Once Upon a Time, In the Name of the Brother: Monsters, Men, and Fun With Visuals (Part 2)

Part One can be viewed here.

I have to say, with some regret but no remorse, that this sparse, sporadic posting schedule I’ve got going on is probably going to become the norm for the foreseeable future, given that most of my teachers are not real considerate of the fact that I’m trying to run a blog. That, and my personal life has been getting in the way surprisingly frequently as of late.

I probably would have made this post sooner except that I was away all weekend staffing an Awakening retreat up at church. Late one night, I brought up Frankenstein and asked the people I was with what makes a monster and what makes a man. One guy, who was playing Flappy Bird at the time and was clearly tired out of his mind (as we all were), responded astutely, “Well, a monster has either one or three eyes.” Does this test work for Victor and his creation? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Dr. Whale with watch

When we last left off, Dr. Whale was about to operate on the mystery man–at least, that was the plan, and it doesn’t seem to be going too well. It’s a nice touch that Dr. Whale fixates on the dying man’s watch. It’s the first real link between the two stories, presumably reminding him of the fateful events that we’ve been seeing all along. That, and the thing about getting the best watches from dead people is a nice morbid joke, like Miracle Max’s “go through his clothes and look for loose change” in The Princess Bride.

Victor’s grave-robbing stint is extremely significant from a plot structure standpoint because after getting all these insinuations that Victor was going to end up overstepping his boundaries, this is the first time we see him physically doing something that he shouldn’t be doing. For a moment like this, the transgression should be something specific and fitting. Does defiling a grave fit the bill? Absolutely.

Victor robbing a grave

I mean, think about it. From what we’ve seen so far, Victor’s a mild-mannered, good-intentioned guy, so it’d be strange to see him actually hurting anyone or even, I would argue, doing something blatant like stealing personal property. But grave robbing…well, the poor stiff is beyond caring, and the fact that Victor intends to bring him back to life probably safely negates this particular wrongdoing. That, and Victor seems like a pretty likely candidate to disregard taboos regarding sacredness in the name of science and progress (cf my earlier comments on religious allusions in the first part of the episode), so overall, unearthing a corpse doesn’t seem like much of a stretch for this guy.

It’s not until Dr. Whale turns up missing that David mentions the reason for his strange behavior. The good doctor hasn’t been the same since the incident, apparently. Also, it’s perfect that this is set up, given that all they can find of him is his coat, so that Ruby is the one to go after him. Because…well, because of what happens later.

Ruby with coat

Gerhardt’s death and Victor’s subsequent resolve to bring him back to life partly because he feels like he has to prove something to his father suddenly makes the Frankenstein story very personal. So his motivation is totally different from what it was in the book, and already it’s a safe bet that he’s not going to abandon his creation as the original Dr. Frankenstein did. But Frankenstein Sr.’s repulsion at his son’s actions brings about the same kind of apparently justified emotional banishment that the original brings on himself. It’s a new angle, a new way of arriving at something close to the dismal status quo of the book, and I have to say that I like it.

Talking about the setup for Cora’s emotional attack on Regina, I have a couple of things to say, both to do with things that I didn’t see coming. First off, I got that her finding Henry’s plaster handprint was good because it let her see Regina’s weakness, but I never expected the handprint to turn up later, and it was a nice surprise when it did.

Henry in the heart vault

Second, I never guessed that Henry wasn’t really Henry when he went into the vault and found the entrance to Regina’s house. Which was a huge source of embarrassment for me when I watched it the second time. Henry hadn’t even been around the whole episode, and how was he to know that going into the heart vault was the way to find his mom? But of course he would have been looking for her, so maybe that’s why I didn’t question it.

Victor’s second big step in the wrong direction is when he agrees to “put on a little show” for Regina in exchange for a magic heart. Granted, he probably doesn’t know at first that this is going to involve a serious act of emotional manipulation or that the heart he’s going to get will have been taken from some hapless dead person, but he would’ve had to have figured it out at some point, so really, this is all quite a far cry from his earlier victimless crime (well, unless you count Gerhardt as an accidental victim).

Rumple and Victor

What makes it work so well is the fact that the stakes have gotten so much higher in that short amount of time. True, there was originally some concern about being accepted by his father as well as some high-minded ideals about the name Frankenstein standing for life, but the immediate concern was getting enough money to continue with his experiments. Now he’s facing the physical loss of his brother and the emotional loss of his father. If both of these problems can be solved in one fell swoop, maybe it doesn’t matter so much if a few people get hurt along the way.

In all seriousness, though, I can’t stress enough how important it is to raise stakes when bringing about this kind of change in a character. If you want to have a character who compromises some of his or her morals, does a complete 180 from good to evil, or something in between, that’s fine by me, but please, please, PLEASE make me believe it. In Victor’s case, I definitely believe it.

Cora

That first scene between Cora and Regina is always interesting for me to watch because I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. These two women, a mother and a daughter, have both done horrible things which they absolutely don’t regret–some of them to each other. Their topic of discussion is their own relationship, which is at the brink of being a complete lost cause, what with the horrible things they’ve done to each other and all. But although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they see eye to eye, I get the sense that their shared evil colors their interaction with a certain understanding. They acknowledge each other’s motives–Regina’s for sending her mother through the looking-glass and Cora’s for framing her daughter–and they each try to undo the other’s actions without much thought about the rightness or wrongness of it all. I’ll grant that this is less the case with Cora since she’s trying to placate Regina for her own purposes.

Regina

The scene also has an element of “passing the torch” to it. Although it’s been some time since Cora replaced Regina as the primary antagonist, this scene spells out the fact that Regina has been re-cast as a victim of the antagonist’s machinations, no different from the more heroic characters.

Dr. Whale’s failed suicide seems to be a parodic echo of Rose’s threat of suicide in Titanic. Okay, maybe that was unintentional on the writers’ part (although I’m inclined to think not, since Once is pretty good about giving these kinds of shout-outs), but either way, what we have here is a real-world problem (suicide due to remorse and pressure in a professional situation) being solved by magic (Ruby’s speedy werewolf-run to grab the good doctor in the nick of time). The interactions between real things and magic never cease to take on surprising new forms in this show. That being said, though, I’m not sure what the deeper point is with this one, unless it’s something to do with showing that acting outside of normal boundaries doesn’t always have to be a bad thing, as it was with Victor. Or maybe the writers just really wanted to make that Titanic reference. Feel free to offer your own interpretations because I’m actually really curious.

Whale about to die

I know I said that Victor’s transition towards darkness was believable, but the fact that he stood by while his brother beat his father to death gave me pause. I’m willing to give it a fair shake, though. Let’s review the elements in play during this scene. For one thing, there’s the sheer hot-and-cold aspect of the father’s attitude; he starts by being awed at and grateful for Victor’s work probably for the first time in his life only to take it all back after the monster’s inevitable response to fire, spewing as he does his most virulent insults against his son thus far, calling him “a fool and a witch doctor…a disgrace to this family.” Then there’s Gerhardt’s involvement in the conflict; Victor has just heard his father reject his beloved brother for the first time. But aside from these logical reasons, the fact is that Victor has been mistreated by his father so much that it’s natural for him to feel some selfish satisfaction in seeing the man get what’s coming to him. Probably the fact that his father might die in the process didn’t even cross his mind until it was too late. This is the absolute extent of what I’d expect from Victor at this point, but maybe it’s not so improbable after all.

Evil Victor

The way this episode handles the whole “Frankenstein is the doctor, not the monster” thing is kind of awesome. The writers had every right and opportunity to make one throwaway joke with a character getting the two mixed up and then leave it at that. Instead, the well-known misunderstanding is turned into tragedy: the scientist who only wanted to do good is cursed to have his name associated with a monster–poetic justice at work, since his actions are somewhat monstrous in any adaptation.

Dr. Whale’s story about the death of his mother feels disappointingly like an afterthought, but the “I wasn’t such a bad guy, you know?” line really stuck in my mind. It evokes some sadness because it’s obviously true, but in a show with such tragically backstoried villains as Regina and Rumplestiltskin, having been “not such a bad guy” is really not all that special. With that in mind, I feel like there’s a deeper meaning to this line. Even though Dr. Whale admits to being a “bad guy,” he’s still separating himself from other villains on the grounds that he wasn’t always bad. This is an example of how to show a character having a limited understanding of his or her own self, and it’s also a really nice statement on people’s tendency to condemn others’ actions over their own. Dr. Whale would do well to listen to Rumplestiltskin’s wisdom: Evil isn’t born; it’s made.

Whale at dock

Well, that’s it for now, but if you want to see more of David Anders/Dr. Whale/Dr. Frankenstein, check out this short interview where he talks about his role on the show. Also, on the off chance that the phrase “Believe or Leave” doesn’t mean anything to you, I suggest you click here.

One thought on “Once Upon a Time, In the Name of the Brother: Monsters, Men, and Fun With Visuals (Part 2)

  1. What makes a monster and what makes a man, indeed. hue hue hue.
    Have a great weekend, readership +1.

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