"And they lived happily ever after."
This is what we learn from our fairy tales, and we learn it at our peril. As we grow, we see its folly: We do not seem to live happily ever after. We pay bills and go to the dentist. We worry about our kids and labor at our jobs. We struggle. We suffer. We die. This is no fairy tale, this life of ours, no Eden.
But living an actual fairy tale life isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be either.
So we've seen from the characters of ABC's Once Upon a Time, who for much of the series so far have lived a sort of dual life: One in flashback in the land of fairy tales, and another in the more rote world of Storybrooke, Maine—a place given life through a curse.
Alas, Storybrooke is no more by Season 3, but the stories remain. And the barrier between fantasyland and the real world is positively sieve-like. Emma, the one-time bridge between them, is back at home in New York, living with her son, Henry. She has no memory of ever knowing Snow White or Captain Hook. She doesn't realize that her memories of life with Henry are all fabricated—a gift from the boy's adopted mother (who is something of a reformed wicked queen). And yet she's being called to rescue the friends and family she grew to love and never knew, to once again voyage to a land that never was and was always there.
Yes, it gets complicated. Once Upon a Time has become a labyrinthine fable that even the Brothers Grimm might not be able to piece together. It's the brainchild of Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, who helped form that other ABC mythical world Lost. And, indeed, this new flight of fancy embraces some Lost-like elements: different worlds, bewildering flashbacks and interwoven relationships that can be deciphered only through obsessive viewing or a handy-dandy cheat sheet.
Die-hard Lost fans will say this latter series doesn't have the same depth or resonance. But under the surface, there's still some pretty interesting stuff going on. As Mary Margaret told us way back in the pilot, bedtime stories become "a way for us to deal with our world." As such, the show itself has the potential to allude to greater truths and become a springboard to deeper themes.
Consider how Emma escaped the original curse that set this story in motion—a curse that, in Season 1, magically created the non-magical hamlet of Storybrooke and caused most of the characters to forget who they were.
As a baby, she was placed in what's characterized as a "wardrobe" (a nod to The Chronicles of Narnia?) where she's transported to our world, apparently biding her time until she's ready to return and save her people. It's a scene rich in archetype, both pagan (Perseus, sent away from his rightful kingdom in a chest) and Christian (Moses, placed in a basket and set on the Nile). Clearly, this program has ambition to tell us more than just … fairy tales.
Once has its faults. Characters here fight, bleed and die. Some of them swear. Costumes can be immodest. Casual intimacy is sometimes shared. The temptation of marital infidelity (in the name of "true love") has been a theme. The use of magic—some of it dark—is, of course, nonstop.
But it also sets up strong distinctions between good and evil. It gives us characters who seem to care about one other. It even provides for us the occasional bedtime moral. And, most importantly, through its fairy tale proxies (if we look really, really closely), the series communicates a very important truth: We're all more than we seem. We can be better than we are. In the midst of our pain and suffering and workaday lives, there's an actual fairy tale to be found—not a fictional construct, but the understanding that our lives are wondrous, miraculous and highly improbable gifts.
It tells us that there are happy endings. And, as Christians, we know that to be true.
Some pretty great messages about family, hope and redemption emerge from the following: Evil man-boy Peter Pan (in the body of Henry) casts a curse that'll do horrible things to the citizens of Storybrooke, completing it by sacrificing his lackey, Felix. He reaches into the teen's chest (obscured by clothes), takes out a stylized glowing heart and crushes it into powder as Felix dies. Pan later freezes everyone else and threatens to kill them too. But his son, Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold, foils the plot, using magic to stab Pan in the back while simultaneously stabbing himself. (The only way Pan could be killed, we hear, is if Gold died too.)
Peter Pan tells Rumpelstiltskin that it's not too late for him to take out the knife and share a happy ending. "Ah, but I'm a villain," Gold says. "And villains don't get happy endings."
But sometimes they do reform, as we see with Evil Queen/Regina, who breaks the curse and sends most everybody back to the world of fantasy … everybody except her adopted son Henry and Henry's birth mom, Emma. (That's the price she must pay for stopping the curse.)
Characters are smashed around, sometimes by a supernatural shadow (which is later obliterated by fire). Gold is prepared to cut off his own hand. Rum is sipped. Folks say "h‑‑‑" five or six times and "bloody" once. In Storybrooke, fairies seem to be part of a Christian order of nuns.
In flashback, we see Rumpelstiltskin training a reluctant Regina in the dark arts—asking her to rip a living heart out of a unicorn. "I can't," she says. "It's innocent!" "Nothing is innocent," Rumpel counters, plucking the heart (a glowing, glassy object) and giving it to Regina to squeeze and kill the animal. She again refuses. But her moral compunction crumbles when she encourages a visiting scientist to use a heart (from her mother's stash) to revive her dead love, Daniel. The procedure seemingly fails, and she responds by ripping out and crushing the heart of a would-be rival.
In Storybrooke, Dr. Whale (aka Frankenstein) successfully raises Daniel from the dead—turning him into a monster of sorts. Thus, Daniel nearly kills Henry before David and a reforming Regina intervene. Regina refuses to let David shoot Daniel, pleading that she can get through to him. She does momentarily, but in the end, she magically causes Daniel to vanish, presumably "killing" him.
Across the void, Emma, Snow, Mulan and Aurora come across a settlement where everyone's hearts have been ripped out. (We see bloody stains on shirts.) A man has his arm ripped clean off by a beastie. (We see the aftermath, not the attack.)
We hear that magic can't buy happiness, and that it's costly to dabble in. That goes for the dark sciences, too. "Whatever it is you traffic in, it comes with a price," Rumpelstiltskin says. Characters blurt out "h‑‑‑" once and misuse God's name once or twice. David punches a guy for sleeping with his (then estranged) wife.
When Mary Margaret learns that David and his wife may be expecting, she vows to shake her feelings for him once and for all. But her resolve is broken when she discovers that he has feelings for her too. They eventually (and passionately) smooch.
In fairy tale flashback, Snow White's caught up in another lovers' game. She tries to upend the arranged marriage between Prince James and Princess Abigail, but when the prince's father threatens to kill James if Snow interferes, Snow lies, telling James she never loved him. In the process, she gets sage advice from a dwarf on the importance of pain: "I don't want my pain erased," he says. "It makes me who I am. It makes me Grumpy." But Snow doesn't heed it. Instead she drinks a potion concocted by Rumpelstiltskin (a man described as someone who can "achieve the most unholy of requests") that makes her forget all about the prince.
Another dwarf (Stealthy) is shot with an arrow and killed. There's one interjection of "h‑‑‑."
The pilot gives us two parallel stories: One of how these fairy tale characters came to be cursed, and the other of how Emma Swan returns to her people—thanks to her son whom she gave up for adoption.
"I know why you gave me away," Henry tells Emma. "You wanted to give me my best chance." It's a beautiful line. But it falls just a bit flat when you start the weigh what it means (to us in the real world) for a TV series to show him rebelling against his adoptive mother and trying to bond instead with his birth mother. (Henry runs away from his adoptive mother twice.)
We hear heartwarming platitudes about the power of hope, and are warned about both lying and fighting. But we also see sword battles (people die and we see blood spilt) and loads of magic (including casting curses and foretelling the future). Emma, a bail bondsperson, slams a suspect's head against a steering wheel, knocking him out. And she veers off a highway, crashing her car into a sign.
Henry lies and exercises a fair bit of manipulation while trying to set the story straight. We see a few revealing outfits. Folks drink wine and say words like "a‑‑," "h‑‑‑" and "b‑‑tard."