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I'm sorry about this, but I just can't let it go. I put together some thoughts about the cost and consequences of magic in Once Upon a Time and some reasons why I think the magic system in the show is broken and terrible and needs to be fixed. I did this mostly from memory and my own impressions, so if you think I'm wrong about something or am missing important examples, please comment!



Consequences of using magic are woven into the plot of Once Upon a Time. Snow and Charming protect their daughter from the curse; Emma is sent to our world. Geppetto saves Pinocchio; Emma ends up alone. The Evil Queen casts her revenge spell; the Fairy Tale land is cursed and sent to our world. These are all things that create conflict in interesting ways. Some of them are more obvious than others, and some of the consequences come much farther down the road than originally expected.

Consequences are the result of an action. Cost is what it takes to act. Season one did a better job of this, I think. Rumpel might be exempt from paying the cost of magic, because of his status as The Dark One; he already traded something priceless (his mortal life and family) for that power. When people made deals with Rumpel, they were deferring the cost now, and setting themselves up to pay it later. Regina has to kill her father to enact the curse--that's the cost of doing that magic.

A lot of the magic in season two, however, is divorced from its cost. Part of this is framing. When the Blue Fairy heals August and turns him back into a little boy, there's no acknowledgement that him turning back into a little boy was the cost of the magic. It's framed as a consequence of his own particular actions/the original spell. That makes a certain amount of sense, but framing it as a cost means that someone has to make that decision. Do they heal him and erase most of his whole life, or do they let him die?

Regina is obviously a powerful witch, so it makes sense that she can do a lot without worrying about the cost. She's had a lot of practice, which you could infer meant that she has built up endurance and/or knowledge. But while we see her learning magic, we don't see her struggling with the actual process of doing magic--just the moral implications to hurting other beings or people to get what she wants. Also, there must be limits to what she can do, but we have no idea what they are. That makes sense in one way, because the writers want the freedom to do other things in the future and don't want to contradict themselves. Say you establish that Regina cannot read minds, but then you have a plot which would be served by her reading someone's mind. You'd have to work around that limitation--or break apart the show's continuity.

By not drawing in at least some general guidelines, however, you have a situation where powerful enough magic could solve EVERYTHING. You end up with magic beans. Magic beans are... well, they are magical. We know that you can use them for transportation between realms. It's implied you can use them for other stuff, too, but that's not specified. One bean seems to open a portal to another realm that allows at least one person to pass through, but the portal can apparently handle quite a few more people than one--we just don't know if there's a limit. A limit might have helped in the season two finale by giving Belle an actual reason to stay. Instead, Gold's choice to leave and Belle's to stay seems forced. There's no reason someone else couldn't manage the town, and there are probably a few people who would be a more logical choice--the Blue Fairy, for one.

The lack of guidelines also leads to problems with Emma. Because there are no rules to who can use magic when or with how much training, Emma uses it when it's convenient to the plot and no other time. We don't see her learning magic, but when she needs to use it, she somehow knows what to do--or has it happen spontaneously. Even that isn't consistent--when she is using the magic golden dreamcatcher thing, Rumpel is helping guide her. Even when she uses the chalk to draw the protection lines around the shop, it can be explained that it's really the chalk that does the heavy lifting of the spell, and Emma just powers it. However, there is NO good reason why Emma should be able to help Regina with the trigger in the finale, at least not without being talked through it. It's a pretty easy disconnect to solve, but the show didn't solve it, making the save feel cheap.

(Assuming you wanted to keep everything else the same, then having Emma assist Regina is actually pretty brilliant. All you need to do is have Regina coach her through it, or get frustrated and say that won't work because she doesn't have any training or experience and then say that her trying to help won't work, but if she lends Regina her power... then you have set up a conflict wherein Emma has to decide whether or not to trust Regina enough, and Snow and Charming could weigh in and say it's too dangerous, because when you do that, you're connected to the other person in ways that could come back to haunt you later, and... okay, it's possible I've thought about this too much. Besides, that would only work if Regina's redemption wasn't mishandled the way it was, and now I've definitely gone down the rabbit trail.)

I've read a lot of fantasy, including fairy tales, and I have seen a lot of different magic systems that work well. Even the stories where the rules and limits of magic aren't explicitly stated, the magic is used in certain ways or behaves in ways that aren't just about what is convenient for the plot. That being said, I don't think all of the problems I have with the show stem from the misuse of magic as a plot device.

I am pretty sure that the writers are trying to write a coherent story. I'm also sure they're not succeeding. I think the writers can bring it into coherence. Most of the characters have implicit levels of ability. Snow and Charming, for instance, have used magical objects but not magical spells (to the best of my knowledge). Many of the other characters are equally unable to cast spells (so far as we know), or have magical abilities that present in other ways (The Mad Hatter and his hats, or Red's wolfish side). I'd be happy with a little more understanding of how Emma can do magic and what magic she can do. That would be a good start and might help the viewer understand the role of magic in the whole series.



P.S. I know it's "Rumplestiltskin" and not "Rumpelstiltskin" in Once, but is it shortened to Rumple or Rumpel?

This entry originally posted on DW. There are comment count unavailable comments over there.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
sholio
Jun. 25th, 2013 10:18 pm (UTC)
The inconsistency and sheer narrative convenience of Emma's magic is, I think, the thing about the show that frustrates me most. In large part, most of the rest of it can be handwaved in various ways. For example, I'd never really taken it as an objective rule that magic always has to have a cost (in the sense of this being a magical law of physics), but rather, a belief that the characters have -- sort of like believing that what goes around, comes around. And it tends to work out that way in a lot of cases, because using magic often tips the balance of things and sets a lot of unforeseen factors into motion, but it's not an inflexible rule of the way magic functions.

Emma's powers, though ... AARGH. They've been inconsistent and ill-defined from the first few episodes, and it's just gotten worse as the series has gone along. About half the time, the writers seem to completely forget about her one permanent ability (detecting lies), and the rest of it has literally NO rhyme nor reason to how it manifests or what it does, except that it's usually aimed at pushing the plot along.

Since the show draws from so many different stories, I'm not sure if a grand unified theory of magic is even possible within the show's context -- the chaotic, clashing magic systems actually works pretty well for me ... as long as each character/story is internally consistent in how THEIR magic works. Red, for example, is inherently magical in certain ways, and has specific limitations on how/when/what she can do. Rumpel* draws his magic from the Dark One knife. I think the show could stand to be more consistent with some of these characters (especially Regina and Rumpel, since they're the most powerful) but I don't think they necessarily need to be consistent with each other, since they're all from different fairy tales. And for me, the idea that we don't quite know how magic works or what its limits are is very much in keeping with the fairy-tale feeling.

*I don't know if there's an "official" shortened form of his name -- I don't think there is -- but this is how I've generally seen it in fandom.
holdouttrout
Jun. 27th, 2013 03:31 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I tried to draw a line between the cost (the energy, so to speak, it takes to use magic) and consequences (the results of using the magic), but I do think that Rumpel sort of skews all those lines.

I like what you said about how a grand unified theory of magic is probably not possible in Once. I just wish that it was a little more consistent--especially Emma! There are SO MANY good things you can do with Emma's superpower that the writers DON'T DO. It drives me up a tree.

And yeah, I don't need to know that "magical physics," but I want to believe that there IS one. You know, that the writers aren't just making up whatever seems right at the time without taking the context into consideration.
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