Or, The Benefits and Detriments of Theme in Television
Theme is one of Aristotle’s Six Key Elements of Drama, and it’s an important one too: knowing why you’re writing something is as important as who’s in it (character) and what they’re doing (plot). But on television, theme can often be a detriment to crafting good drama. Just ask anyone who was disappointed with Battlestar Galactica‘s second half or LOST‘s final season and it seems self-evident that established themes can hinder a television show as much as it can help it.
Sometimes, the simplest way to make theme work for you is just to rediscover the themes that made the show work long ago. Supernatural‘s eighth season has done just that, in a number of ways. Supernatural has always been a show that ultimately comes down to the label of “family” — what that label means, and how relationships between people often complicate or transcend that label with meaningful connections that deny labeling. That theme got lost in the plot-focused meandering of seasons six and seven, with the possible exception of Bobby’s death and ghost-life, and even that story was ultimately mixed in with the Leviathan schemes of the show’s troubled seventh season.
Season eight, on the other hand, has been landing the thematic beats of the show without losing plot momentum or character focus. While the setup isn’t all that different from the way seasons four and six began (with one Winchester brother or another trapped in a hellish dimension while the other stays topside and carves out some semblance of a normal life and/or gets addicted to demon blood), the execution has been wildly different, and that makes all the difference. In particular, the season has laid out parallel “Year in Review” characters in the form of Benny, Dean’s vampire friend who hitches a ride out of Purgatory with him, and Amelia, a woman Sam falls in love with in part because she’s proven to be as damaged as he is. Both characters have been able to bring out latent traits in the Winchester boys that haven’t necessarily been at the forefront in recent years.
This is made explicit in “Citizen Fang,” when the inevitable (Benny being accused of feeding on humans again when he promised Dean he would stay sober) finally happens, and Dean and Sam predictably split the difference on opinions. Sam loves his brother, but he loves doing the right thing just a bit more; a constant theme throughout the Amelia flashbacks has been how Sam remains slightly distant from his situation from Amelia, because he always wants to have perspective in case a moral or ethical dilemma (like, say, her assumed-dead ex-husband suddenly being alive and coming back to her) arises. Dean, though, is a gut thinker, a man of instinct; he knows Benny is a vampire, but the crucibles they faced in Purgatory forged a bond between them that Dean trusts because his instincts do. This manifests as a positive in “Bitten” when, after reviewing the found-footage horror film of their investigation of a case, he decides to give Kate the werewolf a chance, a move that could possibly be seen as the show redeeming itself slightly for the murder of Jewel Staite’s kitsune character back in season seven. On the other hand, Dean doesn’t always have a clear perspective on things: it is Castiel who sets Dean’s guilt about leaving him behind at ease in “A Little Slice of Kevin” when Cas reveals that he chose to stay in Purgatory to atone for his sins rather than follow Dean back into the real world.
Yet Sam is still in love with Amelia and the promise of a normal life (his driving goal since the pilot) and Dean is still a hunter and a proud Winchester (it’s he, the man of action, who brings Daddy Winchester’s disappearance to Sam in the pilot). And within these conflicts, between Dean and Benny and between Sam and Amelia, that the lines that define what “family” is begin to blur. Dean’s deception in “Citizen Fang” of sending Sam on a false cry for help from Amelia is undeniable proof that Dean and Sam have lost that bit of trust in each other, and that their own versions of what defines “family” do not always match up. Returning to this theme of family matters has helped Supernatural regain strength after two seasons of exhausting plot twists and troubling character depictions.
Theme can, however, be a detriment. That’s the thing that has kept me from completely suggesting that Once Upon A Time has improved dramatically in its second season. While the show has definitely nailed down its plot issues and is starting to discover the little joys in having Storybrooke’s citizens remember their lives in FTL (the favored slang for Fairy Tale Land), its theme — that good always wins in the end, that love is the most powerful magic of all — have held it back from being the kind of drama that, say, Grimm (with its similar use of fairy tales in modern society) has become.
Undeniably, there were some joys to be found in Once‘s climactic “Queen of Hearts” episode. The conclusion of the Snow White/Emma Swan in FTL plot made for good drama and a delightfully silly-but-fun fight scene, but it also helped continue the show’s attempt at redeeming Regina in the eyes of her adopted son Henry. She’ll have won some points from him for choosing to stop Rumpelstiltskin’s spell and saving the lives of Emma and Snow, but it’s too soon to suggest she might be able to sit with the good guys and share in the victory of the reunion of the Snow/Charming family. Both her and Rumpelstiltskin are characters that act out of love born from having children, and that ambiguous space between doing what is right for all and doing what is right for your child is an excellent place for the show to mine some more drama. Belle as a romantic interest is a good stand-in for Bae, but sooner or later the show will have to bring Rumpelstiltskin’s son back into play if it wants to find out whether or not Regina and Mr. Gold can become more than what they currently are. The imminent arrival of Cora in Storybrooke, too, promises to be a good line of inquiry for the show to follow on Regina’s side of things.
On the other hand, Once completely dropped the ball with Hook in “Queen of Hearts.” Since his introduction, Hook has been a fascinating character with a lot of conflicts worth exploring. In particular, his quest to get home at first seems to trump any wavering loyalties to Cora. And that quest is complicated by his interest in Emma, who ultimately betrays him by tying him up and leaving him with the Giant at the top of the beanstalk. But his taking of Aurora’s heart for Cora plays him more completely as a villain, and his actions and dialogue (spoiler alert: in the battle with Emma, the sword is a metaphor for his penis) in “Queen of Hearts” are completely unambiguous.
That would be okay if there were a better establishment of Hook’s character relationship with Cora, but “Queen of Hearts” only presents shades of that relationship, none of which contradict or complicate what we’ve already seen between them in present-day FTL. Instead, Hook is a villain because the theme of the series demands that he be a villain. He was the villain in Peter Pan; therefore he is the villain in Once; therefore he must be defeated by Emma and Snow because “good always defeats evil,” or so sayeth the show. The theme of love is beneficial for characters like Rumpelstiltskin, Cora, and Regina because it makes it harder to clearly label their actions as pure evil, but the moral simplicity of the good vs. evil clash is destroying any attempts at making Hook an interesting character, or at letting Once thrive beyond what it presented to audiences in the pilot episode.
Theme is a very powerful force in drama; it cannot be ignored. Whatever you may think of BSG‘s second half or LOST‘s final season, theme did not single-handedly bring those shows down. Supernatural‘s strong grasp on its core theme about the label of “family” has always kept its plots from seeming too silly, or its characters from feeling too unrealistic. On the other hand, Once Upon A Time represents the dangers in relying too heavily on theme to sell characters and plots to an audience that is already immensely savvy about both, an issue inherent to Once‘s premise as being about fairy tale characters in a modern-day setting. With both shows on winter break, there’s time for the former to finally double down on its greatest strengths and regain stature as one of television’s most powerful genre dramas, and for the latter to reconsider how it wants to deploy character and plot developments with relation to its themes in later episodes.