I’ve said it before, Once Upon a Time was made for me and I loved it from the beginning, regardless of actual quality. I loved Emma Swan before I met her because she’s portrayed by Jennifer Morrison (House M.D. forever) and I quickly became a champion for Regina Mills. But the whole first season Snow White aka Mary Margaret Blanchard made me crazy. She was stuck in her story.
Every week Snow’s romance with Charming was portrayed as the most true love that ever existed and could never be stopped, not by queens or curses or death itself…and was simultaneously completely impossible, and in Storybrooke, where David was married to someone else — who was at one point thought to be murdered!, also somewhat if not wholly inappropriate. Over and over, again and again, in two separate timelines, Snow declared “I love you forever!” and “We can’t ever be together!” in rapid succession, never moving past either. It was boring and annoying and felt endless because no matter what happened her story didn’t change.
Cinderella had her baby and got engaged. Jiminy Cricket stood up to the Queen. Red Riding Hood came to terms with her grandmother. Pinocchio came home. Kathryn left her husband and had ambitions to leave town. While the narrative required the fairy tale characters be trapped in a loop as long as Regina’s curse retained control only Snow and Charming were truly stuck. It made sense — the Queen hated them the most — but it was frustrating to watch. Finally, in the first season finale, the curse was broken and they were set free.
In the second season it was Regina’s turn to be stuck. She spent the entire year stopping and starting, advancing and retreating, in her attempts to escape her role as “Evil Queen”. She wanted to change but she didn’t know how and all the people she’d hurt were standing in the way. Most didn’t believe her and the ones who did were taken away. She was manipulated by villains and heroes alike and expected to understand the difference. None of her choices were supported. None of her choices seemed to matter at all. She wanted to change but her story wouldn’t let her.
The narrative required Regina to stay the Evil Queen until it was ready for her to grow beyond that, regardless of when she was ready. And again, it was frustrating to watch. Finally, again in the season finale, she was allowed to own her choice and herself.
The pattern continued with the third season. Starting in Neverland Emma was knocked back into “lost girl” mode and she got stuck there. She spent the entire season trying to find her home without ever knowing what she was looking for. She consistently acted like a teenager: she quarreled, she whined, she pushed everyone except Henry away, magically thinking if she fixed his childhood she would fix her own.
Every single episode of the back half of the season Emma stated her desire to take herself and Henry back to New York and argued they were happy there. As Hook answered, over and over, it wasn’t real. I have no doubt it was happy — happy is exactly what Regina created for them. The first curse was intended to be her happy ending, this one was intended to be Henry and Emma’s. But Lost Emma doesn’t want real, she wants her Neverland, her fantasy, her happy.
The narrative required Emma to go through a magical adolescence and threaten to run away, to break up the family and abandon her history. Until the season finale, when she finally found her home and, lesson learned, was allowed to grow.
All of this was a contrivance of plot and could certainly be due to the showrunners’ inability to focus on more than one of them at a time. Snow’s character arc went somewhere interesting in the second season and Regina showed wonderful growth in the third season. But the intent doesn’t matter to me, the result is fascinating.
Fairy tales are fables, meant to caution and curtail and counsel. Change is hard and takes time. A whole season. Growing up is terrifying. Accepting who you are is terrifying. Giving yourself over completely to another person is terrifying. Lessons… are frustrating.