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The Walt Effect

When the mysterious Flight 815 crashed down on a (still largely unknowable) island, it marooned some 20 characters (and a dog).  Later, Lost would add a half dozen from the tail section of the plane, plus countless Others.  But even at its inception, the seminal mythology-driven drama was about an ensemble, their disparate pasts, and forging their future.

Lost alums Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz lifted this basic framework for their fractured fairytale space-time travel saga, Once Upon a Time, to decent effect.  Whether the show will ever reach Lost-ian proportions remains to be seen – and will depend largely on whether the show-runners choose to draw a bold line in the storytelling sand as Cuse and Lindelof did when they flipped the script in that show’s third season finale (flashing forward, not back, to show our castaways’ eventual escape from the island – and desire to “go baaaaaack!”)

So far, Once is following strongly in its predecessor’s footsteps, laying a solid foundation for its story with larger implications, creating interest and depth in its large cast of characters while allowing room for growth and yet more surprises.  If they decide to, they can go all-in at any moment, dropping the pithy crime-of-the-week conceit they so favored in season 1 and diving full-force into a potentially alienating but essentially more intriguing mythology.  However, before they can elevate the show to such heights, they need to borrow a lesson from Lost about its youngest star.  That is to say: lose him.

Allow me to explain, lest I come off as cold as Jaime Lannister defenestrating a child.  In fairness and honesty, I am so completely over Once’s Henry.  The youngster was crucial to the first season, acting as the skeptical adult characters’ way in to the fantastical fairytale world they had not yet accepted as their own.  As Emma’s long-lost son, he wrangled the story’s heroine into town and provided her with built-in motivation.  He even stood as a humanizing factor for the show’s delectably evil queen!  But at the end of season 1 things changed: the residents of Storybrooke were restored their memories; magic returned.

The believing was no longer the task, and that’s all Henry ever strove to make them do.  So what’s to become of the precocious moppet in season 2?  So far – and that’s pretty far, with 17 episodes aired out of 22 – he has largely been a pain in the ass.  Most valuably, he played the long-lost son card a second time to ring his father/Rumpelstiltskin’s son/Emma’s old flame into the picture, but now that he’s out of parents that trick seems worn out.

You might argue that Henry has continued to act as a moral compass for the adult characters who love him this season; and you would be correct, but that doesn’t make it right.  Yes, Henry has been cited numerous times as people’s reason for things.  His approval is what stopped the Charmings from killing/eliminating Cora, a woman who continually harmed, threatened, and endangered the lives of their family.  Even when Cora sought and acquired Rumpelstiltskin’s dagger, an item with the power to make her virtually invincible – and therefore a huge threat to the safety of not only their family, but the town at large and countless civilians – Mary Margaret, David, and Emma remained hampered by the thought of Henry never forgiving them.  For the same reason, the desperate Regina plotted a convoluted way to bring about the ruin of the Charmings without incurring his displeasure (in essence attempting to win his love, which he would not willingly give to the woman who raised him.)  When Mary Margaret murders – nay, forces Regina to murder her own mother, Regina is only quelled from revenge by the thought of Henry’s judgment.  Oh, but when Regina does figure out a way to kill Mary Margaret, her family won’t take action against her assassin because Henry bemoans their behavior.

NOW, before you get completely indignant, let me say that I don’t wish all these people had simply murdered each other with impunity.  It is perfectly acceptable (and, were it real life, preferable) that people decide not to kill one another.  What is not acceptable – to me – is to back up those decisions with an overly-simplified, thinly-constructed reasoning based on the black-and-white ethical code of a child.  Children believe in the Good guys and the Bad guys because it’s what they see in the Disney movies this show is meant to subvert; they haven’t lost their innocence and thus see things in straightforward terms.  While I’m sure many kids watch Once Upon a Time with their parents each Sunday night, I’d wager the larger portion of viewership is composed of people who have since realized morality exists in shades of gray.  When Mary Margaret wonders what has made her actions so “Good” if they have caused only death and misery, THAT is a complex discourse worthy of the audience; when it is dismissed because Henry would scold, “Shame on you,” we all lose.

Lost knew better.  Among its core group of crash survivors was a recently reunited father and son: Michael Dawson and Walt Lloyd.  Their story, like everyone’s that season, was compelling and genuine.  However, both narrative and practical considerations came into play as time went on.  First, there is the very real problem that kids grow.  Walt was an adorable 10-year-old when the show started, but as weeks passed on the island, the actor playing him grew years older and exponentially more mature; very simply, he was outgrowing his role.  Likewise, Henry Mills is fast exiting the “endearingly goofy” phase of childhood for the “simply awkward” stage of adolescence.  Since we’re already going for the broad strokes of the Disney source material here, the kid just isn’t going to be cute enough to cut the mustard.

But image is secondary.  There’s a reason Lost’s fans endured the mid-50s Michael Emerson playing a teenaged flashback version of himself: when it works for the story, people will suspend their disbelief.  My point is that Henry, like Walt before him, no longer serves the story.  In Walt’s case, as season 1 neared its end we had learned the broad strokes of his and Michael’s background; it was moving and entertaining, but where was it going?  The flashbacks were only ever as good as their implications to the characters at present, and in that capacity Walt was only a prop for Michael’s character development: the son he wasn’t allowed to be a father to, the emblem of why he wanted to be a better man.  On his own, Walt’s development was a formulaic coming-of-age but with a desert island twist and no other children to interact with.  The show had briefly toyed with the idea of his having supernatural/clairvoyant powers of some sort, but it was neither ready to go down that road nor willing to pin such a tale on Walt.  So they came up with a better solution.

By the finale of season 1, Lost was a hit.  It was interesting and dynamic and propulsive, with bona fide mysteries that left fans ravenous for more.  But at its basest level, it was still Castaway for TV.  The season 1 ender cast a subset of characters on a raft to try to escape, but subverted the genre and expectations by introducing a new group of people who hadn’t been on the plane – and who inexplicably destroyed the raft, and kidnapped Walt in the process.  The lasting memory of that iconic cliffhanger was distraught Michael floating helpless in the water screaming after his son, “WAAAAAAAAAAAALT!”

It was genius.  With one fell swoop the Walt problem was solved, Michael’s motivations were fueled anew, and the story had a great new mystery and adversary.  Walt did turn up periodically over the show’s following 5 seasons – as a (maybe) vision, a captive, a ghost (or dream) – and eventually reunited with his father and was first to escape the island.  After that another character briefly met up with him later in life (seemingly like FIFTEEN YEARS LATER because Walt looked SO OLD) – but his appearances were sporadic.  The impact he had on the survivors, though, was immeasurable.

Once could learn a thing or two from that deft handling: Kill Henry.  I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I know it’s not a nice thing to say!  But here’s my reasoning: let Henry die as a casualty of the blood-feud between the Charmings and Regina (sort of like when he almost died from the poison apple turnover in season 1, but let it stick.)  What’s left?  A massive grudge between the two factions.  A martyr to incentivize each side.  Two mothers so grief-stricken they may be driven to act rashly.  A battleground so complicated by familial ties that no side can claim to be Right or Good.  A watershed moment that can unite or divide the whole town (either way, looping in characters outside the family tree) and give momentum to the need or desire to either leave Storybrooke for Fairy Tale or take drastic measures to protect their existence in this world.  And by the way, you’d never have to hear that kid deliver some dumb line about Cinnabons again!

After losing Walt (and finding him, and losing him again), Michael was a broken man.  He did some crazy things to get back his son (and later to redeem himself for those things he’d done.)  He killed a woman in cold blood.  He lied to his friends (but more the “I’m not the one who let your enemy escape so he could imprison you” lie as opposed to the “I can’t go out tonight, I’m sick” kind.)  He tried to kill himself.  Eventually he suicide-bombed a whole freighter.  I still wouldn’t call him a Bad Guy.  He endured extreme circumstances, and took extreme actions.  He was a desperate and heartbroken man, and acted out of a dire paternal instinct to protect his child; in so doing, he caused death and destruction to others.  So was he right?  Would he have been more right not to do everything he could to save Walt?  They’re tough questions, and we could debate all night about them: and THAT is what good came out of eliminating Walt.

Kid characters are great when a show is starting out.  They keep things light and fun and charming.  But Once Upon a Time is coming to the end of its second season now; after Mary Margaret killed Cora, things took a calculated turn for the dark; and there’s already a surfeit of Charming.  Killing Henry would make a statement about the stakes of the show and create emotional motivation that would reverberate through its entire world.  It would be a brave and freeing choice for the storytelling, and free up space for darker, more twisted fairy-tale riffs we could really dig our teeth into.  Enough of this Mickey Mouse morality.  Let’s get down to the big questions, the ones art is really supposed to tackle.  Let’s strive for The Walt Effect.

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One comment on “The Walt Effect

  1. Good article. And it’s refreshing that you immediately understood the moral quagmire of Michael Dawson’s situation on “LOST”.

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