A Swan in Storybrooke

I was watching Once Upon A Time from the first episode screened in Australia, back in May, and if you weren’t then this post will be somewhat mystifying. In addition, it is almost 100% spoilers, so if you’re planning on watching the series, do not read this first. I was in two minds about watching it myself. On the one hand, you may have noticed I love fairy tales. Seeing glass coffins and spinning wheels in things is enough to get me interested. On the other hand, I am seriously particular about what people do with fairy tales, and let’s just say I don’t imagine Snow White with an American accent. But I watched it. And I kept watching it, right up until the finale, when I went “what?” and started a mental countdown to next season. Even though the ending got muffed by a promo for a different show. (Please note, Channel 7, I would like to see the credits for a show when it’s over instead of assuming we’ve segued into another ad break.) Because OUAT turned out to be excellent and even a few peeves about what classifies as a fairy tale couldn’t stop me getting drawn into the world of Storybrooke. I could do this review episode by episode, but the series was really more about character arcs and that is what I have decided to talk about. If I have missed anybody out it is either because they are a very minor character, or I forgot them. Feel free to complain to me about it. In fact, I would love to hear what your thoughts about the series. Just don’t give me any spoilers for next season!

Emma Swan: Let’s start off with the character who is arguably the main protagonist of the series, the reluctant saviour of Storybrooke. Emma is no princess in a tower. Created as the antithesis of fairy tale tradition, this orphan of circumstance grew up into a hard-nosed bail bondswoman who carries around a gun and a bad attitude. She has only just got home from a disastrous evening out – which ended in her arresting her date – when a young boy arrives on her doorstep, calmly announcing himself as the son she gave away ten years ago. He comes, he tells her, from a small town called Storybrooke, where everybody is a fairy tale character cursed to forget who they really are. Emma doesn’t believe a word of it, but when she drives him back there she finds herself dragged into his life and a strangeness that becomes increasingly hard for her to deny.

Created as the antithesis of fairy tale tradition, Emma personifies what our world is about and not necessarily in a good way. She is not always easy to like, especially at the start – was she nice to anyone except Henry? – but her relationships with her son and Mary Margaret are the humanising influences she needed and by the end of the season she has grown into the hero she was always meant to be. Though I would argue that the tough edge that made her so abrasive was also what Emma needed to take on Regina. It’s Emma’s advice that gives Ashley/Cinderella the impetus to change her life; it’s Emma’s determination that reunites Hansel and Gretel with their father. She has a quality not common to fairy tale characters, which is common sense, and while it blinds her to what’s really going on in Storybrooke, it is also what makes her good at helping people. I don’t know how she’ll cope in a world where there’s magic. She’ll have to bin a lot of her preconceptions, but I think she’s got the strength to adjust. Come to think of it, she’d make quite a good knight. I hope her father teaches her how to handle a sword.

Henry: Right from the moment he is introduced it is clear this is a boy with determination. Convinced his adoptive mother Regina is the evil queen from his book of fairy tales, and that only Emma can stop her, Henry refuses to be daunted by the constant scepticism that surrounds him. Finally realising it is impossible to get through Emma’s doubts with words alone, he even tastes Regina’s poisoned apple, setting off a chain of events that will bring about the end of the curse on Storybrooke.

It would have been so easy to make Henry’s character annoyingly twee. He could have been the symbol of United Parental Guilt instead of a real person, or just a cardboard cutout of a child over whom everyone could happily fret. But he is not those things. Henry is an intelligent, imaginative boy who acts older than his age but has the vulnerability that comes with being so different from everyone else he knows. For all his claims that Regina is evil, she certainly doesn’t seem to have given him a deprived or abusive upbringing; in fact, he’s got her all worked out, quietly rebelling against her rules at every opportunity with virtually no personal consequences, or at least not long-lasting ones. He’s quite popular in the town – even Mr Gold seems to like him, insofar as Mr Gold likes anyone – and he’s an easy character to like for viewers too, despite his flaws. I do wish he’d shown more emotional complexity dealing with his adoptive mother, but I think we’ll be seeing that in season two.

Regina/Evil Queen: As mayor of Storybrooke, Regina represents how insidious the ugly side of bureaucracy can be by doing terrible things for very reasonable reasons that put her firmly in the legal right. Clashing with Emma right from the start, Regina’s hostility only increases as it becomes clear that Henry wants to leave her for his birth mother. She will do whatever it takes to stay in control – but her desperation to do just that is what pulls it all undone.

Can I first just say, it’s nice to see a female villain like this. Not as the sidekick or the temptress guest star, but the main antagonist who is there in almost every episode. In the fairy tale world she is a widowed young queen with homicidal vengeance issues, while in Storybrooke she’s a single mother and a very cunning politician; in both she is a gorgeous woman who rarely uses her looks to get what she wants, preferring brute force and bribery. I am so over female villains who are prepared to shred their dignity every time they want something. There are depths to Regina’s personality that have not yet been fully explored – her seemingly genuine affection for her adopted son and her father (though the latter does become collateral in her grand plan for vengeance), and her troubled relationship with her power-crazed social climber mother. I’m interested to see what vengeance Regina arranged for her…Maybe in season two. One thing’s for sure, curse or no curse, Regina won’t be giving up easily. Which is why, despite everything, I kind of like her.

Mary Margaret/Snow White: In the fairy tale world, Snow White was a fighter. She stood up for the people she cared about and married the man she loved, but that wasn’t enough to keep her world safe and she was forced to send her baby daughter away to escape the curse. In Storybrooke, as Henry’s teacher Mary Margaret, she is isolated and unsure of herself – nonetheless, she defies Regina’s blacklisting to befriend Emma. Her life changes when she falls in love with David, her amnesiac Prince Charming, but without the memories of their old life they make mistake after mistake and almost lose each other forever.

I was never drawn to the Disney version of Snow White. The way she talked annoyed me. This Snow White is…not like that. I will admit to a sort of sinking feeling in the episode where she is introduced as a thief – a thief in love with a royal, no one’s thought of doing that before – but it all made sense later. It takes her a while to hook up with the dwarves and in the meantime, she’s an orphan doing her best to survive. Robbing her stepmother’s carriages is actually a pretty good way of doing that. The Snow White of the fairy tale world is quite tough, in a kind-hearted way, but it was her Storybrooke self I really liked. Mary Margaret is an enchanting person. A primary school teacher who makes birdhouses, a volunteer at the local hospital, a woman who’s happy to throw open her doors to anyone from homeless stranger Emma to rebellious Ruby, there is no level on which she is not lovely. She converted me from initial ambivalence to wholehearted support. Roll on season two, let’s take back the kingdom!

David/Prince ‘Charming’ James: Cut down by Regina’s guards just as the curse took hold, Charming has been in a coma ever since. It is Mary Margaret’s voice that finally makes him wake and he instinctively recognises her, even though he can’t explain why. But then Regina produces his Storybrooke wife Katheryn and suddenly things are much more complicated. Without the conviction of his past to guide him, ‘David’ ends up betraying both the women he cares about. He is leaving Storybrooke behind for good when the curse breaks and his memories bring him back to Snow.

Making ‘Charming’ an affectionate nickname from Snow was truly inspired. Making him a farmer boy who miraculously develops killer battle skills after being press-ganged into replacing his dead royal brother is…strange. And not very convincing. I didn’t like his character in Storybrooke – I mean, believing even for a minute that Mary ‘I rescue stranded birds’ Margaret could kill Katheryn? – but as a prince he was sweet and stubborn and rather loveable, a perfect match for Snow. Their reunion in the finale was a beautiful moment. I wonder how they’ll react to seeing Emma now they know she’s really their daughter? Mary Margaret already has a bond there, but as far as Emma is concerned, David is just the man that caused trouble in her friend’s life. It may be tricky to adjust.

Sheriff Graham/Huntsman: Storybrooke’s sheriff is firmly under Regina’s thumb, unable to break the hold she had over him in the fairy tale world, where she punished his protection of Snow White by wrenching out his heart and putting it in a box. Everything he feels is muted and though he isn’t sure why, he knows something is wrong with him. When he kisses Emma he begins to remember who he really is, but that’s what will eventually lead to his murder. Regina does not appreciate being crossed.

Strangely enough, when the sheriff was introduced in the first episode I automatically assumed he was Regina’s boyfriend. Later I realised he had only been called in to help look for Henry, and then some time after that my first assumption proved completely correct. I have to say, for a heartless, unfeeling man, he seemed awfully nice and very tolerant of Emma’s bad attitude. His sudden death was a shock and I was not entirely convinced for a while that he was permanently gone, but it would seem he really is dead, so my other assumption – that he was present to be Emma’s love interest and one corner in a rather predictable love triangle – got prematurely quashed. That said, he may appear in next season as part of the flashbacks. He defied the queen to help Snow once. Who’s to say he won’t do that again?

Ashley/Cinderella: Cinderella made a deal with a devil and in another world with another name, she is being forced to pay. Faced with the prospect of losing her unborn child, she hears Emma’s brusque advice like a clarion call and takes off in an escape plan that almost gets her killed. Emma intervenes once again to let her keep the baby and the magic of the contract is satisfied, reuniting ‘Ashley’ with her lost prince.

Seeing Cinderella knock out Rumpelstiltskin in his own shop was kind of cool. He did blow up her fairy godmother. Her double-crossing of him edges into moral grey, however – after everything he did for her, it was a little disturbing to see how willing she was to lock him up and let him rot. She agreed to his terms after all, did she not blame herself at all for her predicament? It will be interesting to see whether he continues to hold a grudge about that. Her husband is another prince who had his moral fibre surgically removed in the crossing to our world, abandoning her with a baby on the way. Despite this they were the only couple to get back together and stay together in cursed Storybrooke, so I don’t know where their story will go in season two. I wonder if Rumpelstiltskin still wants that baby…

Mr Gold/Rumpelstiltskin: Talking of whom! In the fairy tale world, Rumpelstiltskin’s name is no secret. Everyone fears what he can do, but neither can they resist the allure of what he offers. Even locked up behind enchanted bars, he’s a force to be reckoned with. He created the curse that brought everyone to Storybrooke – he is also the one who predicted Emma’s ability to break it. So whose side is he really on?

I was worried when they first introduced the character of Rumpelstiltskin. I thought the screenwriters might turn him into a secondary villain, someone black and white and boring, or have him transform into generic redemption through true love. That didn’t happen. If anything Rumpelstiltskin is Once Upon a Time’s anti-hero, an unpredictable trickster who always has his own agenda and cannot be pinned to any side for long. It wasn’t long before I was counting on him more than Emma to resist Regina’s plans and save people from themselves in Storybrooke. At least twice he gave David good advice that would have saved that forgetful prince much misery, not that David was actually listening. In fact, how many times did he, as Rumpelstiltskin and as Mr Gold, help Snow and Charming for token rewards? And then they go and lock him up? Talk about ingratitude. Why does everyone in the fairy tale world expect to get something for nothing?

That said, they do have quite good reasons to distrust him. As Rumpelstiltskin, in particular, he is a little bit crazy – even as the saner Mr Gold, he’s capable of putting Belle’s father in hospital and trying to kick a group of nuns out of town. It is his backstory that makes his doing things like that understandable. A broken man given limitless power, he’s not likely to relinquish it, even for the people he loves most. This complicates his relationship with Belle, but when he keeps the cup she broke as a memento, it’s somehow one of the most romantic gestures I’ve ever seen. And as for the look on his face during the finale when he turned around to find Belle returned from the dead, standing in his shop…Robert Carlyle is a remarkable actor. I hope he is given as much to work with in season two. Hopefully even more.

Belle: Becoming Rumpelstiltskin’s caretaker to save her town from destruction, Belle sees him at first as the monster from all the stories, but as she gets to know him for herself she sees a different side, someone it is possible to like, even love. Released from her bargain, she comes back to try and free him from his own curse, only to be violently rebuffed. She disappears completely and is believed dead. In Storybrooke, however, she proves very much alive, hidden away in a secret wing of the hospital. Jefferson sets her free and sends her to Mr Gold, who suddenly has a very good reason to want Regina dead…

Belle didn’t get much air time during this season, being locked up or dead for most of the time, and what we did see of her character was naturally enough shaped by her association with Rumpelstiltskin. What I saw, though, I liked. Okay, she’s not the Disney bookworm of whom I have such fond memories, but she’s brave and determined and really nice in a practical sort of way. Also, something about her seems to bring out the best in slightly crazy people. I like how her relationship with Rumpelstiltskin isn’t really about them changing each other, just learning to understand one another’s point of view – she appreciates his sense of humour and eccentric generosity (even if turning her ex into a rose is…weird, not that she knows about that), while with her he remembers what it’s like to talk to someone who doesn’t hate him on sight, and what’s more, doesn’t actually want anything out of him. I would very much like to know how she ended up in the dwarf tunnels when she was supposed to be dead. Maybe she ended up seeing the world after all, like she planned? I hope we discover more of her story in season two, and that her relationship with Rumpelstiltskin doesn’t veer too far back into the tragic. They deserve a happy ending now!

Ruby/Red Riding Hood: Waiting tables in her grandmother’s diner, Ruby’s Storybrooke existence is the mirror of her life from the fairy tale world, when she lived with crossbow-wielding Granny in a cottage in the woods. She didn’t understand her grandmother’s rules until it was too late and the wolf she had feared all her life turned out to be very close to home…

I was curious as to how they would handle this particular story and having Red as one and the same as the wolf was a brilliant idea. Her abrupt personality change in the second half of the season from the restless, flirtatious wild child to a nervous girl in need of a confidence boost was strange and I didn’t feel her return to working with her domineering grandmother was in keeping with who she really is, but perhaps her potential will be further explored in season two. Sad about Peter, though. There are several characters capable of coming back from the dead in this series, but he’s not one of them.

Katheryn/Princess Abigail: The daughter of King Midas isn’t easily impressed, but a prince who can kill dragons is a useful sort of husband and her marriage to Charming is arranged. When he runs away to marry Snow instead, however, she offers him her help. What a pity neither of them remember that in Storybrooke, where Princess Abigail is Katheryn, a woman just trying to make her marriage to an amnesiac coma patient work. When that falls apart, Regina cuts her losses and hires Mr Gold to make Katheryn ‘disappear’ so that Mary Margaret can be blamed for murder. Fortunately for Katheryn, Mr Gold deliberately misinterprets his brief and she proves Mary Margaret’s innocence by reappearing in Storybrooke completely alive. She doesn’t try to win back David – in fact, she has finally realised she doesn’t love him either.

Introduced as the roadblock between Mary Margaret and David’s getting together, Katheryn turned out to be a really nice woman, even if she mistook Regina for a trustworthy person and slapped Mary Margaret across the face. She was believable. I hope she finds her happiness now that her memory has been restored; she deserves that.

Sidney Glass/The Mirror: A genie freed from his enslavement at the wish of a friendly king, he made the mistake of falling in love with Regina and ended up imprisoned inside a world of mirrors instead. In Storybrooke he is still her faithful servant as the muckraking journalist Sidney Glass, willing to do anything it takes in order to win her approval – even being framed for murder.

What a wonderful melding of ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Snow White’! It’s a hopelessly one-sided love story and I wonder what the Mirror will do now that Regina has repeatedly proved she’s incapable of loving him, or even being nice to him. Will he stay her loyal ally, or turn against her? I’ll be interested to see.

Grumpy/Leroy: Entering the world to an unexpected shower of magic dust, he starts off as Dreamy, a dwarf who breaks all the rules by falling in love with a fairy. When they are separated, he is so broken hearted that his name changes to match his new personality, and he becomes Grumpy. Even so, he has a generous heart underneath the bad mood and the scruffy beard. He meets Snow White in King George’s dungeon and brings her home to live with his family. When she takes on Regina, Grumpy is by her side. You really don’t want to get on the wrong side of his pick.

The dwarves are a bit…tall. It’s surprisingly easy to forget that, though, and the love story between Grumpy and ditzy fairy Nova is sweet in a very sad sort of a way. Now that she knows she’s not a nun, though, there is at least a chance for them. Also, I loved Stealthy. That was such a fun idea!

Archie/Jiminy Cricket: Torn between professional responsibility and a mortal fear of Regina, Archie’s psychology sessions with Henry are not exactly impartial. It’s really Henry who helps him rather than the other way around, forcing Archie’s conscience to resurface in defiance of Regina’s threats.

Let me just say this, quite loudly: Pinnochio is not a fairy tale. I have been driving people mad from the season opener saying this every time Jiminy Cricket turned up, because it drove me mad. That said, turning Mr Conscience into a child psychologist was pure genius. The backstory was a little peculiar, but it’s as good an explanation as any for a talking cricket. I don’t know where is left to take his character in season two – if August survives, there could be an interesting dynamic there.

August/Pinnochio: Starting out as the enigmatic writer new in town, August briefly masquerades as Rumpelstiltskin’s long-lost son before revealing himself as Emma’s failed guardian, little Pinnochio, who was sent with her into our world and ran away when both children were placed into a bleak foster home. His childhood betrayal comes back to haunt him as he begins to turn back into wood, and his only hope of survival is to make Emma break the curse. She is just a little too late to save him. Or is she?

The elusiveness of August’s identity is kind of appropriate, given that Pinnochio is the poster boy for liars everywhere. I can’t say I warmed to him easily – indeed, I’m not sure that we were intended to – but his transformation back into wood in the season finale was a tragic moment that was never resolved. Does he survive? I hope so. I think he will.

Jefferson/Mad Hatter: Very few people ever get away from Regina and Jefferson is no exception – tricked into helping her one last time, he is rewarded for his assistance by being abandoned to the terrifying Queen of Hearts, who forces him to replicate his magical hat over and over again, knowing he will never escape. Even in Storybrooke, Jefferson is trapped, one of the few in the town who knows who he really is. When Emma and Regina both fail him, he takes matters into his own hands by rescuing Belle and sending her to Mr Gold with a message guaranteed to make him very, very angry…

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is not a fairy tale either! And Jefferson is bizarre. For a second there, when he had Mary Margaret taped up in his big creepy house and was sharpening his scissors, it felt we’d stepped sideways into a gothic slasher. I’m very glad it didn’t go too far that way. I didn’t feel he was given enough space to develop as a character in this season and hope he is given more to work with in season two. Including an explanation for that hat of his, which is admittedly quite impressive.

Maleficent: The shapechanging sorceress is brought over to Storybrooke as a dragon and imprisoned in an underground lair as a particularly nasty gesture on Regina’s part. What Regina didn’t realise is that Rumpelstiltskin knew she wouldn’t be able to resist doing this and had Prince Charming leave a certain elixir in Maleficent’s possession – more precisely, inside the belly of the beast itself. The only problem is how to get it back.

Why did they have to kill the dragon? She was excellent! I would love to see her take over a story of her own and I’m sure we will see that in season two. Her rivalry with Regina made for an interesting dynamic that I will miss. Is it at all possible she survived too…?

I have no idea what will happen in season two of Once Upon A Time. The curse has been broken, the magic unleashed – who knows what might happen now? There’s a kingdom to win back. An evil queen to fight. Lost parents to locate…and a whole world of new fairy tales just waiting for their turn to be transformed. Personally, I’m hoping for Puss in Boots. Fingers crossed.