The messages of Once Upon a Time have been that good always prevails, that all it—whatever “it” happens to be—takes is belief, and, ad nauseam, that true love conquers all. However, Hemingway said, “If two people are truly in love, there’s no way it can all end happily,” and apologies to Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, but I’m gonna go with Papa on this one.
Forget, for a moment, that these messages do not accurately reflect the original messages of the large body of fairy tales, which were more like, “Everything in the world is dangerous and will eat/steal you if it possibly can.” Because, of course, this ABC family drama (distributed by Disney) is not even about to be anything but warm and fuzzy.
Let’s focus instead on how the unrelenting hammering-home of these messages affects the plot and characterization.
Everyone knows plot revolves around conflict. The creators of this show have given us plenty of conflict. The over-arching magical conflicts between the Evil Queen and the Dark One, and all of the other Enchanted Woods characters whom they enspelled. The over-arching domestic conflicts between Regina and Emma over Henry, or Rumple’s search for his son. The over-arching internal conflicts that rage within Emma, who longs to trust people but is still hurt at being abandoned and growing up without a family. Or Regina, who battles between rage and revenge, and the desire to be a hero and find happiness again.
These conflicts are, each of them, real and engrossing. (The moments they create could be, like, a billion times more engrossing if they weren’t saddled with clunky, cheesy, boring dialogue, but that’s a whole ‘nother thing.)
The plot problem is that, in their effort to make sure that the messages of “if you only believe,” and “true love conquers all,” come through loud and clear, the writers sabotage moments of conflict and drama by almost always reversing the consequences of big decisions. For instance, [highlight for spoilers] near the end of the third season, Charming has to give up his heart to re-enact Regina’s dark curse. While the couple exchange their last love vows, Snow crushes his heart, killing him. Literally two minutes later, Snow realizes that Charming’s claim that they were “of one heart” might mean that he can live again, with half of her heart. She asks Regina to “believe,” puts half her heart in Charming’s chest, and he comes back to life. Ta da! [spoilers ended]
This is just the latest and most immediate in a long series of impossible resurrections and/or immediate about-faces in destiny: Gold, Neal, the several “unbreakable” curses that always get broken laughably easily. This show does not want to let consequences last which, after a while, cuts the emotional legs out from under any fraught decision that’s being made. Regina might lose Henry if she saves the world? So what! Emma will lose her powers if she gets kissed? No big deal! This pattern makes it almost impossible to really care about any of the Life or Death moments that the show presents us with.
This pattern also gets in the way of characterization. I want to care about the Charmings—I really do. But how can I? With the (admittedly big) exception of getting to raise Emma, they get everything they want, all the time, no questions asked. For instance, [highlight for spoilers] when Hook raises the completely reasonable suggestion that perhaps Ariel can’t find Eric because he’s dead, and that encouraging her would be raising “false hope,” [end spoilers] David responds glibly, “In my experience, there’s no such thing. You just have to believe.” Of course he says that, because that IS his experience. But his experience is not only far removed from the real world from which people are watching this show, but also removed from the “real world” people of Storybrooke, who DO lose people (though at a smaller rate than you’d think) to death, to memory-curses, to heartbreaking love-triangles, etc. The fact is, the Charmings are impossibly privileged and their privilege makes it hard for me to care about them. [Hightlight for spoilers] Their later faux-humble (“just a simple potluck”) coronation ceremony for their new son [end spoilers] only serves to underscore the weirdness of a royal family in modern-day America, a family for whom the whole town will rally at a moment’s notice and to whom they will defer in moments of crisis.
With a few tweaks, the Charmings could be much more relatable, and the storyline more fascinating. For instance, was the outcome of Snow killing Cora? Her heart became tainted with spots of darkness. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen any consequences of this change lately. How much more nuanced and true-to-life would it be if Snow had to struggle with a dark side? [Highlight for spoilers] And, now that Snow and David share that spotted heart, what could happen? [end spoiler] I’m not talking about a sudden and catastrophic slide into Dark One-style evil, but just a realistic internal conflict between the desire to do “what’s right” and the urge to do things an easier, quicker, more ruthless way.
But, except for a few moments of dark humor, this show shies away from representing reality—whether that be realistic character motivations, realistic plot outcomes, or even, as I mentioned above, story adaptations that stick more closely to the “reality” of what fairy tales originally offered. Which is the real tragedy of Once Upon a Time: how much better it could be if it stuck more closely to non-Disney versions of fairy tales. These stories were not originally comforting yarns told at bedtime to send children off into a pleasant dreamland; they were violent, scary, and dark. In short, they were warnings. Look no farther than the big four in the Western tradition: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast. In their depictions of imprisonment, abuse, kidnapping, rape, bestiality, etc., even our oft-repeated fairy tales strongly suggested that wonderful things like family relations, sex, love, ambition, and leadership could be twisted into frightening experiences. Here there be dragons, fairy tales said, and pointed at our daily lives. (Also, fairies be crazy. For real.)