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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Once Upon A Time In Wonderland: "Heart Of Stone"

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There was something off about Red Queen from the start. At first, it looked like a flaw in Emma Rigby’s performance; the character was too stiff, too forced to come off effectively as a villain. But as the series went on, the performances began to warm up. Naveen Andrews managed to overcome his costumes and props and generate something like actual menace—seductive menace, even, which is fun to watch. And the more chances Rigby had to play an emotion that wasn’t “icy disdain,” the more the Queen came into her own. Things took an especially interesting turn when a flashback revealed that the Queen was once a charming, idealistic young woman named Anastasia, who was deeply in love with Will Scarlett, aka the Knave of Hearts. In “Heart Of Stone” we see the pay-off to that first look back: the choices that turned Anastasia into the cold, selfish woman working in tandem with Jafar to keep Alice from her beloved genie. The flashback isn’t entirely convincing, but Rigby is. She does a fine job of showing how someone, struggling against the influences of bad parenting and hateful poverty, might make certain choices. Suddenly, the Red Queen’s awkwardness doesn’t seem so much like a limitation as it does a sign that her heart really isn’t in any of this, no matter how broadly she sneers.

Barring any unforeseen twists, this week’s review will mark the last week of official coverage for Once Upon A Time In Wonderland (maybe someone—maybe even me—will do a wrap up post when the show ends, if it lasts long enough to finish out the season, but no promises). I’m not sure I’ll miss it. Tonight’s episode continued the mild positive increases of last week, with a decent flashback, some fun back and forth between Alice and the Red Queen, and a nifty bit of business in a dank dark pit. Jafar tortured the White Rabbit for information, which was a good use of both characters; Jafar, to remind us how clever and dangerous he is, and the White Rabbit to remind us that he still exists. (At this point, it looks like John Lithgow did all his voiceover work in a 15-minute break between other projects. Although considering the show’s effects budget, maybe they just couldn’t afford to have a moderately convincing CGI creature on screen that much.) The show isn’t terrible, but it’s also not so great that it either demands attention or offers much to critique on a weekly basis. The landscapes are hideous, the acting’s pretty good, Sophie Lowe is excellent, and the writers tend to steal intelligently. There, you should be good for the duration.

“Heart Of Stone” did have one of the more egregious thefts in recent memory; while the end result differs, Alice’s test at the Great Divide is awfully reminiscent of the last “test of faith” from Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. But whereas Indy saved the day by walking across a camouflaged stone bridge, Alice has to walk on open air with only her love of Cyrus to support her. When that stops working, things get a bit more interesting. There’s even a visit from Alice’s younger self (which turns out to be an avatar of the magic dust, which—okay?), tempting our heroine to take the Red Queen’s life then and there. The only reason this generates any tension at all is Lowe’s intensity, which briefly makes it seem possible for a protagonist on a family friendly ABC fantasy drama to murder a defenseless enemy in cold blood. The whole storyline between the two characters ends up unsatisfying not because the dialogue is terrible or the performances bad, but because neither does anything even remotely unexpected. A few vulnerable moments from the Queen almost lead to something, but then she snaps back into full sneer mode. It’s nice that she uses the powder to free Will, but the whole section comes dangerously close to a narrative cul-de-sac. Even Alice’s use of the powder (which she cleverly keeps some of to herself) to find out where Cyrus is basically just has the two characters once again standing very far away from each other. I mean, it’s good that she knows a direction now, but that’s still a long way to walk.

Still, it was fine, y’know? Just as Cyrus’ big escape was fine (whoever suggested last week that Cyrus’ fellow prisoner is Jafar’s father, well, there was no official confirmation, but I’m guessing you were on to something). If the world were more convincing, if the show took some more risks, it would be worth recommending; as is, it’s… fine. The most interesting part was Anastasia’s story, which tried to suggest her journey from desperate lover to cold despot. It’s not a smooth transition. Whereas Jafar’s story worked because he started in a place of anger and dug his way deeper, Anastasia does truly appear to love Will and want things to work with him. This is done to suggest that Jafar is the true villain of the story (in that the Queen, though selfish, stands a good chance of being redeemed by true wuv somehow), but it also means that the narrative has to take some jumps. Those jumps—the way Anastasia goes from “We will make this work, mother!” to “Not a lot of food around here” to “Okay, I’m my mom now”—can create some surprising subtlety, implying the impact of parental disdain without ever outright stating it. Yet it also makes her less sympathetic, and a back story like this works best when we find ourselves empathizing with someone we once disliked. Anastasia imitating the disdainful ladies at court because she’s insecure and aspires to status? Very cool. Anastasia up and ditching Will to marry the King just so she can be queen? Less so. (A smarter approach might have been to have the King just be a tad more dickish; make him basically extort the younger woman into marrying him to save herself and Will. As is, he’s not very threatening, and her decision doesn’t completely jive with what we’ve seen before.)

I think that about covers it, yes? It’s been fun reviewing the series, even if it does make a complete hash of Wonderland as a concept. (Why was the King dressed in white? Shouldn’t he be the Red King?) I’m not sure if I’ll keep watching, but I will DVR it for a while, which is the next best thing. If the effects had been better, if the fantasy elements had been more than just a hodge-podge of public domain concepts, if the writers had managed to better capture the darkness and the light of the material which inspired them… who knows. It might’ve been great, or maybe it would’ve been a colossal crash and burn, instead of just an amiable, intermittently entertaining chunk of disposable television flotsam. You’re better off just reading the books, but that’s no surprise.

Stray observations:

  • “There’s darkness everywhere when the sun goes down.” -the Red Queen. Not a bad line, actually; almost sounds like something Lewis Carroll might have written.
  • Taking my boss Todd VanDerWerff’s lead, the end of this sentence is my 1200th word.