I started watching Once Upon A Time a few days ago, intrigued by the idea of fairy tale characters with amnesia being slowly reawakened to themselves in the modern world. Despite my initial misgivings, I was interested enough to keep watching beyond the pilot, but having now started episode 9, I think I’ve reached my limit. Setting aside the frou-frou costuming and stilted dialogue that characterise the fairy tale sequences, the show definitely has its positives – excellent performances from Jennifer Morrison, Lana Parrilla and Robert Carlyle; a profusion of interesting female characters who talk to one another; an original premise; the involvement of Jane Espenson – but try though I might, there’s some major negatives I just can’t seem to get past.
Neither the least nor worst of these – but certainly the most omnipresent in terms of jerking me out of the narrative and invoking repeated moments of fridge logic – is the ageing problem. In a nutshell: all the fairy tale residents of Storybrook have been frozen in time for 28 years, which… I’m not sure what that means, exactly, given that they’ve all been awake and functioning while the Evil Queen/Mayor has been running the joint, but the practical upshot is that none of them have aged. Which means, for instance, that Cinderella/Ashley is implied to have been pregnant with the same child for nearly thirty years: this isn’t explicitly stated, but we never see the FT baby’s birth, the name she’d picked for her FT baby gets bestowed on the daughter she has IRL, and we’re also told that as Ashley, she has no other children. Similarly, Hansel and Grettel are still children, while 10-year-old Henry – who lives in Storybrook but isn’t a FT character – has been actively growing up. Which begs the question: if the curse only affects the actual FT characters and not their children – and bearing in mind, too, that none of the FT characters is able to leave the town – you’d think that, over a period of 28 years, at least some regular kids would’ve grown up, left home, and started to get suspicious about the fact that nobody else was aging, let alone able to come visit them. Plus and also, given that Henry is desperate to find evidence of the curse that Jiminy will believe, you’d think that a woman who’s been nineteen and pregnant for nearly thirty fucking years would leap to mind as a winner. In other words, it’s a worldbuilding/logic problem, and all the more irritating for being so vaguely dealt with.
But, OK, whatever – let’s handwave all the age-weirdness away and focus on the premise itself: that only Emma can break the curse and (presumably) send everyone back to FT-land, where all the proper Happily Ever Afters can come true again. Only, here’s the thing: despite the incredibly saccharine early scenes with Snow White and Prince Charming, the FT-land? Is not a very nice place. There’s terrible dark magic, parents getting turned into puppets, children being forcibly kidnapped to fight on the front lines of an ogre war, Rumplestiltskin screwing everyone up, down and sideways with evil bargains and Pyrrhic victories and a boatload of stolen babies, poverty and theft and patricide and monstrous dragons and evil King Midas threatening war, and it’s just… I cannot, I cannot get behind the idea that the FT-world is better, when in fact it’s demonstrably worse. At least in real life, Ashley gets to have her baby in a hospital, instead of screaming in medieval pain like Snow White in her palace. At least in real life, kids aren’t being stolen to go and fight wars. And look, maybe that’s going to be a long term plot point: that the characters will have to choose which world they prefer to live in, and that even with the Happily Ever After factor, real life will still win out for some. But in the interim, it feels like all the nostalgia for what’s been lost in the show is based on reconstructing an idealised and false version of the Middle Ages, one that’s completely whitewashed – the sole exceptions so far being the face in the Evil Queen’s magic mirror and a black fairy godmother who gets murdered quicksmart – and where sexism is weirdly absent despite the number of women still getting shafted, and the monarchy rules all, and… you get the idea.
But OK, again, whatever: say that doesn’t bother you, either. And say also that, unlike me, you’re not getting wearied by the constant back-and-forth switching between the two timelines, worn out by the aforementioned naffness that characterises the FT-world and bored by the fact that, reimagined or not, we already know these characters, settings and stories, making them vastly less interesting than the story IRL. Say that you’re not immensely pissed off by the fact that after nearly nine hours of television, the one character who actually started to remember his other life and thereby move the plot forward was immediately killed off (and that’s before you take into account that this was one of the more interesting characters, possessed of on-screen chemistry and massive potential for original development). Say you’re unbothered by the heavy deployment of abandoned, adopted and stolen children as plot points intended to tug the heartstrings, particularly where Emma is concerned; and say you don’t care that, were you to make up a drinking game that involved taking a shot whenever Regina showed up and warned Emma to keep away from someone or something, you’d be utterly legless by midway through episode 2. Say all of that doesn’t phase you. What’s the problem?
Here’s the problem: the Evil Queen, aka Regina, aka Mayor of Storybrook, aka The Villain.
Or, more specifically, the fact that “Evil Witch-Queen” as a job description apparently translates handily to “career-driven, single mother”. This isn’t just an idle comparison: all the FT characters appear IRL in positions and circumstances that are deliberately reflective of their fantastic origins. Cinderella is a maid; Red Riding Hood and Granny run a bakery-slash-guesthouse; the Huntsman is a Sheriff who also works at an animal shelter; Jimminy Cricket is a child psychiatrist; Snow White teaches primary school; Rumplestiltskin is a pawnbroker. All of those parallels very purposefully mean something: so when I see that the villainous, universally evil stepmother queen has turned into a career-driven single mother, it bothers me a lot – almost as much, in fact, as the way that every FT character except the queen has been made more complex and three-dimensional than in the original stories. By which I mean: dropping a few hints about how Snow White might actually have done something to make the Queen legitimately angry at her, no matter what this turns out to be, cannot possibly justify all the horrific abuse and murder she goes on to perpetrate against everyone else. Even Rumplestiltskin gets a sympathetic origin story: he’s tricked into becoming a vessel for dark powers that immediately consume him. But the Queen – as now, as ever – is simply greedy and callous and evil, manipulating everyone around her through murder, seduction, magic and double-dealing. We’re shown definitively in the pilot that she doesn’t love her son, making every subsequent moment where her expression might invite us to think otherwise a farce. She doesn’t show mercy; she doesn’t change or grow. She’s a one note character completely consumed by a disproportional revenge which, even if justified, would still fail to explain her random cruelty to others. The Evil Queen is, quite literally, the mother of sexist archetypes, and it physically pains me that a show which otherwise takes such care to develop its female characters is content to have Regina simply be evil.
Because, oh, the brilliant possibilities of what might be if she weren’t! If the Queen had somehow been trapped by her own curse and left unaware of her origins – if Storybrook actually represented a fresh start for her, a way to escape the loss and rage she felt in the fairy tale world – then so much would be different. If Henry didn’t think she was the Evil Queen – if he actually loved her as a mother and just felt conflicted by her approach to him – if she actually loved her adoptive son despite her mistakes, and felt genuinely threatened by his sudden rapport with Emma – if she was able to succeed in Storybrook on her own strengths and merits, and not because she was the only one with power and knowledge of what was going on – if she’d become the Mayor because she was skilled, and not through manipulation – if she was a complex woman struggling with herself, one who started to experience flashbacks to a more venomous past that deeply unsettled her sense of self – if, in other words, the curse had actually reinvented her in a positive way, rather than reinforcing sexist stereotypes for seemingly no reason – if that were the case, then I would still be watching the show; because you would, in fact, be hard-pressed to tear me away from it.
But instead, we have the Once Upon A Time that is: a land of overwhelmingly pretty white people, none of whom have ever aged, all of whose backstories are laid out and spoiled as soon as they’re introduced rather than being used to invoke suspense or mystery, where the worldbuilding logic doesn’t make sense and where, subsequently, I’m sorry to say, not even episode after episode of interesting women talking to one another can compensate for the fact that Regina is still unthinkingly the Evil Queen, rather than potentially the most fascinating and complex character of them all.
Plus, I have an overwhelming desire to punch Prince Charming right in the face. But on that point, as with so much else, your mileage may vary.