I continue to be impressed by Once Upon A Time‘s willingness to take chances. They certainly did that again in this episode in creating Dr. Whale/Frankenstein’s Land Without Color. To take the idea of black and white films then extrapolate a whole land that exists in black and white was utter brilliance. It also provides a perfect jumping off point for the third part of my discussion on magic; this time the nature of magic within the series.
But first some comments on the episode itself. First of all, I was utterly stunned at the ease with which Cora put Rumple to a “truce” as well as worming her way back into Regina’s world. This seemed totally out of character for both Rumple and Regina. At first I just put it down to an uncharacteristic sloppiness in writing, but then I considered what we’ve seen of Cora so far. We’ve seen her just a easily get what she wanted from Emma, Snow and even Hook in the past. She seems to have some unusual power in that regard and so far I’ve only seen one person resist it openly: Aurora. Remember, too, that Cora did not take this one failure kindly.
I’ve been surprised before at how rapidly they are moving the plot along and tonight was another of those instances. I was sure that Rumple would call in his favor with Emma and that it would be to look for his son. What surprised me was that it happened so fast. I expected more time to be spent on Belle and her loss of identity. This is progressing solidly along the path I predicted in my previous analysis. It is clear that Belle is going to have to fall in love with Rumple again on the terms of the curse if the curse is to be broken. I wonder how long this will take to resolve. One of the things that stand out about this season has been the lack of “filler” episodes. Even the episodes setting events up have been packed with development. The one thing in this arc that surprised me was Rumple’s threat at the end of the show. There of few people in Storybrooke who might have any degree of sympathy for him. Every one of them was in the loft when he leveled his threat. And regardless their feelings toward him, they do like Belle. It’s a sign of the rage and stress he’s under that he is threatening the only people that could possibly be allies.
Since I’m obligated to say something about him, I’ll just say this about Greg Mendel. For me, he’s more of a distraction than anything. No, I don’t think he’s simply a “Red Shirt.” They wouldn’t have given him such a significant name if they were going to quickly dispose of him. Keep in mind that Mendel is the Father of Genetics. I suspect this is going to have a payoff later in the series. Though the way the story is moving, I’m not going to make any bets.
Finally regarding the story; until In the Name of the Brother, if you had asked me who the most uninteresting character in the series was, my answer would have been Dr. Whale/Dr. Frankenstein without hesitation. In this world he had been just a drunk letch. In the other Land, he’s just your typical mad scientist. It is clear now – especially since it has come out that David Anders knew who Dr. Whale was from Day 1 – that they have been keeping this character on hold for some time now. Rather than Emma’s “bolts on the neck” image of Frankenstein (the monster) that is so common with the public today, we got the deeply conflicted scientist dealing with the consequences of his actions that we see in Mary Shelly’s classic novel. In fact, he notes to Ruby what may well be one of the key themes of the book; that, “all science comes with a price.” Keep this version of Rumple’s phrase in your mind. It is going to be as important as the original version.
Perhaps my sudden interest in this character comes from the fact that I can so deeply relate to him now. You see, I understand his conflict very well. In my younger days, I was the senior clinical scientist developing automatic defibrillation technology. What that meant was that I was quite literally having the docs stop patients’ hearts to see if our creation could bring them back. Like Whale, bringing back life with bolts of electricity was part of my daily work. I can tell you first hand that the price of that kind of science is two-fold. First is that holding that kind of life and death power in your hand leaves you susceptible to an arrogance that can quickly grow into hubris. Also that even if you do good and nobody is harmed from that kind of research, the stress will eventually break you. No, I wasn’t going to throw myself from a pier, but I was found under my desk crying once. So yes, I can attest first hand that all science does come with a price.
This takes us directly into the discussion of the nature of magic in Once Upon A Time. All magic comes with a price; even good magic. We’ve already seen it. Nova and Dreamy paid the price of good fairy magic; unrequited love and Dreamy’s change into Grumpy. (I wonder if we’ll see any more of that arc?) Pinocchio becoming a living thing also had a price; living a life of integrity and truth. What will be Emma’s price for magic? Will she be seduced by the power? Though her magic is based on the love in her heart, will that love be corrupted as was Regina’s? Even power used for good can corrupt man’s fallen hearts.
It was Arthur C. Clark that said any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. In the case of OUAT, we see this reflected in that science and magic seem to extract prices of a similar nature. I think we see a similarity between the two in another sense. Science and magic are something both learnable and an inherent part of one’s nature. We see that with Regina studying under Rumpel for the former and in Emma’s defeating Cora as an example of the latter. I know that many speak of science as something learned, but there is also the “art” of science — that something you are born with which cannot be learned, that makes a true scientist. It is something that inherently drives how you look at, and interact with, the world.
If you take this view then magic items become the magical equivalent of our technology. Almost anyone can learn to use a computer. That doesn’t mean you know how to program them. We’ve seen this demonstrated again and again in OUAT. It’s also pretty strongly implied that even magic from items also has a price, though apparently the price from “good” items may not be necessarily negative.
This brings up a question that may not be so easily answered. Is there a distinction between good magic and evil magic? Or is the distinction in the person and how they use it; incidentally affecting the price one pays? Emma’s protection of her heart and her blasting Cora away was an act of self sacrifice. An act of love for her mother. It was the power of unconditional love made manifest. Something I believe was called “the ancient magic” in Narnia when Aslan made his sacrifice. Cora and Regina’s penchant for ripping out hearts is the other end of that spectrum — clearly an act of evil. This tells me that it is the intent and soul of the person that is the determinant. That does NOT mean that it’s ok to rip out someone’s heart if you have good intentions. If an act is inherently evil, then masking it with good motive does not change its nature. Indeed considering man’s fallen nature, this is likely to be one of the inherent prices of OUAT’s magic. Just like science. I think this applies to both inherent magic as well as most magical items. I’ll discuss the exceptions later.
In fact, another real-life example may be in order. In my defibrillation experiments we were also hooking up high risk patient in hospital rooms. The intent being that if that patient had a code – a cardiac arrest – it would be able to respond far faster than any human. That’s a good thing, right? But what about when instead of saving a life, you’re prolonging the death of a brain-dead body where the “person” is long gone? Very similar to the situation Regina found herself in with the golem Daniel. A situation with which I’m familiar. Regina’s use of magic there, I would argue, was a good thing. The pain and grief that was its price, also was a good thing. Grief is a cleansing process and in this case was a necessary first step of many towards her redemption.
This discussion would not be complete without looking at Rumpelstiltskin and his magic. While he has tried to use his magic with good intent at times — indeed, he acquired his magic with the intent to save his son — his efforts seem to always corrupt themselves. Why is this? Remember where Rumpel got his magic. The knife of the Dark One. A magical item. Rumpel’s magic is not inherent; it is the result of the use of that item. The magic of the knife is inherently evil, as is the act required to gain its power. That is what makes his path of redemption so different than Regina’s. In his case, he will have to give up his corrupt power it is not something with which he was born. Unconditional love is still the key, but it will be down a very different road.
And this brings me to one last question. What of fairy dust? We saw fairy dust of evil fairies used to turn trolls to cockroaches. While it was done to save Charming and could even be considered a necessary act, I’d question if it could be considered “good.” But what about the dust made by the good fairies? Can it be used for evil? Would it even work if it was tried? Personally, I’d like to see more exploration into the world of the fairies at some point in the show.
So to summarize, magic in Once Upon A Time is the typical magic of children’s stories and fairy tales. It’s a mechanism to move the plot along and a tool to address the moral questions that are such an integral part of these types of stories. And while its moral compass draws from the user’s heart, certain acts – just like in our real world – are still inherently evil. So what are your thoughts?