and tragically lost and vowed to enact revenge on the demon who killed his love, come back around and realize that there's nothing left after taking revenge and learn how to be an honorable and heroic man again is just as compelling and exciting to see (also - doesn't hurt that he's falling in love with Emma Swan, who I've been cheering for to find True Love since the pilot episode, and the pair of them just work together). So, yeah, by far the character that I think has been done the best by Once is Captain Hook. Between the backstory and the characterization and the story arc - man, there is some great stuff there. And I doubt that they're done with him, which thrills me to no end.

So, there's those three main villains in Once. And they all are "villains," but they're also heroes in their own way. They've been misunderstood and mistreated, but they've all come out looking... not 100% shiny and clean, but better than traditional fairy tales have given them credit for. And, after looking at these three, how can you say that Elsa doesn't belong in Once Upon a Time?

To outsiders, Elsa is a mystery. Heck, Arendelle is a mystery. The gates have been closed against visitors for so many years that people wonder what they're hiding. As the film progresses and Elsa's powers are revealed, many people see her as a monster or a villain - that she purposely cursed Arendelle with eternal winter. Anna's the only one who really sees the good in Elsa and believes that Elsa isn't so much a villain as she has lost control and is frightened of what she could do to hurt somebody.

Man, if Elsa doesn't belong in Once Upon a Time, then I don't know who does. With that kind of backstory already given her by the Disney film, I can only imagine the people in the Once writers room chomping at the bit to weave her tale into their narrative. There is so much space to play around with for Elsa and I have no doubts that they're going to do her story justice. She has a lot of complexities that Frozen wasn't able to explore because of what kind of movie it was - but Once could go with a darker, more mature tone that I think Elsa's story needs to have to have it be done right.

(Never mind the fact that we never found out how Elsa got her powers. I mean, I know her parents said she was born with them - but neither of her parents had magic, so where did it come from really? Did she have a grandparent with powers who was forced to hide them? Maybe Once is going to explore some of that - though I do hope that they're going to keep that family tree separate from the already-convoluted family tree that Once already has established. Lemme just say that if Elsa turns out to be Snow White's mother's cousin's sister's former roommate or something equally absurd, I'm going to throw things).


  1. ["Maybe not 100% squeaky clean like Snow White (I can't live without Regina's snark), but she can be better. And I'm eager to see where that goes."]

    Snow White is not 100% squeaky clean. Her murder of Cora Mills is a testament to her own murky morality.

    1. Hey thanks for reading and commenting! Yeah, I know Snow murdered Cora, but that was clear back in Season 2. She's had a pretty clean track record since then. Season 3 Snow was a little too sweet and it got on my nerves more often than not. But that's me.