Once Upon a Time had a lot to live up to in the season premiere this week. After all, while it’s not unheard of for a series to completely change the rules of its own game, it’s pretty rare for it to do so at the end of its first season.
With the introduction of magic into Storybrooke (and the awakening of its inhabitants to their true identities), the game has indeed changed. But perhaps not as we might have expected. Snow, Charming, Jiminy, and the rest are not whisked back into the fairy tale world. In fact, that world, Regina is quick to inform her victims, no longer exists. And while Rumple’s spell may have brought magic into the real world, it does not appear to work the same way in our realm as it did in theirs. Figuring out how it can be leveraged almost immediately becomes the new priority and paradigm.
The Blue Fairy, for example, suggests that without the necessary props, there is no magic. This appears to be verified when Regina, facing down a murderously vengeful mob, attempts to cast a spell which utterly fails. But even the right props don’t appear to be enough on their own. When Regina attempts to use Jefferson’s hat, she fails to be able to activate the portal—until Emma touches her. Does this suggest that magic now requires cooperation? Good and evil working in parallel? Apparently not, as we see minutes later when Regina uses magic almost unconsciously to attack Charming. Were she anyone else, this might be seen as a newly restored ability kicking in at just the right moment, but considering her status as the mistress of manipulation, one has to wonder if her first failure might not have been faked. Writer/creator team Horowitz and Kitsis have certainly taught us never to assume things are what they appear at first glance in either world.
And while things have changed in relation to magic, others remain the same. The most disturbing of these is the relationship between Rumple and Belle, which started out in a dark place and seems to be coming to a fruition of something only really hinted at in season one. Initially, he blackmailed her into becoming his servant and, in a case of Stockholm Syndrome at its finest, she responded by falling in love with him. He rejects her and sends her away (being a bastard in the process) and yet, she still loves him. Now reunited in this world, Rumple again shows what appear to be his true colors by lying to her about his plans for Regina and then again tries to get her to leave him for her own good: “You have to go. I’m still a monster,” he tells her. “Don’t you see? That’s exactly the reason I have to stay…” she replies. One wonders if Storybrooke has a domestic abuse hotline.
Almost as important as the introduction of magic is the effect on the townspeople in remembering who they are. Some relationships are quickly renewed, while others are recast in different terms. Snow and Charming, of course, are overjoyed to have each other and their long-lost daughter, but Snow confronts Emma who seems less content with her new parents (Morrison, Dallas, and Goodwin give a touching performance that clearly delineates the difference between the love of parents for a child and vice versa). Snow lets slip that she had a one-night stand with Dr. Whale (whose identity remains shrouded—but my money is on him being Monstro), leading Charming to quite hypocritically take offense at her “infidelity.” And after saving Regina from Snow in season one, in this episode, Charming informs Regina that he should have killed her himself when Snow and Emma are again placed in great danger.
So despite the breaking of the curse, good has not triumphed, evil has not been defeated, and peace has not been restored to the fairy tale land or its inhabitants. Which is good, considering the entire series rests upon those elements—which in turn allow the writers to continue to reveal new layers in their characters and entice us to tune in each week.
What is less good is a series of Lost-like twists woven through this episode. You know…the kind that ignore continuity and have the slight scent of the desperation of having painted oneself into a narrative corner.
I mean, it was nice to see Aurora and Prince Philip show up, considering that we’ve already seen the fate of Maleficent. But when we learn that they are currently live in a portion of the fairy tale world not just left untouched (convenient, that), but frozen in time (meaning that neither of them have aged in the 28 years that have passed since the curse was cast) until one year before the curse is broken, it strains credulity.
Then there’s the fact that Prince Philip has been joined on his quest to save his lady love by Chinese princess Mulan, which suggests that the writers aren’t so much taking their inspiration from the fairy tales so much as Disney. Add onto to that the appearance of what can only be described as a renamed Harry Potter Dementor, and one starts to wonder if the narrative magic might be failing in Storybrooke as well.
Still, it’s much too early to give up hope, especially in a series based on the idea that those who cling to hope are generally rewarded. There’s still a great deal of fertile narrative ground, and unlike J. J. Abrams’ Lost, we may indeed get the kind of explanation of these recent events that actually provide a rationale for everything we’ve seen thus far.
Tune in on Sundays at 8/7pm Central to find out.
Laura Akers is a teacher by calling and a geek academic by nature. Her sporadic but often too-lengthy writing for Comics Bulletin (and her own personal musings) tend to revolve around issues of gender, sexuality, identity, politics, religion (and all the other things you’re not supposed to bring up in polite conversation) in TV/film/webseries narratives. You can get topical whiplash and occasionally offended by following her at @laurajakers