The first season was one of my all-time favorites of any show ever. Its heroine Emma Swan is compelled by the son she gave up for adoption to enter a secluded town called Storybrooke. Henry believes everyone is a fairytale character, and don’t know it because a curse has been placed on them by his adoptive mother Regina Mills. He compels Swan to believe that she was destined to save the town and break the curse keeping them in the dark.
From the first episode, Emma’s journey was so original, fascinating, and unique from other stories who made male characters the chosen one. The story was splendidly split between what happened in the Enchanted Forest, the original land where all of these fairytale icons came from, and Storybrooke, the ‘real world’ town where they were stuck not remembering who they were and building new lives. The characters we saw as their magical selves like the iconic couple Snow White and Prince Charming were also known as Mary Margaret Blanchard and David Nolan. The town pawnbroker Mr. Gold, played by Robert Carlyle was Rumpelstiltskin, a pregnant young woman Allison struggling to make ends meet was also Cinderella, Jiminy Cricket was also a therapist named Dr. Hopper – to name a few.
As Emma uncovered more of the truth, it was exciting to see who would pop up next and how. When the first curse was eventually broken, there was a lot of healing to be done between the Savior and her newfound parents, the start of a glorious redemption arc for the Evil Queen, and the start of facing more villains spilling in from other fictional lands. Even though the enchanted characters had been freed, they had more to find out about themselves and each other than ever.
Once Upon A Time became one of the most successful shows on ABC. It not only changed what we expected to know of fictional characters from every walk of literature but also what we could think about ourselves and the world we live in.
One of the biggest reasons I loved the show was an enduring sense of hope and optimism. Emma taught me that it’s just as important to save others as it is to save yourself. Prince Charming and Snow White taught me about true love is sticking together in hope and support. Belle taught me that books can be adventurous but you can set out on your own quests too. Regina taught me extraordinary determination and to prove people wrong about the assumptions they may have.
The characters, especially women, started out by breaking the mold for what was expected of them. Heroines were in charge of their own quests for family, happiness, adventure, and understanding every wicked and virtuous thing they were capable of. Heroes and villains aren’t born wholly good or bad; everyone makes mistakes, but if they worked hard enough, they had a chance at redemption.
I learned a lot about myself and what I valued from these characters, to believe that magic could exist in the real world, that bravery doesn't always mean riding in on a white horse, and everyone deserves their best chance. The cast tenderly, wickedly, and charmingly played characters who were on a path of self-discovery. But somewhere along the line, from the fandom itself and the storytelling, the show bit into a poisoned apple and left a lingering bitter taste.
World-building between the Enchanted Forest and Storybrooke became more complicated, not only as more lands and characters intermittently made appearances, but the science of those worlds changed. Every time a villain was introduced, they brought with them a curse which gutted the plot into a rabbit hole of inconsistencies. Which magic could be used to break the spell? How could people cross portals again? Which characters were related? Jumping back, sideways, and diagonally through time filled in empty parts of history we weren't familiar with. Memory charms intercepted journeys every half-a-season so “new” flashbacks could fill in even more what time-jumping didn’t. All of the plot shards were impossible to connect into a consistent throughline.
Save for some exceptional arcs between Regina and Mary Margaret, Regina and the Evil Queen, Regina and Cora, Regina and Emma, Regina and Zelena (oh okay, maybe Regina carried this show...), embracing new people was a struggle when their stories followed the same formula was everyone else: pop up in an episode, show you're a baddie with a tormented past or a goodie surviving trauma, and disappear until they became convenient again.
Since the story didn’t work out on so many levels, at some point it became difficult to wish well for familiar characters whose arcs jumped the shark. When previously established roles like Sleeping Beauty and Mulan were inevitably overlooked, Disney started plugging in franchises like Brave’s Merida or Frozen’s Anna and Elsa (one of my favorites). To spread the evil a little more evenly, potential antagonists were introduced but just failed to be compelling.
Normal aspects of fangirling in any other fandom felt like betrayal and you weren't a true ONCER. If you held certain opinions on Tumblr, the fandom police tagged posts for not adhering to what they believed in, how you tagged your posts, etc. Flame wars ignited over everything, especially when it came to LGBTQ representation and a disturbing amount of evidence point to lack of consent, sexual assault, and rape culture. Furthermore, villains used amnesia to assault their prey or force them to be into pairings with people they wouldn't normally be associated with, which made possible romantic or platonic ties more creepy than a fairytale romance. Feuds were not limited to fans, but actors attacking fans, and vice versa, with some stars leaving social media after being bullied.
And, forget about shipping. I'm a fervent SwanQueen fan, which put me at odds with Captain Swan or Outlaw Queen. I loved the Charmings, but other fans thought that was stupid because they're a vanilla couple. I wanted Belle to get as far away from Rumpel as possible, but that made me insensitive to his past and history instead of caring about her health and safety. Every couple or plot was the only one that could exist according to "text" or "subtext", no other alternatives allowed.
This isn’t to say the whole fandom was malicious, just where simple disagreements exist for other programs, ours would take it to another level. For every reasonably passionate, delightful, fan calling people to get along, many others who unreasonably. I felt like I had to keep a lot of my own thoughts to myself because it was hard to find people who accepted different points of view.
Unfortunately, as time went on, Once Upon A Time had problems to fix, and dismissed what was broken to keep itself running strong. As season six comes to a close, it’s hard to imagine the series will go on for another season despite decreased ratings and with half of the cast departing.
Over the summer before the next season, I hope OUAT from the beginning to pin down what was bothersome or where I felt the show went wrong, to stay inspired by the episodes I truly enjoyed. Right now, I'm trying to get on board with this new chapter; it's hard when most of your favorite characters are gone, and so many plots felt repetitive and stilted.
A reset might be exactly what the show needs to revive its decreasing ratings. The transition is a little easier knowing some fans are still on board, and departing cast members might make recurring appearances. For the fans sticking around, some residents can't ignore that no amount of magic might rescue this show, but maybe the new chapter will be something to love just as dearly.
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