“Henry, in Camelot you’re a mysterious stranger from an exotic land. That’s a good thing.”
This past Wednesday was, as I’m sure I don’t need to tell my readers, Back to the Future Day: October 21, the “future” day Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) transports himself to in the second Back to the Future film. Back to the Future remains one of the few properties Disney doesn’t own (yet), but I have a sneaking suspicion that the writers and producers of Once Upon a Time must have had it in mind when they put together this past Sunday’s episode, “Dreamcatcher.”
Once Upon a Time is, in many ways, built on the juxtaposition of the past and the present, a clash of time periods that certainly puts it in line with the Back to the Future franchise. The entire first season, for instance, was structured around the efforts of David (Josh Dallas), Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin), and the rest of the denizens of Storybrooke to slowly piece together their pasts and reclaim their true story book identities.
The show’s real cleverness, though, occurs when they add a new story to the existing story world. In each case, that new story somehow revises what we thought we knew about this world. The addition of Maleficent (Kristin Bauer van Straten) last season, for example, re-worked what we know of Emma’s childhood and her best friend, Lily (Agnes Bruckner). Within the context of the show, such moments simply elaborate on the magical kingdom’s past. From a producer’s point of view, however, such moments are wholesale revisions of everything that has gone before, insertions that necessitate rethinking the whole world. Such deftness with plot is rare outside of Victorian novels and soap operas and is one of the many pleasures of watching this series.
This season so far we’ve been offered both sorts of past/ present fusions. In a kind of replay of season one, the characters find themselves back in Storybrooke with no memory of the last six months spent in Camelot. Each episode provides us, and them, with new pieces of that history. But so too the addition of Camelot to this world has added a new dimension to what we knew before, a new layer to the past. In particular, it has given us the backstory to the Dark One’s dagger, which we now know as the missing bottom third of Excalibur.
“Dreamcatcher” begins with a brief foray into Camelot’s distant past, when Merlin (Elliot Knight) was first turned into a tree, a moment connected to a true love lost. In an effort to free him from his enchantment, Emma (Jennifer Morrison) and Regina (Lana Parrilla) call up a different past — the moment when Cora (Barbara Hershey) crushed Regina’s true love, Daniel’s (Noah Bean), heart. “It feels like it’s happening all over again,” Regina whispers as her tears fall, a statement that operates on at least two levels. Of course, she herself has revisited the moment in Emma’s dreamcatcher, and as an audience we revisit it with her, but in a literal sense we also re-watch a piece of film from the show’s first season: we revisit the show’s past.
The most interesting fusions of past and present, though, occur in connection to Henry (Jared Gilmore), whose budding romance with Camelot’s Violet (Olivia Steele Falconer) finally takes center stage for an episode. Like everyone else in Storybrooke (Emma excepted), Henry is trying to remember the past six months. What he doesn’t know is that in that past he lost Violet because her father didn’t feel he was heroic enough. In the present, however, he has the opportunity to right that mistaken impression (though the past gets yet one more revision when we discover that it was Emma who truly cost Henry his relationship with Violet and not her father).
In a moment truly worthy of Back to the Future, Henry takes Violet on a date to Granny’s where he plays the excellent Yaz tune, “Only You” (a classic of the 80s, the same decade that brought us Back to the Future). In addition to the song itself — which Henry played in his past (Camelot, six months ago) for a girl who exists in a kind of past (Camelot itself), but which is additionally from the past (i.e., the 1980s) — he also gets to explain movies as a concept and show off his cell phone. Like Marty McFly, his relationship to these “relics” from the future give him a certain cache in Camelot.
All in all, Jared Gilmore puts in a good performance despite what sometimes seems like poor acting actually played as part of his crush on Violet (his other scenes from the episode are spot-on). Like the fun married-couple moments we got from David and Mary Margaret in the previous episode, it’s nice to see Henry get to shine in this episode.
Elsewhere, we continue to explore the nature of heroes and heroism, which we’ve already explored through the friendship of David and Arthur (Liam Garrigan) (and in Henry’s plotline here). Gold (Robert Carlyle), the coward, works with Merida (Amy Manson) to gain some courage, though the question that hovers over these scenes remains whether or not a hero can actually be made, and, if so, how that’s supposed to happen. Stay tuned! The episodes to come promise to bring us much more on this particular theme.