What Once Upon A Time Could (and Should) Be Doing Instead of Frozen
Oh, OuAT… what happened to you?
As Once Upon A Time embarks upon its fourth season by introducing the cast of Frozen to the people of Storybrooke, it may be difficult to remember that the show was once, you know, good.
Long ago, in October 2011, we were introduced to a creative, albeit campy, television show that drew upon a variety of well-known fairytales (and folktales, legends, and novels) to tell a compelling and emotionally provocative story with its own unique identity.
Yes, most of the characters were from stories that had been adapted into Disney films, and their portrayals were heavily Disneyfied. But, with only a few cringe-worthy exceptions, OUaT incorporated those references into the show’s mythology and made them their own. Rumpelstiltskin and Belle’s chipped cup introduced in the Beauty and the Beast episode, “Skin Deep,” for example, could have been a gag-worthy reference to the Disney character. Instead, the cup quickly became a symbol for Rumpelstiltskin and Belle’s relationship, and its significance has carried through each season. Yes, it was a Disney reference, but it was one that the show took ownership of and used to develop Belle and Rumple’s relationship and deepen its emotional impact. In short, it was intertextuality done right.
Over the course of three seasons, though, most would agree that OUaT has… declined in quality. It’s retreaded completed character arcs, underused the interesting characters, overused the bland ones and, most relevantly to this article, leaned more and more on the Disney crutch, opting to write “Oh, look, that character!” moments rather than focus on character development and good storytelling. But, if season one taught me anything, it’s the power of hope. As Snow White more or less says at the end of the pilot, “good [writing] always wins over bad.”
Then I saw Elsa’s reveal at the end of season 3 and did this. I accept last night’s episode as the show’s official declaration of creative bankruptcy and prepare for the worst (there’s a “winter is coming” joke somewhere in this). Once superbly crafted and delightfully cheesy, OUaT is rapidly reducing itself to an offshoot of the Scary Movie franchise, a live-action House of Mouse, a serialized Meet and Greet at the Magic Kingdom.
In case you’re not fully on board with my insistence that OUaT didn’t start out this way, I’d like to point out that actor Robert Carlyle, who plays Mr. Gold, said on the “Skin Deep” audio commentary that he didn’t like the inclusion of Mickey Mouse’s hat from Fantasia in Rumpelstitskin’s house, because he thought it was “a different thing entirely.” I wonder how he’s feeling now, the poor, contractually bound bastard.
What makes this so heartbreaking is that it didn’t have come to this. What OUaT could (and should) have done was draw from more obscure stories as the show progressed. The familiarity of the characters, coupled with good writing, helped draw in the audience at the beginning of season one, but once we were hooked, well, we were hooked. We were going to keep watching. Expanding into lesser-known stories would have enabled OUaT to continue being a show about characters from folklore and published works interacting with one another while maintaining its unique identity and originality.
Think about FOX’s Sleepy Hollow. It’s a show with an equally ridiculous premise inspired by other works. It draws from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Rip Van Winkle, and, um, the Bible but uses these materials as a foundation upon which to tell an original and unironically addictive story. Granted, Washington Irving hasn’t impacted popular culture the way Disney has, so it’s not a perfect comparison, but you get the idea.
To further demonstrate that OUaT could be so much more than what it has become, here are four stories/characters that the show could be incorporating into season four instead of Frozen. Prepare for the bitter pang of Weltschmertz.
Baba Yaga: This lady could give Regina and Gold a run for their money and blow the whiney likes of Zelena out of the water. She’s a recurring figure in Eastern European folklore who oscillates between villainy and maternal wisdom. She’s depicted as a hag with supernatural powers who flies around in a mortar waving around a pestle. She also lives in a hut supported on chicken feet. If the image of Regina trying to aim her fireballs at an old lady zooming around in a mortar isn’t enough, Baba Yaga has also appeared in stories with Vasilisa the Beautiful and Firebird, two other characters I’d love to see on the show.
The Six Swans: This Grimm fairytale features a female protagonist who endures seven years of hardship to free her six (or sometimes seven) brothers who have been transformed into swans. The strong, initiative-taking heroine would fit right in with OUaT’s cast. And, while she does marry a king in the end, the focus of the story is sororal and fraternal love, something that has been underrepresented on OUaT.
Scheherazade: In addition to being one of the bravest and cleverest heroines in literature and a good example of non-martial courage, Scheherazade would bring much-needed diversity to OUaT (assuming they didn’t kill her off after a few episodes). Now, OUaT has a history of amalgamating the Middle East and casting actors of the wrong ethnicities. So, to do Scheherazade justice, the creative team would have to put unprecedented effort into authenticity—which isn’t saying much—by, say, designing sets and costumes accurate to the Persian Golden Age and casting an Iranian actress. But it would be worth it, OUaT, I swear.
Layla and Majnun: If done well, these two could rival Snow White and Charming, Emma and Hook, and Belle and Gold in adorability and Feels. The story of Layla and Majnun originated as a poem in ancient Arabia about star-crossed lovers who die of broken hearts after being separated (there are several variations of the story, but this is the one I’m sticking with). While I’m not usually a fan of romances in which the lovers can’t live without each other, Layla and Majnun deserve mentioning because, in addition to featuring Arab protagonists (diversify, OUaT, it’s 2014), it describes the female love interest, Layla, as ugly. When someone brings this to Majnun’s attention he says, “You should see my Layla with my eyes. It is the eyes of my heart you need.” Excuse me while I go hug myself and squee into a pillow.
Of course, the point of assembling this list isn’t really to showcase characters that I desperately want on the show (even though they are). It’s to demonstrate the storytelling potential that OUaT is squandering in favor of leeching off of Disney’s popularity. What next, I wonder? Now that OUaT is willing to bring any Disney property to Storybrooke, should we be expecting Mr. Gold to face off against Loki next season?
(I… am disquieted by how much that prospect excites me)
Petra Halbur is an undergraduate at Hofstra University pursuing a BA in journalism and presently trapped in the world-building phase of writing her science-fantasy novel. You can read more from her at Ponderings of a Cinephile or follow her on Twitter.
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