The last time I talked about Once Upon a Time, I posted an overview of the show’s pros and cons over its six season run. And there were plenty of both.
Now I’d like to get into more detail about the character journeys, and how I felt about their development. I’ll start off with the three characters who drive the show, the ones with the most agency. Emma Swan, daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, the Savior who wields light magic. Regina, the Evil Queen who hates Snow White–and who unknowingly adopted Snow White’s biological grandson. And Rumplestiltskin, a dark wizard who’s always playing his own game.
As the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, Emma is the product of true love, a source of power that lets her wield light magic and act as the Savior. She grew up believing she’d been abandoned by her birth parents, had a troubled childhood, and went on to spend time in prison. When she became pregnant with her own child, she put him up for adoption, so he could be raised by someone better equipped for the job than she was. By the beginning of the story, she’d grown into a tough, emotionally-closed off bail bondsman.
In the first season, Emma is a bit too stiff and standoffish to be interesting. She grows into a more interesting character with time–and develops through some truly engaging plot work–but she never does quite manage to have that special something about her character that really makes her stand out. Regina, whether good or evil, always has a wicked swagger. There’s this characteristic gleam in her eye when she’s about to outmaneuver her enemy, and it’s glorious. Snow White manages to draw in the audience with a dichotomy to her character–she’s both this optimistic font of hope, and a badass tracker who can survive alone in the woods with a bounty on her head–fitting both of these aspects of herself together seamlessly.
Emma’s development is good, as she gradually (very gradually) lowers her defenses and starts letting people in. But the tough exterior that’s always keeping others at bay also manages to keep viewers at bay, and the show didn’t have to do that. It could have shown us her quirks in ways that the other characters in the show wouldn’t get to see.
Still, Emma manages to grow into a solid protagonist, and has a number of interesting plot lines to her story. Letting her parents back into her life after growing up without them is its own thing. Developing a friendship with Regina, as the person she feels like she has the most in common with, is a growing process–especially given how Regina has her own defenses in place, and Emma is the one who has to try to get past someone else’s walls for a change. And then there’s figuring out how to be a mother to a kid she didn’t raise (which she seems to deal with by trying to be a bit more like a friend than a mother to him.)
Not to mention the whole plot of season four, which starts off a little lackluster, but turns out to be more complicated than it first appears. Emma chooses to infect herself with a darkness to save someone else’s life. Her struggles to resist it end up serving as a great counterpoint to the struggles of numerous other characters–Regina, Hook, Rumplestiltskin–with darkness. And her fatal flaw remains ultimately unchanged. When under pressure, she closes herself off from everyone else and tries to go it alone.
Regina Mills/The Evil Queen
Having lost her first love to the machinations of her mother, Regina has always blamed Snow White for betraying her trust, allowing her mother to win. Ever since then, her heart was filled with vengeance, culminating in the curse that brought these fairy tale characters to Storybrooke. Except that she does finally allow someone into her life–she adopts a child, not knowing that this boy is the biological grandson of her archenemy Snow White and the son of a Savior who could break her curse. She starts this story as a villain, but eventually, she chooses to safeguard the family she has instead of seeking her revenge.
Back in the first season, Regina was far too one-note to be interesting–but she’s since grown into the most complex character on the show. Those early stumbles were irritating, and in one case, the show seems not to have understood how consent works. This is actually quite a big deal, especially because it’s never even acknowledged. (I can’t even look at the show in the same light if I don’t consider that scene a scripting error, because otherwise it just doesn’t make sense.)
But in isolation from the mess of that first season (assuming you can isolate it), Regina’s story is one long, complicated redemption arch.
I Iike that even as she strives to be better, she never becomes nice. She’s always sharp and snarky, ready to sink a vicious verbal jab–even while her actions themselves are much improved. Her evolution is gradual, moving a little further towards good every season.
There’s a stark difference between her motivations in the middle seasons of the show, where she wants to achieve happiness for herself, versus later on, when she’s no longer being good for selfish reasons. Towards the end of season five, there’s this amazing scene where she reveals that doing the right thing makes her miserable. That she doesn’t believe it makes her life better. It’s a powerful moment for her, because she’s stopped trying to be good for her own sake and started being good for other people, even while believing it goes against her self-interest.
Her character arc takes some strange turns, but I do appreciate that changing doesn’t come easily for her. She tries to take shortcuts sometimes, only for them not to work out the way she’d envisioned. There’s a gradual acceptance that she does have to take responsibility (except for the first season stuff that’s never addressed.) And while she’s not always great at it, she does at least commit to trying to be a better person.
Mr. Gold/Rumplestiltskin/The Beast
Rumplestiltskin is The Dark One–once an ordinary man, now imbued with a dark power that gives him only one weakness. That weakness is a dagger that allows anyone in possession of it to control him. He doubles as The Beast from Beauty in the Beast, arriving in Storybrooke after he’d fallen in love with Belle and lost her. His motivations are his own, and he begins as a bit of a wild card.
In contrast to Regina’s storyline, Rumplestiltskin starts out as the most interesting character on the show by far. But somewhere around seasons three or four, his story grows old. This is mostly because his character arc stagnates, and is put on repeat.
For the first few seasons, he’s a bit of an independent player who slowly tilts to the side of good because that’s where the people he cares about are. Then he regresses, tricking the people closest to him while ultimately grasping for more power–a character journey which could have been interesting, if it hadn’t dragged out for so long, and if the story had committed to it.
Instead, Rumplestiltskin fools Belle into thinking he’s a better man, she finds out the truth and rejects him, he convinces her to give him another chance, he goes back to manipulating her again, she finds out and rejects him, he convinces her to give him another chance…and so on and so forth. At some point, I have to wonder how anyone can keep moving past the things he does, especially considering how little he does to make up for any of it.
And Belle forgives some seriously ridiculous things. Rumplestiltskin stomps all over her boundaries while they’re apart, in the name of protecting her. He traps her so she can’t get hurt. He almost uses magic on her to speed up her pregnancy against her will–and no, he doesn’t get credit for not going through with it, because it literally got to the point where she had to beg him not to do it. That it even came so close is massively not okay. Not to mention agreeing to have his and his family’s memories wiped to create an artificial world where they’re happy together, even though his family wouldn’t want that. Because his wants and needs are obviously more important than anyone’s, even the people he cares about.
It’s hard to take Rumplestiltskin and Belle’s relationship seriously, when her desires always take a backseat to his. I don’t see love or respect between them. I see the desperation to have someone stay with them, so they won’t be alone. Seriously, he tries take away her choices through sheer force of power. How can the show possibly turn their relationship back into a romance? It blows my mind that Belle is willing to forgive him after all this.
So Rumplestiltskin’s journey, to me, is the opposite of Regina and Emma’s–he starts out as a fascinating character, until his character arc stagnates. There were several great moments where he could have exited the show and ended his arc perfectly. But he stuck around, and the roles he was forced to fill didn’t work so well, and even ended up kinda creepy.