When Once Upon a Time started nearly half a decade ago, it was a fresh and creative approach to fairy tales. The idea of a story focusing on Snow White and Prince Charming’s daughter, living in our modern world and not believing in fairy tales, really was an interesting, fascinating, compelling story. Fast forward a few years and it’s one of the most pointless and incoherent narratives on television, surviving only because of fanfare.
The show has been first and foremost an exploration of true love. The show began with fairy tale characters in the modern-day Storybrooke unable to remember their previous lives in the Enchanted Forest because of a curse that the Evil Queen cast to ruin Snow White’s happy ending. Season one was really interesting, exploring alternate versions of beloved characters. Snow White was a bandit after her step-mother tried to kill her. Prince Charming was originally a farm boy. Mixing things up even more, Snow and Charming’s daughter, Emma, had a son, who was given up for adoption and eventually into the hands of the Evil Queen, named Regina, as an adoptive son. The son, Henry, tracks down Emma and brings her to Storybrooke, because a storybook tells him that she’s going to break the curse.
And she does. The first season, combining themes of sacrificial love and belief in the supernatural (magic, in this case), culminated in a fitting kiss of true love between daughter and son as Henry lay in the hospital. The second season followed up with a natural exploration of long-lost family ties. Emma has to figure out how to bond with her father and mother, who are barely older than her (time hasn’t passed in Storybrooke, and they’d been there for years while Emma grew up outside of the town).
Since then, however, the show has descended into a decadence of never-ending conflicts. Every season has played with turning Regina into a hero, only to revert right back to her usual villainous role. The same has happened with Rumplestiltskin, who also happens to be Belle’s Beast and Hook’s Crocodile in this narrative. They’ve played with Rumple being a true protagonist several times, only to have him revert to his old self, and hiding it from Belle. In addition to the obnoxious nature of this never-ending circle, it undermines the story of Beauty and the Beast by making Belle appear gullible and weak, and the Beast never being truly reformed. Until this season, Hook had been the only reformed villain to stay reformed. Now the writers have set their sights on him, starting his turn back to his old, selfish self, sending a loud message to viewers: You can never truly change.
Beyond the obviously anti-Christian idea that’s being passed to the audience (which I grant is likely unintentional), the story has no direction whatsoever. Each season they scramble to find a new villain and artificially create a new conflict. The curse was broken? Time for another curse. Regina’s becoming good? Time to bring in another witch. And, of course, when all else fails, just arbitrarily make two characters related. That never fails.
This season, the world of choice to explore is Frozen. If they’re going to open up the universe more, that’s a good place to go, considering it’s one of the best films that Disney has ever produced. But the show again is suffering from a lack of creativity. They’ve changed next to nothing about the story, leaving the creativity that made Snow and Charming’s story so fresh behind. Despite phenomenal casting choices, the narrative comes across like a live-action adaptation of the film, rather than an imaginative retelling.
While there are some high points, such as Elizabeth Mitchell’s brilliant portrayal of the Snow Queen (a villain more true to the original Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, a separate character from Elsa) and the intriguing quest to find the writer of Henry’s magical storybook, this season is overall a clear indication of a show that ran out of places to go two seasons ago.