By Melissa Adamo
Season One of ABC’s Once Upon a Time aired in 2011, and I was drawn in by the first episode. The show centers on Emma Swan, or “the Savior,” a young woman who doesn’t know about her magical powers or that her parents are Snow White and Prince Charming. Her son, Henry, who she had put up for adoption, tracks her down because he believes the town he lives in, Storybrooke, is populated by fairy tale characters under a curse only she can save. What’s more, he fears his adoptive mother is the Evil Queen who casts the spell that made them all lose their memory, taking away everyone's happy endings. Classic hero myth. The unsuspecting, unwilling protagonist must decide to see the best in herself in order to save a kingdom, a town, and a family. Throughout the series, rising above temptation to make moral choices and learning that magic comes with a price become the foundation of the show.
This storyline runs parallel with another: one set in the past when we see the same fairy tale characters as we know them best: in their enchanted forests and turreted castles, their long cloaks and radiant crowns. I’m a sucker for origin stories. The fun of Once, like any retelling, is finding the familiar within a fresh revision. It’s exciting to spot the chipped teacup from Beauty and the Beast in a story where Beast is not some furry, isolated monster, but a mash-up of Rumpelstiltskin and a human form of evil known as The Dark One, who coincidentally sports shiny, gold skin (Stockholm Syndrome now comes with a sparkly, Twilight-esque spin).
Another example of such twists came in Season Three, when Henry gets kidnapped and taken to Neverland. Here, Pan is the villain and Hook, introduced in Season Two, is the romantic lead—um, yes, please (oh and did I mention that this subplot also reveals Rumpel to be The Crocodile, Hook’s nemesis—How many myths can be in one man?) Like the show-stopping Broadway hit Wicked, our empathy and heart strings pull in surprising ways here—not only are we swooning over Hook, but the Evil Queen is on a path toward good, forcing us to empathize with her internal battle over giving up magic for Henry, her chance at a happy ending.
But as the show continues and the original curse lifts, the new storylines begin to rely more on contemporary movies, most likely to attract new viewers. Last Season, it was Frozen—Disney’s huge animated feature film that came out the year before. It makes sense that ABC, a subsidiary of Disney, would continue to cash in on their brand. Little kids everywhere were (well, are) sporting the merch, and adults still can’t “Let It Go” out of their heads. This use of the contemporary is where the show jumped the shark. The characters even noticeably appear out of place. Elsa looks more like she is wearing a shimmering bright blue Disney Halloween costume rather than a realistic wardrobe fit for her live-action kingdom. Even when Belle wears the classic gold dress in an earlier season, costume designers turn it down a notch, letting her look blend into the world she came from for the show.
Perhaps because Frozen is so fresh in the hearts and lungs of viewers, the scripts of Once stay pretty close to the movie, simply picking up where it left off or adding some backstory to the characters. Last year, I was not only bored with this, but I was also annoyed that the show pandered to the Frozen bandwagon. The other subplots became less than memorable as well. Literally. I don’t remember what else happened in that season. I gave up and stopped watching for weeks at a time. Only when I happened to have some down time, did I venture back to Storybrooke, but I was no longer waiting to see what came next.
This Season seems to be stronger than Four; it has a few classic twists—Lancelot, who we thought died in an earlier season, is alive, and King Arthur is not quite as moral as all our stories have depicted him. However, this year includes new Disney characters, too. Merida from Disney’s 2012 film Brave makes an appearance, donning the brightly colored dress from the movie—just in case you didn’t get the reference. On the other hand, this Season doesn’t revolve its main story around her, and arguably it functions better than the previous one because of it. Perhaps this is why the writers condense, and maybe even rush through, Merida’s arc, which falls primarily into “The Bear King” episode, one that hardly even features the Snow White family tree.
Adding new characters, especially ones that look just like their movie counterparts, apparently works better when utilized as more of a nod, a subplot versus the season’s main mystery. Or maybe I just prefer Merida to Elsa—I dig a red head with a Scottish accent (you know nothing, Jon Snow).
Despite some of these strengths, Season Five’s major plot echoes Season One. At first, I thought that was exciting, especially after the cold shoulder I gave Season Four; it was back to applying its strengths. Consequently, it got tired. There is yet another memory curse (Storybrooke just can’t catch a break.) This time our own hero Emma casts it, and Regina, once Evil Queen, tries to be The Savior. Such a switch was an interesting choice, and sure it’s fun to see Emma all badass dressed in black, but the great thing about the memory curse in Season One was its nuance and dramatic irony. Now, these original characters are predictable and reliving the same old plots. For these reasons, I tried to break up with the show again about four or five episodes into its fall run.
Only recently did I catch up because my other series ended for winter break (what can I say? I’m lonely.) Alas, these episodes leading up to the Winter Finale changed my mind… yet again.
More turns come our way half way through this season as the curse breaks and Storybrooke faces not one but two Dark Ones. This new Dark One is the most captivating, or dare I pun, spellbinding. He makes us question true redemption and the bounds of love. Many of our other favorite characters continue to grow, too. As Regina and Rumpel move forward on their path toward good, other villains take their place, testing R and R’s newfound hero status. Furthermore, the Season eventually amps up the trope of the memory curse, owning its own retelling of Season One instead of merely hitting the same beats.
I had once vowed I wouldn’t continue with Once Upon a Time when it would come back in March (there are other shows in the sea!), but even then I knew that if no others called, I’d backslide.
For now, the Winter Finale’s characterization along with its emotional ending (one that felt akin to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Two) will keep me in this, at least a little while longer. I just hope the next Season remains more consistent with rewriting the classics instead of pandering to what’s premiering at the theaters. If not, maybe then the break up will finally stick. Maybe.