Sunday, May 18, 2014

Pay Attention to Consequences

The messages of Once Upon a Time have been that good always prevails, that all it—whatever  “it” happens to be—takes is belief, and, ad nauseam, that true love conquers all. However, Hemingway said, “If two people are truly in love, there’s no way it can all end happily,” and apologies to Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, but I’m gonna go with Papa on this one.

Forget, for a moment, that these messages do not accurately reflect the original messages of the large body of fairy tales, which were more like, “Everything in the world is dangerous and will eat/steal you if it possibly can.” Because, of course, this ABC family drama (distributed by Disney) is not even about to be anything but warm and fuzzy.

Let’s focus instead on how the unrelenting hammering-home of these messages affects the plot and characterization.

Everyone knows plot revolves around conflict. The creators of this show have given us plenty of conflict. The over-arching magical conflicts between the Evil Queen and the Dark One, and all of the other Enchanted Woods characters whom they enspelled. The over-arching domestic conflicts between Regina and Emma over Henry, or Rumple’s search for his son. The over-arching internal conflicts that rage within Emma, who longs to trust people but is still hurt at being abandoned and growing up without a family. Or Regina, who battles between rage and revenge, and the desire to be a hero and find happiness again.

These conflicts are, each of them, real and engrossing. (The moments they create could be, like, a billion times more engrossing if they weren’t saddled with clunky, cheesy, boring dialogue, but that’s a whole ‘nother thing.)

The plot problem is that, in their effort to make sure that the messages of “if you only believe,” and “true love conquers all,” come through loud and clear, the writers sabotage moments of conflict and drama by almost always reversing the consequences of big decisions. For instance, [highlight for spoilers] near the end of the third season, Charming has to give up his heart to re-enact Regina’s dark curse. While the couple exchange their last love vows, Snow crushes his heart, killing him. Literally two minutes later, Snow realizes that Charming’s claim that they were “of one heart” might mean that he can live again, with half of her heart. She asks Regina to “believe,” puts half her heart in Charming’s chest, and he comes back to life. Ta da! [spoilers ended]

This is just the latest and most immediate in a long series of impossible resurrections and/or immediate about-faces in destiny: Gold, Neal, the several “unbreakable” curses that always get broken laughably easily. This show does not want to let consequences last which, after a while, cuts the emotional legs out from under any fraught decision that’s being made. Regina might lose Henry if she saves the world? So what! Emma will lose her powers if she gets kissed? No big deal! This pattern makes it almost impossible to really care about any of the Life or Death moments that the show presents us with.

This pattern also gets in the way of characterization. I want to care about the Charmings—I really do. But how can I? With the (admittedly big) exception of getting to raise Emma, they get everything they want, all the time, no questions asked. For instance, [highlight for spoilers] when Hook raises the completely reasonable suggestion that perhaps Ariel can’t find Eric because he’s dead, and that encouraging her would be raising “false hope,” [end spoilers] David responds glibly, “In my experience, there’s no such thing. You just have to believe.” Of course he says that, because that IS his experience. But his experience is not only far removed from the real world from which people are watching this show, but also removed from the “real world” people of Storybrooke, who DO lose people (though at a smaller rate than you’d think) to death, to memory-curses, to heartbreaking love-triangles, etc. The fact is, the Charmings are impossibly privileged and their privilege makes it hard for me to care about them. [Hightlight for spoilers] Their later faux-humble (“just a simple potluck”) coronation ceremony for their new son [end spoilers] only serves to underscore the weirdness of a royal family in modern-day America, a family for whom the whole town will rally at a moment’s notice and to whom they will defer in moments of crisis.

With a few tweaks, the Charmings could be much more relatable, and the storyline more fascinating. For instance, was the outcome of Snow killing Cora? Her heart became tainted with spots of darkness. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen any consequences of this change lately. How much more nuanced and true-to-life would it be if Snow had to struggle with a dark side? [Highlight for spoilers] And, now that Snow and David share that spotted heart, what could happen? [end spoiler] I’m not talking about a sudden and catastrophic slide into Dark One-style evil, but just a realistic internal conflict between the desire to do “what’s right” and the urge to do things an easier, quicker, more ruthless way.

But, except for a few moments of dark humor, this show shies away from representing reality—whether that be realistic character motivations, realistic plot outcomes, or even, as I mentioned above, story adaptations that stick more closely to the “reality” of what fairy tales originally offered. Which is the real tragedy of Once Upon a Time: how much better it could be if it stuck more closely to non-Disney versions of fairy tales. These stories were not originally comforting yarns told at bedtime to send children off into a pleasant dreamland; they were violent, scary, and dark. In short, they were warnings. Look no farther than the big four in the Western tradition: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast. In their depictions of imprisonment, abuse, kidnapping, rape, bestiality, etc., even our oft-repeated fairy tales strongly suggested that wonderful things like family relations, sex, love, ambition, and leadership could be twisted into frightening experiences. Here there be dragons, fairy tales said, and pointed at our daily lives. (Also, fairies be crazy. For real.)

I continue to watch Once Upon a Time because . . . because . . . because I want to. Because, at times, it’s funny. Because, at times, it gets me. Because I love fairy tales and television and pop culture. Because, let’s face it, the visuals are great. And I think it can still get better. Let’s all hope—have faith—believe that it will. Regina’s final words to Emma in Season Three leave me with such hope: “You’re just like your mother—never thinking of consequences.” If “pay attention to consequences” becomes the new mantra, both for the characters and the writers, Season Four should be pretty sweet. 

Friday, May 09, 2014

The Goblin Emporer: A Review

A few weeks ago I finally finished with revisions to my dissertation, and rewarded myself with a read of The Goblin Emporer, the first book published under the name of Katherine Addison (which is really the pen-name for Sarah Monette, accomplished spec fic author).

Not since reading Lev Grossman's The Magicians have I experienced such pure undiluted reading enjoyment; I was thrilled on every page that this book even existed, and that Addison is a young writer so that I, perhaps, had much more to look forward to.

One of the reasons The Goblin Emporer is so enjoyable is that the world Addison describes is jewel-like in its uniqueness and detail. In the elvish kingdom of Ethuveraz, airships cruise the skies (and sometimes crash), rivers are bridged with retractable bridges, and clockmakers craft fine timepieces for their rulers. Tea ceremonies and dances and imperial funerals are so tightly scripted that they run like the aforementioned clockwork. Meticulously-planned public appearances and elaborate ceremonies hem in the world of Maia, our protagonist, the half-goblin heir to the elvish throne after an airship disaster kills his estranged father and brothers.

These aren't Tolkien's elves and goblins, though. Addison's world (reflecting, perhaps, Monette's background in Renaissance literature) is, in many ways, indistinguishable from a human society. Elves are fairer, with finer features, than goblins--and something's different about their ears, natch. Maia's racial difference is marked, primarily, by his skin color. But Addison's aren't inherently noble, or wise, or magical, or immortal, just as the goblins aren't inherently stupid, noseless, warty, or evil. The elves and their interactions with the visiting goblin king, the Great Avar of Barizhan, reminded me of nothing so much as one of those "classy" (read: snobby) European kingdoms--the French, perhaps, or the Germans--treating with a Russian tsar or a Hungarian king.

And the book is almost wholly devoid of magic. There is one characters who seems to be able to commune with the dead, but all of that work happens off-screen, as it were. The whole narrative includes only one spell, a defensive measure against a potential assassin, which gets cast by one of Maia's bodyguards. But the narration rushes by this detail and focuses in on Maia's shock and fear at his assassination attempt. If it weren't that every character was either a goblin or an elf--two races whose literary heritage is inextricably entwined with the concept of fantasy--this could have been a story about human politics. It's a lot like watching an episode of House of Cards set in a Renaissance kingdom. (If that reading the preceding sentence gives you a happy, please read this book. And also, call me.)

Except that Frank Underwood is no Maia. Because Maia is the fucking best. Until Maia, I had never read such a tender-hearted, honest, good character that I didn't, at some level, find unbelievable. (Think Esther Summerson from Bleak House--I love Dickens, but gag me with a spoon every time she talks). Poor, downtrodden Maia has been shelved in some backwater county of Ethuveraz, looked after by his abusive cousin Setheris. His reaction to authority is not rebellion but a withdrawal, a development of his inward self which Setheris's treatment cannot touch.

When he becomes emporer, does Maia go mad with power and order his former oppressor tortured? No. While Addison's portrayal is frank--Maia has very realistic impulses to hurt Setheris, to punish him--he fights with himself on these impulses, eventually finding a way to keep himself away from the bad memories that Setheris conjures without ruining his cousin's life. Maia's adventures with romance are similarly nuanced. The first time he sees a female elf in eight years, he almost slobbers on himself. He ends up infatuated with an opera singer; his obvious desire for her makes him the butt of jokes in his court.  But he doesn't order her to warm his bed, although he knows he could, because he understands that it would be an embarrassing experience for both of them. In all of his dealings with people who challenge him, Maia lets compassion rule him.

How is such a paragon of compassion (and a teenager, at that--Maia is 18 when he takes the throne) realistic? Because Addison shows Maia thinking through his feelings. The inwardness he developed after years of isolation and unhappiness allows for a very realistic conflict between Maia's impulses and his higher nature.

The novel doesn't end in flowers and rainbows. Maia doesn't develop a cadre of chums with whom he can confide when the crown gets too heavy, and he doesn't marry the sexy opera singer. But he makes some good decisions for the country, and begins to build a legacy he'll be proud to leave. And while responsibility has isolated him as effectively as ever, he realizes the relationships he does have, although they can't really be called friendships, are enough to nurture him as he moves forward.

Extra goody-good bits:

  • Addison's political landscape is so fully-realized that, although these issues never take center stage, her book touches on LGBT issue, women's rights, and worker's rights.
  • Also, her language-building rocks. No cheesy half-baked names for things here. And there's a glossary in the back with partial grammatical explanations. Love it.