Sunday, May 11, 2014

"Kansas" Not Home for ONCE UPON A TIME

Article originally written for Seat42F.

This week’s ONCE UPON A TIME, the last installment for the ABC series before the two-hour series finale next week, we see more Zelena (Rebecca Mader) backstory, including her encounter with a certain little girl in a gingham dress. In Storybrooke, Zelena sees her plan come to fruition, only to be stopped by something wholly unexpected – Regina the Hero (Lana Parrilla).

For those who have been hoping for a full Wizard of Oz telling, “Kansas” dashes those hopes once and for all. Young Dorothy Gale (Matreya Scarrwener) is brought to the marvelous land in a tornado, but doesn’t crush any witches, nor meet any scarecrows or tin woodsmen. Instead, she is found by Glinda (Sunny Mabrey) and the sisterhood of witches, then declines to join them because she just wants to go home.

Zelena has only recently accepted membership herself, finding a way to start over and losing her green pallor in their acceptance of her. But once Dorothy is on the scene, Zelena grows jealous of all the attention the girl earns, which turns her right back into wicked again. Doesn’t this thin skin and quick change prove that Zelena never got better in the first place, having just had a good day or two?

Actually, the whole Oz part of the story feels meandering, seemingly developed just to explain how Zelena’s power has been contained in the necklace and the manner in which Glinda is banished. Other than that, it treads water, showing our villain teased with a moment of happiness, then going right back to her old self. The prophecy mentioned is confusing and doesn’t really come to pass. It’s all just messy and unnecessary, those plot devices not needing a full episode to reveal.

The Storybrook parts of the episode are, overall, much better. Snow (Ginnifer Goodwin) goes into labor, and the troops rally around her. But all it takes is Zelena nearly drowning Hook (Colin O’Donoghue), forcing Emma (Jennifer Morrison) to give him mouth-to-mouth, to drain Emma’s magic, the only thing that has a chance to stop her. Or so nearly everyone thinks.
Zelena easily slices through all the protections Charming (Josh Dallas) has arranged, and that makes sense, given what we know of her. Still, it’s heartening to see Robin Hood (Sean Maguire) and his men, Belle (Emilie de Ravine), Regina, and Charming try to stop her. At least they don’t go down without a fight, showing their noble spirits, even if Zelena gets the baby anyway.

At this low point, Zelena enacting her spell and the townspeople having no clear path to stop her, a hero is born. After spending three years on a redemption journey, Henry (Jared Gilmore) is confident his adopted mother has the light magic inside of her needed to defeat Zelena. With Robin Hood and Emma echoing Henry’s sentiment, Regina decides to give it a try, setting off with her now-friends to defeat Zelena.

Regina is my favorite character, and “Kansas” is a triumphant moment for her. It’s a culmination of everything she’s been through, her earned reward. Henry has been the catalyst in making her good, but she has to believe in herself to finish the process. There are still hints of the Evil Queen, Parrilla not abandoning the character she’s created, but her giving Zelena a second chance proves her transformation has taken hold.

I will say, Zelena is knocked out too easily. Is she really so surprised that Regina can summon one burst of light magic that she just gives up? Her story isn’t over, a surprise twist reuniting her ashes (after Rumple kills her) and her power, definitely setting up further battles in the season finale. But had this not occurred, as awesome as Regina’s scene is, it would be a bit of a letdown as a closing for Zelena.

ONCE UPON A TIME has done this before, and will likely do it again. I don’t know if it’s because it lacks the budget for a truly epic confrontation, or just the writing oomph, but it tends to peter out when it should double down on the action. A real fight, Regina and Zelena going at it full force, would be a welcome climax. This is satisfying, but barely so.

Thankfully, besides Regina’s success, there are also other wonderful character moments, the type ONCE UPON A TIME should have more of. Regina and Rumple’s (Robert Carlyle) exchange is terrific, as is Regina and Zelena’s conversation in the cell, and the moment Rumple comes to kill Zelena. Rumple and Belle have a very happy reuniting, complete with a proposal of marriage. And Henry catches up with Archie (Raphael Sbarge) in a rare, welcome, quiet scene.

It is sad to see Rumple backslide, having had his equivalent of a Regina moment in the mid-season finale, finally finding the good in himself. Yet, it’s understandable because Zelena kills Rumple’s son. That would be enough to force any person to re-evaluate themselves. The only regret here is in the way that Rumple plays Belle, which can only hurt their relationship. With fans of the couple never getting enough sweetness, this betrayal, which threatens to split them long-term, is quite painful.

The other weird thing about “Kansas” is Emma talking about going home. Yes, she’s lost her power, which does not return with Zelena’s defeat (though that could be because Zelena hasn’t been done away with permanently yet), but her family is in Storybrooke, and everyone is so happy to be together again. How can she even think about leaving? This actually seems forced, with Emma’s desire to stay away having been snuffed out previously, and there’s no reason for it to come back now.

Also, how come we only see Little John (Jason Burkart) alone of the monkeys restored to human form? Where are Aurora and Phillip and Walsh? Were they the monkeys our heroes callously and uncharacteristically killed at the docks last week? We need more story here. If they are dead, we need to see guilt and regret from the protagonists. If they are alive, we need to know who has been killed and see guilt and regret.

While uneven, the amazing bits in “Kansas” do make this an enjoyable episode of ONCE UPON A TIME. I look forward to next week’s wrap up, with cautious optimism that it will be handled without so many flaws.

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