Disclaimer: This post contains spoilers about episode 3.06, “Ariel”, of ABC’s Once Upon a Time.
Forgive me, handful of people who read our blog. I will address the hot mess that was “Ariel” in a moment, but first I need to come clean about two things.
The first is I’m the reason Kerry, Becca and I are here at WWFTP, blogging. It started with emails, sometimes full of Feels, sometimes full of snark, to Becca recapping each week’s episode of Once Upon a Time, as she normally works Sunday evenings and often missed part or all of the show. Over time, I started emailing the same recaps to Kerry because she, too, wasn’t always home or otherwise able to watch. These emails would turn into discussion threads of seven or more emails between the three of us picking apart the gaping plot holes, and then we started talking about other shows. I suggested we take our plot discussions to the next level and start this blog, which is why we’re all here.
My second confession is this: There was a time I knew every word of every song in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. I watched it often enough that, more than 20 years later, my older sister still can’t watch the movie and won’t, not even to appease her three year old. When I was in first grade, my mom broke down and bought me the official Little Mermaid costume from the Disney store. I still know where the bright red wig is, and I fondly remember showing up in costume at school, where I wandered around hand-in-hand with my best friend, who dressed as Belle in her gold ball gown. Although Ariel is the character I relate to the least, especially as she’s portrayed in the Disney movie, hers is still a story I normally can’t help but sit and watch, transfixed and rapt.
What’s inspired this bout of full disclosure? Rest assured, it’s not a desire to share everything about myself. It’s complete and utter frustration with how badly Once, and in particular this story, are being handled by the show runners this season. As much as I commend them for focusing on a single narrative arc in the first half of this season – namely, the rescue of Henry from Neverland – I can’t say as I approve how that arc has been executed. The storytelling from week to week has been uneven and studded with plot anvils, those visual or verbal cliffs notes writers drop along the way because they don’t trust their audience to follow along and think for themselves. And “Ariel” was no different.
This week’s episode had three distinct plots: Emma, Prince Charming, Snow White and Capt. Hook hunt for Neal to determine whether or not he’s dead; Regina and Rumplestiltskin find each other and agree to work together to rescue Henry and defeat Peter Pan; and, in our flashback of the week, Snow White and Ariel met and became friends.
The Emma-centric plot consisted of a lot of jungle wandering and a poorly lit cave scene with some truly maudlin truth-telling. Arguably, Jennifer Morrison’s emotional reunion with Michael Raymond-James’ Neal was the sole redeeming element of this week’s Henry related story. Morrison’s tears never feel forced; rather, she manages to capture the authenticity of a woman who has spent decades training herself not to show emotion rediscovering her capacity to feel.
Someone in the writer’s room clearly decided to capitalize on the appeal of Lana Parrilla and Robert Carlyle by choosing to (finally) pair Regina and Rumplestiltskin together. As delightfully campy as each can be on their own (and no one else on the show chews scenery the way these two do), their rapport is magnetic: They can convey years of enmity and cautious trust in a few words or a gesture. With any luck, this alliance will continue for at least a few more episodes, and we’ll be treated to a little of their old master-and-apprentice relationship.
However, not even JoAnna Garcia Swisher’s charming turn as Ariel, the mermaid in love with a human prince, couldn’t save how badly Hans Christian Anderson’s story of star-crossed love was flubbed.
As much as I don’t mind changes contributing to making a story more interesting (i.e. changing Ursula from sea witch to mother goddess); or those alleviating any hand-wavium (i.e. a practical, mermaid physiology cause for Ariel gaining legs), I can’t forgive the dearth of nods to the 1989 film or the completely nonsensical choice to make Regina masquerade as Ursula. The former doesn’t make much sense, considering how eagerly the show has embraced nods to other Disney properties. The latter was insulting, between the half-assed direction to Parrilla to either vaguely mimic a Caribbean accent or a speech pattern like Divine, and the decision to double up with Regina as Ursula.
While the choice could be excused considering the later reveal that Ursula is both real and still alive was a clever little twist, how much more interesting could the episode have been if Regina had allied herself with Ursula, only to double cross the goddess at the end? (And, in that case, the show could have broken up its largely white-washed cast by using the same actress who gave the real Ursula a voice, which would have pleased her many fans.)
But, more to the point, what I find inexcusable was the show’s decision to turn Ariel into a plot point. Her introduction through a Snow White-related flashback barely mirrored either of the present-day Neverland plots, and she played second-fiddle to Snow White as a pawn in the struggle between the erstwhile princess and Regina.
Furthermore, when she reappeared at the episode’s close, it was only at the behest of Regina and to act as a messenger for the evil duo. Ariel’s lack of importance to the overall progression of the plot is illustrated by the way she only has a voice at the whim of Regina. Although the original story does include Ariel losing her voice, which was her signature feature, in both the original and the Disney cartoon, she at least had some measure of free will. Here, Once has reduced Ariel to a bit player in her own story who can’t even choose to escape her curse.
It’s frustrating to be irrationally angry with a show that has previously brought my friends and I so much entertainment, and it’s insulting for a character, originally imagined as a parable about love and sacrifice, to be reduced to little more than a footnote in someone else’s story. Badly done, show. Badly. done.