Spoilers for the mid-season finale.
You have to give it to Once Upon A Time. Despite the show’s many, many, many flaws, it isn’t afraid to reinvent itself to stop plotlines from becoming too stale. First, a show that is all about breaking a curse actually broke the curse by the end of the first season (to the show’s benefit, I think, since the actual fairytale characters are much more interesting than their Storybrook alter egos). The first half of this season transported most of the main characters to Neverland so that they actually had one goal to pursue and one villain to fight, and now that Pan is dead, they’ve decided to catapult everyone back to their original lands and wipe Emma and Henry’s memories instead.
Not so good if you value continuity in your characters, but at least it has potential.
It’s a shame that Once always seems to have potential in bucket loads, but never really knows what to do with it. The show has a varied cast of female characters and easy Bechdel passes every week, but they all seem to vanish for huge chunks of time while yet another Snow-and-Charming drama plays out. They introduced Ariel, only to have her story seemingly resolved within two episodes. She was reunited with Eric, and that was the end of it. They showed a bisexual Disney princess and raised the possibility of a Mulan/Aurora relationship (or at least one-sided love), but neither character has appeared since. Belle was finally given some time to develop as a character away from Rumplestiltskin and all of his angst, but everything she did seemed to be entirely about him anyway.
Unfortunately, one of the most promising elements of this mid-season finale is unlikely to last for more than five minutes into the next episode. Although Rumplestiltskin has been one of the show’s most enjoyable characters, and Robert Carlyle is undeniably the show’s best actor, his permanent death on the show would create room for the series to grow. The writers have become so obsessed with Rumplestiltskin that he muddies up everything. Almost every fairytale has him (or Regina) as the villain. He gets “redeemed,” and then re-villainified, over and over again. Everyone is related to him in some way. And Belle has been completely subsumed by her relationship to him, with the show loving him so much that it fails to see what a creepy relationship it truly is. The more Belle/Rumplestiltskin flashbacks they show, the more disturbing and abusive their “true love” becomes. With him entirely out of the picture, the show’s writers would be forced to develop other characters (especially Belle) and come up with more original ways to weave new stories into the universe. At best, however, I think we’re going to get Belle searching for a way to bring him back for the rest of the season while he appears in flashbacks. At worst, he’ll be back in the show so quickly you won’t even realize he was gone.
But despite its many issues, contradictions, and cringe-worthy moments, I keep watching, mostly because of all that never-quite-realized potential. In the end, it’s still a show with a large cast of female protagonists, where the “Chosen One” is a woman and where mothers play a hugely significant role. The show is often mocked for its ridiculously convoluted family trees, but at its heart, it’s a fairy tale show centered on an untraditional family dynamic– the boy with a birth mom and an adopted mom, whose love for him often powers the plot, including being the curse-breaking “True Love.” The “wow those two have chemistry” potential lesbian relationship was acknowledged as canon, if one-sided canon, when other shows would say that such an acknowledgement was unnecessary to the plot. And those are all positive, exciting things, despite the fact that the show often falls apart around them.
If only it could get the execution right, it’d be a pretty fabulous show.