Once Upon a Time returns to our televisions this Sunday and although I’m excited for a new trio of beautiful baddies (Maleficent, Cruella and Ursula!), my mind keeps wandering back to the first half of the season. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad the Frozen fiasco is over. But something left me unsettled, and I think I finally put my finger on it. Underneath all of the craziness—the snow monsters, curses, and Marian-sicles—Once Upon a Time touched upon a truth we rarely see told in modern fairytales. And that truth is sometimes love isn’t happily ever after.
It’s not a surprise that one of OUAT’s overarching themes is “true love.” The show enjoys incorporating its inspirations whenever possible, and while it could easily devolve into trite romantic tropes, for the most part Once Upon a Time has managed to go beyond the “Knight in Shining Armour” clichés. Before Frozen showed us the power of true love between sisters, OUAT showed us that a mother’s love could break the darkest curse. In addition to parental love, the show has played with sibling love, the love between enemies and the love of oneself. In this season, we were introduced to another kind of love: doomed love, or a love that’s possessive, dangerous, unhealthy or impossible. Not the lightest subject matter for a Sunday night, but the women of Once Upon a Time show the audience that they can handle whatever bad romance is thrown their way.
THE WOMEN OF ‘ONCE UPON A TIME’ SHOW THE AUDIENCE THEY CAN HANDLE WHATEVER BAD ROMANCE IS THROWN THEIR WAY.
The Snow Queen’s entire plan revolved around convincing Emma and Elsa to love her. She threatened, manipulated and cursed the entire town because she wanted them so badly. She was willing to destroy everyone and everything to create the family she thought she deserved. In the end, they were able to reason with her, but it was too late to stop the destruction that she’d caused. The Snow Queen then held herself accountable for her actions and died saving the town from the curse she created.
Where the Snow Queen’s manipulation was obvious and flashy, Rumpelstiltskin’s was conniving and secretive. I’ll admit it: I loved Rumbelle (Rumpel/Belle). Beauty and the Beast has always been one of my favourites and Belle has always been my go-to Disney Princess. She’s smart, kind and strong, and we saw that in the series too. She craved adventure, she wanted more than this provincial life, but slowly she had less and less to do. I wanted to believe she had found her happy ending, but even before the “I do’s” were spoken, you could see cracks in Belle and Rumpel’s relationship.
Rumpel lied and dismissed Belle. He purposefully deceived her by giving her a fake dagger as a sign of trust. Everything he did for “them,” he was really doing for himself. Still, you wanted the relationship to work. So did Belle. We all tried to ignore the signs, and, sadly, that’s entirely more terrifying than freezing a town. I was mad at how Belle was treated all season. She had no agency. In some episodes, all she did was smile at Rumpel. In others, she was nothing more than a gloried babysitter. In the end though, I think the show emphasized the problems with the relationship. She wasn’t better with him. She was fading into the background. At the end of the midseason finale, Belle finally found her voice again and saved herself (and the day) from her abusive relationship.
Regina, meanwhile, found herself in an impossible position as she fell in love with a married man. Even though two people love each other, sometimes the timing or situation just isn’t right. In this case, a dead wife was brought back from the past and forced out of town because of a curse. Surely not a normal situation, but one that causes a dilemma. What do you do? Regina chose happiness for a while, but ultimately gave her blessing for her love to leave for the good of his family.
In the romance realm, the heroines of Once Upon A Time have faced some very real problems. Belle was able to stand up to an abusive spouse and get out of an unhealthy relationship. Regina had to weigh the pros and cons of love versus responsibility. Even Emma and Elsa’s magic-filled adventure exemplified the obsession that an unhealthy need for love can create. These women didn’t stop loving their problematic partners (life is rarely so easy), and they made choices they didn’t want to make and had to live with them.
Whether or not these themes will be explored further this season is yet to be seen, but I hope they’re not forgotten. Each of these women handled their troubles in their own way and showed just how strong and complicated these characters are. Say what you will about Once Upon A Time. Underneath all the fairytale frivolity, ridiculous writing and never-ending amnesia plotlines, lies a whole host of interesting and engaging women. Let’s hope the second half of season for gives us more to love.