Once Upon a Time: The Characters We Think We Know (Part 1)

In honor of my mom’s upcoming birthday, and also because I really wanted to, I’m going to be doing a commentary in two parts about one of her favorite shows and mine: Once Upon a Time, the show with a cast that’s pretty much a rogue’s gallery of fairy tale characters and, uh, other stuff that Disney has the rights to. (Seriously, Jiminy Cricket? Mulan? I’m starting to think that the Enchanted Forest would have been more aptly named the Disney Characters Forest and Rumplestiltskin.)


“I have no idea what I’m doing here.”

Anyway, this has some important implications for the pilot. The show’s got a lot of characters to introduce (and in some cases, re-introduce), and it also has a hefty central concept to sell us: the idea of fairy tale characters being sent to our world, a woman who grew up here has to save them, etc. Once Upon a Time’s balance of a high-concept nature and a strong cast of characters are the reasons I recommend it to pretty much anyone and to writers in particular.

Incidentally, I found a copy of the shooting script online, which is what I’m going to try to do for every episode that I go over. The thing is, though, this is an early copy of the script, and there were some fascinating differences from the finished product. Here it is, for those of you who want to read it for yourself. I’m not going to go over every thing that’s different, but I’ll pick a few things to discuss as we go along.

The title cards at the beginning are something that I take issue with. The whole “characters we think we know” thing reaches its own separate plane of cliché-ness when you say it out loud, not to mention it’s needlessly expositional. I say “needlessly” because a) I’m one of those picky writers who thinks that any exposition that can be easily identified as such during casual viewing is needless and b) because the first couple of scenes give us the exact information that’s presented in the titled cards: that these are the characters we know, or think we know.

We start with the exact ending of “Snow White,” which hasn’t changed substantially in the past hundred years except maybe to omit the gory death of the queen–Brothers Grimm, you know. It’s all here: Prince Charming rides in, kisses the dead girl in the glass coffin, cue the happily ever after. Well, there are a couple of things you’re meant to notice here. For one thing, the dwarves look enough like their 1930s counterparts that if you hadn’t been thinking before about the fact that Disney owns ABC, you’re thinking about it now.


Shot in the dark here, but I think the one with the glasses is called Doc.

Also, the dialogue is enough to establish that these aren’t heightened-speech type fairy tale characters. Which is an important part of Once–the characters sound real because they are real. Oh, and they all have American accents so far–also not a common enough occurrence in these types of stories.

So much for the fairytale we know. Except in lieu of having the Evil Queen be on the receiving end of some Grimm-style justice, she shows up at the “most lavish, opulent fairy tale wedding our budget will afford us” (the script actually says this) threatening to destroy people’s happiness and such. We get Snow White wielding a sword out of this scene, a break with tradition that still feels natural.

And now, with one camera motion we’re in the real world, where it turns out all of the earlier stuff was written in a kid’s book. Except, as he cryptically lets us know, it’s “more than just a book.” Again with the clichés, but even though this one did give me pause at first, we do find out later that Henry really is that kind of a kid.


“These characters are my family. No, seriously…”

Next, we have Emma. Ah, Emma. We see her on an Internet date, typical 21st century chick, we get a little background information…and then suddenly it turns into an action scene. Maybe not on the scale of fairy-tale land, but enough to show us what kind of a person Emma is. Maybe normal in some ways (or just wants to be?) but always ready for a fight.

But still, it’s a hollow existence. As Emma lights the single candle on her mind-bendingly pathetic birthday cupcake (It’s a single cupcake. A single. Cupcake.), the audience feels sure that something is about to change, an inciting incident, perhaps…

And then her long-lost son shows up.

Here we get to meet Henry a little more through his interactions with his newfound mother–he’s definitely precocious but still manages to give off that cute ten-year-old vibe–and we find out about Emma’s “superpower.” Really, it’s great that she gets to explain it in that way, to Henry, because it invites the audience to treat an ability to spot a liar as a “superpower.” It adds a little bit of magic and is a lot firmer than “trust me, I can tell when people are lying.”

Meanwhile in the enchanted forest, we have this very nice scene where Charming tries in vain to ease Snow’s fears about the Evil Queen, and especially about the baby. That, I think, is the core essence of this show. You’ve got this fantasy/magic/curse stuff going on, but at the same time there’s this very real fear of a parent for the safety of her child.


This show got serious real fast.

That being said, it’s an interesting little kick to the face for Charming when Snow comes out and says that her husband isn’t able to guarantee their child’s safety the way that “HE” can. I think it says something about the power and influence of magic when a dad’s doing all he can to protect his kid, but can he see the future? No? Back of the line, buddy.

Now back to Emma and Henry, and more specifically Emma finding out that there’s more to this little (mis)adventure than bringing a kid back to his home. This is all handled well–Henry’s straight-faced seriousness makes Emma unwilling to contest him, so this gets put aside for now instead of being turned into a big thing; Emma finds out about Henry and his book and that’s it.

By the way, it’s worth mentioning at this point that in the early version of the pilot, Henry comes off as being a whole lot more conniving than the Henry we know. He tells a white lie to avoid being apprehended on his way to meet Emma and, in a scene where Emma tries to put him on a bus, he gets out of it by putting on a big display of crying because “mommy” is trying to put him on a bus by himself.

I’m sure time constraints had something to do with that last part getting cut, but there are other reasons it doesn’t work. First, it’s super-disturbing to see Henry exercising power over Emma in that way. It’s enough to know that he’s resourceful and a bit cheeky without him being full-on manipulative. Second, it’s nice for their relationship development–which has to come a long way in this episode to make Emma stay in Storybrooke–that Emma has the option to send Henry off on his own and chooses not to.

And speaking of things that were cut out with good reason, the next scene–the one where Snow and Charming go to consult with Rumplestiltskin–is, in at least one version of the pilot, not our first introduction to the Dark One. Those of you who have seen the deleted scenes may remember that one of them briefly introduces Rumplestiltskin at the very beginning of the episode (and for those of you who haven’t seen it, I invite you to do so).

Again, time constraints probably played a role here (seriously, the writing process is like 10% actual writing and 90% un-writing), but I think that earlier scene would have been a hindrance for a couple of reasons. First, it messes with that neat structure thing that was going on at the beginning where we started with a traditional fairy-tale and then things went wrong. Second, the creep factor in the earlier scene is a little ham-handed even for Rumplestiltskin. In terms of actually introducing the character, it’s better that we see him in his element: making a deal, predicting the future, and still being very, very, very creepy. Oh, and the fact that he’s upside down when we first see him is a nice touch. Not fake upside down like Martin Sheen’s character in Apocalypse Now, but actually properly upside down.


“My spidey sense is tingling!”

If I may be allowed to skip ahead here and talk about the show as a whole, I’m not a big fan of the way Rumple’s future sight ability is handled. It tends to get forgotten about for, like, thirty episodes at a time and only comes up when it’s really important to some plot thing. It’s all very deus ex machina, which, roughly translated from the Latin, means “Rumplestiltskin in cage.” Then again, predicting the future is probably never going to be dealt with in fiction in a completely satisfactory way, so I’m coping with it.

I remember watching this episode for the first time, having only a slight familiarity with the characters, and watching the scene with Archie and just thinking But “Pinocchio” is not a fairy tale… I’m over it now, honest. But it was good to have this character introduced early on to set a precedent for what’s allowed (read: everything Disney has the rights to). That, and a kid thinking that his therapist is Jiminy Cricket is just slightly adorable. Seriously, imagine for a second that you don’t know that this is Jiminy Actual Cricket and that a ten-year-old boy thinks his shrink is the conscience from the Disney movie.


“He tells me right from wrong…”

What happens next is one of those scenes that really makes you realize what show you’re watching: Snow White, Prince Charming, the dwarves, Jiminy Cricket, Geppetto, Pinocchio, and the Blue Fairy are all gathered for a war council. There aren’t a lot of shows that can give you something like this. Okay, maybe Doctor Who. Probably Doctor Who. And after a pretty customary assurance from Prince Charming that the future isn’t “written” (or whatever), the Blue Fairy lets the audience know why Emma is alone in the real world: because the magic wardrobe that sent her here can only hold one…

Aaand that’s your cliffhanger. I’m probably going to be doing these commentaries in installments most if not all of the time in the future because I think it’s better to give you the audience less to sit down and read at one time (I have that Generation X attention span too; I know how it is) and because spacing things out will hopefully take the edge off of the fact that I don’t post things super often. Anyway, let me know what your thoughts are and be looking for the next installment this time tomorrow.

By the way, for those of you who are interested, here’s an interview with the creators of Once Upon a Time. They talk about their hopes for the show and how they came up with the idea; it’s pretty interesting.