Apr 04

My Love-Hate Relationship with Once Upon a Time

Today I feel like talking about something just a little lighter. You know, I quit writing on this blog before because I’m a very opinionated person, and when family members started calling me because they were angry about stuff that I wrote I shied away from continuing.

I am definitely the dirty hippy in an otherwise mostly conservative family.

But today I don’t want to think about Issues. I want to think about fiction, and what better place to start than one of my basic obsessions: Once Upon a Time?

What I love about this show:

Some time ago, back before I chickened out on blogging in a big way, one of my fellow writers wrote a nice review on Backlash called What Are We Teaching With Our Fiction? Lewina Solwing is the author of The Secret of Flight, a book that I adored because it so completely subverted the “combat myth”–this idea that every problem in the world needs to be solved with violence. In fact, every time her characters resorted to violence they ended up the worse for it. Her story was one in which compassion and understanding for “the enemy” defined heroism. It’s beautifully done, and if anyone is hungry for something different they should check it out.

I actually see some similar themes in Once Upon a Time. By far, the most compelling characters are Regina, the Evil Queen, and Mr. Gold, a.k.a. Rumplestiltskin. They have done terrible things, but they are also redeemable. You don’t see them as horrible monsters to be put down. You cheer like crazy when it looks like Regina might get her happy ending at last–or at least, I do. I want that woman to find true love like whoa, and I cry for her every time her heart twists over her son. I want Belle and Rumple to go off into the sunset. I want Emma to realize she loves Captain Hook so he can get his Happy Ending too. It’s not that they get off the hook for their choices. They don’t. They make their own beds in a lot of cases. But they’re just so very human, and often a lot more easy to identify with than some of the rest of the cast, who fall into the Lawful Stupid trap a little more than I’d like.

Both stories hit on something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time–this notion of “scripts.” A long time ago I read this book by a psychiatrist (I don’t remember whom) who mentioned that our culture, our media, our everything–teaches us scripts for how we think we should react in a situation. How you react in a plane hijacking, for example, will depend largely on the script that you have been taught. You don’t have any other reference for how to act in that situation, so you revert. (I think it was a book about hijacking. Maybe? I read a lot).

Anyway, our fiction teaches more scripts than anything else, and I think the predominant script that’s been taught is usually: bad guy does wrong, hero rides in, hero kills bad guy, order is restored and everyone lives happily ever after.

That’s a terrible script really, even though it’s hard to break out of. Hell, I love stories where you kick the ass of the enemy all over town. The problem is, that’s the same script that sends us to bomb civilians and children in unjust, expensive wars. It literally plugs into the violence and fear in our world. Why is that?

Because in the movies of our lives, we are all the heroes. We never, ever just up and decide we’re the villains. In fact, in Once finally acknowledging their lives as villains were major turning points for Hook, Regina, and Rumple.

I note that Jesus gave us a different script–villain wrongs you, and you forgive, because you’ve done wrong in turn. You pray and show them love, and that love draws people naturally into the redemptive light. Someday I will figure out how to put that script into my fiction without mimicking fundamentalist propaganda. I want, desperately, to figure out how to tell great stories on that script. Once provides me with a good blueprint for that, because that is what Snow, Henry, Charming, and even, to some extent, Emma, are very good at doing.

What drives me crazy about OuAT:


The inconsistent characterization is terrible. One minute Snow is a savvy badass bandit. The next, she’s this wide eyed innocent who can’t exercise even basic deductive reasoning. She is the worst culprit for not exercising her survival instincts at all. David/Charming isn’t much better.

Spoiler alert.

I’m sorry. Okay. You know that someone we haven’t identified yet cast this new curse. HMMM. And you know it’s probably the Wicked Witch of Oz. HMMMM. So this unidentified female wearing a GREAT BIG EMERALD GEM shows up and wants to be your midwife. The right answer is: “I’m sorry, until we find this witch I don’t feel comfortable letting anyone into my home or near my baby/wife.” It is NOT “Let me drink your tea, your OJ, and let me let you into my house and become besties.” David almost got it, and then he spaced out and drank the freaking tea. I mean. WHAT?

This is not the first time I have seen characters who are supposed to be savvy and smart adventurers just completely space out.

Also, Did Not Do the Research.

Spoiler alert again.

Emma is a bail bondsperson. Apparently someone with basic skip tracing skills–she’s supposedly good enough at her job to afford a very expensive New York City apartment.

Regina is the Mayor of Storybrooke.

So um…okay. You have this farmhouse. You’re sure it’s the bad guy’s farmhouse. Well, every home in the state is registered at the County Clerk’s Office. It records who holds the deed to that home and the assessed value of that home for tax purposes. Skip tracers use this all the time, either to locate assets or to locate people.

Either one of these women should have been able to think of that. They’d have had the name of that witch in about 30 seconds. They could have done that while standing in the yard on their smart phones or, if the county clerk was not online, with a simple phone call. I know Storybrooke is a special curse town, but there are indications that whenever it’s on the map it keeps records and observes the laws like any other town.

At the very least, there should have been some dialogue like:

Emma: Here, let me check the county clerk’s office. We can find out who owns the house.

Regina: Storybrooke doesn’t really do that since it exists in this kind of bubble. (Or whatever).

Something to at least explain why these women were not using what is otherwise a basic, take-10 knowledge check for either one of their professions. Sure, it’s more exciting to go riffle through her crap and to look for “magic traces,” and I certainly enjoyed the budding Robin Hood romance (I love how Robin chooses to see Regina) but…c’mon.

Of course, maybe I only notice that because I spent a year skip tracing, and it was one of the first things I thought of when they found the house.

Taking lessons back to my own fiction.

There’s really no point to being a critic of someone else’s fiction if you’re not going to take the lessons back to your own. Lesson #1 is of course in different ways that the script can be reversed or subverted without sucking the element of adventure out of your plot.

The second lesson is consistent characterization matters. Either you’re a kung-fu bow bandit who survived a man hunt or you’re a wide-eyed innocent with no survival instincts. You cannot possibly pull off both. Snow can still see the good in everyone while maintaining some basic caution. She can even be polite about it.

The third lesson is that you need to be careful about explaining how heroes solve problems. They could have called a real bondsperson to ask how they’d handle the problem, for example, just to get and write that perspective.

#WickedAlwaysWins is a pretty believable tag when the heroes are fumbling about like they just fell off the turnip truck.