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A Chipped Cup: More Problems with Belle and Rumplestiltskin

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Say what you will about Once Upon A Time (and there are lots of mocking and critical things to say), but it’s typically been a show with very progressive views on family and on its female characters. It has to be, considering how tangled its family trees are. But in the past couple of weeks alone, it’s featured a curse-breaking “kiss of true love” of an adoptive mother for her son, and Emma “ruining” Hook’s dashing rescue by escaping herself before he had chance to show up.

So why has the show dropped the ball so horrifically with Belle and her relationship with Rumplestiltskin? Since her first appearance on the show, Belle has gone from an interesting and intelligent character to a figure who literally only exists to worry about Rumplestiltskin and to blindly insist, despite all evidence, that he’s a “good man.” She rarely even speaks to any other character (at least, not when Rumplestiltskin is alive), and when she does speak to others, it’s almost exclusively about Rumplestiltskin. Finding Rumplestiltskin. Saving Rumplestiltskin. Helping Rumplestiltskin. Doesn’t she have anything else to offer? You’d think all that book learning and those research skills would prove useful in cases that don’t involve her “true love.” After many episodes of Rumplestiltskin screaming at Belle, of her defending him after he tortured people, of so many incredibly creepy things, I didn’t think it could get any worse.

And now they’re married. With a bit character officiating and tearful romantic speeches about how nobody is perfect and a really ugly hat, they declared their eternal love and tied themselves together forever. And pretty much every moment of it reinforced how and why their relationship is horrifyingly problematic.

Rumplestiltskin proposed to Belle by giving her the dagger that can be used to control him, symbolically suggesting his commitment to being a good person while literally giving Belle the power to stop him whenever she chooses. He does this, he says, because he trusts her, and because he wants to be worthy of her, and then he proposes. And that’s all very nice, except that he is knowingly and wilfully deceiving her. He made a copy of the dagger so that he could trick Belle into believing him (not that it was necessary, considering her naivety and lack of backbone), while still doing whatever evil he chooses, including killing someone she and everyone else specifically asked him not to kill. He’s not only tricking Belle, he’s also using her in part of a scheme to protect himself and to deceive everyone else. He lies to her, and he manipulates her, and he has absolutely no intention of following her wishes. In fact, this act frees him from her wishes, and also from her disapproval, since she will believe he can’t do anything she disapproves of again.

And that’s not even touching on the unhealthy idea of one half of the relationship having complete power over the other. It would be creepy even if it hadn’t been a fake. But the lie of it is skin-crawl worthy to an even high degree.

Then we have the wedding itself, which was not only a rushed affair but seemingly secret. They got married in the woods, during a big event that involved pretty much every other person in Storybrooke, with no one else around except her father. Their “heartfelt” vows contrasted with the very open, very joyful scenes of Snow and Charming introducing everyone to their new son, as Rumplestiltskin and Belle stood isolated from everyone. And we’re supposed to believe that they’re kicking off a healthy, totally-non-abusive marriage this way?

And then there are the vows themselves. Both of them speak about Rumplestiltskin’s “darkness,” about how Belle is the one who saved him, how she sees “the man behind the monster,” while the show once again emphasizes that all of this is based on the lie of the dagger. She says she loves him for his flaws, because everyone has flaws, suggesting that trying to skin Robin Hood, and having a penchant for murder, and shouting and lying and violence are all perfectly normal, perfectly healthy. And the show, I think, does want us to believe that. This isn’t a play on Beauty and the Beast where the relationship actually is messed up and we’re supposed to hope Belle escapes and becomes her own person again. It’s simply meant to be Beauty and the Beast, with all of its potential issues, and plenty of new ones, laid bare.

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What happened to Belle?

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Last season in Once Upon A Time, Belle seemed to become consumed by her status as “Rumplestiltskin’s love interest.” She was attacked and lost her memory to cause him angst. She gained a second personality (not her Storybrook personality, because she didn’t have one, but a whole extra personality) to cause him more angst. She regained her memories when Rumplestiltskin needed her to, with no further explanation. And throughout the whole thing, it was always about “how will this affect Rumple?”

So I don’t know whether it’s good or bad that Once Upon A Time has done away with all pretence this season and completely eliminated Belle as a character in her own right. The actress still appears in the show, of course. She has several scenes, wears her Disney blue dress, . But she has been quite literally reduced to a character entirely for Rumplestiltskin’s benefit.

Right now, it seems like she is a figment of his imagination, thrown into the mix so that Rumplestiltskin has someone to communicate with. She admonishes him, warns him, listens to his ranting, challenges his claims, and generally exists entirely as a sounding board for him. At most, she is his moral compass, but still not a character in her own right.

The other alternative is that Belle’s appearance is a trick from Peter Pan, designed to somehow unsettle or manipulate Rumplestiltskin. But again, Belle’s entire presence is for Rumplestiltskin’s benefit. We can’t even say that her plotline this season is Rumple-focused, because she literally does not have one. Her face and voice are present, but her character is not.

Of course, it could be worse. Belle technically hasn’t been fridged. She didn’t die back in Storybrook, with her ghost/memory now appearing in Rumplestiltskin’s scenes. But as we know nothing about what is occurring back in Storybrook, and as she’s pretty much the only major living character left behind, she might as well be. And as the show isn’t showing scenes from Storybrook, and as Belle’s likeness is appearing in every episode anyway, it makes absolutely no sense that Belle remained behind. The only explanation is that the writers thought having Belle as a fully-fledged character, with thoughts and motivations and emotions of her own, would add too many complications to the Rumplestiltskin angst plotline, and so they decided to leave the three-dimensional character behind and only use the vague idea of her instead. At least the actress is still employed, I suppose, although even she seems to be phoning it in… understandable, considering how her character has been reduced.

I know that, in general, Once Upon A Time is a badly written cheese-fest that always fails to meet expectations. But behind that terrible writing and even more terrible CGI, the show has managed to have some excellent female characters, and to even focus on the supportive and antagonistic relationships between very different women. Untraditional families, female power, bisexuality… the show has covered a lot of ground that is unexpected and really exciting in a Disney-inspired series. Which just makes me wonder even more why Belle has been reduced and misused so much. Belle is one of Disney’s most popular princesses, much more so that Snow White. She has major viewer appeal, even without any further development. So why has she then been swallowed by Rumplestiltskin, instead of becoming a protagonist in her own right? Are the writers so in love with their antagonist/anti-hero, and with the romance, that they can’t see what they’re doing? Do they think that Belle’s only appeal is in her relationship to her Beast?

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Once Upon a Time in Wonderland

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After the disappointment that Once Upon A Time has become, I really shouldn’t be started another show by the same writers in the same universe. Ever since it was announced, the clunkily titled Once Upon A Time in Wonderland has seemed a bit… unnnecessary. Once has always had some good characters and ideas, but it’s let down, again and again, by truly painful writing and an apparent lack of long-term vision. Who would expect a spinoff series to be any different?

Well, after a rather glowing recommendation from a friend, I checked out the first two episodes of the new show. And I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Really. Whether or not you watch Once Upon A Time, this might well be one to watch.

First, Alice is a rather interesting badass. It makes sense that Alice in Wonderland would grow up to be rather fearless, bold and brave, intelligent, resourceful, and adaptable to any situation. She’s also rather ruthless — instead of being concerned about pure goodness to an eye-roll-worthy degree, like some of our heroes in Once Upon A Time, she is willing to do whatever is necessary to get things done. She is, in short, a fairly typical adventuring hero. Except that she’s also a girl.

Which brings us to the most exciting element of the show. The main plot is a subversion of the typical “damsel in distress” narrative. Alice’s true love Cyrus has been captured by Jafar, and she is determined to find and rescue him. Beyond sending the very occasional message, there’s nothing that Cyrus can do (at least at the moment) except sit in a cage and wait for Alice to find him. For once, the guy in the couple plays the Princess Zelda role, while the girl is the one who must use all her brains and skill and risks life and limb to save him.

As a concept, I’m kind of in love with it.

In her travels, Alice also has a non-romantic male sidekick, the Knave of Hearts, otherwise known as Will. He’s a wanted man and kind of a jerk at times, and the fact that he’s the only consistent person around her means that the show isn’t a Bechdel pass by a longshot. But he makes for an interesting dynamic — he doesn’t want to be there, he’s mostly only out for himself, and he needs rescuing more than occasionally, but trust and reliance is gradually developing between them. Because who wants to adventure alone?

As far as the villains go, they’re better than most of the ones that Once has seen in recent years, although the why of them is still somewhat hard to puzzle out. Naveen Andrews makes a decent Jafar, even managing to capture the tone of voice of the movie character, and although the Red Queen occasionally seems somewhat bland, her alliance with and battle against the far-more-powerful Jafar has some real potential for the future. And lest we think that all non-white characters in the Once world are either evil or dead, Alice’s genie love interest is also a POC. He’s played by a Mexican-Dutch actor, rather than a Middle Eastern one, but it’s a start.

And the writing? It’s less cringe-worthy and more consistent than Once Upon A TIme has been, well, ever. You’re probably not going to be swooning over the perfect dialogue, but it hasn’t made me want to roll my eyes yet, and there are some clever touches.

All in all, it looks like a promising little mini-series! The protagonist is fun, the costumes are pretty, and it’s definitely different from most TV fantasy fare right now, in a good way.

Just don’t watch it in HD. The CGI is too painful for words.

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Once Upon A Time: Straight On Til Morning

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This season of Once Upon A Time started so promisingly. Unfortunately, Straight On Til Morning captured not what the show had the potential to be, but what it has become: inconsistent, sloppy, and kind of confusing.

It’s a shame that “consistent character arcs” have been thrown aside for flip-flopping redemption vs evil stories. It’s a shame that Belle has become nothing, in personality or plot, without her beast. It all had so much potential. And it all pretty much fell apart.

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Once Upon A Time: The Evil Queen

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Once Upon A Time is seriously stalling as it gets into its final weeks, revealing the fact that neither its plot nor its characters have had much direction this season. Sure, things have happened, and people have changed, but it’s been more of a long ramble than a plot-arc that is now hurtling towards its conclusion.

The most clear problem in this episode was Regina and Snow White. The writers need to pick: is Regina a sympathetic character with good in her, or is she really just evil? And if it’s the latter, why doesn’t Snow finally accept that and be the badass she’s otherwise capable of being?

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Once Upon A Time: Lacey

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Depending on how you tell it, Beauty and the Beast can be a pretty problematic fairy tale. Girl is locked up with a beast and develops Stockholm Syndrome, falling in love with him and curing him of his monstrous ways.

In its previous Beauty and the Beast episode, Once Upon A Time did a good job of working with this. Rumplestiltskin made a bargain to save Belle’s kingdom if she agrees to go and work for him. She’s scared of him, but (and correct me if I’m remembering wrong) he’s nothing more than a bit testy with her. She quickly gets to know him, sees beyond his appearance and falls for him.

Unfortunately, this episode decided to expand upon the “beast” phase of their relationship, making explicit that their relationship is messed up at best, and deeply disturbing at worst.

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