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REVIEW: Emerald City 1×01 “The Beast Forever”

Well, well. At long last we are here. After being given the green light, cancelled, then resurrected from the dead, Emerald City has aired its pilot episode – or rather, the first two episodes blended together into a super long episode. Despite not much fanfare for the new big fantasy epic based on the classic Oz books, the first episode(s) did not disappoint and immediately hit the ground running with a very different take on the land over the rainbow. However, it isn’t without its flaws, feeling a bit like an attempt to replicate Game of Thrones but was kneecapped when the producers remembered they are dealing with a childhood classic. We shall only be reviewing the first actual episode, and do a follow up for the second after.

Our story begins on a dark and stormy night in rural Kansas, where a lady runs through the corn to the Gale farmhouse carrying her baby. She is clearly running from something though we never see what as she hands over the child to the future Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. The episode also focuses on the baby’s weird star-shaped birth mark which will likely come into effect in some shape later on in the series. Twenty years on, the child has become Dorothy Gale (Adria Arjona), a nurse/care worker. The pacing suddenly picks up quite quickly. She drives to a trailer where her mysterious mother Karen lives but chickens out of visiting her. She works at the hospital caring for elderly patients and swiping their pills. At first I assumed she’d be a bit of a klepto, but it turns out the pills are for Uncle Henry.

In a scene straight out of Once Upon A Time, Dorothy blows out a lone candle on a birthday cake and admits to Aunt Em that her wish was for Karen to be less of a disappointment. With a little encouragement from her aunt, Dorothy decides to properly go and speak to her mother, but those pesky storm clouds are on the horizon. Wow, that was quick. I want to get to Oz as much as everyone else, but some proper establishment of Dorothy’s home life and situation with her mum would be nice. Dorothy is presented as a complex character, kind and dutiful, but also willing to break the law for her loved ones.

Dorothy reaches Karen’s trailer and technically breaks in to check on her. Instead of her mother, she finds a really, really dead guy. Not sure who this person is. Dorothy briefly chats to a handsome doctor who implies they are dating, but if it’s him, why is he in her mother’s house being very dead? Only six minutes in and a hundred questions need answering. Dorothy finds Karen in her storm shelter who has been injured and vaguely tells Dorothy not to trust anyone and to run. A cop shows up outside, Dorothy going to get his help, only to meet the barrel of his gun. I guess the police officer spotted the body or something. Too bad he doesn’t spot that really quiet twister sneaking up on him.

About to go on a wild ride, Dorothy jumps in the police car, accompanied by a police dog in the back and in the blink of an eye we are in Oz. What a rush. So many mysteries and none are really have the chance to be focused on. What is Karen’s story, why did she leave Dorothy with the Gales, where has she been and why did she come back, what is the significance of Dorothy’s birthmark, and what was going on with the cop and the dead guy? Hopefully all will be explained. My theory is that Dorothy is in fact from Oz and will play a big role in its future…or past.

Anyway, Dorothy and Toto fly through the twister in one piece and immediately run over the Wicked Witch of the East (Florence Kasumba). Hey, first casualty of the show already. Or not. Dorothy wakes up some time later and realises what has happened. You are on a role, Dorothy. Theft, a break-in, and murder all in one day. You didn’t see Judy Garland doing any of this…well, apart from the third one twice. Dorothy raids the police car, taking the cop’s jacket and gun, and takes Toto with her. I should point out this Toto is a German Shepherd police dog. This is quickly turning into Fallout. Rather than burying East, Dorothy walks off into the snowy woods where she is met by several children who guide her to their village.

Rather than the merry Munchkins, we meet a village of tribesmen who seems to take a lot of inspiration from the Wildlings. Dorothy asks for help, only to spot East’s corpse has been found and openly admits she killed her. Instead of breaking into song, the villagers freak out and label Dorothy a witch. Then, they water board her! Holy crap! This isn’t the same Oz of yesteryear. Dorothy gets interrogated by the village chief Ojo (who is an extremely unlucky Munchkin in the books), claiming only a witch can kill another witch, or something called the “Beast Forever”. While Dorothy gets dunked, Ojo explains East’s death is not a good thing and will likely spell trouble for his people when her sister’s find out, not to mention the Wizard of Oz himself.

We cut away to the titular Emerald City, which doesn’t have all that many emeralds. The scenery is undeniably beautiful, featuring giant statues of men decorating the landscape, but look like they are trapped in place. I am so calling these big statues to be the Nomes or at least a version of them. And here is where we meet the Wizard himself, played by Vincent D’Onofrio. To be honest, D’Onofrio is mirroring his role as Wilson Fisk from Daredevil quite closely, but there is at least some minor distinctions between the two characters. Two ladies who I assume are nuns of sorts inform the Wizard of the events in the east.

They present him a steampunk drone shaped like a flying monkey. Well, I guess they had to include them in the series somehow without blowing the budget. The blurry footage of the drone reveals the tornado puking out the police car, though the Wizards and his compatriots can’t tell what it is. What they do know is that the tornado is the “first sign” for the return of the aforementioned Beast Forever, whatever that is. Concerned, the Wizard dispatches his knight, Eamonn, to find whatever came from the sky and kill it. Eamonn (Mido Hamada) is supposed to be the Cowardly Lion, but in this episode and the next, his contribution to the plot is frankly nought. He spends the whole pilot following the yellow brick road and staring at things. He foils an assassination attempt by his own men who randomly try to kill him out of boredom, but it isn’t very interesting.

Back in Wildling Country, the villagers decide to kick Dorothy out of their territory, though Ojo is “kind” enough to escort her to the border. Dorothy, Toto, and Ojo walk across the countryside, Dorothy being identified as a healer since apparently they don’t have doctors in Oz. They pass by a lake where Dorothy notices the skeleton of a giant sea serpent. Wow, they really are nodding to the books. Dorothy asks about the Beast Forever, which Ojo vaguely describes as a force which comes in many forms, but was stopped by the Wizard using the Nomes.

Elsewhere, the Wizard has gone to meet an associate of his – the Wicked Witch of the West. However, she ain’t no green-skinned hag, but rather, well, quite pretty. West (Ana Ularu) runs a brothel of all things. I guess she rides on a different type of broomstick now (Heyoo!). The Wizard and West discuss the coming of the Beast Forever Vague, but Witch starts getting moany about life and Glinda’s power but the Wizard makes her shut up. Also present is one of the nuns, Eliza, who West points out is pregnant in defiance of Glinda’s one rule that all of her followers must be chaste and dedicate their lives to aiding the Wizard. I suppose this is meant to introduce a juxtaposition between West and Glinda – one is vulgar, the other is pure.

Ojo guides Dorothy into a spooky cave where they find tons of people trapped in a mud pool, unable to move or speak, including Ojo’s wife. This is the Prison of Abject where East has imprisoned all of those who defied the Wizard’s anti-magic laws, and the witch’s death means it may be impossible to free all of them. Well, hey, excuse me, but Dorothy didn’t exactly have a say in what direction the police car was going to land. It’s not her fault. Outside, Ojo points out the yellow brick road, though in this case, the road is cleverly made yellow by poppy pollen. So, Dorothy sets out to meet the Wizard, but it turns out the pollen is actually opium poppies, which is a natural laxative. Well that explains why the poppies put people to sleep.

Dorothy starts succumbing to the opium’s effects and stumbles across a destroyed village, where she finds a man (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) tied to a pole covered in blood and straw. Now, I wonder who this character is based on. Dorothy rescues the man who admits he has no memories of who he is. Dorothy helps the man recover, finding a sword in his possession. Eamonn arrives at the village to inspect East’s body, only for Ojo to discover she has gone. Dorothy and her new friend decide to camp for the night, kicking off what is likely to be the first of many scenes of flirtation. The man probes Dorothy for a name, which she is strangely sheepish over until she decides to call him Lucas after her hometown.

The next day, Lucas wakes up to find Dorothy in a strange state only to end up the same way. They flash back and forth between the road and the Prison of Abject, likely an attack on their very minds or souls. And guess who is behind the attack. Yep, East is alive and kicking. East tortures the two physically with her magic gloves, which are a stand-in for the Silver Shoes/Ruby Slippers. What’s wrong with the classic shoes?

East mocks Dorothy, believing she was sent to kill her, and then pulls out the handgun. What happens next is a little predictable but still cool, showing Dorothy’s more guile, craftier side. She tricks East into aiming the gun at her head and pulling the trigger. Boom, headshot! Damn, that was a rather unusual way to go. Doesn’t really top the falling house, but still. In the Emerald City, West appears to sense her sister’s death and screams hysterically. The Wizard is informed and accepts the news with a slight hint of silent content. We also meet Glinda (Joely Richardson), who is depicted as the Witch of the North rather than the Witch of the South for some reason. Glinda has a sense of grace to her, yet her rage is just as ferocious as West’s, openly blaming the Wizard.

The Wizard addresses a crowd of commoners, explaining how the late King Pastoria and his magical followers fought the Beast Forever but died until the Great and Powerful Oz himself saved the day. He vows to protect his people from the Beast and magic, the scene intercutting with the Wizard alone in his chambers, pulling off a wig to reveal he still remains that man behind the curtain.

So, the first episode of Emerald City leads the series down the right road. However, the first ten minutes or so feel a little rushed, introducing a lot of questions and leaving us with not even an idea of what the heck is going on before we jump to the Land of Oz. After that, it is smooth sailing. Acting is top notch from the cast, the scenery is beautifully shock, and even the minor special effects look pretty good. Adria Arjona is a good actress and all of her reactions as Dorothy come off as realistic. Vincent D’Onofrio is awesome as always and will continue to ham it up in the second episode.

On the negative side, there is a lot of heavy-handed inspiration from Game of Thrones, but it feels like the expected gore, sex, and political intrigue from that show was eighty-sixed for Emerald City to make it a little more family friendly…despite the blood, dead guy, water boarding Dorothy Gale, bullets to the head, and freak mud hole of despair. There is a sense of bleakness to this version of Oz and will be a completely different experience then the land we all know and love from The Wizard of Oz. But, the Oz franchise has always been a darker tale then most remember, and it works well here. So far, so good.

Final Score: B

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About the author

Mark Russell