Thursday, May 17, 2012

Once Upon a Time: How they [almost] lived happily ever after

On Sunday, we saw the end of the first season of Once Upon a Time.  While watching the program the week before, my husband asked me, “Where can this show go next season?”  Even though I had not seen the last episode yet, I was already spinning scenarios in my head as to where the writers would go with the storyline in the next fall.  The finale on Sunday attempted to weave together all the major storylines, collapsing the fairytale with the real world by shifting between scenes from each in quick succession, even including a dragon fight.  While resolving some questions, the episode gave me pause as I wonder in earnest, nay fear, as to where the writers of this show will go next season.  The writers could after all “jump the [dragon].”

Spoiler Alert: If you have not seen the last episode, avert your eyes.

All season, we have been building up to whether or not Emma Swan breaks the curse.  If the show were to follow to the prescribed script, Emma would fail (albeit temporarily in good cliff-hanger fashion) to dispel this evil curse which consigned all our characters (both good and bad) to Storybrooke.  On Sunday, Emma Swan broke the curse, but the writers apparently consulted Mr. Gold/Rumpelstiltskin’s playbook.  While the curse was technically broken, the residents of Storybrooke do not get what they were expecting.  As the show ended, a dark purple billowing cloud of “magic” (much like the one that brought the curse in the fairytale land) rolled over the town.  What, fair viewers, could this possible mean?  Why, as Emma asks Henry, did “they all not go back?”

Well, they didn’t go back.  At least, we don’t know that as of the end of the episode.  Who knows?  Next season might open with that cloud of magic whisking everyone and everything back.  (Mr. Gold’s shop does seem to be everyone in Storybrooke’s storage attic.  Where else would he have produced, as if by magic, Charming’s sword for his daughter at the eleventh hour to save the day?)  What would be more interesting and entertaining is if all magic is unfurled on Storybrooke and its inhabitants try to figure out how to live in the “real world” but know they come from somewhere else, their two identities merged into one place.

As Emma tells the would-be dead Henry that she loves him, a magical Tsunami of True Love rolls over the town, and its inhabitants wake up and realize who they are.  David/Charming, who had reached the town limits (you know, that point where really bad stuff happens when townsfolk cross the boundary line), feels the wave of love, stops, and returns to his beloved Mary Margaret/Snow.  Once the town is awake, Regina is cautioned by the Fairy Godmother/Sister to high-tail it out of there before the people find its pitchforks.  Even Belle/Mysterious Mental Patient remembers who she is and that she still loves Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold.  We are on the verge of an honest-to-goodness Happily-Ever-After!  Yet we are not, as Rumpelstiltskin pours the mysterious vile of True Love Essence (my words) into the never-seen-before well.  (Where did that come from?)

Up to this point, we have spent the season pulling together from the dual storylines who these characters are.  Because of the curse, they live in the “real” world, living small, far-from-heroic lives.  If we look again at those same people in the fairytale world, we see a similar pattern of individuals making small, self-serving choices.  Magic, however, is to blame for all the havoc in their lives.  People were not unhappy because they made bad choices in a vacuum, but because they chose unwisely in the context of powerful, magical forces which led to their corruption.  The Mad Hatter, for example, wanted to provide for his daughter, even though all she wanted was to spend time with her father.  He on the other hand chose to make a risky, magical deal with the Queen in order to give his daughter whatever material possessions she might want.  If only he had listened to his daughter!  Why don’t they learn that they cannot trust the Queen, or Rumpelstiltskin?  When will they learn that magic always has consequences and there are no quick fixes?

Oh, wait, am I yelling at the TV again?

Magic, power, and True Love are all tied together as our characters try to find happiness, whether in Storybrooke or in the fairytale world.  David and Mary Margaret know they are in love, but they do not have the power or courage (or a divorce in David’s case) to be happy with each other.  Snow and Charming on the other hand, scale castle walls, fight dragons, and defy death to do what is right and win their love.  In surviving the Queen, we end this season knowing that they will overthrow the ruling power and take back the kingdom—because they have True Love.  Regina as Queen and as Mayor believes revenge and power are the only means to happiness.  She sacrificed nearly all of her magic to make everyone unhappy.  We know there is another side to her because she chose revenge out of her own dreadful, heart-wrenching pain.  (I must say, it is tiresome that once again the Queen became evil because she had an evil mother.  I know the mother was awful, but must we blame everything on mothers?)  Similarly, we are sympathetic towards Rumpelstiltskin for what he has lost in his quest to protect his son.  He remains unhappy, alone, and miserable because he continues to choose power over love.  Both the Queen and Rumpelstiltskin fall short of happiness because of their obsession with magic and absolute power (they think they will be happy if they have power, magic, and control the lives of others).  They turn away from forgiveness, reject compassion, and never understand True Love.

What is clever about Once Upon a Time is that it presents its characters as flawed individuals in both worlds.  Snow and Charming, once the stress and excitement of fighting the Queen is over, still have to go about the business of being married and running a kingdom.  (Oh, sure the Queen doesn’t leave well enough alone and sends everyone to Maine.)  Mary Margaret and David have doubts, misgivings, fears, and they screw up.  (Who’s to say that Snow and Charming didn’t squabble?)  We are lead to believe this is because they are “cursed.”  If the curse were lifted, they would know that they are fated to be together, and understand (and not squander) True Love.  Right.  This is where we are left as the first season ends.  We are left with a bunch of mixed up people who have to deal with the fall-out of their mistakes, bad choices, including acts of revenge and mean and selfish grabs for control and power.  They have to deal with being human.

Once Upon a Time, however, brings us to the point that reminds me of the end of the first part of the Stephen Sondheim musical, Into the Woods.  What happens after “they all lived happily ever after”?  And what about all those spinning scenarios in my head?  If they stay in Storybrooke, will the purple magic cloud give Regina back her powers, or will there be a power vacuum filled by Rumpelstiltskin, turning him back into the glitter king?  Will Belle convince him to give up his power for love?  And what about his son?  Where exactly did he end up when he fell through that, what was it, a sink hole to another realm?  Will the townspeople keep their memories of their lives in Storybrooke?  Will Henry go to live with Emma?  And who exactly is Henry’s father?  Will Emma call Snow and Charming Mom and Dad?  Will Pinnochio become a real boy again?

And through the way these questions keep coming, billowing out and up like the purple smoke that envelopes Storybrooke, the idea of an unmitigated happy ending is challenged--until next season, that is.

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