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By Matt Meier · May 16, 2012
Much like the cursed town of Storybrooke, my feelings toward Once Upon A Time are a constant battle between love and hate. The show centers upon a unique and compelling premise and features a superb cast grounded by Jennifer Morrison (whom I’ve loved ever since her early days on House) and the supremely dexterous Robert Carlyle. However, despite leading off with arguably the season’s strongest drama pilot this past fall, Once Upon a Time has frequently faltered by dipping too deep into the platitudes of its fairytale roots while the narratives teeter between the overarching complexities of Lost (creators Adam Horowitz & Edward Kitsis’ previous lead writing gig) and the procedural simplicity of NBC’s freshman fairytale alternative, Grimm.
On one hand, the season one finale of Once Upon a Time, “A Land Without Magic,” was the “game-changer” episode that fans had been longing for. On the other, the finale fell somewhere between a “head-scratcher” and an “unmitigated narrative cluster-cuss.” In all fairness, however, Lost made a living off their “WTF?” plot twists and narrative ambiguity, so I guess that bodes well for the season two viewership of Once Upon a Time. “Spoilers” ahead…
“A Land Without Magic” follows the same structure we’ve seen all season, alternating between the A-plot of Emma (Morrison) trying to save Henry (Jared Gillmore) from the coma induced by eating Regina’s (Lara Parrilla) cursed apple turnover, while the B-plot follows Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) escaping from prison and searching for Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin). After the doctor dismisses the possibility of the apple turnover being poisoned, Emma realizes it must be magic; she picks up Henry’s book and, whoosh, the entire fairytale story flashes before her eyes. It’s kind of a lazy gimmick considering that the book has never triggered this reaction before, not to mention that it’s slightly implausible that a doctor would refuse to test the food product that induced the coma even if Henry’s symptoms do not indicate poison, but I can let all that slide. The truly obtuse storyline is Emma’s search for the last vial of magic, which Mr. Gold/Rumplestiltskin (Carlyle) hid in the belly of Maleficient (the human form played by Kristin Bauer van Straten)—more accurately, Charming hid the potion in Maleficient’s dragon form in order to obtain the enchanted ring from Gold needed to find Snow. The problem has nothing to do with the potion being hidden in the belly of Maleficient, whom Regina has kept in dragon form in the basement of some dungeon. The problem is that Emma’s whole journey to get the potion is totally unnecessary, and the parallel B-story of Charming and Snow acutely highlight this problem.
Anyone who knows the story of Snow White knows that true love’s kiss is the remedy that awakens Snow from her slumber. You’re telling me that Emma, after awakening to the entire fairytale storyline, doesn’t think for a second, “Oh, I should just kiss him because that cured Snow White when she ate the exact same apple”? No, instead, she fights a dragon, gets the potion, Rumplestiltskin betrays her and keeps the potion for himself, and Henry dies…only to be re-awakened by Emma’s kiss, which also (kind of) breaks the spell. I understand structurally how that all works—saving the kiss for the end gives us our second-act tension and third-act low-point—but it feels like one of those oversights that the writing room may have noticed but chose to ignore because they couldn’t find a viable alternative.
The same could also be said of the minutes that follow. Emma’s kiss not only cures Henry, but also breaks the amnesic grip of the Queen’s spell over Storybrooke—everyone suddenly remembers their true identity. However, nothing else changes—the town does not transform back into the fairytale kingdom—and when Emma asks Henry why, he has no answer. Further convoluting matters, Rumplestiltskin drops the vial of “true love” potion in the wishing well, which he explains to Belle (Emilie de Ravin), his rekindled love interest whom the Queen led him to believe had died, will bring magic back to Storybrooke. This would seem a good thing (as it would presumably return the town to its fairytale form), and yet everyone reacts to the ominous purple cloud as though they had found themselves in the fairytale version of Hiroshima. If the Evil Queen’s spell that eliminated all magic was bad and Rumplestiltskin’s spell that brought back all magic was also bad, then I’m officially at a loss as to what these people are trying to achieve. Better weather, perhaps? A less autocratic government? Improved racial diversity—what ever happened to Mulan, Pocahontas, and the Princess & the Frog?
The writers clumped a lot into the finale, much of which could theoretically have been spread out over the last few episodes, but they managed to balance the many storylines well enough. More importantly, they ended on enough of a cliffhanger to excite viewers about the series’ trajectory hereafter. In this sense, the finale wasn’t wholly “bad” as much as it was bland and uninspired. I’m sure they have something big in mind for next season and I will more than likely tune in to see what direction they choose to take things, but Once Upon a Time will need to seriously up their standards if they hope to ever be more than TV’s hour-long orgy of recycled fairytales. Then again, considering the show’s fairytale popularity, banality may be a storyline worth sticking with all the way to the happy ending.