Once Upon a Time, In the Name of the Brother: Monsters, Men, and Fun With Visuals (Part 1)

Following up my successful Once Upon a Time pilot commentary, I’m going to be returning to Storybrooke to take a look at the season 2 episode “In the Name of the Brother,” better known as “the Frankenstein episode” or “that one where everyone goes to the hospital.”

Frankenstein has been one of my favorite books ever since I read it a couple of years ago, mainly because of the intense portrayal of the main character’s emotions. That’s one thing that prose has over TV–you can spend entire chapters talking about how a character feels and it makes for some really moving reading. So when a Tumblr user expressed an interest in me covering an episode with Dr. Whale, I jumped at the chance to examine Once’s take on the story and the character.

Dr. Frankenstein

By the way, I’m sorry to say that for the second time (after The Walking Dead), I don’t have a shooting script. They’re turning out to be harder to find than I thought. My normal mode of attack is to Google “[name of show] shooting script” and then, failing that, check simplyscripts. It worked for Breaking Bad and the Once Upon a Time pilot but not since then. I hope I’m able to find some more scripts in the future because it really is good to have scripts to read along with watching the episode.

I’m lucky that reading Animorphs as a kid desensitized me to lengthy “previously-on” segments because the ones at the beginning of Once go on FOREVER. The desired goal is achieved, though; I’m pretty sure a new viewer could start on any episode and still have a basic understanding of what’s going on. With a show as story-arc-heavy as this one, you need some way to hook that odd TV viewer who might be flipping through the channels and suddenly decide to give the show a shot.

So normally all you see is what’s been going on for the past couple of episodes, but sometimes they throw you a curve ball and bring up something that happened an entire season ago, which is kind of exciting because it’s a cue that a loose plot thread is finally going to be resolved. Again, this is just one of those things that happens on a show where there’s no such thing as a stand-alone episode.

Cinderella episode

Such is the case with “In the Name of the Brother,” which shows as part of its “previously-on” segment a scene from the Cinderella episode. I watched that episode for the first time with my mom and my older brother who was ahead of us at the time, and I remember that when Mr. Gold told Emma that she would owe him a favor, my brother told us, “He just called that in where I am. I had forgotten what it was for.” One wonders whether the writers had the whole thing worked out at that point or if they just make it up as they go along. Hmm.

Even at the outset, though, there’s a lot going on in this episode. A car accident, a shooting, Belle’s memory loss–thank goodness for those previously-on segments! And because this is the town that does everything together, it doesn’t take long for Emma to arrive on the scene with her parents in spite of the obvious fact that no one called them.

Emma arrives

“My sheriff’s intuition told me that something was wrong!”

Seriously, either I’m forgetting something important here or else there’s no possible way Emma could have showed up at that exact moment. At least they were able to stop Mr. Gold from crushing Hook’s windpipe with his cane–which is a killing I don’t think I’ve ever seen attempted on TV, so, you know, kudos for originality.

It’s been a few episodes since Dr. Whale’s last appearance, and when we see him, it’s immediately clear that he’s not doing too well. Why? We don’t know. We get to see him drunk and upset and (as it turns out) pretty irresponsible way before we know exactly why. I like that. It raises questions, and this time the writers are going to be nice and explain everything by the end of the episode.

Dr. Whale

The setup for the subplot in the Land without Color (possibly the same universe where Pleasantville is set) is pretty stock. You’ve got the misunderstood scientist born into a military family and the father trying to send him off to war so he can be more like the favorite son.

Is this a bad thing? Debatable. Sure, the scenario’s been done to death, but there’s a reason for that. It’s a surefire way to generate a high level of conflict within what seems to be an otherwise loving family unit, not to mention that the situation is 100% believable in spite of being so familiar. The debate over whether these kinds of tropes are fair game is a whole other can of worms. Suffice it to say that this rubbed me the wrong way a bit at first (along with the expository tone of some of the dialogue, e.g. “I’m not sure you realize the important scientific work…”), but I did get over it.

The Land Without Color

It’s not a black-and-white matter, really.

One thing I did appreciate was the irony of the whole “The name ‘Frankenstein’ is going to stand for life” thing. Even without the ex post facto knowledge of how this theme is going to be developed later on, it’s a nice bit of dark humor.

Also worth mentioning is the fact that Victor states his goal as being the achievement of “life everlasting here on Earth.” Just like the original Dr. Frankenstein, except that Mary Shelley’s character has a much more obvious case of hubris than this somewhat understated version of him. Either way, Victor’s specific wording coupled with the fact that the episode’s title is an echo of the Christian sign of the cross makes it clear that he’s going to commit the ultimate crime of science fiction: treading where God and nature didn’t intend. And that never ends well.

Silver cross

Oh, and there’s also a literal cross in this scene, although it’s worn by the perfect soldier brother. Possibly a sign of the rest of the family’s conformance with normal moral standards (represented by religious orthodoxy) while Victor goes astray. I’m sure someone with a higher level of education in literary symbolism than me could write a dissertation on that Silver Cross medal. If anyone has different ideas about it or anything to add, I’d love to hear from you.

Back in the present day and in the real world, the clamor in the hospital is rapidly turning this show into ER: Storybrooke. To me, one of the things that makes this episode so memorable is the sheer novelty of having three people in the hospital with Dr. Frankenstein presiding as surgeon. I believe the technical term for episodes like this is “the weird episode.”

In the land without color, we get a quick affirmation that Victor has a strong, positive relationship with Gerhardt–which is super-important groundwork for much of what happens for the rest of this subplot–before ominously stating that he’ll “find another way” to fund his experiments. That other way, as anyone who’s picked up on the formula of the show could have guessed, turns out to be Rumplestiltskin.

Rumplestiltskin in color

This becomes more like Pleasantville the more I watch.

Mr. Gold unsurprisingly fails to restore Belle’s memory with true love’s kiss, which he might have anticipated if he’d seen the episode where Charming fails at the same thing for the same reason. I’ve always found this scene kind of hard to watch, mainly because we’re all made painfully aware of how bad this looks to Belle. Another element at work here is that this is a blatant reversal of the familiar tale-as-old-as-time image of true love’s kiss waking up the sleeping princess. Typical Once-style subversion.

Emma’s interrogation of Hook makes it clear that nothing’s changed between them since the beanstalk. Once again, Emma’s ignoring Hook’s flirtiness and flippancy as she tries to take care of business. “I hurt his heart. Belle’s just where he keeps it,” says the man who’s partnered with a woman who put her literal heart in a box for safekeeping. The parallels become more obvious from here.

The team’s investigation of Greg Mendell’s phone does a good job of painting him as an innocent guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. If that’s true, then the fact that “the world has come to Storybrooke” is more of a symbolic thing than an actual breach in security. Which makes Mr. Gold’s decision to let him die seem that much colder.

Mr. Gold

I’ve been debating how much I wanted to say about this because it’s more of an acting thing than a writing thing–and again, I really wish I could look at the shooting script because that would come in handy right about now–but Mr. Gold starts bearing a definite resemblance to his Enchanted Forest persona while he’s making his speech to Dr. Whale. I remember when I watched this scene for the first time I leaned over to my mom and whispered, “He’s turning back into Rumplestiltskin!” It’s interesting how certain behavior is associated with the character’s fallen state, and seeing this behavior sans the vampire-sparkle is pretty jarring.

It’s realistic to see the group toying with the idea of letting Greg die, but I’d never expect anything further than that and it’s good that they moved on from it quickly. The episode’s moral battle is mostly in the magical subplot. The group at the hospital has enough to worry about what with the physical reality of having to save a guy who’s critically injured in a hospital where the only competent surgeon is a fictional character who’s been known to spend chapters on end in depressed inaction. No, not Hamlet, although that wouldn’t be a whole lot worse at this point.

Coins on the floor

The scene where Rumpel von Schtiltskin proposes to fund Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments gives us the biggest visual treat of the episode: a multitude of shining gold coins spilling onto a monochromatic floor from a bag that appears to be bigger on the inside. This is another one of those things that’s hard to do in prose and impossible to do in this medium if you’re one of those writers and/or directors who relies heavily on dialogue and doesn’t take full advantage of the visual nature of film (and as a scriptwriter of a mere two years, I am very much guilty of this).

There’s something really attention-getting about the sight of that much money in one place, especially since commerce going plastic means that even a healthy-sized stack of bills isn’t exactly something that you see every day in real life. Another example of pretty much this exact same visual can be seen in the film Thank You for Smoking, where the main character convinces a cancer victim to take a bribe through a combination of reverse psychology and spilling the bribe money all over the floor.

thankyouforsmoking

“Trust me, it’ll look more effective that way.”

I used a similar visual in a play that I wrote last year where a bank robber tries to convince a civilian to harbor her by accidentally-on-purpose spilling a backpack full of cash onto his floor. An omitted line would have drawn further attention to the tactic: “I don’t know, there’s something about huge amounts of money in drug-dealer-style bundles. It just does things to people.” In my play, though, the moment was played for comedy. Here it’s a little less innocent.

The magical aspects of the gold–the color and the incongruous quantity–are an accent, an externalization of what’s happening here: Victor Frankenstein’s supposedly noble work is being tainted by the desire for money, albeit money that will further the cause of life everlasting on Earth and such. This splash of color represents corruption brought in by an outsider, which in turn…You know what? This is exactly like Pleasantville.

The best part is when the astonished Victor asks how all that gold fit in that tiny bag and Rumple tells him that he’s “missing the point.” He is. It’s not about magic. It’s about greed and loss of innocence. Once Upon a Time does this kind of stuff all the time, and when it’s done well it’s pretty glorious.

If I may go ahead and make another film comparison, the scene where Cora confronts Mr. Gold reminds me irresistibly of something I saw a long time ago. I was just thirteen when the third Pirates of the Caribbean film came out (Disney connections, Disney connections all over the place), and I’d already read online that the film was going to introduce Captain Jack Sparrow’s father. The two share a very small amount of screen time, but that brief interaction left an impression on me. My thirteen-year-old, video-game-obsessed, knew-absolutely-nothing-about-film-criticism-or-screenwriting self watched that scene and thought, Here is the one guy in the universe who Jack Sparrow doesn’t see as an inferior.

Gold and Cora

I instantly got the same vibe from Mr. Gold’s interaction with Cora. Again, this is more from the acting than it is from the dialogue itself, but even just looking at the dialogue it’s plain to see that Mr. Gold isn’t keeping up the low level of contempt that he shows to pretty much everyone else he comes into contact with. One of the first things they teach you in scriptwriting is that each character needs to have his or her own voice–which is why it can be helpful to mind-cast your script as you’re writing, or at the very least not use your own voice when reading the dialogue back to yourself–but it’s at least as important to keep in mind that characters (and people, for that matter) speak and act differently depending on who they’re dealing with. Here it’s especially important in establishing Gold and Cora’s relationship, especially the power dynamic.

And then they kiss. I bet the original audience <sarcasm> had a lot of fun </sarcasm> waiting the next few episodes to find out more about that.

And on that note, that’s it for this installment. In spite of a couple of small issues, I think this episode is exceptional and I hope you’re having as much fun reading about it as I am writing about it. By the way, for anyone who’s interested, I’d like to call your attention to an important resource. When I want to find the shooting script for an episode but can’t, I typically turn to transcript sites such as this one to refresh my memory as to exactly what happened without necessarily having to pull up Netflix. Transcripts are great reference tools, but just keep in mind that they’re not the writers’ original work and shouldn’t be viewed as such.

See you again soon.

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