The flashback structure of tonight’s “The Serpent” isn’t a huge mystery. Once little boy Jafar makes eye contact with the terrifying Witch Lady, there’s no question the two will cross paths once again, and once little boy Jafar visits terrifying Witch Lady and asks her to teach him dark magic so he can get revenge on the Sultan who cast him aside, it’s only a short hop, skip, and jump through the rest of the steps to the end. The little boy becomes Jafar the adult, he makes tough choices to secure his position at Witch Lady’s side (his sexy, sexy position), the two plot to achieve the most powerful magic of them all, and finally, Jafar betrays the Witch Lady in a riff on her betrayal of his friend earlier in the episode. Not so he can get revenge, mind you. He just wants the all the power for himself, as such characters are wont to do.
So, this is predictable stuff. (Okay, I did not see the Witch Lady turning into Jafar’s power staff, that was unexpected and cool.) But predictability isn’t really a detriment in this case. On a show like Lost, the flashbacks were almost always centered on mysteries, holding our interest by promising answers—a promise that reflected the design of the show as a whole. Once Upon A Time In Wonderland doesn’t really have much in the way of unknowns. Sure, there are dark spots in our knowledge. Before this week, we didn’t know what was driving Jafar (although come on, he’s a baddie, and there’s power involved; it’s not like we needed a map), and whatever turned Anastasia into the Red Queen and broke Will’s heart is still a story waiting to be told. And the exact details of Alice’s eventual triumph, how she’ll defeat her enemies and reunite with her beloved Cyrus, along with what happens to her friends and companions (hey, remember the White Rabbit?), that’s all still up in the air.
But that’s the thing: All of that is going to happen. Jafar is going to lose, Alice is going to win, and she and Cyrus are going to have their happy ending. I could see the show trying for something bittersweet but with a slight hint of hope, but I am willing to bet money this story will not end with evil triumphant. That’s built into the promise of it. Some shows you watch for the ambiguity, the complex character development, the uncertain conclusions. Other shows, because you want to laugh. This show, you watch because you want to see good win, love find a way, and everything fade out with a happily ever after. That’s a built in value right there, and in its way, Jafar’s flashback adds to that value. Unlike Will’s flashback in the previous episode (which was okay, but bogged down by uninteresting dynamics), Jafar’s gives the villain a motivation, lets us know just how far he’s willing to go, and gives us a potential tool for his final downfall. (Witch Ladies do not like to be robbed of their powers and transformed into sticks.) It scratches an itch, a specific, and not particularly challenging itch, but an itch nonetheless.
“The Serpent” continues the trend of focusing more on non-Alice characters, which is kind of frustrating, in that Sophie Lowe remains the most compelling reason to watch this foolishness. Still, the more screentime he gets, the more Naveen Andrews seems to be enjoying himself, and once you get past the Disneyland Live Show costume, his Jafar is significantly more interesting than he appeared in the pilot; it didn’t hurt that the flashback gave him a chance to play wounded innocence and sexy, sexy cruelty, which are two things he does quite well. The Queen and Will’s squabbling could turn into something thrilling at a later date, but right now, given that he can’t die, and she can’t completely turn on Jafar just yet, it’s a fight without any real substance, especially considering we don’t yet know what precipitated their break-up. Lizard, or Elizabeth, is a fun addition, although so far, she exists mostly to pop in and out and give anyone writing fem-slash for the show more options than just Alice and the Red Queen. All in all, not bad, but keep in mind, this is also a show in which the two chief villains corner the hero, chat for a bit, try some light torture, and then let the hero go, for, um, reasons. Airtight plotting is not the name of the game here. But it moves quickly, and the bit where Will got turned into a statue at the end was a good twist, so all in all, a good night.
- The Collectors! Which are what, exactly? I guess they work for the Caterpillar. Anyway, it’s a neat name, even if it does remind me of a John Fowles novel that is so much better than any of this.
- “Basically, we could die, or we could run.” -Will. And hey, both are always on the table.
- Cyrus has this whole thing with a wishbone. It’s very metaphorical, if you’re into that.
- I’m still trying to decide if Alice’s wish—”I wish if the Knave Of Hearts dies then I die.”— was tactically brilliant or idiotic.