Once Upon a Time: Season 5, Episode 14 – “Devil’s Due”

Once Upon a Time allows pop cultural reference points to play freely with older, more ancient stories, fusing postmodern theory with Joseph Campbell’s archetypes.

One of the best aspects of Once Upon a Time is the way it manages –when it’s on track — to weave multiple storylines together. As I’ve written here before, its best trick is introducing new fantasy worlds so fluidly into the existing world Storybrooke worlds, effectively adding new depth to characters and events that we didn’t realize were even there all along.

Of course, as a result of this intermingling, characters and events sometimes wind up overlapping: Oz’s “Wicked Witch of the West” (Rebecca Mader) turns out to be Regina’s (Lana Parrilla) sister, which might not be so complicated except that in the guise of Maid Marian (Christie Laing) she managed to have a child with Robin Hood (Sean Maguire), who’s already established as Regina’s partner.

There’s something more than a little incestuous about these various crossings (I continue to maintain Henry [Jared Gilmore] is his own step-grandfather), which sounds like harsh criticism. Then again, we’re more immune these days to the subject of incest on TV, especially when it has to do with fantasy worlds (see, for example, Game of Thrones). It may even be that the subject is part and parcel of entertainment in a postmodern world. We may have other terms for it — “metatextualism”, “hyperallusion”, “appropriation” — but what else is a Warhol soup can if not an illicit act, a commercial artist taking commercial art against its will, the soup can mating with itself to produce art. Seinfeld, Community, Family Guy: these are TV shows made of TV shows, a bloodline turning in upon itself, if you will.

So too, in a postmodern narrative, incest simply becomes another marker that what we’re watching is story. Where once we watched Leave it to Beaver or The Brady Bunch from the perspective that these “stories” were meant to imitate reality, when we watch Modern Family, we’re reminded over and over again that what we’re watching is a show. Incest can be marked, as it is in this case, as humor. What better way to undercut the “reality” of a story than to make light of something ordinarily so taboo?

Once Upon a Time ups that ante, or traditional postmodernism, by allowing pop cultural reference points to play freely with older, more ancient stories, fusing postmodern theory with Joseph Campbell’s archetypes. Just to muddy the bloodlines a bit more, though, Once Upon a Time doesn’t mind making the occasional nod to itself and what it’s doing as a story. In this week’s episode, “Devil’s Due”, for instance, a character from the early seasons shows up again, and although she serves a useful function in the plotline, her real purpose seems to be to remind us just how tangled relationships in the Storybrooke world have become.

In fact, when Milah (Rachel Shelley) shows up in the opening scenes of the episode, only the most astute viewers will recognize her. She serves, then, as a kind of reward for those viewers, which in itself reasserts the show’s artificiality. The pleasure here isn’t necessarily in the way we follow characters through action — although I think Once Upon a Time still offers that pleasure – but rather in remembering a bit of trivia about the show, in being able to recognize a piece of the world that had been deliberately obscured and forgotten.

And even when we’re reminded who she is — Rumpelstiltskin’s (Robert Carlyle) wife and Baelfire’s (Dylan Schmid) mother — we don’t remember her entire history until later in the episode. That is, we’re deliberately not reminded at first that she was also Hook’s (Colin O’Donoghue) lover, that her affair with Hook is the ultimate root of Gold’s hostility towards the reformed pirate. Here again, those who follow the show more closely are encouraged to put the pieces together before the rest of us, to work out the clever picture beneath. It’s almost like guessing the killer in a mystery before the detective offers the “reveal,” only here the reveal is less a story line than a humorous revelation about the show itself.

Specifically, Milah’s reappearance, especially when she must eventually work with Emma (Jennifer Morrison), reminds us that Swan’s now been romantically involved with both Milah’s former lover — Killian — and Milah’s son — Baelfire. Everything comes down to Henry once again. For though there’s no blood relation involved — yet — this makes him simultaneously Milah’s grandson (through Bael) and also some version of her stepson (Henry’s Emma’s son; if not in an official sense, Killian is Emma’s partner, and hence Henry’s stepfather; Killian’s former partner was Milah). All of which seems to delight Gold, but also the Once Upon a Time producers, who use Gold in this instance to poke a little fun at the situation and ultimately at the show itself.

This isn’t, of course, the only way in which the past and the present collide in this episode — Once Upon a Time is far too ambitious for that. In fact, the Underworld has offered the show a space in which to allow worlds to mix in more complex ways than ever, with dead souls from all sorts of mythical stories and lands all come together in a single universe.

Part of this mixing has been an increase in the number of villains lurking this season. We’ve already encountered Cora (Barbara Hershey); we know Cruella (Victoria Smurfit) has a part to play somehow; Peter Pan (Robbie Kay) continues to haunt Rumpel; Zelena remains, at least in the credits; Rumpel continues to plot; and all of these are ultimately overshadowed by Hades (Greg Germann), the dark entity who rules this realm.

In “Devil’s Due” we not only get to see Hades and the Dark One face off, but — in true Once Upon a Time fashion — we discover a missing link between the two, one that also provides us a missing part of the Rumpelstiltskin story. For this round at least, that missing link puts Rumpel at a disadvantage, and though Killian is now free from Hades, his escape has doomed three others — Regina, Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin), and Emma — to remain in the underworld.

The old sitcom Soap used to begin each episode with a recap of the tangled relationships between the characters and the line, “Confused? You won’t be after this episode of Soap“. Maybe Once Upon a Time should think about bringing that back.

RATING 7 / 10