There is a town in Maine, where every storybook character you’ve ever known is trapped between two worlds: victims of a powerful curse. Only one knows the truth, and only one can break her spell.
So begins virtually every episode of ABCs new hit series Once Upon a Time, which closes its first season tonight in what promises to be a game changing season finale. Once Upon a Time is one of those shows that is hardly episodic. Every episode adds to the intricate storyline, which the writers have so far kept from becoming convoluted, and missing a couple could prove very confusing. That said, lets see if I can offer a roadmap of sorts for those of you that may have fallen behind this season.
Where We Began:
Emma Swan was a bounty hunter in Boston, content with her nomadic lifestyle, until the night 10-year-old Henry showed up on her doorstep, claiming to be the son she gave up when she was 18. When she agrees to drive him back to his home in Storybrooke, Maine, he begins to weave a fantastic tale about the people of his sleepy New England hometown, who are all really fairytale characters that have become stuck in this world (a world without magic) thanks to a curse set upon them by the Evil Queen, who just so happens to be the mayor … and his adoptive mother. What’s more, Emma, as the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, is apparently the only one who can break the curse, and bring back the happy endings.
Of course, she doesn’t believe a word of his “insane” theory, but humors him long enough to investigate a little into his life. Her investigation makes her concerned for his well being, and so she decides to stay in Storybrooke for a while, if only to keep an eye on him, a decision that prompts a series of events that begin to change the small town in incredible, and sometimes terrifying ways.
All the while, the audience is let in on the fact that Henry is, in fact, correct. These people are all fairytale characters who have lost their happy endings (and all memory of who they used to be), and over the course of the season their identities, and intricate storyline, are revealed.
Where We Are Now:
Throughout the season, Emma has integrated herself into life in Storybrooke. She moved into Mary Margaret’s (Snow White) spare room, and even got herself a job as the town Sheriff. She’s developed friendships stronger than any she’s had in her life, has become an actual mother figure to Henry (something she never saw herself doing), and, as a result, has developed an intense rivalry with Regina, one that has had disastrous repercussions. Not only has their rivalry turned citizens of the town on each other, but it has led to murder, false imprisonment, and now, poisoning.
Here are some highlights (because, yes, I can’t think of another way this works):
- Mary Margaret was tending to a comatose patient named David (Prince Charming). When he awoke, they discovered that they were drawn together, despite his being married to another woman.
- Regina, intent on keeping Mary Margaret from ever experiencing happiness, tears their relationship apart by telling David’s wife of his infidelity. When she decides to leave him, instead of staying together, Regina coordinates a plot that gets Mary Margaret accused, and nearly convicted, of her murder.
- Mr. Gold (Rumplestiltskin), owner of a local pawn shop, and essentially every other business in town, is Regina’s only other rival, and the only person she seems to fear. As we discover, he too knows who they all really are, and he too has a plan. Mr. Gold is instrumental in getting Mary Margaret out of prison, but as we have come to discover, no one makes a deal with him without paying a hefty price.
- Throwing things for a bit of a loop is August: a mysterious stranger who shows up in Storybrooke about two thirds of the way through the season. He claims to be a writer, but has knowledge of the people and characters that no normal outsider would, or should, know. August approaches Henry, telling him he believes everything Henry’s been trying to tell Emma for months, and that they need to work together to get her to believe.
- As we recently learned, August is actually Pinnochio, and was sent through to this world ahead of Emma, promising to help her discover her destiny. He broke his promise, and, as a result is slowly turning back into wood the longer the curse goes on.
In the penultimate episode just last week, Emma makes a deal with Regina. She agrees to leave Storybrooke, and to stop trying to take Henry away from her, if Regina agrees to visitation. The deal allows them to get something they want, but forces them to sacrifice something else in return. Never willing to settle for half, Regina approaches the Mad Hatter, who uses the last little bit of magic Regina has in this world to pull the poison apple she used on Snow White out of Fairytale Land, which she bakes into an apple turnover, and gives to Emma.
When Henry learns that Emma intends to leave him, and Storybrooke, for good, he pleads with her to stay. She refuses, citing the apple turnover as proof that Regina only wants peace between them, but Henry isn’t fooled. To prove once and for all Regina’s true intentions, he steals the pastry, eating it himself, and pays the price. At the close of the episode, Henry lies lifeless on Emma’s kitchen floor.
Meanwhile, in Fairytale Land …
If the “real world” storyline sounds confusing, you’re not going to like what’s been going on in Fairytale Land. The secondary plot mostly revolves around Snow White, Prince Charming, Regina, and Rumplestiltskin, and each of the tertiary characters experience their stories through them. At the core of the story is Snow White and Prince Charming’s romance, and its constant ups and downs caused by Regina’s vendetta.
But that’s not all we discover through this series. The writers take the opportunity to offer a background into characters the Grimm’s only use as antagonist. While Regina is very much the villain of the story, several insights into why she is so terrible allow the viewer to sympathize with her in a way, and have garnered her a huge fanbase (who go by the moniker “Evil Regals”). Rumplestiltskin is also given a much more layered backstory, including a very creative take on Beauty and the Beast, and a son he lost years before.
At the moment, we have left our beloved fairytale characters at a familiar point in the story. Snow White has just eaten the poison apple given her by the Queen, and it is now up to Prince Charming to break the spell.
A Surprising Season
The first season of Once Upon a Time has been surprising in more ways than one. What started out as an interesting take on an old favorite, and an obvious attempt at a network to cash in on something that is apparently “in” these days (modern fairytales), became an intricate, well crafted reimagining, and an epic tale of love, magic, and faith. Perhaps the most surprising was the ability of the writers to weave this story in a way that keeps you coming back every week, and without losing anyone in its very specific construction. I suppose this shouldn’t be too surprising, since it comes from a staff of very capable writers experienced in this type of storytelling, but it is. What will be even more surprising, at least to this critic, is if they are able to keep the show at the level it is now going into season 2, without writing themselves into a corner, or creating a storyline that veers away from intricate, and into the realm of contrived and convoluted. I, for one, look forward to season 2, and hope very much for my fears to be proven unfounded.
Equally surprising, in a pleasant way of course, is the show’s breakout stars. Once Upon a Time was sold, initially, on the careers of its two “leads” Jennifer Morrison and Ginnifer Goodwin, and, while both women have delivered performances worthy of their Emmy submissions, its the supporting characters who have created some of the most impressive buzz. Not only has this show brought a very talented young talent to the attention of the network television masses (Jared Gilmore, Henry), a young boy who is able to stand toe to toe with actors much more experienced than he, but it also brought us show stealing performances from the antagonists, none more notable than Lana Parrilla’s turn as Regina Mills. Parrilla brings us an easily hated caricature, Snow White’s Evil Queen, and, through her nuanced performances, turns her into a layered, sympathetic character you love to hate (and sometimes don’t hate at all). And, of course, no write up would be complete without a nod to Robert Carlyle’s Mr. Gold/Rumplestiltskin, who is both intensely creepy, and wonderfully twisted.
What to Expect Tonight
If you’ve stuck with me this long, allow me to reward you devoted readers with a sneak peek of tonight’s season finale. We’ve been promised by cast and writers alike that this episode will change the face of the show in ways we can’t even imagine just yet, and since it has officially been picked up for season two, you can bet it will be a cliffhanger that will cause collective groaning throughout the Once Upon a Time fandom.