ONCE UPON A TIME
Season 2, Episode 2 (We Are Both)
This episode, like its first-season counterpart (“The Thing You Love Most”), delved further into the backstory of Once Upon a Time’s villains: the Evil Queen and Rumplestiltskin, particularly in how they met in the past. The episode also further explored Storybrooke’s citizens adjusting to the curse being broken and Prince Charming dealing simultaneously with the disappearance of his wife and daughter and with taking charge of the town and his grandson. This latter part of the episode was brilliantly done, but not what I focused on while watching. Prince Charming does have a wonderful speech about how their past (fairy-tale) selves and their Storybrooke selves are both part of their identities and that they are part of what makes them who they are, the good and the bad. I would further extrapolate that their Storybrooke identities are aspects of their fairy-tale selves that manifested in different ways in a different environment. It will be interesting to see them come further together, but what I really enjoyed this past week was the backstory of the villains.
I tend to sympathize with villains, whether I am meant to do so (as I think I am in this case) or not. Even cartoon villains can be portrayed in such a way as to be sympathetic. Yes, a villain’s methods may be abhorrent, but their motivations not necessarily so. The adage that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions is true in the extreme. Even bad intentions have underlying causes that are often pitiable. If someone is so tortured that they believe killing someone is a good idea, it is difficult to not have any pity for them. In this show, the villains are much more relatable than the heroes.
Unless your character is one-dimensional, such as in a picture-book or fable, I think it is impossible to portray a truly evil villain. Either they are non-human (and thus not capable of true evil) or they have layers to their characters that make up who they are. Dictators think they are doing all of their killings for the common good. Thieves want money to provide them with security. People are suffering physical or mental pain and want others to understand it. (All of those examples actually apply in some fashion to the Evil Queen, come to think of it.)
A major theme in Once Upon a Time is that evil is not born, but made. While there is some scientific evidence to the contrary (and even so only suggesting that evil is nurtured, not born outright), I would agree with this overall premise. Both of the major villains in the show started out as ordinary people. Rumplestiltskin was a poor man who spun wool. His major flaw was that he was cowardly and found in magic the courage to help his son. He had good intentions, but became reliant on his magic. Unfortunately, the same cowardice and fear of the unknown prevented him from changing. However, at least he admits that he has become a monster.
The Evil Queen’s character flaw, as was further demonstrated in this episode, was constantly wanting her mother to love her and seeking her approval, even as she tried to run away from the meticulously-orchestrated future that her mother had set up for her. Whatever she was like as a child, by her teen years, Regina (which works better than ‘Evil Queen’) was starved for her mother’s approval. All of the coddling and presents that her father could give her could not make up for her mother’s lack of love. Her mother, in addition to possessing magic power, wins the Stage-Mom of the Year in trying to have her daughter fulfil her power-hungry ambitions. Regina did not have much of a chance, and certainly not when she decided to give into Rumplestiltskin’s temptation. (Not that kind!)
I was impressed by the acting in this episode, particularly in the actress playing Regina’s ability to shift her voice so that she sounded like a frightened teenager. If this had been a radio play, I would not have assumed that they were the same person. Dressed in white and whimpering that she does not want to hurt anyone, it was hard to believe this was the future Evil Queen. Indeed, she probably never did want to hurt anyone, but it is much harder not to do so when you have the power to dispatch them. Just as people with money like to buy away their sins, people with power (magic or otherwise) like to bury their sins away, or simply act on them because no one will be able to stop them. Even with money and power, one usually still does not have the desire to hurt anyone unless they have hurt you somehow. Regina hated Snow White because she saw her as a) someone who caused her pain and misery, even unknowingly, and b) someone who had all that Regina wanted. Snow White was loved.
Toward the end of the episode, Regina realises that she is treating Henry the same way that her mother treated her. She loves Henry, albeit in an unhealthy, possessive way, and she genuinely wants to be loved back. She can’t understand why no one loves her back. Her entire life has been an exercise in trying to get people to love her, by force and fear if necessary. Magic has been her key to doing so, but Henry wants nothing to do with magic. Neither did she as a child. She decides she wants to redeem herself, and lets Henry go back to Prince Charming.
However, like many of us who want redemption and salvation, she locks her book of spells in a cabinet rather than burning it. I immediately thought: “Aha! Her insurance policy.” It felt very familiar as a Christian: we want to give ourselves to God, but we also want an insurance policy, even if we don’t realise it. The insurance policy might not be evil like a book of spells – it is usually inherently good. Family, friends, career, fame, social duties, etc. are all insurance policies, although not unimportant. For the Christian, only in God is their eternal life, but so many of us want something else as a back-up. Family and friends can keep our genes and memory alive. Our contributions to culture, science, business, society, etc. can be long-reaching and even world-changing. Notoriety of either the good or the bad kind can keep our name alive in the general population for centuries, if we are lucky. We are all guilty of wanting these types of immortality.
Villains, unlike heroes, face temptation and make the wrong choice. In that way, they are far more like ordinary people than their heroic counterparts. If they learn from their mistakes and attempt to change, they are even more like us. I am intrigued at what the writers are going to do with the story arc to redeem the Evil Queen.
On the other hand, this week is more adventures in Fairy-tale Land, and our heroines Snow White and Emma are likely going to prove that they too are multi-dimensional. Snow White has her dark side, after all. From the previews, it looks like she has not yet settled in to being a mom. Really, Snow – tell your daughter how to survive here, okay? She is in a foreign country. And Emma isn’t a baby anymore – she can learn things, but not if you don’t tell her!