ABC's big surprise hit this year doesn't feature lawyers, police officers, doctors, or any other primetime staples. It features princesses, imps, talking crickets, magic mirrors, and an evil queen.
Once Upon a Time has consistently scored high in the ratings this season with its unique mix of classic fairy tales and modern mores. The story begins with Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), a no-nonsense bounty hunter, being found by the son she had given up for adoption. Young Henry (Jared Gilmore) tells Emma that the town of Storybrooke, Maine, where he lives, is full of fairy tale characters who are under a dark spell that only she can break.
Naturally, Emma is disinclined to believe his theory. But meeting Henry's adoptive mother, Regina (Lana Parrilla), convinces her that something is wrong with his situation, and that she needs to figure out what it is. Meanwhile, flashbacks reveal to us that Henry has, in fact, stumbled upon the truth: The residents of Storybrooke are indeed enchanted fairy tale characters, most of whom have no memory of whom they really are. Regina is actually the evil queen from Snow White who, out of spite and hatred, cursed these people to a life disconnected from their true identities.
It's an intriguing premise, cleverly executed. But is that enough to account for its success? I think there may be something deeper at work here.
Many of the people of Storybrooke are unhappy with their lives for reasons they don't fully understand. The curse placed on them has ripped apart relationships and left individuals stranded without each other. Though the writers probably didn't intend it that way, it's reminiscent of another curse that Christians are familiar with—one that disrupted the life that we were meant to live, and infects our lives and relationships to this day. In this respect, Storybrooke, filled with lonely, restless, searching people, is a microcosm of our own world.
At the heart of the story are Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), who were married with a newborn daughter—Emma—when the destructive curse took effect. In Storybrooke, Snow is now Mary Margaret Blanchard, a single elementary-school teacher, and Charming is David Nolan, seemingly married to another woman—though when it comes right down to it, he can't actually remember marrying her. When Emma Swan shows up in town, neither of them realizes that she's their child. Neither of them can even remember that they have a child.
Yet Mary Margaret and David are powerfully drawn to each other. They make a lovely couple, but the moral calculus required to root for them would give Archimedes a migraine. David's married to someone else—only he really isn't—but he thinks he is—but technically, by thinking he is, he's cheating on his real wife, Snow/Mary—but he doesn't know that, so he's essentially cheating on his supposed wife … you get the picture. In the fairy tale world that we see in flashback, these two had a wonderful marriage; in the modern world, the only relationship they can have is a guilt-ridden and secretive one.
This too says something, I think, about why the show speaks to so many people. In a society where more of us are single than ever before, the divorce rate is soaring, and an unprecedented number of children are raised in broken homes, we long for fulfilling relationships like Snow and Charming's. And we sympathize with those characters' modern incarnations, Mary Margaret and David. For them, as for too many people these days, a happy and lasting marriage sometimes seems like something that could only be achieved in a fairy tale.
With that in mind, a shattered family slowly being drawn back together against all odds becomes a very exciting thing to watch. (I do have some reservations about how the show handles the topic of adoption, with Henry's biological mother having to swoop in and save him from his evil adoptive mother, but that's a discussion for another time.) The idea of a love so strong it can survive anything, even a memory-destroying curse, has enormous appeal. It feeds a hunger within us, created by the God who designed us to live in relationship with Himself and others.
Yet that same concept is a double-edged sword. Love can bring great joy and inspire noble deeds, as it does for Snow and Charming. But it can also tempt people to selfishness and betrayal, as we're starting to see in Mary Margaret and David's story.
Intentionally or not, Once Upon a Time demonstrates the danger of elevating human love above all other considerations. It illustrates C. S. Lewis's words in The Four Loves, when he wrote about the idolization of Eros: "The god [of love] dies or becomes a demon unless he obeys God."
And that truth is likely to have implications for the show as a whole. While it's supposed to be all about the battle between good and evil, the worship of romantic love threatens to blur the lines between the two.
Though I've had occasion in the past to criticize "princess theology," I've always been fond of fairy tales. As Mary Margaret says in the first episode of the show, stories are "a way for us to deal with our world. A world that doesn't always make sense." They can simultaneously reflect the broken reality we live in, and the ideal that we long for. But the lesson I take away from Once Upon a Time is that the ideal isn't enough, for love doesn't transcend good and evil. It can't be truly inspiring, fulfilling, and all the other things we want it to be, unless it is subject to the One who made it.
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