If you have not seen this episode yet and don’t wish to be spoiled, do not keep reading.
In the past, we learn that Jafar was a bastard child of a Sultan, and exiled because of it. He was taken in by Amara, whom Jafar intended to learn magic from to fulfill his rage. The two work together for years to find three genies to accomplish their main goal to gain power, but ultimately Jafar betrays Amara by stealing her magic and turning her into his serpent staff. In the present, Alice and Will are ambushed by Collectors who want the prize. The Red Queen seizes this opportunity and captures Will herself. She reveals that she had the White Rabbit fetch Will to make make sure Alice got to Wonderland; since Will is now disposable, Jafar wants her to kill him. Red Queen doesn’t want to kill her former lover, though, and tries to help him escape…but he refuses her help. Alice encounters a Collector named Lizard who once knew Will, and they work together to break him out of his public execution. However, Jafar and the Red Queen chase them down, and as Jafar nearly kills Will, Alice wishes that if Will dies, she dies. This proves that they need Alice alive to make all her wishes so they can have full possession of Cyrus, which Alice refuses to offer. As a result, they turn Will to stone, and leave Alice to make her wishes. Meanwhile, Cyrus manages to obtain a wishbone from one of the guards, and has a plan for it.
Flashbacks are tricky to do. The original Once Upon a Time has been hit-or-miss with them in terms of shock or relevance, but even at their worst they’d still provide some exposition or insight into a present day character-centric story. Wonderland has been a bit different in its handling, though, due to the show’s much smaller scope and tighter storytelling. That means it’s been significantly less messy than its parent show thus far, but it’s had to cheat to cram in the same amount plot in a more limited amount of time. Last time, the Knave’s flashback didn’t quite jibe thematically with his state of mind in the present. This week, Jafar’s backstory unfolds in an episode that is distinctly not a Jafar episode at all, and presents a theme that’s only barely present in the current plot.
That sorta-kinda theme is the lengths to which a person is willing to go to get what they want, and it applies more to the Red Queen than it does anything else. This aspect of the flashback works; Jafar’s backstory presents him as evil to the core, angry from the moment of his abandoned youth and with no shred of care for any other person but himself. Contrast that with the Red Queen, who exposes her vulnerability regarding Will and spends the better part of the episode trying to redeem herself. It’s weird that we’re getting this before we know what happened, but it’s not bad. And it’s good that the secret about Anastasia is already out, which means we ought to get some answers sooner rather than later. Emma Rigby has progressively improved as the show has gone on, thanks in part to the added depth from this development.
The major problem, though, is that Jafar’s backstory is both bland and predictable. There’s a coolness factor to seeing Naveen Andrews and Zuleikha Robinson on screen together again, but the Lost ties are only another reminder that these flashbacks are supremely unsurprising. The opening poses something interesting, with Jafar’s anger propelled by an Aladdin-esque story of living as an extremely poor boy, not to mention the bastard son of a Sultan. But it doesn’t go anywhere with it, fastfowarding to his “defining” moment of letting an innocent man die, and then reaffirming his determination by killing Amara. All it does is show us that, yes, Jafar is evil…so evil, in fact, that he does evil things that make no sense whatsoever. Why did he kill Amara, when she seemed perfectly loyal? In fact, she only proved to be a great asset in the scene just before that. Instead, the predictable “twist” is that she’s his snake staff, which is…cool, kind of, but doesn’t have much of any resonance at all. Naveen Andrews does his best with the material, as expected, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.
The main rescue plot is also fairly standard, but we manage to get some fairly big plot developments because of it. The confrontation between the two main heroes and two main villains is well worth the wait, as Jafar’s brief torture is definitely brutal. The easiest criticism, though, is that Alice’s desperate wish is kind of…well…stupid. Perhaps not completely stupid–in fact, that Alice is so easily able to latch onto the plan and know that it’s imperative that she live showcases her cleverness. But it’s a pat solution among a world of solutions (couldn’t she just wish she and Will away from the villains or something?) Perhaps Alice’s thought process was that simplicity would prevent the pesky “magic comes with a price” problem, but she still left Will vulnerable, leading to his fate. It felt like a far too easy way to get Alice to waste a wish while leaving Will open to turn to stone, which is disappointing considering how much of a creative turning point this episode turned out to be. That said, Alice’s slapping of the Red Queen is one of the most satisfying moments of the show thus far.
Despite the contrived way the episode gets there, the ending amps up tension that hasn’t really been present in the series yet. Alice is stripped of everything very quickly, which is exciting. The Red Queen’s declaration that “You are in prison. What do you think Wonderland is?” is also surprisingly chilling, and brings out heaps of implications for the nature of Wonderland and how dark this show intends to go. So while this isn’t a perfect hour–and Jafar’s backstory doesn’t really add much–enough major movements have taken place within the plot that none of this is boring. Wonderland is still a mostly underwhelming show, but its strength is how tightly it’s sticking to its guns and telling the story it wants to tell. Very little in “The Serpent” is terribly shocking, but it plays out well enough to be entertaining, and it’ll be fun to see where the story goes now that Alice is at a low point.
Odds & Ends
- CG background update: they still look awful.
- Lauren McKnight is fun and adorable as Lizard. It’s unclear if she’s meant to be an interpretation of Bill the Lizard from the stories, which is weird, but she’s charming either way.
- Peter Gadiot is still boring as Cyrus, and that wishbone thing is also uninteresting (and kind of lame.)
- It’s totally juvenile, but I laughed when the stripped-down Executioner stumbled out. The catapult bit is also delightfully silly. There’s a sense of childish wonder this show has that the parent show has lost since its first season.
- How many times has the word “bottle” been said in this show?
- “Catch the head, you get a free dinner.”