By the Book: Watching Once Upon A Time

(Contains spoilers for Once Upon A Time)

In my latest round of “binge-watching things everyone else saw a million years ago”, I’ve been working my way through the Disney-themed soap opera Once Upon A Time.

I had no real expectations about Once Upon A Time. I knew it followed the adventures of Disney characters in both the real and fantasy worlds, and…that was about it. But I love Disney, and fairytales, and reinterpretations of fairytales, so I thought I’d give it a shot.


Sorry. Can’t resist a pun.

A ridiculously short time later, I’ve blown through the entire four-and-a-bit series of Once Upon A Time that Netflix has to offer, and, overall, I love it. The characters are compelling, the back-and-forth plotlines are perfectly balanced, and the whole thing is, undeniably, charming. (I would say that’s the last pun, but that would be a filthy lie).

It’s not a perfect show, though, so here’s my breakdown of Once Upon A Time – the good, the bad, and the silly.


The Good

One thing I loved about this show is the sheer number of utterly awesome women. Like Steven Universe, this show brings home just how few women you see in many other stories, because here,  there are blimmin’ loads. One of my favourite parts was in series two, where Emma, Snow, Mulan and Aurora spend several episodes wandering around the Enchanted Forest kicking arse and taking names.


The Exceptional Woman/Strong Female Character trap is thoroughly averted; the many prominent women on the show are shown to have strength and weakness in a variety of different, believable, ways. (It’s almost as if women are *whispers* complex human beings).

And it’s not just the female heroes who are interesting. Once Upon A Time has some of the best female villains I’ve seen in a long time, although they generally are from the same family; Cora, Zalena, and my personal favourite, Regina:


Emma might be the saviour, but in my opinion, it’s Regina who has the most interesting character arc. Starting off as the Evil Queen, she casts the curse that strands the fairytale characters in the town of Storybrooke (the first curse, anyway – curses happen in Once Upon A Time about as often as apocalypses happened in Buffy). But as we piece together her past and follow her story, we realise that she has kindness, warmth, and an immense capacity for love.


She’s anything but heartless. Sorry, sorry, I’ll stop.

I do have a soft spot for villains, and Regina isn’t the only nuanced baddie that Once Upon A Time has to offer. There’s also Rumplestiltskin, played by a truly terrifying (even considering who else he’s played) Robert Carlyle:

Sometimes panto villain, sometimes chillingly quiet puppetmaster, Rumplestiltskin steals every scene he’s in, and makes for a fantastic antagonist-antihero-ally-yeesh-what-the-hell-is-he-this-week? And he has some of the best lines, including most of the subtle, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them jokes – my absolute favourite being this interaction with Cora:

Cora: I brought you a gift.
Rumplestiltskin: Oh, did you bring the antidote, too?

(Gift is German for poison…I just like words, okay?)

Once Upon A Time plays fast and loose with the Disney stories we know and love – Rumplestiltskin is Belle’s Beast, Ariel doesn’t really make a deal with Ursula, and the Genie never even meets Aladdin – but that’s part of what makes it so watchable. It also, sometimes, draws on the stories behind the stories, going back as far as first drafts – in making Peter Pan a villain, the show runs with J.M. Barrie’s original concept of Pan as ‘a demon boy, the villain of the story’.


Once Upon A Time treats stories like real, living things, getting particularly meta in series four with the arrival of The Author (and goodness me, did I ever overidentify with that plotline. If I ever end up meeting my characters, they’re going to give me hell for the things I put them through).


The Bad

A disclaimer; this isn’t so much ‘bad’ as ‘could do better’. But ‘The Good, The Could Do Better, and The Silly’ would make rubbish subtitles.

I mentioned all the brilliant women in Once Upon A Time, but where the show makes strides re gender, it trails back a little on other aspects of diversity. In the early episodes, the cast list is about as snow white as the heroine’s mum (Bashful seems to be the only POC in Storybrooke, and he never speaks).


This is addressed later, with the arrival of regular-ish characters Ursula, Marian, Tamara and Mulan, as well as occasional appearances from Rapunzel and Lancelot. But, it’d be great to have some more diverse characters in the Scooby Gang Saviour Squad.

This also goes for representations of sexuality. The show has done its best, considering its Disney origins, to emphasise that romantic love isn’t the be-all and end-all – indeed, it’s had a few characters outright question the idea that “finding a man = happily ever after”, instead emphasising the fact that it’s love, in all its forms, that leads to happiness. But the romantic love that the show has focused on has been almost entirely heteronormative, with one exception; Mulan, we learn, is in love with Aurora, but as Aurora is married to Prince Philip and expecting a tiny royal baby, her love is unrequited. Many other characters deal with unrequited or impossible love, but the straight ones generally seem to triumph or find an alternative form of happiness. Mulan, on the other hand, walks sadly off to join the Merry Men, and we haven’t seen her since. Showing a lesbian or bisexual woman living happily ever after with her princess would be a radical step for a Disney-based show, but there’s no reason why Once Upon A Time shouldn’t take that chance.


The Silly

The word count of this blog is getting a bit ridiculous, so I’ll keep the silly section short and sweet. Again, this isn’t a dig at Once Upon A Time (well, only a friendly one) – but I have noticed a few trends that keep popping up over and over again, to the point where you just have to laugh.

Everyone is related: Snow and Charming are Emma’s mum and dad, Emma’s Henry’s mum, Henry’s dad is Mr Gold’s son, the Wicked Witch is Henry’s adopted mum’s sister…apparently, fairytale royalty are as inbred as the Habsburgs. It got so bad that the show decided to have Hook lampshade it and move on.

Everyone forgets: Each new curse that sends people back to Storybrooke from the Enchanted Forest comes with a convenient memory-loss spell, that makes the characters forget all the crucial information that will help them solve this latest problem. I do worry about the long-term effects on their brains – a few more series, and we might have a town full of Lockharts on our hands.

No-one can overhear a whisper: Seriously, the number of times characters whisper important information about other characters in a public place, and yet are never overheard…in one scene, Snow and Charming whispered about how important it was to keep a secret from Emma when Emma was standing right next to them in a quiet living room, and we’re somehow expected to believe that she didn’t overhear them.


Although she was talking to this chap at the time, so she may have been somewhat distracted

All in all, though, Once Upon A Time is well worth a watch, and I can’t wait to see how series five unfolds.


About Alice Nuttall

Alice Nuttall is a caffeine-guzzling knitter who divides her time between Oxford and the various worlds in her head. She is the author of a YA fantasy novel, Spider Circus, and three webcomics, Footloose, Cherry, and Black Market Magic, as well as several short stories.
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One Response to By the Book: Watching Once Upon A Time

  1. Seriously one of the best shows out there! Great post! 😀

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