Once Upon a Time
So, ABC’s Disney-based, mega fairy tale crossover returns this week with the second half of its fifth season. Okay, technically it has already returned, but I don’t get to watch until it appears on Netflix tomorrow, so in advance of that, and my planned weekly TV recap (which for me currently consists of Once Upon a Time and The Night Manager only, since Game of Thrones isn’t back until next month), here’s a little overview of my experience with this show.
I love fairy tales. That’s no secret. I also love Disney. And yet, despite the fantastic premise, I didn’t actually start watching this show until last year. Why is that? Well, it’s hard to say, but I think I got the wrong idea of what the show actually was. I believed it was aimed at a much younger audience; maybe I got a glimpse of some sub-par special effects and turned my nose up. However, after some friendly recommendations and a thought that it would make decent research for a fairy-tale-themed MA degree dissertation, I finally sat down and what do you know, binge watched every episode of all four seasons in a couple of months. It is now one of my favourite TV shows.
The premise is one of those genius concepts I’m surprised wasn’t done sooner. A young woman – Emma Swan – is drawn to a mysterious town by the son she forgot she had, who is convinced that everyone he knows, from his favourite teacher to his own stepmother, are fairy tale characters transported from their magical realm into our world, and only Emma can make them remember their past lives. Is his suspicion correct, or has Emma trapped herself in a lonely child’s coping mechanism?
For all four seasons, the show jumps between the real-world town of Storybrooke and its inhabitants – Emma and her son Henry, major Regina, teacher Mary Margaret, landowner Mr Gold, psychiatrist, doctor, diner owner, etc. – and flashbacks to the Enchanted Forest (framed in series one as the stories in Henry’s favourite book) showing the origins of their fairy tale counterparts, Snow White and her Prince Charming, the Evil Queen and Robert Carlisle’s deliciously diabolical Rumplestiltskin. Some stories (most notably the aforementioned Snow White and Rumplestiltskin) play as heavily expanded adaptations of their original fairy tale form. Others more closely follow Disney’s movie versions, like Beauty and the Beast (with homages, shout-outs and a few small cameos), or in the case of The Snow Queen, being framed as a wraparound story to, and featuring most of the characters from, Disney’s Frozen.
Throughout the first series, more characters, most notably a writer named August (complete with motorbike and typewriter) and The Winter Soldier himself, Sebastian Stan as a hat-obsessed madman named Jefferson, pop in to add to the intrigue, each of them knowing far more about the real Storybrooke than they let on.
Of course, Henry’s dreams are true, as is revealed as early as the pilot and confirmed when both Regina Mills and Mr Gold reveal they maintain their memories of their villainous fairy tale pasts. By the end of series one, the curse has been lifted and the whole town remembers, so the plot continues thanks to a constant barrier preventing anyone from leaving Storybrooke, and the reveal of new villains from within and without. Is this a problem? Yes and no. I get the feeling that Henry’s theory being the truth was meant to be more of a surprise, and more could be made of Emma’s conflict if it wasn’t so obvious from the start and confirmed too soon that the flashbacks we were seeing were real, and not just Henry’s visions of storybook tales, using the faces of people he knows to make the characters. But maybe such a tone is more suited to a psychological thriller than a fantasy show produced by Disney.
I also feel that they might have jumped the gun on lifting the curse too soon. Season 2 certainly has a little trouble finding its feet after such a big change to the status quo, and perhaps a gentler approach would have worked better. They did a similar thing in season four, with the Author arc, a metafictional subplot that was mind-boggling in the best way. The only issue being that it felt like an arc that should close the show for good. Once you’ve pulled the meta trigger, where else do you go?
From series two onwards, characters also hop in and out of various Enchanted Forest locations in the present, the backstories of minor characters are fleshed out in a few episodes and more locations and characters are introduced, even from outside of fairy tales. In four seasons we’ve seen Wonderland, Oz, Neverland, Camelot and, come the new season, the Ancient Greek Underworld.
That’s an awful lot for one show, and an awful lot that can go wrong… and things do. Once Upon a Time is far from perfect. Fast-trigger on lifting the curse aside, the show’s constant expansion does leave it feeling rather bloated, and the narrative seems to favour old characters whilst leaving others neglected. There are only so many episodes you can dedicate to Regina or Snow White’s dark and troubled pasts before the events start contradicting or repeating themselves, meanwhile Red Riding Hood and Doctor Frankenstein have been left in the lurch with unresolved backstories for three seasons.
This all came to a head in the first half of season five, where it felt like the writers had really bitten off more than they could chew. As said above, after the Author arc, they could only really go backwards, and they overcompensated by trying to do too much. First Emma became the embodiment of darkness, then the gang travelled to Camelot for a subplot involving King Arthur and Merlin, whilst also bringing in Brave’s Merida (the show’s first Pixar character and one of the few with no root in fairy tale or folklore). On top of that, there was the clear reluctance to let go of Zelena, Regina’s half-sister and the Wicked Witch of the West, even giving her that old chestnut, the magically accelerated pregnancy, to keep her relevant though most of the time she sat around doing nothing.
All this left former Dark One Gold with nothing to do but a “become a hero” plot that was undone by the last episode, an evil King Arthur and shady Merlin – brilliant concepts who amounted to very little in execution – and Dark Emma sulking and acting repentant most of the season because the show seemed afraid to let their protagonist go all-out-villain, as most were hoping she would. Other than one very neat twist and a couple of brilliant individual episodes, season 5.1 ended up as nothing but build up to 5.2. I really hope 5.2 delivers on that promise.
In light of this, you might be wondering why this is one of my favourite shows. It’s all down to entertainment value. I find Once Upon a Time to be a lot like Heroes (and there’s a proper breakdown of that show coming soon), both tonally and in that I like it almost because of its flaws, not in spite of them. Without them, the show wouldn’t be what it is, and I wouldn’t find it nearly as endearing. It’s a guilty pleasure that I feel no guilt over.
The new interpretations of well-known stories and especially characters are what keep me coming back. Unlike some shows, Once Upon a Time actually lets its characters develop and change over time… Most of them anyway. For example, I didn’t like either Regina or Captain Hook at all in their first appearances, but they have grown into two of my favourite characters, just for their attitudes in the face of their own fairly ridiculous existences. But I’ll go into this more for each character where appropriate in my weekly reviews. For every dull Zelena, there’s a malicious Mr Gold. For every addition to Snow White’s bloated backstory, there’s a shining Belle, Mad Hatter, Jiminy Cricket or Frankenstein episode. For every Dark Swan arc that falls flat, there’s a twisted Neverland or brilliantly metafictional arc to keep you engrossed. I may go into more depth on each season later down the line, but for now, I’m running out of time.
And there is always, constantly, Emma Swan: perhaps the most engaging lead I’ve seen in years; a Chosen One who can’t simply wield a sword just after picking it up and wins the day more out of blind luck than skill. And for someone who is unapologetically more fond of antagonists, for the protagonist to be my favourite character is very refreshing.
So, bring on season 5.2, I say. The gang might be heading to the Underworld, but for the show the only way is up. I look forward to where they take me next.