Once Upon a Time—the classic opening to many fairy-tales—is best known for blurring the lines between storybook narratives and modern life. Characters from our favorite fair-tales, myths, and legends are woven into the same story line, usually to build a larger, more complex, plot or to add depth to pre-established tales. As everyone knows, stories are more than entertainment. As Arthur Frank eloquently states in his book Letting Stories Breathe, “…first stories simplify complexity for humans living in a world that can overwhelm us with perceptual possibilities, but then stories turn around and complicate reality.” Such is the case with Once Upon a Time.
Folklore has always been a subtle way to teach young children the ways of life. Each tale has a lesson to be learned, ranging from character traits we should avoid to morals we should strive to maintain. If Once Upon a Time is a collective story, incorporating a variety of narratives, then what is this show trying to convey to viewers? What is the lesson being taught? This question was never much of a concern until this season.
Where’s the Concern?
The first half of Season Five has drawn a clear line between the binary concepts of light versus darkness and heroes versus villains—themes which seem to have carried over into the latter part of the season as well. The problem with oversimplifying heroes and villains, is that the qualities and actions we expect from them don’t necessarily translate well into modern life. Once Upon a Time has done a clever job of demonstrating how even the worst of villains can find redemption—take a look at Regina’s story as an example—however, what about the choices the heroes make?
Once Upon a Time has gradually indicated that heroes have their faults and dark temptations. Usually the story goes along about how a hero made the wrong choice, but lately, Once Upon a Time has begun showing that heroes are as capable of darkness as villains. The most glaring example of this can be found in Season Four when Snow and Prince Charming sacrificed Malificent’s child in order to ensure Emma’s goodness. It’s great to know Once Upon a Time’s heroes aren’t perfect, but that also means viewers are free to question their decisions. Perhaps not only the decisions made by the so-called heroes, but also the choices made by minor characters.
From the Latest Episode
Henry, Regina’s father, explains his unfinished business to Regina before passing over:
“I know what my unfinished business was now. It was you. For so long, I let your mother get in the way of who you really are. It was the biggest regret of my life. But now, you’re free. And I’ve never been more proud.”
At first appearance, this scene seems like a heartfelt reconciliation between Regina and her father. The last time they saw each other, Regina took her father’s heart in order to enact the Storybrooke curse. Regina now knows that her father is in a good place, and he doesn’t hold any ill will toward her. In fact, Henry can pass over to where he belongs because he knows his daughter fights for good and not evil.
Upon closer inspection, Henry can now move on because he knows Cora, Regina’s mother, is no longer in the way of Regina being herself. Henry is saying Cora and her evil ways inspired the younger Regina to be someone she’s not, evil—an evil queen to be exact. In this statement, Henry is also saying that Cora did what she could to keep Regina from becoming a good person. He doesn’t use the name Cora; he specifically says your mother. Essentially, a father is telling his daughter that her mother always stood in the way of the daughter’s potential to be a good person. And that was his biggest regret in life.
Is there something wrong here? Is this conversation appropriate? For children, surely not. Are viewers supposed to walk away thinking, “I will never let my parents get in the way of who I want to be.” The situation is realistic; some parents openly tell their children how the other parent is failing as a guardian. Should this be a trait to be admired or an action of someone considered good? Of course, Henry is saying he is proud of Regina making her own decisions, and in particular choosing the brave, heroic path. But we still can’t shake the fact that Henry put down Regina’s mother.
Henry is also saying that one person prevented Regina from becoming who she really is. In most stories, that can’t be true. No one can stand in the way of your happiness except yourself. A person may be influenced by the people around them, but in the end it is that person’s choice to live and behave a particular way.
Backing up a Bit
Parenting is a difficult task. Once Upon a Time has demonstrated this with many situations including the relationship between Regina and her adopted son, Henry. Henry, like Regina’s father, always believed in his adoptive mother. He loved her unconditionally. Even when Regina was a villain. In Season Five, it is established that Regina is a hero. Heroes are supposed to make the right decisions. Is separating Selena from her child the right decision?
Throughout Selena’s pregnancy, Regina threatened to take away her baby and ban Selena from having any contact. Matter of fact, no one else in Storybrooke spoke up to say whether this behavior and decision was right or wrong. Selena was happy that she was going to have the chance to live with one person who would love her back unconditionally. Suddenly, other people start telling her that she can’t raise the child on her own. How is this right? Is this the right course of action because Selena is labeled as a villain and Regina is labeled as a hero?
Going a step farther, Regina has Selena committed to the psychiatric ward and blocks Selena from using her powers. Regina instructs the nurses to feed Selena only green foods. Again, are these the decisions of a hero? Is this fair or appropriate?
Eventually, Regina and Robin reach the decision that Selena should have visitation rights. This is a normal, reasonable course of action, but Regina and Robin make this decision without discussing the decision with anyone, let alone Selena. In modern life, a judge is the person to legally remove a child from their parents’ custody. They are also the person to grant visitation rights. Playing both judge and jury does not seem like heroic behavior.
Keeping an Eye Out
As the season continues, it will be interesting to see if the heroes falter in any way, or if they’re given allowance for simply being who they are. We learned at the end of Souls of the Departed that our heroes—Regina, Mary Margaret, David, Emma, Robin, Henry, and Gold—are most likely part of the business the souls in the Underworld have left unfinished. For characters like Regina and Gold, it’s no surprise that there would be many deaths influenced by their choices. For Mary Margaret, David, and Robin, however, the stories behind the troubled souls should be a surprise. Emma is hell-bent on saving Hook, but will it be at the risk of her own sanity or her family’s safety? And how will Henry’s character contribute to Operation Fire Bird? Will Once Upon a Time continue to oversimplify aspects of human nature, or will the binary concept of heroes versus villains complicate matters? Only time will tell.