Character Journeys in Once Upon a Time: the Savior, the Evil Queen, and Rumplestiltskin

The last time I talked about Once Upon a Time, I posted an overview of the show’s pros and cons over its six season run. And there were plenty of both.

Now I’d like to get into more detail about the character journeys, and how I felt about their development. I’ll start off with the three characters who drive the show, the ones with the most agency. Emma Swan, daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, the Savior who wields light magic. Regina, the Evil Queen who hates Snow White–and who unknowingly adopted Snow White’s biological grandson. And Rumplestiltskin, a dark wizard who’s always playing his own game.

Emma Swan

As the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, Emma is the product of true love, a source of power that lets her wield light magic and act as the Savior. She grew up believing she’d been abandoned by her birth parents, had a troubled childhood, and went on to spend time in prison. When she became pregnant with her own child, she put him up for adoption, so he could be raised by someone better equipped for the job than she was. By the beginning of the story, she’d grown into a tough, emotionally-closed off bail bondsman.

In the first season, Emma is a bit too stiff and standoffish to be interesting. She grows into a more interesting character with time–and develops through some truly engaging plot work–but she never does quite manage to have that special something about her character that really makes her stand out. Regina, whether good or evil, always has a wicked swagger. There’s this characteristic gleam in her eye when she’s about to outmaneuver her enemy, and it’s glorious. Snow White manages to draw in the audience with a dichotomy to her character–she’s both this optimistic font of hope, and a badass tracker who can survive alone in the woods with a bounty on her head–fitting both of these aspects of herself together seamlessly.

Emma’s development is good, as she gradually (very gradually) lowers her defenses and starts letting people in. But the tough exterior that’s always keeping others at bay also manages to keep viewers at bay, and the show didn’t have to do that. It could have shown us her quirks in ways that the other characters in the show wouldn’t get to see.

Still, Emma manages to grow into a solid protagonist, and has a number of interesting plot lines to her story. Letting her parents back into her life after growing up without them is its own thing. Developing a friendship with Regina, as the person she feels like she has the most in common with, is a growing process–especially given how Regina has her own defenses in place, and Emma is the one who has to try to get past someone else’s walls for a change. And then there’s figuring out how to be a mother to a kid she didn’t raise (which she seems to deal with by trying to be a bit more like a friend than a mother to him.)

Not to mention the whole plot of season four, which starts off a little lackluster, but turns out to be more complicated than it first appears. Emma chooses to infect herself with a darkness to save someone else’s life. Her struggles to resist it end up serving as a great counterpoint to the struggles of numerous other characters–Regina, Hook, Rumplestiltskin–with darkness. And her fatal flaw remains ultimately unchanged. When under pressure, she closes herself off from everyone else and tries to go it alone.

Regina Mills/The Evil Queen

Having lost her first love to the machinations of her mother, Regina has always blamed Snow White for betraying her trust, allowing her mother to win. Ever since then, her heart was filled with vengeance, culminating in the curse that brought these fairy tale characters to Storybrooke. Except that she does finally allow someone into her life–she adopts a child, not knowing that this boy is the biological grandson of her archenemy Snow White and the son of a Savior who could break her curse. She starts this story as a villain, but eventually, she chooses to safeguard the family she has instead of seeking her revenge.

Back in the first season, Regina was far too one-note to be interesting–but she’s since grown into the most complex character on the show. Those early stumbles were irritating, and in one case, the show seems not to have understood how consent works. This is actually quite a big deal, especially because it’s never even acknowledged. (I can’t even look at the show in the same light if I don’t consider that scene a scripting error, because otherwise it just doesn’t make sense.)

But in isolation from the mess of that first season (assuming you can isolate it), Regina’s story is one long, complicated redemption arch.

I Iike that even as she strives to be better, she never becomes nice. She’s always sharp and snarky, ready to sink a vicious verbal jab–even while her actions themselves are much improved. Her evolution is gradual, moving a little further towards good every season.

There’s a stark difference between her motivations in the middle seasons of the show, where she wants to achieve happiness for herself, versus later on, when she’s no longer being good for selfish reasons. Towards the end of season five, there’s this amazing scene where she reveals that doing the right thing makes her miserable. That she doesn’t believe it makes her life better. It’s a powerful moment for her, because she’s stopped trying to be good for her own sake and started being good for other people, even while believing it goes against her self-interest.

Her character arc takes some strange turns, but I do appreciate that changing doesn’t come easily for her. She tries to take shortcuts sometimes, only for them not to work out the way she’d envisioned. There’s a gradual acceptance that she does have to take responsibility (except for the first season stuff that’s never addressed.) And while she’s not always great at it, she does at least commit to trying to be a better person.

Mr. Gold/Rumplestiltskin/The Beast

Rumplestiltskin is The Dark One–once an ordinary man, now imbued with a dark power that gives him only one weakness. That weakness is a dagger that allows anyone in possession of it to control him. He doubles as The Beast from Beauty in the Beast, arriving in Storybrooke after he’d fallen in love with Belle and lost her. His motivations are his own, and he begins as a bit of a wild card.

In contrast to Regina’s storyline, Rumplestiltskin starts out as the most interesting character on the show by far. But somewhere around seasons three or four, his story grows old. This is mostly because his character arc stagnates, and is put on repeat.

For the first few seasons, he’s a bit of an independent player who slowly tilts to the side of good because that’s where the people he cares about are. Then he regresses, tricking the people closest to him while ultimately grasping for more power–a character journey which could have been interesting, if it hadn’t dragged out for so long, and if the story had committed to it.

Instead, Rumplestiltskin fools Belle into thinking he’s a better man, she finds out the truth and rejects him, he convinces her to give him another chance, he goes back to manipulating her again, she finds out and rejects him, he convinces her to give him another chance…and so on and so forth. At some point, I have to wonder how anyone can keep moving past the things he does, especially considering how little he does to make up for any of it. 

And Belle forgives some seriously ridiculous things. Rumplestiltskin stomps all over her boundaries while they’re apart, in the name of protecting her. He traps her so she can’t get hurt. He almost uses magic on her to speed up her pregnancy against her will–and no, he doesn’t get credit for not going through with it, because it literally got to the point where she had to beg him not to do it. That it even came so close is massively not okay. Not to mention agreeing to have his and his family’s memories wiped to create an artificial world where they’re happy together, even though his family wouldn’t want that. Because his wants and needs are obviously more important than anyone’s, even the people he cares about.

It’s hard to take Rumplestiltskin and Belle’s relationship seriously, when her desires always take a backseat to his. I don’t see love or respect between them. I see the desperation to have someone stay with them, so they won’t be alone. Seriously, he tries take away her choices through sheer force of power. How can the show possibly turn their relationship back into a romance? It blows my mind that Belle is willing to forgive him after all this.

So Rumplestiltskin’s journey, to me, is the opposite of Regina and Emma’s–he starts out as a fascinating character, until his character arc stagnates. There were several great moments where he could have exited the show and ended his arc perfectly. But he stuck around, and the roles he was forced to fill didn’t work so well, and even ended up kinda creepy.

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Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day, A Ghost Story About Longing and Choices

A cornfield overlaying the image of skyscrapers in the background, lit by the light of day.

Image: Tor via Goodreads

Genre: Urban fantasy/ghost story

Synopsis: Following her sister’s suicide, Jenna dies in an accident before her time. She’ll remain as a ghost until she bleeds her remaining time from others–making them younger while making herself older, until she reaches her dying day, finally able to move on. Approaching that moment slowly, she’s adamant that she earn the time she takes. But she may never get the chance to move on, to find out if her sister is waiting for her. Because there are dangers in this world for ghosts who linger, and one of those dangers has come for the ghosts in Manhattan.

Series: A stand alone novella.

POV: First person.

Preview: Here.

Seanan McGuire always manages to weave emotion into her work, investing even the simplest things with significance. Home is practically a living, breathing thing in this novella. It calls out to Jenna even as everyone she’d ever known has passed.

Jenna herself is principled and compassionate, even as she draws away from others, forcing herself into isolation. Given that she’s dead, she has a different relationship with life than the living might, though she still considers it precious–she volunteers at a suicide hotline to earn the time she needs to move on, and adopts masses of elderly cats so they might end their days in peace and comfort. There’s always this sense of melancholy and loss about her, like she-almost-but-not-quite understands what she’s missing. 

The rest of the characters are interesting and varied as well. I love how individual and quirky they are, and how they’ve formed relationships with each other.

Brenda is an old witch, a corn witch, living far from the source of her power–and from the temptation of it. She and Jenna are regulars at the same diner, and have been for long enough to know they’re both far older than they should be. Their relationship is complicated by what they are, the warmth between them always tempered by the dangers witches can pose to ghosts.

Sophie is girl who sleeps in the streets and knows more than she should, though only sometimes. Jenna begins the story thinking of her as lost and beyond saving–which isn’t necessarily inaccurate, though not in the ways Jenna thinks–then progresses through the story learning more about her, and about the life she’s chosen.

Delia is Jenna’s landlord, a ghost offering affordable housing to both the living and dead in an increasingly expensive city. Friendly, welcoming, and tough, she sometimes hunts criminals on the streets of New York–the city’s own vigilante ghost. She and Jenna have very different personalities and outlooks on life–or death–yet there’s a closeness and understanding between them, brought on by how long they’ve known each other.

The worldbuilding and characterization is so powerful it overshadows the plot, and that’s alright, because I could read anything with these characters in it and be happy. Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is a ghost story, brought to life by the personalities that power it, by the richness of the world it exists in. It feels like it exists in a much deeper setting than we get to see, with only hints of the full reality peeking out when aspects of it become relevant to Jenna. That makes the story feel immersive, even when presented in a single novella. I really enjoyed it. 

Favorite Quotes:

“We’re always selfish, and we’re always hungry. We’ve just gotten better at looking at greed and saying ‘Oh, that’s self-interest, that’s all right.’ We’ve forgotten the way the word ‘enough’ feels on the tongue.”

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How Is It Even Possible for Agents of SHIELD to Be So Emotionally Powerful?

The agents of SHIELD over the green background, with an octopus symbol on it, the words read "Hail the new world order, Marvel, Agents of SHIELD"

Image: ABC via Wikipedia

Genre: Action/Superhero

Synopsis: SHIELD is tentatively united once again, just in time to face an AI gaining consciousness. When that AI threatens to undo their greatest regrets, however, the real question becomes: will they be able to bring themselves to fight against it?

Series: The fourth season is over, there will be a fifth.

I’ve Watched: All of it.

Verdict: I love this show.

Spoilers, because how can I possibly talk about such a heavy plot without them?

This half-season (though more like 2/3 of a season) really shook up the character dynamics in powerful and interesting ways. The story is split into two arcs. The first follows as an AI seemingly gains consciousness, creating problems for the main protagonists–and replacing them with LMDs (life model decoys) who have all their memories. The second involves the rescue of those who’d been stolen and replaced from the Framework, an artificial world where the characters are allowed to fix their deepest regret–an exercise which was supposed to be therapeutic, gone horribly wrong.

There are so many powerful character moments in both arcs.

LMD Arc

I will never be able to shake the memory of that brilliant, painful scene where Fitz and Jemma discover that one of them must be an LMD. There’s really only one or two episodes that deal with the eeriness of not knowing who around you isn’t themselves, who you can’t trust. But Agents of SHIELD uses those scenes to maximum effect.

Fitz and Jemma have been through so much, come so far. They’ve been partners and best friends long before they ever fell in love, and any moment creating conflict for them is always so powerfully poignant. And that scene, when we don’t know which of them is the LMD, when the LMD might not even be aware of who they are–it really struck me, the anguish coming from both of them. The speech Fitz made, putting himself out there like that.

Then of course, there’s how deeply shaken the whole thing left Jemma. How she’ll always have that memory of stabbing Fitz–even though it wasn’t really him–while he’s calling out to her, saying ‘it’s me, it’s me.’ I mean, damn.

The show follows that up with another powerful plot point, where Jemma and Daisy find each other in a den of enemies, taking so much solace from the fact that they’re not alone. The entire episode is amazing, from the emotional scenes, to the badassery of Daisy and Jemma taking on the whole base by themselves.

Not to mention, there’s the original LMD, who has all of the memories of the person she replaced in addition to some secret programming she wasn’t aware of. Her story, of discovering she isn’t who she thinks she is, of caring about people whom she can’t help but betray, people who will never see her the way she sees them–it’s downright tragic.

It’s mindblowing that this was just the set-up for the next arc, where Daisy and Jemma enter the Framework to try and wake up their friends.

Framework Arc

The Framework itself is interesting, as a concept. It was designed to fix the greatest regrets of the people plugged into them, and it does. But fixing their regrets doesn’t necessarily seem to make those people happy, or to improve their lives.

May fixes her greatest regret–and it’s still her greatest regret. (Not to mention, it snowballs into creating a much more dystopian world.)

Fitz fixes his greatest regret, and it changes his entire life. Shifts him away from becoming the empathic and compassionate person we know, into a ruthless man who cares deeply about a select few, and no one else.

Then there’s Mack, who’s greatest regret is the death of his daughter. The Framework gives him the memory of a life raising her, programs her into existence in a way that seems so real, it’s painful. Mack’s plotline follows him holding onto that reality, a world where he experiences a life with his daughter, whether she’s technically real or not. He holds onto it even as that reality crashes down around him, culminating in a heartbreaking scene.

The Framework creates a wonderfully interesting playground for our characters to navigate. Daisy and Jemma go in expecting to wake their friends up from a fantasy concocted to keep them trapped, some paradise they’d need to convince their friends isn’t real. But instead they walk into an entire other world, one that’s so realistic that pieces of it even pulls at them. Even despite them knowing that most of the people they meet are programs instead of those actual people. There are so many powerful scenes in the Framework I couldn’t possibly go through all of them.

And of course, it wouldn’t be Agents of SHIELD, if it didn’t find an opportunity to mess with Skye/Ward shippers. After teasing the ship, killing it, setting it on fire, and dancing on its grave over the course of four years–we’re finally given the metaphorical equivalent of an open-casket funeral and a nice eulogy.

The most amazing thing about the Framework arc in the end, though, is how it affects the characters when they wake up from it. Because while they do suddenly remember their real life, they also retain their memories of their lives in the Framework. Fabricated though the reality might have been, those memories are very real.

For Fitz especially, this is fascinating. Because he remembers being both a kind man, and a monster. He remembers both of those things coming to him naturally. He remembers a life with Jemma as his partner and the love of his life. But he also remembers a life with Ophelia as his partner, where Jemma was a stranger that he almost killed, because she hadn’t meant a thing to him. And all of these things feel real to him. He comes out of the Framework massively conflicted, and with a deep-seated sense of guilt. This comes at the end of the season, so the show’s had only a little bit of time to deal with it as of yet–but I’m super excited to see where this goes next season.

And finally, towards the end of the season, we do get a real situation where an AI attains consciousness and emotions. It’s an intriguing take on the subject, where the AI has the mind of an adult or a computer. But she has the emotional maturity and impulse control of a child. Naturally, she’d built herself a powerful body in the process of trying to gain autonomy, but now she’s an all-powerful blank slate–with the potential for either great compassion or callousness.

This arc brings out some truly raw emotions, and creates lasting consequences for the characters to learn to live with. The show isn’t perfect, but it so consistently creates powerful, character-driven scenes, that it’s one of my all-time favorites nonetheless.

Favorite Quotes:

“You don’t get to be modest and have a framed glamor shot on your desk.”

“To see a creature of logic and calculation now consumed with rage and hate…it’s sweet.”

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Why I Can’t Seem to Finish Mass Effect: Andromeda

You guys, I tried.

There are good, entertaining parts to this game–I’ve mentioned them before–but the parts in between them are too much of a slog. At some point, the anticipation that drives me through that slog to get to the good parts wears thin. Andromeda needs more than cool ideas. It has to execute them well, and consistently enough to keep the audience engaged. The game is made up of a series of good moments, and some great ones, with a lot of not-so-good stuff in between them. But what it needed was to draw the audience into a continuous story, and it doesn’t really do that.

Time

Too many things about this game waste your time. There’s a lot of unnecessarily unskippable animation, the most glaring of which is the travel. Yes, the image of the galaxy with the background of a black hole behind it is striking. Yes, the first time we watch ourselves zoom through that galaxy is cool. But the tenth time isn’t. Nor is the hundredth time, especially when it takes so long.

Then too many missions will take you all over the map without enough happening to make it worthwhile. I don’t want to pick up half a dozen objects in completely different locations for a story-based mission. There have been a few times when I’ve been pulled in by the story behind a mission, only to have it turn into a fetch quest that killed my enthusiasm.

Characters

The characters are cool conceptually, but don’t draw me in enough to really connect with anything about them. They’ve got the right framework to be interesting. But they feel off, because there isn’t enough subtlety–they state who they are and what’s important to them with far too much honesty and self-awareness. It doesn’t feel real. We have to guess at why things bother us, and at what the complexity of our reactions actually mean. We don’t magically know these things, and even if we did, we wouldn’t spell it out for someone else.

I wanted to like most of these characters, if the game had only provided more depth to their characters. For instance, Liam is practically a gift to this team. Everyone else is wrapped up in themselves, even at the expense of diplomacy with a new species. Meanwhile, Liam naturally reaches out towards others, and is frustrated when different sides try to shut people out. He could have been a natural choice for a player to confide in. I was always waiting for him to show a full-fledged personality. I wanted the game to delve into the urgency that’s behind his desire to get people talking to each other. Into where this desire to take truly audacious risks–the kind that could backfire–to get that cooperation comes from.

Maybe it happens in a part of the game that I haven’t gotten around to. But it’d be too late anyway. Too many moments had already passed, where his character–and the other characters–could have felt deep but came off as shallow. Even talking to them has become too much like doing homework.

I’m also tired of characters telling me that I’m interesting. In the same words. Again, and again, and again. Maybe this is because your character doesn’t have a set personality, preventing anyone from being too specific about you. But there are other ways of managing that which don’t sound so trite.

Almost everything about the character growth wasn’t working for me here. There’s no sense of development. At some point, the crew started talking about becoming a family, and I was all like ‘how did this happen while I wasn’t looking?”

The high point for character work in the game is Ryder’s father-sibling relationship with her/his family. There was genuine tension, and care mixed with misunderstanding. I would’ve loved if the game leaned into it more. My biggest regret with not finishing this game is that I won’t know if my character’s brother ever wakes up, or what their relationship would be at that point. But it’s not worth playing through the entire game just for a few good scenes.

Loyalty Missions

When I realized Andromeda was going to have loyalty missions, I was excited. Because I was thinking of the loyalty missions in Mass Effect 2, a major part of the framework of that game. Each of your companions asked you to go on a mission that mattered to them, and how you resolved it determined whether or not you gained their loyalty. These missions dug into the characters you were journeying with, and I absolutely loved them.

Naturally, Andromeda’s version is watered-down and less exciting. Part of that stems from the inferior characterization. Given that the whole concept of a loyalty mission is character driven, that makes sense. But another problem is that the missions themselves are far less in-depth. Unlike in ME2, where those missions were a major part of the game, Andromeda’s loyalty missions are far less key.

That could have been alright, if some other part of the game allowed for stronger character development. But instead, I’m left disappointed that these strong opportunities to highlight the companion characters couldn’t have been more powerful. That isn’t to say that none of them were enjoyable–some were–but generally, they felt like just another side mission.

Of the few I managed to complete, two stood out:

Vetra’s mission – It was too short to have much of an impact, and didn’t bring any huge surprises plot-wise, but I enjoyed it. Bringing Vetra’s relationship with her sister into focus, it was the high point in the game for Vetra’s characterization. The set-up was also fun–I enjoyed getting locked in the prison and having to break out, picking one out of several combat advantages ahead of every battle.

Drack’s mission: I was too disillusioned by the game at this point to really enjoy the mission, but there were moments when it still managed to draw me out. I liked the older generation/younger generation conflict of personality, but where they both obviously still cared for each other. There was one really funny moment when Drack dangles the antagonist off a cliff. Drack’s a ruthless ex-soldier who’s obviously capable of dropping him and not losing any sleep over it–but the antagonist still accuses of him of bluffing, in a laugh out loud moment.

Overall

I wish the whole game was good. Or that the whole game was bad.

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Once Upon a Time: At Its Best When Breaking the Mold, at Its Worst When Following It

The face of a woman off to the side, with an apple in front of her, half black and half red. The words "Once Upon a Time" fill the other side of the image.

Image: ABC

Genre: Fantasy/Fairy tale retelling

Synopsis: Emma is living on her own and working as a bail bondsman, when the boy she’d given up for adoption at birth appears on her doorstep. There’s nothing for it but for her to bring the kid back to his adoptive mother–who he insists is the Evil Queen. The Evil Queen, who cast a curse on fairy tale characters, trapping them in our world with no memories of who they are. While Emma is supposed to be the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, capable of breaking the curse.

Emma doesn’t believe any of this, of course, but bringing Henry home makes her concerned enough to stick around. And in doing so, she launches a sweeping tale of second chances and redemption, with the fate of every story we knew as children in the balance.

Series: Six seasons, with an upcoming seventh–however, the sixth seasons brings this story to a natural conclusion, while the seventh includes a time skip and new characters.

I’ve Watched: All six seasons.

Verdict: Has its ups and downs, but I really do enjoy it when it’s at it’s best.

It’s been a long time since I last watched this show–I dropped off somewhere around season three. And I’m not entirely sure why. It’s imperfect, but also contains plenty of unusual elements that make up for its flaws. I do wish it was consistently less typical–but even so, it’s still far more atypical than most stories I’d find on TV.

For whatever reason, I stopped watching this show somewhere around the third season. It’s in its sixth season now, with a seventh season on the way, and I’ve finally caught up. (In case anyone was wondering which feel-good show I binged on to get my mind off The Handmaid’s Tale, this was it.)

Once Upon a Time shines when it breaks from the script, shaking up the narratives we’re familiar with. We have a menacing Peter Pan who throws his family under the bus for his own selfish needs. A Beast who’s more of a deal-making wizard than a bruiser. A Snow White who survives on her own in the woods, while being hunted down by the Evil Queen. The show also embraces an unusual family structure, with both an adoptive and birth mother being part of a child’s life, developing a friendship along the way.

It doesn’t always tell a story in a way that’s transformative, but it’s worth it for the times that it does.

Despite being an optimistic, happy ending-style show, Once Upon a Time has a strong focus on second chances and redemption. Even the purest heroes hurt people and have to make up for it. Granted, the conflict between Snow White and the Evil Queen is ridiculous. But plenty of other selfish choices and their consequences are on display.

It also has a plethora of female characters with their own character journeys–not all of them are great, but some are, especially the protagonists. And I do appreciate the friendships between women, and getting to see groups of women adventuring together. I also just found out that one of the actresses portraying a main protagonist is LatinaAdditionally,  two central characters–Captain Hook and Rumpelstiltskin–have disabilities. I get the impression that there’s pros and cons with their portrayals, but at the least, there’s one heroic disabled protagonist.

On the other hand, the show does have a problem with repetitive elements. For instance:

  • The sheer amount of time these people have their memories taken away is ridiculous.
  • Snow White and Prince Charming have flirted with darkness so many times, making similar mistakes all over again. I feel like I’ve watched the same scene multiple times, with Snow monologuing about where they went wrong.
  • Two particular characters have gotten together and torn apart so many times, it gets old.
  • Rumpelstiltskin not only has a character arc set on repeat, but also is connected to every character ever (and has manipulated pretty much all of them).

Other negative elements include:

  • Sometimes it gets formulaic or even problematic.
  • With every episode having flashbacks to a past event, each episode needs to juggle two intertwining plots, while continually adding backstory. While some episodes have made great use of this, others have been brought down by it–not every flashback is engaging or necessary. (And if I have to watch another scene of the two-dimensional Evil Queen, I’ll scream. After 6 seasons, I think we get the point.)
  • The pacing is uneven–some plot points move at an interesting pace, others drag, while still others replay themselves to the point of exhaustion.
  • Overemphasizes romantic love, though it does still put work into its platonic relationships.
  • Aside from the actress playing Regina, the show has made a token effort to include people of color, but the speed with which they’re written out of the story has to be seen to be believed.
  • There are only four LGBT characters on the show (three of which are peripheral, one of which used to be more prominent, long before she was revealed as bisexual), surrounded by dozens of straight people.
  • Several moments of problematic consent, which the show deals with strangely if at all, crop up.
  • You’d think all of the women would have invested in sensible shoes at some point, but no. Still running in heels.

I’m also against the Charmings taking what is essentially an untested drug without any regard for safety, just because they have faith it’ll work. Fortunately, the show demonstrates the dangers of that mentality.

I’d say Once Upon a Time is worth the watch for me. Plenty of negatives are mixed in with its positives, but there’s always a good story coming around the corner. Over six seasons, even as some characters’ stories grow stale, others continue to evolve in interesting ways.

So as not to have to talk about all six seasons right away, I’ll take a closer look at those character journeys in later posts.

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BookCon and Stream of Annihilation

So this weekend was packed for me, between attending panels at BookCon and trying to catch some of the one-shot DnD games played at Stream of Annihilation.

BookCon

My favorite panel had to be Holly Black (The Coldest Girl in Coldtown) and Leigh Bardugo (Six of Crows). Not only have I recently read great books by both, but they were a lot of fun, especially together. Aside from the hilarious personal stories they shared, some standout moments included:

  • The two of them describing their writing process, and their massively divergent schedules–Holly Black apparently writes twice a day, in the afternoon then again from midnight to 5am.
  • Leigh Bardugo discussing the differences between her two series. The first one is the story of a chosen one, while the second one specifically focuses on characters that aren’t chosen, and that no one cares about.
  • The revelation that Holly Black has elf ears. I honestly didn’t know this was a thing.

Stream of Annihilation

There were a lot of one-shot, 1.5 hour long sessions, but I’ve only watched two of them so far. Both are great.

Tower of the Curator A group of adventurers enter a tower, questing to find a particular object–if they can get past the tower’s denizens.

Between engaging NPCs, an interesting encounter, and memorable characters, this made for a fun session. I especially enjoyed the contrast between the roles played by Critical Role’s Matt Mercer and Marisha Ray. Matt was a no-nonsense cleric who wanted to get the job done right, while Marisha played a more freewheeling bard.

Girls, Guts, and Glory A party is shipwrecked in the midst of their quest, left picking up the trail of their mission. But their biggest challenge will be to determine what is and what isn’t a threat to them.

Matt was the dungeon master for this game, crafting an engaging story where the players had to put themselves back on track after being thrown off-course. The players are all from the same gaming group, coming in with a pre-existing adventuring party and dynamic. Their characters were cool, and the role-playing was very engaging–most of the players are actresses and it showed. They seem to have some material available online, and based on this session, I will definitely be checking it out.

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Round Up: Simple Biologist and Board Games

Simple Biologist: A scientist puts out videos explaining the main concepts in papers put out by researchers.

Visiting a Board Game Cafe: Because apparently we have this, in NYC. A couple of friends and I had been planning on going for over half a year, but we got snowed out twice before finally accomplishing it. It was great, and we got to try out a few games that we really enjoyed playing.

Superfight – A card game where 2 players at a time draw character cards (like Iron Man, a pirate, or Chuck Norris) and attribute cards (like armed with a flamethrower, or thinks they’re invisible). They players will put together a character card and an attribute, playing it against the other player’s choices. Another random attribute is added to each character that their player is stuck with. Then both opponents argue why their character should win. The other players determine who gets the point, and the game moves on to pit another set of players against each other.

We had a massive amount of fun with this one. Because it’s so open to interpretation, the players really get to tailor the game to their specific group and their humor. Especially since we let each other discard cards we weren’t familiar with it, focusing only on the pop culture we liked. The game essentially provides the players with ridiculous scenarios to talk about, turning it into a joke-fest with your friends.

Ticket to Ride: Europe – A relatively simple strategy game where players build train routes across Europe to score points. We learned the rules pretty quickly, then set out building and trying to outscore each other. With only three players, there wasn’t a lot of blocking each other’s routes–or maybe it was because we as players focused more on completing our own goals than blocking the other players. I guess we just wanted to be nice to each other.

It was fun, and I really liked how quickly we cycled through turns. The game only let each player do one thing a turn, and it kept us moving at an enjoyable pace while strategizing over the most beneficial move.

And in case anyone was wondering, yes I did choose to play this game (and the next one) because of Tabletop:

Fury of Dracula – One player is Dracula, while the others are vampire hunters. The hunters search the map of Europe for Dracula, while Dracula moves secretly, leaving behind dangerous surprises in his wake. Half the battle is finding Dracula, but the other half is actually defeating him–which means hunters need to supply themselves with weapons capable of taking down their undead enemy, or combat will go poorly for them.

We didn’t get to finish this game, because it’s a long one. But we had a lot of fun even so. Reading through the instructions took a bit of investment–this game is not as simple as Ticket to Ride–but once we figured it out, it was fairly straightforward. We searched Europe for Dracula, ran into those nasty surprises he planted. Did a little bit of damage to Dracula himself, the one time we caught up with him. But then he got away, we needed to heal and resupply, and the game was nowhere near done.

In the end, we barely dented Dracula, but Dracula’s player was also frustrated that we kept clearing out her surprises before they became too bad. So we stopped at a bit of a stalemate. It was great, and the mechanic of never quite knowing where Dracula is added an element of uncertainty. I’d love to finish a game of this one day, and hopefully not draw quite so badly when I do.

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The Handmaid’s Tale Presents a Disturbing Dystopian Society

An image of a woman in a red robe and white hat, standing in front of a concrete wall stained with bits of red, probably blood--some of it dripping onto the road. The poster reads, "We will bear no more, A hulu original, The Handmaid's Tale."

Image: Hulu via IMDB

Genre: Dystopia

Synopsis: June used to have a family and a life, until an extremist government took over. They renamed her, and as one of the few remaining fertile women, assigned her to be a Handmaid–given to an elite household for the purpose of bearing children for a commander and his wife. The story proceeds to show us a vicious dystopia where certain people are dehumanized and devalued, stripped away of their freedom and individuality.

Series: One season.

I’ve Watched: The first two episodes.

Verdict: It’s disturbing, and has a power to it–though the content can make it pretty  hard to watch.  

Well, that was uncomfortable.

The material is heavy, and that ends up outweighing every other aspect of the work. I don’t know if the recent dystopia craze has diluted the punch I expect from the genre, or if The Handmaid’s Tale is taking on particularly emotional subject matter. But damn, is this a rough watch. It’s supposed to be, it has to be. But it’s still rough.

I cried three times in the first episode. At several points, I had to stop watching, because I just couldn’t. The only thing that got me through the pilot was sheer willpower–I told myself, if I finished the pilot and found that I couldn’t do it anymore, I could stop. And then I found myself some light, feel-good show to binge on for weeks afterwards, before I could bring myself to try the second episode.

I paused the second episode 30 seconds in, and had to take an hour break before I could keep going, it disturbed me so much. Most scenes are tinged with this emptiness, this sense that the horror of what’s happening is dulled by how commonplace it is–that the characters’ emotions have to recede or it’ll be too much. It’s creepy, how placid the surface tone of the show is.

In contrast, the vague sense of paranoia–that no one can be trusted–is almost a relief. The characters are literally afraid of talking about their lives before this became their reality. It’s like that life isn’t supposed to have been real, like society doesn’t want it to be anything but a dream they can never share with anyone.

And then there’s this scene in the second episode, when the commander issues June an invitation–or what he considers an invitation, though it’s really a command. She’s told to meet with him privately, which is forbidden. In his private rooms, which are forbidden to all women, including his wife. June spends the day terrified of what he might want. Of whether he’ll accuse her of something, whether he’ll want sexual favors she doesn’t want to give. Whether she’ll be in danger.

We’re following June’s perspective, so we enter the scene as unsure of his intentions as she is. Everything he says sounds vaguely threatening, and could easily be a prelude to something awful. The whole scene is slightly creepy, with an uncertainty about whether at any point it’ll cross a line. It’s only when she’s left the room that she can be sure that nothing else will happen. (I have fuzzy memories of reading the book this is based on about a decade ago, which is probably the only reason this scene wasn’t more stressful for me–because I remembered where it would go.)

I don’t know how far I’ll get with this show. I’m probably going to have to take it slow, because it can be an uncomfortable watch. But if someone wants to watch a dystopia that seems to have hit that spot where it’s both personal and horrific for plenty of people–I can’t remember the last time I came across another that’s pulled it off like this.

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A Series of Unfortunate Events has a Charismatic Charm

Genre: Adventure/comedy

Synopsis: Three siblings, the Baudelaires, suddenly find themselves orphans. They’re sent to live with a nearby relative, Count Olaf–who, it turns out, only wants their money. He puts them in poor living conditions, uses them as servants, and abuses them verbally (and once physically). The siblings are left to survive their dreary situation, foil his schemes, and fight for a happier future.

Series: One season. There will be a second season. 

I’ve Watched: The first 4 episodes.

Verdict: Fun to watch, but more because of its style than its character work.

The great strength of this show is its style of storytelling. This is a comedy, but it’s one that relies on a serious and sophisticated tone to highlight how absurd the plot is. The story is defined by the deadpan delivery, in an almost literary tone, of the over-the-top material. This gives it its unique charm, the personality that draws the viewer in.

Because the story is absolutely ridiculous (in that positive, intentional way):

  • The siblings each have improbable skills, and not just for their age. Violet is a gadgeteer who uses a home appliance to lift herself up a piece of fabric. Klaus sways a judge through some philosophical presentation. Sunny uses her teeth to whittle down a key.
  • Count Olaf appears in various, obvious disguises, but only the Baudelaire siblings recognize him. The adult figure with power over their fate keeps falling for Olaf’s ruses, and dismissing the siblings’ concerns.
  • In the background, unexplained spy-shenanigans happen with the intent of keeping the siblings safe–but conveniently fail to keep danger away from them.

For all the humor, the material is thematically serious. The siblings are the ones with the most to lose, and the ones most aware of the risks to themselves. But no one ever takes them seriously. They’re in a nightmare situation where no one will believe that their reality is real.

At times, the story is a little too bleak to be enjoyable. A good example is when the plot of an episode revolved around a child bride situation. 

While I generally liked the story, the style is what makes the experience. There isn’t much else drawing me in. The show doesn’t do deep character work, and for the most part, that wouldn’t fit into this story. Still, while all the characters are portrayed well by their actors, I feel sympathy for them more because of their circumstances than any attachment to these particular people.

The one exception is Monty, the uncle who takes the children in after they escape Olaf’s clutches. In the first four episodes, he was by far the most well-developed character. He displayed a sense of adventure and daring, but also a softer side towards his new charges. Then when dealing with his rival herpetologists, he’d confront them in this ferocious, swashbuckling manner. He was fun, and he showed off different sides of himself. In a story that had been fairly dark up till then, he brought a spark of hope. I was pretty disappointed to see him go, because he added so much to the story.

The show is mostly good, and its charm is worth experiencing. It’s not flawless, and there are still disappointing parts. But overall, I’d call the first half of the season an entertaining experience. And even as the fourth episode closes and the siblings are getting shuffled off to another unknown relative, I’m compelled to find out what happens next. To discover what quirky personality this new guardian will have. 

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Science in Mass Effect: Andromeda

I’m still not done with Mass Effect: Andromeda–I’m about halfway through the game. It might take me some time to get through it, but in the meantime, I wanted to talk about the impression I’ve had of the game so far from a biological/genetics standpoint.

At some point in the game’s production, someone with knowledge about scientific research must have been consulted. Andromeda leans away from a lot of the pitfalls I frequently see in media representation of science, and instead shows some understanding of what science is like. (Though that doesn’t mean I always agree on how a particular subject is tackled.)

There are a number of nice touches hidden throughout the game:

  • Cryostasis was used to keep colonists alive during the 600 year journey to Andromeda. In one overheard conversation, the revival team asks what to do with the people who don’t survive the process. They have this functional cryopreservation process, but not everyone survives it. It’s an acknowledgement of the unpredictability of biology, where nothing is ever 100%.
  • The angara are a different species that the colonists encounter for the first time. When scientists are presented with the angaran belief in reincarnation, and the ability of certain angara to recall memories from an ancestor, their reaction isn’t the stereotypical ‘but that can’t happen.’ Instead, more realistically, they speculate on how the angara might be able to genetically inherit ancestral memories. 
  • Another newly encountered species, the kett, are able to incorporate genes from other species–a controlled, deliberate horizontal gene transfer (with the game using the terminology).
  • The game also stretches the imagination in terms of thinking about AI. Far from the old school stories where AI is inevitably a danger to humanity, here, the main protagonist interfaces with an AI in a way that’s compared in-game to a symbiotic relationship.

Science and Religion

The one aspect I had mixed feelings about was how the conversation with your crew’s religious scientist goes down. On the plus side, the game makes the point that–despite stereotypes of scientists as exclusively atheist–some do participate in other religions. That’s totally worth saying. The minus side is that the conversation this revelation happens during forces a massive oversimplification. The character tells you that she believes in a higher power behind creation, and that science brings her closer to that higher power. You have literally only two very extreme ways to respond to that–either ‘I feel the same way’ or ‘There’s no higher power.’

I mean, really? 1) Even for people who are religious, there are a number of different beliefs they can have, and a number of different relationships those beliefs could have with science. 2) The references to a higher power might make anyone who’s religion isn’t strictly monotheistic feel excluded. 3) This also completely ignores agnosticism, by forcing a choice between believing and not believing in a God. 4) Even if someone is an atheist, they might not be comfortable stomping over someone else’s beliefs like this conversation choice forces you to.

The game didn’t have to force the conversation to a point where it only presented two possible belief options–especially when the entire point of the scene must have been to expand understanding instead of oversimplifying. I get that it’s hard, with only one character representing the demographic and a limited amount of options you can possibly give your player, to do the complexity of the topic justice. Then again, a sci-fi book I recently wrote about–The Terrans–also had a limited space in which to discuss science and spirituality. But the discussion in that book came off as far more nuanced than the one in Mass Effect: Andromeda. 

I don’t know, the scene felt clunky to me. I didn’t enjoy it. But maybe for people who aren’t aware scientists can be anything other than atheists, this’ll be a net good?

The Prologue, creating a science-like feel through its exploration

A reading from 600 years ago determined that the planet you first encounter should be habitable. Yet, when you get there, it’s a disaster. You’re shot out of the sky even trying to land, and frequent lighting strikes continue to zap all around you. You have no idea what’s going on or how it’s happening–and you’re like, okay, how do I find out?

It’s a mix of exploration of a location you don’t know, and exploration of a phenomenon you don’t understand. The latter is pretty much science, although your engagement with it has more to do with observation than experimentation. You wander around scanning strange plant and animal life, looking for your team, and in general trying to put together a theory for what’s going on.

Since I frequently use exploration as a metaphor to explain the process of scientific research, it isn’t surprising that an exploration- and mystery-heavy opening would feel science-like to me. This kind of excitement at coming across something you don’t understand, and looking for clues to try to put together educated guesses–it elicits the same feeling of discovery. Moreover, once the team puts together a plausible idea and plan of action that may or may not solve their problem, the protagonist gives this wonderful quote:

“We’re banking on science we don’t understand. What if the theory’s wrong?”

This is a great acknowledgment that the one working theory you’ve been able to put together from the scraps of information you’ve found so far might not be the right one. It’s the perfect thing to say in this scenario. Of course, plot reasons mean that the theory has to be the right one, but I like that the characters know it could easily be wrong.

Conclusion

Whatever other faults the game may have, someone involved somewhere in the process of developing this game had to have familiarity with scientific research. That’s my impression on the topic.

To close off, I’d like to leave you with a relevant blog post I found, written by a computer science professor: “The technology of Mass Effect Andromeda.”

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