From the moment that Emma broke the Storybrooke spell, we knew that nothing would ever be the same in ONCE UPON A TIME again. The whole premise viewers tuned in for was to see how a young woman was persuaded to come to a town where all the inhabitants were fairytale characters – with one significant twist: none of them knew it. It was simultaneously hilarious and intriguing to see Emma encounter each character and guess who they really were from all the classic fairytales. It was also fun watching the dubious Emma slowly discover that things were indeed not as they seemed on the surface in Storybrooke. So the lure of the show was in the discovery. We were intoxicated and addicted to solving the mysteries along with Emma.
Yet, that part of the journey came to a screeching halt as Emma kissed Henry’s forehead and the curse was broken. Initially, it was just Emma’s presence in Storybrooke that cracked the curse’s hold and time began to move forward again. Yet that powerful “true love’s kiss” broke Regina’s (aka: The Evil Queen) dastard plan to have everyone live out their lives in perpetual frozen time, unaware of who they really were. That was her dream fantasy, to reign supreme over citizens with no awareness of the lives they had lost. But Emma’s arrival definitely put a stop to that; and even before she stumbled across the way to break the curse, Emma had begun to bring people’s memories back from their deep slumber.
Season 1 of ONCE UPON A TIME was thus a fascinating adventure as we watched the chinks in the curse appear. Then when Regina’s curse finally broke, we were intrigued by the idea of what this entire town of people would do upon finding out what had been done to them and that they were trapped in Storybrooke.
However, another wrinkle was immediately thrown into the mix as Mr. Gold took out the potion he had saved made from the hairs of Snow White and Prince Charming, effectively another “true love” potion and tossed it down the Wishing Well, freeing magic in Storybrooke.
As viewers, we barely had time to process that one curse was broken and another had been enacted right before our eyes. This compounded everything at once: not only did Storybrooke residents remember exactly who they were and were anxious to find a way to get back home to their world, there was the added factor that magic was now available for those who had wielded it before. Regina and Mr. Gold were about to square off for a epic battle that could destroy everything.
But this is when things got kind of interesting: the one wrinkle was that no one could leave Storybrooke or they would lose all their memories of their former lives and who they were. It was then worth considering: was Regina’s curse truly broken? In fact, the first episode of the 2nd season was entitled “Broken.” However, what if that was not meant to imply that the curse was broken, but rather that it was not broken. For who was that man living in the city who received the message card that held only the word “broken” on it? He could not have been August (aka: Pinocchio) for August was still stuck in Storybrooke. Who else was out in the world that could understand the significance of that one word message?
Then, as if they were all not dealing with enough, the very first thing that Mr. Gold did after getting his magic back was to unleash a wraith on Regina. Why exactly did he do that? To punish Regina for keeping his beloved Belle locked away for 28 years and telling him that Belle had died? Okay, we’ll forgive him for that one, but it naturally created a situation that did not do any good; for in trying to banish the wraith, Emma and Mary-Margaret (aka: Snow) were transported through a portal and back to the fairytale land.
Nice twist. But as cool as that sounds, it separated our heroes. In season one, everyone was together in Storybrooke, and we observed their lives in flashbacks. Yet in season two, there are two actual worlds keeping everyone apart. It is confusing and difficult to track that there is the current fairytale world with Emma and Snow as they try to find a way back to Storybrooke. Then there is the Storybrooke world where David, Henry, Mr. Gold, Belle and Regina are stuck – and they all want to join Emma and Snow in the fairytale world. (Well, with the small caveat that Mr. Gold would like to find his son first. Is that the mysterious man we saw in “Broken”?) And we’re still seeing glimpses through the flashbacks to the former lives in the fairytale world. It’s three separate timelines and worlds to track.
Things in Storybrooke and the fairytale world are indeed “broken.” There is yet again a different meaning to that simple word. Maybe it was not referring to curse, but rather to the predicament that our heroes found themselves in. They are living broken lives. Cursed with memories of two lives: their original lives in the fairytale world overlaying their memories of their lives in Storybrooke for the past 28 years, each person is “broken” in a way and needs to find a way to be made whole. They are also stuck in Storybrooke. They cannot simply leave and discover the whole world outside of Storybrooke and make new lives for themselves, and they cannot return to where they lived in the fairytale world either. They are stuck, just like before – but this time they know that they are stuck. Everyone’s lives were “broken” and needs to be made whole as well.
Then there was the actual separation of the two worlds: Storybrooke and the fairytale world. Emma and Snow stuck in one and everyone else stuck in the other; also cursed to live broken, fragmented lives.
In theory, this is all very fascinating. But watching it play out, it just reminds the viewers that the show may be “broken.” It needs to find a way to bring its heroes back together again and soon. One of the most riveting aspects of the first season was the searing tension between Regina and Emma. Regina practically bristled whenever Emma was near. Then the interplay between Mr. Gold, Emma and Regina was awesome to behold. Each was a power-player and could use their influence in unexpected ways, either as a team or simply to back each other into a corner. Separating Emma from Mr. Gold and Regina creates a vacuum. For one-third of their balance of power has vanished. Throwing Emma into the fairytale world makes her feel weak and out of her depth, plus she has no nemesis to fight. She is merely a lost soul, forced to learn to survive with her mother. The mother-daughter bonding is not nearly as friction-filled and deliciously tantalizing as when it was Emma versus Regina.
It is also hard to see that after all they worked through to get to be together without their memories that Mary-Margaret and David have been separated again. This is where one starts to wonder if truly Regina’s curse was broken. For Regina wanted Henry to herself – and that came true, with Emma now separated from Henry, stuck in another world, effectively trapped in time and space — and Regina wanted her magic back, which she now has. It is as if Regina’s curse has morphed into something else, but is still alive and well.
Alas, it has set up the show in such a way that it has taken some of the allure and “magic” out of ONCE UPON A TIME. It is time to reunite everyone again and let us see if that Regina’s curse is truly broken once and for all – and hopefully repair the broken state of a cool television show that is in desperate need of some healing glue. The show’s magic is when its characters are together. We want to see Regina and Emma square off with Mr. Gold dancing in the background aligning with each as the whim suits him. We want to see if there is truly anything between Emma and Jefferson the Matt Hatter and whether there might be a bit of magic between them. We also want to see Mary-Margaret and David to have more than just a handful of minutes together after fighting for their love so tenaciously
So let’s hope that ONCE UPON A TIME rediscovers its magic soon, and finally shows us whether the curse is truly broken. I suspect that a curse that powerful has some lingering effects that could still rise up and bite them when they least expect it. ‘Til then, we’re praying for a little more magic.
Jennifer Morrison interview: