Once Upon a Time: The Power of a Happy Ending

It has been a long time since I have picked up the metaphorical pen to write to you all about OUAT. As I sit down to start, my writing muscles feel stiff from disuse. As it is, this hypersensitivity to the very act of writing is apt given everything that happened in OUAT Season 4B. The tagline may have suggested that this second half of the season would be all about the queens of darkness, but it was in actuality a meditation on authorship and the ability of one to rewrite their own destiny.


Pretty heavy stuff for a show about fairy tales. But OUAT has always been about rewriting history in a sense, as it has delighted in shocking viewers with twists and turns amongst the well-trod paths of our favorite stories, old and new. And the writers have never been afraid to rewrite their own stories, if only briefly, as we saw last year with Zelena’s curse and Emma’s attempts to set things to right. But at the end of each season, season 4 included, things are set back to what was before a new evil springs up. So why attempt to rewrite in the first place?


So many questions, many of which I will attempt to answer. Let it be said, though it should already be understood, that the following contains spoilers for season four of Once Upon a Time. Proceed at your own risk.


Should Villains Get Happy Endings?


Mike from Better Call Saul stated it plainly, though not succinctly:


I didn’t say you’re a bad guy; I said you’re a criminal. I’ve known good criminals and bad cops. Bad priests. Honorable thieves. You can be on one side of the law or another, but if you make a deal with someone, you keep your word. You can go home today with your money and never do this again, but you took something that wasn’t yours. And you sold it for a profit. You are now a criminal. Good one. Bad one. That’s up to you.


Criminals may break the rules, but that may or may not speak to their actual character. It all depends on the motivation for the crime. The same can be said for villains. OUAT has always been a show that delights in depicting characters that are not the two-dimensional heroes and villains. After all, Regina may be our original evil queen, but she has progressed so far toward redemption that much of the tragedy of season 4B is her separation from her own happy ending. When she and Robin reunited, I had tears in my eyes. When she was at the center of the magic that made Rumple The Dark One, I would have given anything to spare her being pulled back into that darkness. And we did give much to escape that fate, but more on that later.


As for the proclaimed Queens of Darkness? Despite having nightmares about Maleficent and her dragon form as a child (true story – it was terrifying), she was a favorite of mine from the beginning, mostly because she was portrayed by the fabulous Kristin Bauer van Straten. So to delve into her depression and the loss of her daughter was an interesting and juicy turn. Ursula taking on an Ariel type story was a reversal I should have seen coming, but didn’t. And really, in the end, was she even a villain? I say no.


That leaves Cruella de Vil. If you expected her to be redeemed as well, you would be wrong. No, she was just as psychotic as you would anticipate, but with the Author having taken away her ability to kill, this dog lost her bite. She was pretty terrifying and awful, but given that she couldn’t have killed Henry if she had really tried, Emma should not have killed her. Locked her up maybe, but not killed her.


So I have started to answer this question about whether or not villains deserve happy endings by trying to prove that the villains in question might not even be such. Awesome way to begin. To continue, let’s go back to my opening quote and take a quick trip away from OUAT.


Lately it seems that the television landscape has been flooded with antiheroes, also known as not so great people that the audience roots for anyway. You just have to look to science teacher turned drug kingpin Walter White of Breaking Bad and blood spatter analyst, secret psychopath who kills villains Dexter of Dexter to know what I am talking about. Didn’t everything in Breaking Bad and Dexter hang on the assumption that the audience would root for the protagonist and rejoice whenever he would outwit law-abiding officers? But there was still some satisfaction in watching Walter White’s drug empire fall to pieces, and there was almost no one who felt significant closure when seeing Dexter escape the consequences of his crimes to live a life of solitude (though you could argue the loss of his sister was psychological torture enough, but that is a philosophical question for another post). So in a way, the audience rejoiced in denying these two protagonists their happy endings even though they had spent years cheering for the exact opposite.


Yes, I know these shows have all ended, so maybe you can argue that things are changing. Villains aren’t as popular as they used to be. But Breaking Bad has been replaced by Better Call Saul, in which we see the beginnings of Jimmy McGill, aka Breaking Bad’s crooked lawyer Saul Goodman. Back in the day, Jimmy was a man with a spotty past who was trying to turn it all around by devoting himself to his elderly clients. And future fixer Mike Ehrmantraut was, well, still a fixer but also a parking lot attendant who strictly followed validation rules. Given that this show is a prequel, we ultimately know where these characters end up, and if we had any doubt, the entire series actually opened with the image of where Saul runs when things go belly up. But viewers like myself still watch to see how the journey from A to B unfolds. The reason we do this is simple: these characters are not simply stark caricatures of an idealized good or bad. Instead, they are complex individuals with good and bad qualities faced with good and bad situations and making good and bad decisions. These many factors lead us through twists and turns even when the ultimate end is known.


Regina contemplates the fate The Author dealt her. Photo courtesy of IMDB.com.

Regina contemplates the fate The Author dealt her. Photo courtesy of IMDB.com.

So shall we return to the matter at hand? Do villains in general, and those of OUAT in particular, deserve their happy endings? The answer is at once simple and complicate: characters win or lose happy endings by the choices that they make. Even an author has no control over the inevitable progression of cause and effect. If a character makes choices that can logically lead to a happy ending, then that is the ending that is deserved. For an author to give a happy ending unduly would seem nonsensical; the reader would revolt. But the author does have one advantage: the determination of when a story should end. Let us return to the prime example of Regina. If OUAT were to end during season one, then no one would have hoped for her to have a happy ending, no matter the horrible circumstances that turned her to a life of evil. But now? Her many choices since have gotten the audience on her side. The Savior herself chose to endanger her own soul rather than set Regina back to her old path because she has come so far. If the story were to stop now, you would rejoice, as I did, in seeing her reunite with Robin Hood because that is the ending she currently deserves. What difference could a few choices make? Apparently everything. So even the most stalwart of villains has a chance to turn things around, as long as the story does not end too soon.


The Power of the Author


In a world of fairy tales come to life, it should come as no surprise that the author of such tales has all the power. This author does not simply document what happens; he actually has the power to change the story itself. Interestingly enough, OUAT season 4B started with both heroes and villains sharing the goal of finding the Author so that new happy endings can be created.


The far more interesting twist is the code of conduct that authors must follow. When the former Author became too self-serving, he was imprisoned. When he was released, he instantly rewrote the story to favor himself and to punish all of those who would stop him. Regina became the outlaw; Snow became the evil queen, Hook became a cowardly deckhand, and Emma was locked in a tower with full knowledge of how the world used to be. Meanwhile, Rumple became the hero, and the Author became a worldwide bestseller.


What can we learn from this retelling? First, we know that Regina has redeemed herself enough to be considered one of the heroes given the tone of her rewrite. We also see how easy it for a hero to become a villain. Snow, we have discovered, did some truly awful things to ensure that her child was one of light rather than darkness. To see her as the evil queen after that revelation is not so big a stretch. Anyone, given the right provocation can tap into the not so good side of themselves. If you have any doubt as to that, do a little research into Zimbardo’s prison experiment and Milgram’s experiments on obedience. It is amazing how far normal people can go given the right circumstances.


The Author tries to rewrite Cruella's story. Photo courtesy of IMDB.com.

The Author tries to rewrite Cruella’s story. Photo courtesy of IMDB.com.

It also becomes evident that Rumple could have been a hero without taking this easier route. Does cheating like this set him back? Even though Belle still loves him, he has a long way to go before he finds redemption. Further, it says a lot about the responsibility of an author. The Author who is out only for himself and not for the integrity of his story is ultimately punished. No Mary Sues allowed here! The Author has a responsibility to his readers and the story overall, and though no person exists in the real world who monitors such a thing, authors that write self-servingly or ignore the natural laws of cause and effect when writing are usual not rewarded with resounding success (let’s forget the 50 Shades of Grey exists for a moment, if you will).


What this means for this particular story, however, is that a new Author had to be found to put things to right. There was only one choice for the job, of course. If you read any of my former recaps of OUAT, something will become evident very quickly: I am not a fan of child actors in general and of Henry’s portrayer Jared Gilmore in particular. Poor kid does his best, but he usually stands out in a scene as the least natural person there. So imagine my surprise when I watched the season finale and found not only that Henry was a pretty big part of the story but also that I didn’t mind. Shocker. When Regina sacrificed herself to save Henry, a boy who said he was her son but who had never been in this world, it was Henry who turned her sacrifice into a story that would undo all of the evil that the Author had done. This sets Henry up for an even bigger role next season, but I am cautiously optimistic that he will do the job honor without being an annoying little brat. Of course, I am not sure who will stand up to make sure that Henry does the right thing in the season to come. After all, if I had the power to make things right after I saw my biological mother engulfed in pure evil, I would probably try to take the easy rewrite way out of it all, so I’m not sure how he will be able to resist.


All Just a Little Bit of History Repeating


Regina and Robin are reunited, but look on as Emma is engulfed in Darkness. Photo courtesy of IMDB.com.

Regina and Robin are reunited, but look on as Emma is engulfed in Darkness. Photo courtesy of IMDB.com.

Now that we have dealt with happy endings and the power of the author, we have come to the end of the season. As Emma et al raced to save Rumplestiltskin with the help of the Sorcerer, I couldn’t help but thinking that I had seen it all before. When the Dark One’s magic was finally, finally, taken from Rumple and the knife, I knew something horrible was about to happen. Let’s all gang up against the Dark One again, because we haven’t done that before! Of course, that fight has never been against Emma, and the writers managed to give one “villain” a happy ending and escape repeating an entire season of Evil Regina as the big bad, but the story still seems like the next season will have to follow a predictable pattern. Sure, meeting Merlin is a big draw, but I cannot help but question, how much longer can we continue this endless cycle of good versus evil?


As I have said, OUAT has been a show that takes what we know and then turns it on its head in small ways. Characters that should have no relationship end up having met in significant ways in the past. Beloved heroes have outlaw pasts and feared villains are actually just misunderstood. But even when all of the characters on OUAT have parts of them that are good and bad, the show still insists on being about good versus evil. That is a self-sustaining formula, as the evil of the day can change at the drop of a hat and has many times over. Sure, the monotony of this formula can be mitigated with the introduction of new characters and the reintegration of old, but once Merlin has been brought into the fold, how many more characters can be drummed up? Season 4A already incorporated the newest Disney cast by bringing Arendelle and the characters of Frozen to life. As a Frozen nut, I enjoyed the new characters and rejoiced when they not only lived but also left for home, given how crowded the landscape of Storybrooke has already become. There is a limit to everything, and I fear that OUAT has pretty much reached it.


As a OUAT fan, I for one hope that season 5 is the last. What better way to go out than with a battle between the ultimate evil as represented by Evil Emma and the ultimate good as represented by Merlin? Perhaps my imagination is not up to the task of creating the perfect season that transcends all that came before it. Perhaps the writers are up to said task. If so, I will be pleasantly surprised and lead the fight for renewal. If not, however, I would like to see this great show come to an end it deserves. In the end, it is up to both the writers and the executives at ABC to determine when this story will end. My true hope is that whenever that may be, they are both on board with the date of the finale so that happy endings can be distributed appropriately.