I have another blog about Once Upon A Time and Grimm in the backlog, but I wanted to take a second and talk about the former in a little more detail, especially in the wake of the first part of the season two finale. It’s hard for me to pin down why I keep watching the show, despite no longer liking it as much as I like Grimm (which, despite a few stumbles, has grown very confident in its second season), but the beginning of the show’s introduction to Neverland points to some positive changes on the horizon.
The Storybrooke plots have not inspired much confidence this year. First, Regina was going to be redeemed, and then Cora showed up and ruined everything. Rumpelstiltskin was on a good path with Belle, too… and then Hook showed up and ruined everything. Basically, the season’s second half tried something daring by bringing Cora and Hook to Storybrooke immediately, and instead the two characters single-handedly destroyed every good storyline that was happening. To say nothing of how the show has abandoned Dr. Whale/Frankenstein and Ruby and somehow out-bad-amnesia-story’d Grimm (and Juliette’s getting better, too!). And then there’s Greg Mendel and Tamara, two characters with agendas that actually could have injected some urgency into the Storybrooke plots if they had been introduced sooner and given more time to develop. So on balance, Storybrooke is a wash this year.
That’s not to say the FTL stories have been any better (mirroring Storybrooke, those stories were a lot more interesting in the first half… before everyone basically abandoned Mulan and Aurora to their one true loves: each other), but they have been deployed with a little more care than last year; I’m not sure what they intend to do with this whole prophecy involving Rumpelstiltskin and Henry, for example, but at least it’s complicated in a way most plots from last year were not. And while Cora completely disrupted Regina’s character arc, she got one hell of a death scene, combined with one of the best FTL stories of the year.
But the season finale’s Neverland stories (which were telegraphed as soon as the episode titles were released, simultaneously the best and worst of Once Upon A Time combined into a single press release) are finally operating on a level worthy of a show about fairy tales. Following LOST‘s lead in having the finales follow a different format than the episodes that precede it, “Second Star to the Right” follows Baelfire from the moment he fell through the portal without his father. As expected, he lands at the doorstep of the Darlings, the family at the center of Peter Pan, and is invited into their home. This is the first signal of a shift in how this Disney movie/children’s story plays out, and OUAT is all too happy to play ball. Peter Pan (who’s just some shadowy dude that visits the children of England every night, BECAUSE THAT’S NOT CREEPY AT ALL) takes Wendy to Neverland one night against Bae’s advice that Wendy should stay, because magic always comes with a price. (I’m sure you’ll remember that phrase from the hundred or so times any other character on the show has ever uttered it.) And when Peter comes back for a boy, Bae stands in for the Darling boys instead, which ultimately lands him on the deck of the Jolly Roger and at the mercy of Captain Hook and Smee.
To this point, OUAT has been content in adapting characters and stories from the Disney films or the original fairy tales in pretty boring ways. There are exceptions, like Ruby being the wolf and the pragmatic use of Mulan and Aurora, but they prove the general rule that the show isn’t really interested in straying off the beaten path or turning the show inward and exploring the purpose and the consequences of these stories. Knowing that Neverland was coming, my biggest fear was that the show would just play right into the Disney film’s hand, letting Peter be the hero and Hook be the villain. (It doesn’t help that Hook has so far been portrayed as manipulative and vengeful, and the show has never even considered the possibility of coding him as a complicated figure.) So I was surprised when the show turned Peter into a shadowy monster who steals kids in the middle of the night; it was a daring move for a show that doesn’t really do daring. Better yet, the show’s framing of Wendy’s experiences in Neverland at least proves the show’s commitment to its oft-repeated phrase about magic coming with a price. The nighttime experiences of the lost children crying for their parents upsets her, turning the Peter Pan stories into an actual fairy tale: she asks to come back home, unable to cope with the cost of never growing up and never having grown-ups around.
None of this really negates any of the poor missteps of the second half of season two, but “Second Star to the Right” is a promising beginning to what could be a pretty good finale. The Storybrooke plot is finally coming to some sort of middle ground (best just to think of the curse’s failsafe as a MacGuffin for now, because it’s too stupid of an idea to be considered real) and the Neverland tale is sure to be fraught with peril for Bae, which will shed some more light on him and open up new doors for OUAT to explore come season three.