Yikes! Where has the weekend gone? I know that I still need to recap this last episode of Supernatural...but I just got done watching Once Upon a Time, so it's what's on my brain-pan right now.
I've been looking forward to this one, as well as Grimm, which premiers later this week. Fairy tales are big right now. Not only did we just recently see a movie re-imagining of Red Riding Hood, but Universal, Relativity and Disney all have Snow White movies on deck in the next two years. Sci-fi/fantasy/horror writers such as Catherynne Valente (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making) have also drawn on European folklore traditions for inspiration. The ticket to making these familiar stories fresh and interesting is to put a new twist on it: make it darker than usual (or as dark as it was originally), throw in contemporary or anachronistic elements, or have a female lead who is stronger and more well-rounded than she is in other versions. So far, Once Upon a Time does a little of all of this.
The story opens on the wedding of Snow White and Prince Charming. The Evil Queen interrupts, promising that she will take away everything that matters to them and to everyone in attendance. She begrudges them a happy ending to their story, and their misery is her happy ending.
In our own time and place, we meet see blond, beautiful Emma Swan. We learn that it's her birthday (28th, we find out later) and that she has no family or friends. She also turns out to be a hard-bitten bail bondsperson who's not afraid to get rough if she has to.
Alone in her lonely apartment after a capture, Emma wishes on a lonely birthday cupcake of loneliness. A waifish little boy knocks at her door, claiming to be the child she gave up for adoption. She can tell when anyone's lying, or at least claims to be able to, and has a hard time believing him. But since kids on TV are always craftier than adults, he's able to manipulate her into taking him back to his hometown, Storybrooke, herself. Henry—the little boy—tells her that the town is frozen in time, and full of exiled storybook characters who don't remember who they are. He also says that his adoptive mother (who happens to be Mayor) is evil. She doesn't seem so bad to Emma at first, but she is, of course, really the Evil Queen, appropriately named Regina.
The show continues to alternate between present events and the fairy tale events that went before. Snow White becomes pregnant and continues to live in terror of the Queen's threat. The creepy Rumpelstiltskin, a prisoner in the castle, is consulted because he can see the future. He predicts that the Queen will succeed into sending everyone someplace terrible, but that the baby, if she can be spared, will be the one to break the curse after twenty-eight years. (The baby is Emma, naturally—her name is the price for his services.) All that can be done is to build a magical wardrobe that will protect one person, and only one, from the curse. The plan is for that to be Snow White, but she delivers right as the curse falls, and the Emma is placed in the wardrobe alone.
In present-day Storybrooke, Emma heads out of town, only to be crash her car when startled by a wolf (ahem). She ends up in jail, but is released when she offers to help find Henry, who has run off again. The credit card he used on the site where he found Emma leads them to Henry's teacher, Mrs. Blanchard...who is actually Snow White. The kindly lady explains to Emma how lonely Henry is, and advises her to search for him in his “castle”. Sure enough, she finds him in a castle-shaped treehouse. He tells Emma that she's the one who's fated to save the town, and asks her to stay just a week. She initially declines, explaining that she can't be the one he's hoping for, but changes her mind when Regina protests too much in warning her off. At the end of the episode, we see that Rumpelstiltskin is still behind the scenes, pulling the strings, and Henry smiles as the clock on the town square starts moving again.
The one thing that bothered me about this episode was the way adoption was depicted. Too often, adoption is only on TV or in movies in a negative way, as something that all parties angst about and which often leaves children worse off. I know that there are narrative reasons for this---stories aren't interesting without emotion and conflict, after all. But these stories feed to easily into the society's ideas that adoptive families are “less than” biological families. It's also problematic that Regina is a single mother, even though the Evil Queen is married in the fairy tales. Henry does admit that Emma only did what she thought was right, though...and hey: if he'd been happy, he may have never noticed what was going on in Storybrooke.
There was a lot that I enjoyed about the show. The writing, pacing and acting were good, and all served to draw the viewer in. The writers left themselves plenty of mystery to work with. The aesthetics were good, too, even if some of the obviously-3D special effects were off-putting.
One of the things I liked best was the idea of a female Chosen One. That's not something you see very often....in fact, Willow is the only example that really jumps to mind, and that was a baby. Regina, too, promises to be an interesting, well-drawn character. A teaser for next week's episode indicates she may have good reason to be grumpy with Snow White. Imagine that!
As a reluctant romantic, I have to admit that I enjoyed the relationship between Snow White and Prince Charming. Josh Dallas and Ginnifer Goodwin have great chemistry, conveying both strong devotion and strong attraction. I was devastated when the prince was gravely injured by attackers while putting his daughter in the wardrobe. If he died, after all, he won't be waiting for Snow White when the curse was lifted. At the end of the episode, however, we see that he's in the Storybrooke hospital on life support.
In the pilot episode of Once Upon a Time, Henry tells Emma that stories are true “because you believe them”. Later, Snow White explains the psychological and emotional importance of stories. Neither of these ideas is surprising in a project as “meta” as this one. It's why they get done, and why I'll keep watching. Grimm, which, as I mentioned, premiers later this week, is a fairy-tale inspired police drama, and promises to be an even darker take on these beloved tales.