Deconstructing “Once Upon A Time” the TV Series
Editor’s Note: This is a review of season one of Once Upon A Time. It contains spoilers for the entire first season. Read with caution if you haven’t seen all the episodes.
Certainly a runaway hit for ABC, Once Upon A Time ended its debut season with a mind-bending cliff-hanger, true to the form of the Lost series producers, Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz. The popularity of Once makes me curious about two things: the design of the plot over the past season; and from the finale, where season two will take viewers.
The plot, as defined by the basic premise of fantasy, will ultimately permit an outcome where good will triumph over evil. According to classic plot design, the main character was first introduced in a likeable manner. We bonded with Emma Swan enough to root for her in the adventures to come. The series quickly reached what is called the First Plot Point, where the main character is at a turning point with everything changing and threatening routine life. Emma soon became intertwined into the community of Storybrook. She couldn’t turn away from that town once she engaged for the first time with her son, Henry, who she had previously given up for adoption. Becoming active in his world, her life was changed.
Henry struggled persistently to show Emma the truth about the underlying fairytale which had brought all of the townspeople to live there after a curse was set upon them by the Evil Queen, Regina. Week after week, snippets of Grimm’s fairytales were employed to give back story for all the characters. That proved to be an effective device, drawing upon viewers’ memories of childhood readings. To enhance the intriguing effect, the classic tales were twirled into a jigsaw fit with all the others—a grand theme, linking all the characters.
Still, despite all of Henry’s attempts, Emma didn’t believe the tale or her destiny to be the “savior” who could break the curse. At the culmination of the season, the series revealed what is termed the Midpoint in plot design, when the main character receives new information that allows him or her a plan of attack. They stop floundering and form a clear path. In the series, Emma became a believer, but at a horrible cost. Unable to convince her any other way, Henry took a bite of the torte Regina had made from her last evil magic apple, a dessert intended for Emma. When Henry fell into a coma-like state from the black magic, Emma could no longer refute his theory about the residents of Storybrook. Enraged, she accepted her special abilities as the “savior” in order to save her son’s life. In doing so, she broke the evil curse over the entire community. At that important midpoint turn, Emma was empowered. She goes forward as a warrior, attacking the opposition.
Admittedly, throughout the season, I was baffled why the writers didn’t allow much gain for the good faction. Now, with closure of the last two episodes, I see the design beginning to unfold in an expected, tried-and-true pattern. This is something of a surprise to me to see a pattern, considering the producers of Lost never followed classic plot design with that series.
What lies ahead is an interesting question. The manipulative anti-hero character of Rumpelstiltskin (in the fairytale world)/ Mr. Gold (in the real world setting) unleashes magic into the environment of Storybrook where they have all been transplanted. This will certainly shift the rules on the battle field. Just prior to his unusual action, evil had taken a hit when Emma broke the curse. Regina went into hiding in her home, expecting the worst when townspeople realized she had been responsible for the curse that changed everyone’s lives. The remainder of her black magic was spent in her last attempt to block Emma. She was helpless. Now, with tools of magic in hand once again, Regina is renewed—the battle begins anew. But this time it will be with Emma empowered by her awareness, her belief in her own abilities and responsibilities to the community. In coming shows, she will need to learn fast how to wield the magic that is now at her disposal but unfamiliar to her. She will persevere since she now has purpose. According to accepted plot design, the struggle will go back and forth at an increasingly accelerated pace. The characters will face greater and greater risks until they reach a scene where Emma will be cornered by evil, in despair and at the precipice of giving up. At that moment, the Second Plot Point will occur; a new tool/power/knowledge will turn the battle in favor of good. She will swiftly overcome evil.
Since a clear textbook midpoint was reached at this season’s end, we are lead to expect that the finale of the second will bring closure and the triumph of good. However, this is television, and much of what progresses is affected by ratings. The real question may be—how long can the writers of Once Upon A Time expand the battles prior to the exciting Second Plot Point that we all are looking forward to?