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'Once Upon A Time' 2.06: "Tallahassee" or "Take Me Home, Country Roads"

 

“Tallahassee” was a problematic episode for me.  We’ve been promised Emma Swan’s backstory for some time now, and this week the show gave us just that.  We had two concurrent storylines, both led by Emma: one from when she was 17 and one happening in Fairy Tale Land.  Both plots were about Emma not being able to trust people – about how she learned not to trust the things people say and how she’s unable to allow herself to be vulnerable because of the consequences that shape her when she does.  I’ve noticed that, this season, the show is focusing episodes on single characters and for me, that makes it seem disjointed.  I much preferred it when an episode featured the ensemble cast because it felt much more inclusive, as opposed to stalling the move forwards to show us lengthy flashbacks in order to tell us more about characters.  There was little to no action in Storybrooke this week, save for the final scene between Henry and Charming/David, and I can’t help feeling that too much attention given outside what we’ve established as the central location of the action might not do the show any favors.

But I can’t help feeling that, although this was ostensibly a story about Emma, it was really about the men in her life: Neal Cassidy (Henry’s father and hey – it’s the guy from the first episode of the season!), August and Hook.  In an episode that was intended to be Emma Swan’s “Stable Boy”, I ended up feeling as though all it managed to do was detract from HER emotional response and progression and, instead, focus on the ‘male gaze’.  In essence, we might have seen Emma’s past and present, but it was depicted contextually as how she related to men, and how they manipulated her for their own gain.  What I came away with was a deep sense that Emma and Regina might very well be two sides of the same coin in that their lives were pretty much directed by the influence of men (Regina was duped by Rumple, FrankenWhale and Jefferson) in order to place them where these men wanted them to be.  Moved around like chess pieces, in fact, on a board not of their own making.

Now, in a show that purports to show us ‘strong’ female characters, and certainly in a show where the three female leads are the protagonists, I can’t help feeling like “Tallahassee” fell short of the mark in maintaining that.  And in comparison with the other female characters in the show – Belle, Regina, Snow, even Cora to some extent – there’s an undercurrent of control exerted by the male figures in their life: father, boyfriend, husband and mentor, that makes it seem as though really, everyone is a victim of machinations far beyond their control.

Having said that, this episode was meant to explain more about Emma’s background and illuminate some of her traits that we’ve seen in Season 1 and so far in Season 2 and it achieved that in part – explaining why she doesn’t trust anyone and why love is difficult for her to feel, indulge in and even believe in.  No wonder Henry’s fairytales were such a hard sell for her.

In Fairy Tale Land, Emma and Hook are set with the task of climbing the infamous beanstalk and stealing a magic compass from the giant who lives in a castle at the top of it.  The compass is necessary for them to get back to Storybrooke, as Hook explains in the exposition at the beginning of the episode.  They can open a portal, sure, but unless they know where they’re going – which the compass will help them do – then they could end up anywhere.

Jorge Garcia makes a pleasing cameo as the giant.  There’s a part of me that wonders if Eddie and Adam (yes, we’re on first name terms now, shush) have a plan to include ALL the LOST alumni in the show to one extent or another and, if so, then can I put in an early request for Josh Holloway and Elizabeth Mitchell, please?  I don’t care what they do or who they play; I’d just like them in this show.  Thanks, guys.

What the show does particularly well is focus on reoccurring themes and ideas.  So when Emma tells Hook, Snow, Aurora and Mulan what she knows about Jack and the Beanstalk, we’re reminded that the stories we have in this world are a diluted version of what actually happened.  And that’s kind of what the show is about, isn’t it?  Remember the opening titles of the pilot episode, where we’re told about storybook characters that we know…or THINK we know?  I feel like the show does well to remind us that this isn’t a straight retelling of fairytales, and that fairytales in and of themselves are a LOT more complex than our storybooks insist.  But not just that – the fairytale CHARACTERS are also a lot more complicated and nuanced than we’ve been led to believe.  And I like this; it reaffirms some of the ideas that we’ve already been given and questions that we’ve asked, such as ‘why does the Evil Queen hate Snow?’, or ‘why is Grumpy so Grumpy?’.  The show also reflects this in the dialogue it uses and it’s a solid link between episodes, character progression and also the general overtone of trying to reimagine fairytales for a modern world.

Hook tells Emma that the truth about Jack and the giants is “far more gruesome”.  In fact, he says that “Whatever story you think you know, my dear, is most certainly wrong.”  And, as Mulan points out, the beanstalk “looks like death”.  She’s a happy-go-lucky sort, that Mulan, isn’t she?  But still has no personality to speak of, which is a little disappointing considering she’s one of the great Disney heroines.

I like Hook.  Out of all the men in this week’s episode, I like him the best.  You see, he might be a pirate and he might have a dubious moral code, but he’s honest.  It reminds me of a few episodes ago where Gold tells Charming that he’s “never lied”.  Hook doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what he is and that runs through the entire episode until, at the end, when Emma basically incarcerates him in the giant’s castle, he says “Try something new, darling; it’s called trust.”  Now of COURSE Emma’s not going to “take a chance that I’m wrong about you” but to be frank, she’s done worse.  MUCH worse, as we find out in her story set in our world.  But, one of the other things I like about this show is that the villains are ALWAYS more likeable than the supposed ‘good guys’ – they tend to give us better performances too, although I do think that Jennifer Morrison and Colin O’Donoghue have great chemistry together and established a nice rapport in this episode.

Their journey up the beanstalk is trying, however.  Hook is presumptuous about Emma, telling her that he can read her like an “open book”; he’s flirtatious and lecherous and takes far too many liberties with her that she constantly rebuffs.  I know we’re not supposed to like him, but I suspect I have a sneaking fondness for him because he’s also very charming.  He tells Emma that he sees the same look in her eyes that he saw in the Lost Boys of Neverland and that “an orphan’s an orphan”.  What’s annoying is that he’s right, isn’t he?  When he asks her if she’s ever been in love, Emma denies it until she sees the tattoo of Milah on his arm and realizes that THAT’S what Gold/Rumple took from him.  Then she confesses that maybe she HAS been in love.

Defeating the giant and getting hold of the compass provides the action sequences of the episode, with some swashbuckling on Emma’s behalf and some soul-searching on the giant’s.  Jorge Garcia really is great in this little role and manages to do quite a lot with not much source material.  Emma traps the giant and they have a conversation about how all humans are killers – Emma tells him that he’s wrong – and how the giant is “not the bad guy” and completely alone.  I think that,more than anything else, convinces Emma to show clemency towards him and there’s an odd sympathy that springs up between them.  She didn’t kill him even though she could, and he helps her understand that sometimes, what’s represented as bad isn’t always what it seems.

Remember how we’re constantly reminded that “perception is everything” in this show?  Yeah, well never more so than in this episode, where the giant tells Emma that “the victors get to tell the story”.  It makes you think, doesn’t it, of just how much we don’t know about Fairy Tale Land and this, more than anything, starts to blur how we view the characters in the stories we’ve been told so far.  I really like these ideas that the show keeps throwing at us – that stories are only given relevance and validity because of the person telling them.  So I have to wonder if maybe ALL of the ‘evil’ characters on the show have a shot at redemption if we can simply understand what motivates them.  And in a slew of winners and losers, it’s interesting that Henry, who instigated this entire thing in the first place, has only been told stories by those who indeed were those ‘victors’.

 

Speaking of winners and losers, however, the main thrust of the plot in this episode concerns Emma Swan, aged 17.  We go to Portland, Oregan, and see her as a young woman indulging in a life of crime.  We also see how she got her yellow bug and how she met Henry’s father.

Neal Cassidy is a name synonymous with the beatnik movement of the sixties, and was the inspiration for Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road”.  It makes sense, then, that the guy sleeping in the back of the yellow bug that Emma steals leads a pretty dissolute lifestyle, drifting from one place to another and never settling, committing petty crime and grand larceny just to eat.  It’s a little heavy-handed but the inference is there to describe Emma’s life as well as Neal’s.

Stopped by a traffic cop, Neal explains away Emma by telling the cop that he’s teaching his “girlfriend” to drive.  He even follows it up with a roll of his eyes and a dismissive “women”.  After the cop lets them off, Emma responds with “misogynist”.  Yeah, you know, at this point I’m not entirely sure that Emma Swan, aged 17, really knows what that means.  But the show certainly does, as subsequent events show Emma become a victim of the men around her who seek to move her towards her “destiny”.  This is where I started to get uncomfortable, because Emma and Neal start a relationship and we see them stealing from a shop and bogarting a hotel room.  Emma even offers to fence some stolen watches for Neal because she loves him.

This is the first time Emma’s ever said “I love you” to a guy.  Possibly to anyone.  And how is she repaid?  Well, August catches up with Neal and shows him something in a box (and I have to say, Eddie and Adam have promised we’ll find out what it is before the end of the season but honestly…talk about convenient plot points…) that convinces Neal to abandon Emma.  The two of them had previously planned to move somewhere and settle down – a real home, a domestic lifestyle that Emma’s never, ever had before.  And they choose Tallahassee.  I think what I found most fascinating about that is that the episode is named after a place that they NEVER go to together.  In essence, it’s their ‘happy ending’, and we know that Emma DID go there eventually and even stay there for a while.  But having a happy ending requires having someone to share it with and Emma was denied that because August convinced Neal to leave her: “You love her, good.  That means you have to do right by her.  She has a destiny and you, this life, you’re going to keep her from it.”

Once again, the male characters provide the emotional context for the episode.  The men in this show really are the most feelingsiest creatures on the planet – on ANY planet.  And even though I believe that Neal DOES love Emma, I can’t really forgive him for not fighting for her.  That again pings the underlying themes of fighting for true love and doing whatever you need to in order to get your happy ending, but in this episode, I ended up despising Neal for compounding Emma’s pretty crushing abandonment issues.  I mean, HE’S the one who suggests settling down, HE’S the one who convinces Emma that they can be together and live like other people do, and HE’S the one who claims to August that “I’m the best thing that’s ever happened to her.”

Yeah.  Not so much, Neal.

Despite the person we’re supposed to believe Emma is at this point in her life, I honestly didn’t really buy JMo’s performance.  Her mannerisms and speech patterns belonged to an older Emma, and even though she was rocking glasses and a ponytail, I found it difficult to believe that she was 17 and, largely, naïve about much in the world.  I can’t help feeling like Neal took advantage of her (and finding out that he was 24 didn’t help, either) and even though he clearly has feelings for her, he ended up using her just like August did.

Which brings me to my mini-rant on the character of August.  Remember when the Blue Fairy made him into a real boy and threatened with turning him back into a puppet if he wasn’t good, honest and kind?  Well he pretty much fails on all counts in this episode.  We already know that August abandoned Emma as a baby when he’d promised to take care of her – and yes, he was a child, so certain allowances can be made – but now he’s encouraging Neal to do the same.  August presents himself to Neal as Emma’s “guardian angel” and Neal, quite rightly, tells him that he’s doing a “crap job”.  But it’s more than that.  August is trying to make up for all the time he’s wasted exploring our world by taking everything good from Emma’s life in one fell swoop.  And if we’ve learned anything from this show, it’s that you simply CAN’T make up for lost time all at once.

I think what bothered me the most about this episode, though, is the amount of emotional manipulation that comes from all the men – Hook forces Emma to admit that she’s been in love and steamrolls over her feelings by TELLING her what she is; Neal falls in love with Emma and dangles the promise of something she’s always wanted – home – in front of her eyes before leaving her; and August is the mastermind behind it all, serving to strip Emma not only of her strength and agency as the protagonist of the show, but also of her first love (yes, I got Regina feels all over THAT, thanks) and, eventually, of her freedom as she ends up alone and in prison, pregnant with Henry.

Sometimes I have to wonder if the purpose of this show is to make everyone unhappy, you know?  If that what they’re telling us is that fairytales really DON’T exist anywhere and that a happy ending is some sort of elusive, make-believe concept that we create for ourselves in the belief that there must be SOMETHING else other than the life we’re currently living.  Unhappiness is a distinct theme of almost every episode; I just hope that, by tearing the characters down to such depths of misery, there’s going to be a payoff somewhere along the line.  As Mary Margaret told Emma back in Season 1, hope is very powerful.  I’m hanging on in there by the skin of my teeth, but I’m still hoping, okay?

What I found most confusing about this episode, though, was that this wasn’t really Emma’s story at all.  We never really experienced events through HER eyes – they were all told in relation to the male characters and they were the ones who possessed all the power, clearly.  August excuses his behavior and his abandonment of Emma with “Turns out I’m not that great at saying no.  I’m built that way.”  It’s a really poor excuse for what he forces Neal to do, and Neal himself had better learn to fight for what he wants with a bit more gusto if he’s going to appear in Storybrooke, which honestly, I fear is going to happen at some point this season.

In terms of giving us some background to why Emma is the way she is, the episode hit the mark.  But it really didn’t tell me anything about how she FELT and, unfortunately, there wasn’t much in JMo’s performance that filled in the blanks on that score.  Moreover, I’m not sure that reducing the purpose and strength of our hero in such a damning emotional way garnered the sympathy that the show wanted to, because all I ended up feeling was frustrated that yet ANOTHER woman was moved around from situation to situation, not through her own volition, but by the machinations of men who were acting pretty selfishly, all told.

Emma goes to prison for fencing the watches, after Neal calls the cops and she’s arrested.  Neal contacts August and gives him the keys to the yellow bug, along with a huge wad of cash.  He says that he wants Emma to have it – including the swan keychain that he stole for her that I believe Emma wears around her neck in Storybrooke.  But when the prison guard brings a letter from Phuket to Emma, the money is gone.  Really, August?  REALLY?  So everything the Blue Fairy told you to do and be was kind of redundant, right?  That’s low.

We’re also encouraged to judge Emma by other people’s standards, without much validity given to her own self-view.  The phrase “good girl” is used three times to describe her in the show: by Hook, when Emma volunteers to climb the beanstalk with him, by the cop who arrests her when she complies and goes quietly with him, and by the prison guard, when Emma offers no response or resistance to August’s gift of the car.  Like I’ve said, I enjoy the parallels the show makes through dialogue and I like how they play around with meaning and vocabulary, but this just kind of rankled with me.  It seemed like a patronizing description of Emma every time she did what someone ELSE wanted her to do, rather than when she was acting from her own free will.

And I think that’s what I’m left with after watching this episode: Emma, much like Regina, Belle and even Snow, has her independence removed and her free will suppressed.  She’s as much a victim of the plans of others as they were, under the guise of “destiny”, and is emotionally valueless, in the end.  It’s a distinctly unheroic Emma that we see in her prison cell at the end of the episode, being told that when she gets out, she’ll have a car and a baby.  And we all know what happened to Henry, don’t we?

Notable mentions: Snow stepped up to take care of Aurora (Mulan is about as emotionally comforting as a wet blanket, quite frankly) and we discovered that the sleeping curse enacted on them both has some disturbing side-effects, namely: nightmares of a red room.  Did anyone else get Twin Peaks feels about this?  It certainly gives credence to the notion that “all magic comes with a price” and not just for those who use it, either.  We latterly found out that Henry is also having nightmares in Storybrooke about the exact same thing.  So I’m thinking ‘portal’ of some kind, right?  Or, at the very least, some otherworldly place that might be connected to communication between lands, perhaps.

 

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