Frank Baum is certainly not in Kansas anymore as the latest retelling of his classic children’s fantasy takes the somber and more political approach.
Spoilers for “The Beast Forever” and “Prison of the Abject”
Remember that Op-ed I posted in June when I thought we were seeing the end of gritty reboots and retellings? No, you don’t? Oh. Well, I thought the trend was coming to an end due to the rumors surrounding the Rogue One reshoots possibly making the film lighter in tone. I was way off about Rogue One, and about the end of the gritty reboots, as Emerald City has just shown me. Let this series be a lesson to you writers and creators out there, gritty is not always better. Especially when that is all one has to offer as a new take on an old favorite.
Not that I hated it. The series does have some intriguing premises that I would like to see play out, but the premiere was meandering at best, leaving me with a lot more questions than praise to be given. The Tarsem Singh (The Cell, Mirror Mirror) directed presentation has the same amount of weight story wise as one of his music videos. Gorgeous visuals that stay with you long after you’ve watched, and not much else. Which doesn’t work when the plot takes the lesser known elements of Baum’s original tales and struggles to make them pertinent in a Game of Thrones-like setting.
The two-hour premiere starts with a woman running thru a storm with a baby, afraid and seeking shelter. What she is afraid of, we have yet to find out, but the baby does have a Harry Potter/Chosen One mark on her hand. Flash-forward twenty years and the baby has become Dorothy (Adria Arjona), a nurse with some serious commitment issues and a crisis about what to do with the mother she never really knew who has suddenly moved to the neighborhood. Dorothy was raised by her “Aunt and Uncle” Em and Henry Gale and wishes to be more. Just as a nasty storm is brewing, Dorothy decides it is the best time to visit her mother and finally have that talk about why she abandoned her daughter. Because funnel clouds starting to form in the sky is the signal to talk to the mother who left you.
Before we can ask “why there is a dead cop in the trailer?” or “what mortally wounded her mother?”, Dorothy gets inside a police vehicle (which also has a dog in the back) and is swept up in a tornado to Oz. This is the first of several times a non-explanation takes you right out of the story. Is Dorothy’s mother okay? Did she kill the cop or did something else? Why were the police at the home anyways? Seriously, why would a girl who was raised in Tornado Ally go out when there is obviously a storm which will produce tornadoes forming? (I don’t think I’m going to let that one go anytime soon)
As Dorothy lands in Oz, she accidentally runs over a woman in red (Florence Kasumba) and is found by a pack of Wildlings Munja’kins who are not happy about the death of Mistress of the Eastern Wood, the Most Merciful and Stern (East for short and the woman Dorothy ran over). The leader of the Tribe, Ojo (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), waterboards Dorothy to find out who she is, “only a witch can kill a witch. Or The Beast Forever,” and he figures she is “no beast.” Satisfied with her answers that she is no one, the Tribe sends Ojo to led Dorothy and her Toto (dog in their language) to the road lined with yellow poppy pollen to the Wizard of Oz (Vincent D’Onofrio).
On the road, Dorothy meets a man who is lashed to a cross crucifixion style and has no memory of who he is or how he got there (she names him Lucas after her hometown), then tricks the very angry East into killing herself with a handgun after the witch attempts to torture information out of Dorothy and Lucas (and gets some nice new hand jewelry for her effort), and then the two stumble to the home of Mombi (Fiona Shaw) when Lucas needs further healing from his many injuries. Lots of talking, explanations of what a “knock knock” joke is, and smoldering looks between our heroine and scarecrow to fill the time in between. While at the home of Mombi, Dorothy sees a “help me” note shoved under a locked door. It is from Tip (Jordan Loughran), a boy Mombi takes care of and keeps locked away for his own protection. He is sick and needs a medicine she makes for him. He will die without it, or so he is told.
Dorothy is content to leave the situation be, until Mombi poisons Lucas thinking he is a part of the Wizard’s Guard who massacred the villagers where he was found. Dorothy saves Lucas, locks Mombi in her room, and frees Tip to run away with his friend Jack (Gerran Howell). As Dorothy attempts to carry a weak and still pretty injured Lucas out of the house, Mombi escapes her room and endeavors to shove a poisoned flower down Dorothy’s throat. Lucas stabs Mombi and bashes her head in with a stone pitcher as Dorothy begs him to stop. Maybe the Scarecrow is one of the cruel soldiers as Mombi thought he might be. For all of Lucas’ efforts, Mombi didn’t die.
Jack and Tip escape into the woods, but all is not happy as Tip realizes he doesn’t have much medicine left. Jack convinces him they will find more on the road and the two boys go to sleep for the night. The next morning, the two realize what Mombi’s medicine really does. It doesn’t keep him alive, it changes Tip from a girl to a boy. Now that Tip is out of the meds, he is now back to a she. For those who have read Baum’s books, you know exactly who Tip is. I will get into that further when more is reveal in later episodes. Don’t want to spoil the fun for those not in the know.
On the other side of Oz, the Wizard meets with the two remaining Cardinal witches, West (Ana Ularu) and Glinda (Joely Richardson), to discuss what could have fallen from the sky and killed their sister, East. The Wizard’s High Council think whatever came in the storm is the “First true sign” The Beast Forever is going to rise again. The Wizard dispatches a group of his soldiers lead by his favorite man, Eamonn (Mido Hamada), to kill the girl before she makes it to the Emerald City.
There is much tension between the Wizard and the Witches. The great and powerful man saved Oz from being decimated by The Beast Forever when the Witch’s magic failed and their Mother South was killed. Magic is now banned and those who violate the law are imprisoned by East at the Wizard’s command. Now East is dead, none of the prisoners can be freed. As a way of coping with her punishment, West grows (and abuses) poppy and runs a brothel. Glinda lives in exile in the North, but as a show of trust, the Wizard allows her to staff his High Council with her disciples.
After the death of East, permission to perform a ritual to “sing” the dead witch to her final resting place is given by the Wizard. But there is a catch. He opens the ceremony to the public to remind everyone why they should fear magic and, as a bonus, embarrass West for her abuse of opiates. Glinda is worried about her sister’s abilities because the ritual is actually done to extract spells from East, something Glinda told the Wizard they cannot do. The ritual goes off without a problem and East spells are safely extracted without the Wizard’s knowledge, but his plan is fulfilled as his citizens no longer see the Witches as something great and mysterious.
Much is set up during the two-hour premiere, but little is offered in a way of some type of explanation leaving me confused as to what to expect next. Why exactly is Magic banned? What is The Beast Forever? Why do the sisters hate and mistrust one another? Where the Munja’kins disciples of East? Is that why they are pissed she is dead? Or is it because she will never be able free their kin from her prison? Seriously, who shot Dorothy’s mother and the cop? I’m all for reimaginings and letting the plot develop slowly, but there has to be some resemblance to what came before and something has to unfold with each episode or you get what we just got. A meandering mess of people walking around and talking about things we don’t understand just yet.
Arjona does a wonderful job of creating something from not much in this version of Dorothy. The chemistry between her and Cohen’s Lucas is well done. It is there, but it hasn’t become too distracting. What drew me to the series was D’Onofrio’s involvement. After watching the premiere, I’m disappointed. I feel as if the series show their cards for him a little too soon (irony since I just complained about not enough reveals). The Wizard is supposed clouded in mystery, but he is all too transparent here. Just another man looking to teardown what he can’t understand. A typical villain in a story of feminism.
I’m in for the long haul, but more needs to unfold quick if the show wants to live up to the Game of Thrones mantle it so wishes it could be placed upon.
What did you think of the premiere of Emerald City? Did you enjoy the retelling of Oz? Will you comeback for more? Let me know in the comments section below.