“Emerald City” is a Refreshing Take on Oz, But it’s Still Problematic
Emerald City gets full marks for social commentary and diversity — including a Latina Dorothy and a black queen of Oz, but it’s not without its faults.
It’s a tale as old as time. No, not that one. The other one, where a girl from Kansas gets picked up by tornado and dumped into a mysterious and magical land called Oz.
But this one comes with some major twists. NBC’s Emerald City, created and directed by visionary artist Tarsem Singh, is a wild and steampunk version of L. Frank Baum’s dark classic Wizard of Oz stories. Featuring a diverse cast that is unique to this beloved series, Emerald City is Oz’s adaptation for the future.
Dorothy Gale (Adria Arjona) is a 20-something nurse living in Lucas, Kansas, with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. She was dropped on their doorstep when she was just a baby. Uncle Henry is Mexican, and Em is white. Dorothy finds out that the woman who abandoned her all those years ago is living in the next town. After she plucks up the courage to visit, the woman’s trailer is hit by a tornado; the police car Dorothy shelters in, with its K-9 unit, lands in a strange land.
We are not in Kansas anymore.
Because Dorothy arrived in a cop car this time around, she brings the officer’s gun with her as she searches for help. And (unfortunately) rather than dropping a house on the Witch of the East (Florence Kasumba), Dorothy tricks her into killing herself with said gun.
This is not your childhood Oz.
The death of this Cardinal Witch in an Oz where magic is illegal — per the edict of its fascist dictator, The Wizard, — sends out shockwaves that reach and anger East’s sisters. Glinda (Joely Richardson) and West (Ana Ularu) are the only two remaining official witches in Oz: Glinda runs a convent, West runs a brothel, and both are forbidden from using magic. There are no ruby slippers in Emerald City, but Dorothy inherits East’s ruby hand gauntlets, which she can activate through emotional stress and anger. On the Yellow Brick Road to see the Wizard, Dorothy frees a young boy named Tip (Jordan Loughran), who is being held prisoner by Mombi (Fiona Shaw). Without Tip’s “medicine,” administered by the unofficial witch, by the end of the first episode Tip has turned into a girl, the rightful queen of Oz: Ozma Pastorious.
For those of us who have read the books multiple times, Tip’s transformation from boy to girl was no surprise. L. Frank Baum was not afraid to discuss transgenderism 100 years ago in the books, but no adaptation has dared to include it before now.
Tip spent 16 years under a magic spell that disguised his true gender. If Mombi hadn’t protected him, the Wizard would have killed him, as he did Tip’s parents — so as to leave nobody with a claim to the throne. When Mombi can no longer administer the potion that keeps Tip a boy, Tip’s entire world is upended. There are so many poignant moments as Tip tries to adjust to his female form. One of the most powerful is when he stands in front of two restroom doors, unsure of whether to go in the men’s or women’s. Kudos to Tarsem Singh for humanizing this dilemma at a time when Trump’s reign has rolled back rights for transgender Americans.
Another scathing indictment of the Wizard’s patriarchal dictatorship comes when Tip, in female form, is asked to choose between living with Glinda or West. Tip responds, “So you’re saying my only choices as a girl are nun or whore?” To which the witches sigh, and shrug a reluctant yes. Amazing.
The fact that Tip/Future Queen of Oz Ozma is played by a black actress is phenomenal, while the Witch of the East is a black woman worshipped by a white tribal society because she’s so merciful.
I’ve been an Oz devotee my entire life, and I never in a million moons would have imagined that one day I’d witness a Dorothy who actually looks like me. While Adria Arjona is Latina, as a half white, half Sri Lankan, that is the ethnicity I’m most mistaken for. Every episode gave me chills, and I thought about all the young brown girls out there for whom a new standard of Oz has been raised. A brown Dorothy and a black Ozma.
This is definitely not the traditional Oz.
The parallels between The Wizard and President Trump are stunningly presented, especially given that the show was produced before he was elected. At one point, The Wizard is alone in his room: he takes off his thick mane of black hair to reveal a diseased and pocked scalp. The great deceiver of Oz; a mediocre white man with delusions of grandeur. As the story unfolds, more and more people close to him discover he has no magic powers, hence his unholy desire to wipe magic off the Ozian map. Since magic in Oz springs from its women, he becomes the embodiment of patriarchy and colonialism. His goal is to tame this savage land of magic and civilize it with science. There’s a horrific tableau in which The Wizard burns all the women on his council, echoing centuries of violence against women who are feared to be witches. Even after so many decades, he keeps forgetting that he isn’t in Kansas anymore.
Tarsem Singh’s visually operatic style is a perfect vehicle for the Oz tales. As Dorothy discovers the new land, viewers often feel as if we’ve stepped into a moving painting. Singh uses every inch of the screen to beautiful, if often disturbing, effects. The Flying Monkeys as drones, replete with multiple cameras, is beyond brilliant. The visual cues for the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion are subtle and stunning.
Also, using as the backdrop of Oz, the phenomenal Catalonian architect Antonin Gaudí’s buildings from Barcelona and around Basque Country are perfection, and not just because I’ve personally had a long love affair with Gaudí’s unique designs. Do yourself a favor and look through images of La Sagrada Familia, Casa Batllo, Casa Mila (La Pedrera), Park Güell and Palau Güell. Through these magical real-life locations around Spain — which also included the Real Alcazar of Seville and The Alhambra of Granada — manifested Oz manifest in a way it never had before. I lived in Spain for years and seeing all my old stomping grounds subbing for one of my favorite imaginary places was a sublime and singular pleasure.
Emerald City gets full marks for social commentary and diversity, but it’s not without its faults. The introduction of guns into Oz is profoundly unsettling. There were a number of graphic bullet-to-the-head scenes, including the Witch of the East’s inadvertent suicide, that were excessive and gratuitous. Watching the normalization of gun violence in Oz left me with a great deal of anger and frustration. As much as I appreciate edgy and dark retellings of my favorite stories, the gun violence took it way too far.
I also found it troubling how often the diverse cast of women was pitted against each other. This was a huge plot thread throughout the episodes, and it got more and more irritating as the show went on. Clearly, the big picture was that these women had been negatively affected by the Wizard’s patriarchal colonialism — their fight was with him, not each other. Instead, it became a sexist trope of catty women being bitches to each other. There were also way too many women fighting each other over men. When there was already so much at stake, those romantic storylines ended up being eyeroll-worthy and detracted the overall good.
The more progressive approach would have been for the women to put aside their (often petty) disagreements and squabbles and band together to fight the real threat. While the Wizard is indeed vanquished, a new monster man has unfurled his wings over Oz to destroy it. Will the women get over their egos and fight as a group — or will that new monster further fragment them?
Even with its problems, I hope there is a second season of Emerald City. I would happily spend many more hours in Tarsem Singh’s especially relevant and beautifully manufactured version of Oz.
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