I hate it when my memories get erased and replaced by a fake identity. Don’t you?
Fairy tales have been about many things: princesses, dragons, journeys, and magic beans. They teach morals and truth about the world, but most of them tend to come back to one concept which has fascinated us as people for as long as we have been a society: true love.
Once Upon a Time explores that almost exclusively, leaving room for few other messages. It smacks you across the face with it and splashes you with a cold bucket of it. “By the way, we’re talking about true love! Do you know about true love? Cause we’re talking about it. We’re talking about it right now!”
That’s not necessarily a bad thing; in fact in some ways it’s a good thing. However, we need to keep in mind that the world’s view of love is not a commitment as God’s is, but rather a subjective state that happens to you which you have no control over. That is definitely present here, although it is more veiled than in other movies and shows.
The premise of the show is that Snow White’s evil stepmother has placed the fairy tale land (the Enchanted Forest) under a curse, and they have been transported to present-day Maine, given fake identities, and placed in different lives. Snow White and Prince Charming’s daughter Emma has been prophesied to be the savior, and she comes to town unknowingly, drawn in by her son Henry, whom she had given up for adoption years ago. Henry is now the son of the evil queen (in main she is the Mayor, and goes by Regina), and is the only one who knows the truth about the curse. He sets out to convince Emma that the curse is real so that she can break it.
Other characters make appearances, including incarnations of Cinderella, Belle, the dwarves, Red Riding Hood, Pinocchio, and Rumplestiltskin. Rumplestiltskin is one of the most intriguing characters, for sure. He starts out as the show’s secondary villain, but at times shifts to an anti-hero. Throughout the show, you’re never quite sure if he’s a good guy or a bad guy; truth be told, he straddles the line in between. It shows that good and bad is not always in black and white, but also explores the possibility of rehabilitation through his relationship with Belle. His deals include more than just children, as the old fairy tale dictated. His strict adherence to the rules presents him as less of a villain and more of an amoral businessman, in Maine at least. The show does a good job, however, of not letting that excuse his behavior.
The primary point was to ruin Snow White and Prince Charming’s happiness, so they are placed in separate lives. Snow is a single school teacher and Charming is in an unhappy marriage. So, of course, they fall in love and start having an affair.
Technically, what they’re doing isn’t wrong because in reality they are married before the curse strikes, so Snow is Charming’s wife. But they don’t know that. As far as they know what they are doing is wrong, but they do it anyway. And Charming insists “this is love.” That isn’t love. It’s lust. The affair is particularly dangerous because they don’t actually “show anything.” Without the abrasive sexual content, it is portrayed as simple dating. Except, you know, it’s kind of behind his wife’s back. There is that.
The damage is somewhat atoned for by flashbacks that show their coming together in a much more pure way. His wife does find out and the consequences that kick in are horrid. Snow, who was previously loved by all, is now shunned by the community. She admits that what they were doing was wrong and stays away from Charming. Showing the consequences is better than what most of these shows do, but is it enough to atone for the original picture? It may be. It does accurately portray the pain of his wife, and shows that not all feelings should be acted on.
The true redeeming quality of the show, however, is not in the love stories of the various princes and princesses. The true redeeming quality comes in the expansion of the concept of love. In the end it is not a romantic love that is the focal plot point, but Emma’s love for her son.
Through an important plot point at the end of season one, Emma’s love for Henry is given the same status and the same power as Charming’s love for Snow had in the original fairy tale. A mother’s love for her son is not just about feelings. There are many times, I am sure, when parents do not particularly “feel” like showing love for their children. But they do it anyway, because they care about them. Love is not about feelings, but it is about always doing what is best for the other person, because you care about their well-being. That is not something that changes over time, but it is rather a commitment to the person’s well-being. That is displayed beautifully through Emma and Henry. If only it were to be extended and applied in all other relationships.