Over the course of its first season, “Emerald City” has been brash in the way it tackles gender identity, self-discovery, love, death and politics — all themes pulled right from L. Frank Baum’s “Wizard of Oz” series, written over 100 years ago. It’s captivating precisely because all these issues, and Baum’s insights into them, are still frighteningly relevant.
Even though Oz is a magical world, it’s not all rainbows and ruby slippers — and on Friday night’s (Feb. 24) penultimate episode of Season 1, the NBC drama truly pulls back the curtain on “Emerald City” — nothing and nobody (and no body) will ever appear the same. At its root, it’s a story about personal identity and bodily sovereignty, and in almost every case, its conclusions were present all along, hidden as if by magic.
“The Villain That’s Become” is the show’s most powerful episode to date. And director Tarsem Singh, who filmed the entire season as if it was a 10-hour movie, isn’t throwing out these surprising plot twists merely for shock value: He’s revealing what’s been in front of our eyes the entire time. We are now seeing everyone’s true colors. And while all the drama may feel initially like it’s coming from left field, the confidence of the stories lies in the fact that these twists have been inevitable from the get-go.
Tip (Jordan Loughran) has learned that he was born Princess Ozma: Not just royalty, but a de facto messiah under the Wizard’s new regime, established by fiat and conquest (and coincidence, of course). While most people would be elated to learn they were the one true ruler of Oz, Tip wants nothing more than to be a boy again. After drinking the power of the departed Witch of the East (Florence Kasumba) and becoming a cardinal witch, the truth and power of that magic immediately turns him back into a boy. The look of bliss on his face, even in the mundane but affirming act of relieving himself in the forest, makes it clear: Ozma may be royalty, but Tip knows himself, and where he finds his peace.
West (Ana Ularu) is not happy with the transformation: Her revolution is imminent, and Ozma would have been her ultimate trump card — it’s what brought her back from suicide, remember, so recently. But soon both West and her witch army realize that boy or girl, his power still yields from within. Aside from his outward appearance, nothing else actually changes: Prince or Princess, Ozma is an idea and a title, nothing more.
West confuses his desire to live his life in truth with wanting to renounce his true calling as the ruler of Oz — much less revenging his parents’ murder, but that’s not the case: Tip is a compassionate and caring person, with a sense of justice so strong he talks back to witches and kings alike — he just wants to live as himself. There’s no real conflict there — just what strict and antiquated Ozian concepts of gender, for both witches and men, demands.
The double-twist here, implicit from the pilot, is that because Tip was given “medicine” to hide his identity for most of his life, he would be relieved to find himself in his birth-assigned gender: Would he gradually accept, even revel in his femininity? Find a way to fight with, or at least for, the witches — and glory in it? But the show waited until the final moment to flip it back again, making what’s always been the most compelling storyline of the series into the most groundbreaking trans story we’ve ever seen in primetime.
Ozma or Tip, he’s still a boy — and always has been. Taking on his role as “Princess Ozma” is a choice he makes for political reasons, and in some ways is the ultimate sacrifice for his people — the grandeur and witchiness of his final presentation here only reminds us that this is drag.
The matriarchy and underground strength of the oppressed witches of Oz is one of the greatest drumbeats of the series, and here it finds its ultimate irony: Only when they see Tip as a woman can the witches respect him, because they’ve had that rule beaten into them (literally) for eons. While men may hold power in the home, the court, the throne room and the fields, women and witchcraft are the real “man behind the curtain,” because they connect with the force that animates Oz itself.
There’s political expedience in assuming a female form, ruling out claims against his bloodline itself, but there is also a general’s strength. Having lived as both — who doesn’t remember his hilarious response to the age-old “madonna/whore” role forced on women? — Tip is not just Oz’s rightful ruler, but the only person alive with the experience to do so with compassion. (In the canon, this is near-explicit: Ozma is the Glinda of the later books, providing not just wisdom but whipcrack smarts — and more importantly, treating kindness as an art.)
But “Emerald City” is not done critiquing these ideas — the big shocker at the end of the episode, in which the robotic and innocently creepy Queen of Ev (Stefanie Martini) turns out to be an Anatasia of her own: A robot built on the model of the daughter of a slaughtered dynasty, in parallel to Tip. This reveal doesn’t make Jack (Gerran Howell) feel any better about accidentally killing her — it causes him to freak out, and have a full-on identity crisis. Does Langwidere being a robot change the relationship they had? Are the feelings he felt while he was with her now null and void? Princess Ev wasn’t aware she was machine-made, how could she?
Regardless, Jack feels duped, but what’s ailing him is anger and frustration. When he looks at robot Langwidere, he no longer sees her as a real person. Made up of electronic parts and hardware, she’s not someone that deserves affection and love…
Which is exactly his own situation: Like Langwidere, he was dead, and brought back to life by Jane’s (Gina McKee) mechanical arts. But that’s not the parallel that matters, here, because he’s also finally asking the question his beloved Tip has finally answered:
Is this my body?
Elsewhere, Lucas (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) — Or is it Roan? Is this my body? — seems set to murder Dorothy (Adria Arjona), which she still cannot believe: Is he just a robot like Langwidere, a terrorist willing to do anything for his Glinda? Where did Lucas go, inside this monster? Did she ever know this man at all? What of him is real, and which parts were merely under a spell? After stabbing him with his own knife, Dorothy leaves him tied up once again, back as the scarecrow she found on her first day in Oz.
“You get your wish,” Dorothy says. “I never happened to you.”
But unless her memory gets wiped, like her lover’s, that will never really be true. Dorothy will never forget the Scarecrow, and though Dorothy’s quest has always been to find her mother and know herself and where she came from, Lucas and their travels were vitally important to her growth: It doesn’t define her as a person, but it helped to tell the story.
Big moments in life always seem so shocking when they happen — and in retrospect, it feels crazy we didn’t see these things coming the entire time. This show has done an exceptional job in recreating that sense. We’re not quite sure what will happen in the finale, but fingers crossed it won’t be the last episode we see of “Emerald City.” The work this show is doing is not only vital, but beautiful — both in its art, and in its spirit.
The Season 1 finale of “Emerald City” airs on Friday, March 4, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.