Amazon Prime’s dramatization of a Pulitzer Prize book about slavery is powerful but difficult to watch.
“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 have lived a sort of dual life: one in the land of fairy tales, and another in the more rote world of Storybrooke, Maine—a place given life through a curse. And it gets complicated. Really complicated.
Originally the story of how a bail bondswoman named Emma reacquainted herself with her biological child and wrested him from his evil witch of a stepmother, Once Upon a Time has become a labyrinthine fable that even the Brothers Grimm might not be able to piece together. Characters from ancient fables and legends mingle with more modern Disney princesses. Well known heroes turn villainous, and vice versa.
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 timelines and interwoven relationships that can be deciphered only through obsessive viewing or a cheat sheet.
Die-hard Lost fans will say this latter series doesn’t have the same depth or resonance. And, frankly, as the cast of characters here grows ever larger, the storylines sometimes seem to get shallower.
But under the surface, there’s still some pretty interesting stuff going on. As Mary Margaret (Snow White) 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 seeming 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 Judeo-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 Upon a Time sets up strong distinctions between good and evil, at least when it comes to selflessness and family loyalties. It gives us characters who seem to care about one another. And it provides for us a litany of bedtime morals. It continually pounds away at the idea that nothing good comes cheap and that taking shortcuts (using magic, in its ethos) always comes with a price. One might be tempted to use evil to fight evil, it tells us, but a darkening of the soul will always follow.
Through its fairy tale proxies, the series communicates another important truth: We’re all more than we seem. We can be worse than we want. But we can also 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.
But the series stumbles around in the dark forest quite a lot, too. Magic—both “light” and “dark”—is used nonstop, which for some families might make this show a non-starter. The execution of that magic often involves incantations, spells, bubbling cauldrons, etc. Glowing, beating hearts are routinely pulled out of people’s chests. Necromancy has played a pivotal role several times through the seasons. Characters fight, bleed and die—and then come back from the dead to do it all over again.
Profanities pepper short spurts of dialogue. Costumes can be immodest. And untoward intimacies are hinted at, both visually and verbally. Homosexual pairings have also emerged. Characters sleep together, and couples opt to live together before getting married. The temptation of marital infidelity (oddly, in the name of “true love”) has been a theme.
In the series finale, Regina faces off against her son, Henry, under the influence of evil Rumple. If Rumple and Henry are successful, they’ll kill the former evil queen and send all the characters into their own personal storybooks—where they’ll be perpetually alone and living out the worst imaginable stories for each of them. But Regina confronts Henry and seems willing to die to help him. If it means “showing you there are people that love you no matter what you do … that’s a worthy end for me.”
[Spoiler Warning] It works, and the fairy tale realms are saved. Hook nearly dies in the process of saving Alice, his daughter. The good version of Rumple rips out his own heart and sticks it in Hook’s chest, sacrificing himself and killing the evil Rumple in the process. (It’s a fairly bloodless procedure, and the hearts themselves look a bit like glowing orbs.) Rumple finds himself in “heaven” with his love, Belle, and Regina works a little magic to combine all the realms and becomes the “Good Queen” over them all.
Alice and a female version of Robin Hood are an item, and Robin asks Hook’s permission to marry Alice. We see lots of magic and a few suggestions of an afterlife. A character turns to dust. Others are either sucked into or threatened by swirling vortices. Someone slashes open someone else’s hand. We see a couple of swordfights. One character fires a crossbow at someone else. Scenes take place in a huge, stained glass-bedecked space that looks suspiciously like a church. Female characters in gowns expose shoulder and a bit of cleavage. There’s a great deal of discussion about hope, second chances and happy endings. We also hear some nice morals related to sacrifice and how it’s never too late to turn good. But characters say “h—” three times and use the British profanity “bloody” twice.
Regina, who this season has been separated into her true, nicer self and her Evil Queen personage from the show’s first seasons, continues to search for ways to eliminate her nasty royal doppelganger, and she’s enlisted a new literary character, Dr. Jekyll, to help. Alas, the wicked regent has teamed up with Mr. Hyde, creating complications.
The story takes some wild liberties with Robert Lewis Stevenson’s original story, naturally, and Jekyll turns out to be just as bad as Hyde is … just more conniving and sniveling. It’s a lesson for Regina: “Even though he separated himself from the darkness, the capacity for evil remains,” she says—offering an interesting thought for readers, too.
The residents also learn that killing one will kill both. Jekyll is skewered by a massive, pronged spear (which sticks out of his chest) and both he and Hyde die while blood trickles out of their respective mouths. Hyde yanks the glowing heart out of someone’s chest and is in turn stabbed in the chest with a knife. (Apparently unharmed, he pulls it out and wipes it off with his finger.) Someone’s stabbed in the back with a broken conch shell.
A woman, after having a one-night stand with a near-stranger, struggles with another man and falls out a window to her death. (We see her nightgown-clad body lie lifeless in the street.) Hook prepares to move in with girlfriend Emma. Belle and her estranged husband, Gold, discuss the couple’s unborn child. Someone threatens to reveal a married scientist’s affair with his young lab assistant. Alcohol is served at a gala, and someone discusses how upset he is to be pulled away from his “Scotch and cards.” Characters say “h—.” There’s lots of references to magic, and a few spells are cast.
Ruby (also known as Red) is trying to find her wolf pack in Oz, while everyone else is trying to get out of the Underworld and the grip of Hades. Well, not everyone else. Hades has a huge crush on Zelena (the Wicked Witch of the West), so that relationship is a bit more complicated.
Speaking of complicated relationships, the episode focuses on Ruby and Dorothy’s emerging romance. In her 20s now, the girl who used to be called Little Red Riding Hood tells Mulan about her feelings for Dorothy, saying, “I have never felt like this about anyone before.” Mulan’s response? “That’s great! Don’t make the same mistake I did. Don’t wait until it’s too late to tell someone how you feel.” Snow White gives her approval, too, telling Ruby, “Love’s a funny thing, [But] what you get back when you love someone far outweighs the risk.”
Ruby then proceeds to wake Dorothy from a sleeping curse with “true love’s kiss,” followed by the two women clutching and continuing to kiss, mouths open. (A picture of them kissing goes into the book of fairy tales, as a final gesture of acceptance.)
Elsewhere, Belle talks about how a true hero needs to show his enemy compassion, and the show continues to grapple with what you give up as your soul is darkened by making compromises with evil in order to fight evil (a “reality” that’s not shown to be avoidable). Zelena drinks whiskey. A spell is brewed up in a cauldron. Werewolf Ruby talks about accidentally killing her boyfriend while morphing (which we see her do). Flying monkeys chase and menace. Dorothy’s Auntie Em is killed by Hades when he turns her into water. (We see her body liquefy.) Belle pricks her finger to give herself the sleeping curse.
Emma, now enveloped by a black force that has transformed her into the “Dark One,” tries to figure out how to yank a sword from a stone and wreak untold horror. Meanwhile, King Arthur and Prince Charming search for a special mushroom that’ll allow them to talk to Merlin, who’s trapped in a tree. Arthur pulls out an eternal torch from his reliquary (historically, a chest where holy relics are stored) and mentions that the torch might’ve come from the burning bush.
Magic, as they say, is in the air. Emma vanishes in smoky haze, Belle watches over a magical rose and various princesses comb through Merlin’s books. Charming fights ghostly knights, whacking off their heads (empty helmets, really). He knocks a guy off a horse with a wooden pole. Someone purposefully drinks poison and dies, vanishing in a green vapor.
When Captain Hook is told that an ultrasound is a picture from inside a woman, he gets the wrong idea. Couples briefly kiss. We hear references to an affair between Guinevere and Lancelot. Emma steals stuff. Threats are made. Wine and beer are served. God’s name is misused once or twice.
Elsa stumbles into Storybrooke looking for her lost sister, Anna. She freezes a barrier around the town so no one can get in or out. When Emma comes to visit and Elsa gets a little stressed, the young princess encases them both in a cave of ice—and reveals that she has no way to get them out.
In fairy tale flashback, David—then just a poor shepherd being extorted and threatened with slavery by Bo Peep—encounters Anna, who encourages him to fight the crooked crook holder. And when David says that it’s impossible to win against the biting Bo, Anna argues that that’s exactly why he must fight. (It’s a bit of a muddled moral in the way it’s executed, but the overarching point seems to be that you shouldn’t give up, even when the odds are stacked against you.)
David does fight with Bo Peep’s henchmen (knocking both of them out), then cross swords with Bo herself—snagging her magic crook. In Storybrooke, Bo Peep, as a butcher, threatens David with a meat cleaver. Emma nearly freezes to death. Emma and Hook embrace affectionately, and David (Emma’s father) quizzes Hook about his intentions. David talks about his alcoholic father who, it’s suggested, died because of his drinking. Characters say “h—” twice and “bloody” once. They misuse God’s name once.
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.”
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.
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