For a story that stars the characters from one of my least favorite fairy tales, Snow White, resolves nothing in the first episode, and clearly intends to follow a nonlinear plotline, the pilot of Once upon a Time left me wishing I didn’t have to wait until this Sunday for the next episode.
The tale follows Emma Swan, the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, sent to the real world to escape the curse the evil queen sent in vengeance for Snow White beating her. On lonely Emma’s twenty-eighth birthday, Henry, a strange boy, knocks on her door, claiming to be the son Emma gave up for adoption ten years before. He insists that Emma will save all of Storybrooke, the town in which he is supposedly trapped with the fairy tale characters from The Enchanted Forest. Emma, who possesses the useful ability to perceive it when someone lies, knows he speaks honestly, but there is a big difference between actual truth and what Henry believes.
Emma takes Henry back home to Storybrooke and returns him to his adoptive mother, the mayor and evil queen. None of Storybrooke, except perhaps the queen, remembers their previous life, but from a book his teacher lends him, Henry knows their true identities. Emma finds all this difficult to believe, but Henry’s cry for help and the lie she detects when the evil queen claims she loves him gives Emma enough motivation to stay a week in Storybrooke at Granny’s Bed and Breakfast, run by Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother. The evil queen vows to destroy Emma if she remains in Storybrooke, but perhaps the more frightening threat comes from Rumpelstiltskin, who now possesses Emma’s name, a fact that gives him power over her, and from the look on his face when they meet in Storybrooke, he very much intends to use that power.
But when Emma decides to stay in Storybrooke, even just a week, the great town clock, which has been stuck forever at 8:15, shifts to 8:16. Now that Emma has chosen to get involved, the curse starts to weaken.
As a stubborn skeptic or anything out of the ordinary in my usual world, I started watching Once Upon a Time with many reservation. But the pilot nicely contained a complex collection of elements that created a compelling tale. One feature I particularly liked was the show’s clear intent to tell an ongoing story. These will not simply be the adventures in Storybrooke or of Emma Swan. This will ultimately be an epic tale of escaping a horrid curse and the value of hope. As Mary Margaret (Snow White in the real world form) says, the greatest thing anyone can have is hope. It was a line that sent a tingle over the skin and carried the weight of theme.
The characters of Once Upon a Time, with the exception of Henry, all appeared reserved, contained, and only half expressed. But within hides a true self, even in Emma, I suspect, though she escaped the queen’s curse. At the end of the episode, when she tells Henry that he should appreciate that his adoptive mother wants him and count himself fortunate that he was not left, like her, on the side of the road nor has he spent his childhood unwanted by all. Then we start to see the pain Emma feels and glimpse the woman beneath. Everyone else from Jiminy Cricket with his umbrella even in human form to Snow White, Mary Margaret, is trapped within the queen’s world and robbed of their true identity.
Once Upon a Time sets a darker tone than our usual Disnified tales. Emma’s birth is hard. Prince Charming, though he establishes himself as one of the coolest of his kind by battling successfully against two armored foes while carrying infant Emma to safety, is stabbed and presumably killed to the extent that not even a kiss can wake him; though, we later see him in a coma in Storybrooke. Emma faces inner demons of abandonment and deep loneliness. And while the visual elements of the show suggest in subtle and not so subtle ways a fairy tale world, they also depict a darker image from the shadowed forest and the darker hues.
From the pilot and the preview for next week’s show, it’s clear that the story will not follow a linear plot. Rather, this suggests a tale of concepts and emotion more than adventure. As we watch the events of Emma’s life and Storybrooke, scenes from the past in The Enchanted Forest are interspersed, lending the show greater tension and a deeper exploration of character motives. It appears that whatever past seems hold the greatest association with the present story will be those shown rather than one continual arc from The Enchanted Forest.
Once Upon a Time has set itself a high bar. I look forward to seeing it meet that standard and, perhaps, surpass it.
What were your thoughts on Once Upon a Time?