When Once Upon a Time premiered way back in 2011, TV fans were intrigued. It was one of the more original concepts for a show: a mishmash of fairytale characters that would probably feel even more refreshing now, in the era of reboots and revivals. In the pilot, we were introduced to twists on well-known characters: a sword-wielding, awesomely feminist Snow White who had snappy as hell chemistry with the man she sarcastically dubbed “Charming” and a snarky, elaborately-dressed Evil Queen who actually got her happy ending, as well as various dwarfs, crickets, fairies, etc. There was also true believer Henry—who perhaps made you feel a little sad and nostalgic the first time you saw him, a reminder of the childhood innocence you once had—, and an understandably skeptic Emma Swan, who grew up with no knowledge of fairy tales or happy endings. Unfortunately, she’s probably the one the majority of us related to the most.
As is my way, I didn’t watch the pilot of Once until critical buzz had quieted a bit, between its second and third seasons. But when I did, I remember being surprised by how confident an introduction it was. A lot of series—even ones that wind up great—stumble through their first episode or even their first season. This was not the case with Once Upon a Time. Right from the beginning, from the moment Henry watched that clock tower chime, the show’s message of hope was clear, a message it never strayed from in seven seasons. It was sure of its characters, too. Sure, Regina and Emma, to name a couple, evolved beautifully from the pilot, but their personalities remained much the same. This is no small feat. Instead of tweaking characters or other aspects of the show that didn’t quite work, Once hit the ground running, laying the foundation for well-earned relationships and character journeys from its very first episode.
The show’s impressive character work quickly became my favorite part. I loved Once’s almost hilarious disregard for logical timelines, its crazy plot twists and character relationships (just try to explain Henry’s family tree to someone), and its delightful “anything goes” mentality (there were certainly moments it felt like they shook up the Disney canon in a bottle and went with whatever came out), but most of all, I loved its characters.
As mentioned, Regina and Emma, in particular, grew a ton throughout the course of the series, in two hard-fought character arcs that were a sight to behold, especially for a character development junkie like myself. In the pilot, I don’t think anyone would have called the Evil Queen their favorite. But she was portrayed with such empathy and heart that, by season three, she was my favorite. The writers on Once took immense care of their characters, slowly building up Emma’s optimism and trust in others, Regina’s learned selflessness and forgiveness for herself, Hook’s internal battle with darkness and the man he wanted to be, etc. Even if I didn’t agree with what a character did, I nearly always understood why they did it. Characters on this show rarely felt like plot devices, but rather whole human beings, something that shouldn’t be rare on TV but somehow is.
This is especially impressive considering that well, Once was a show about a bunch of fairy tale characters. It’s crazy to say that you found small pieces of yourself in Snow White or the Evil Queen or any of the other countless make-believe characters that graced Once over the years, but that doesn’t make it any less true. The show’s characters made fantasy transcend the common experience, through wonderfully small, realistic beats and huge, character-defining declarations. It was the combination of these two that made the show work: Regina’s never-ending parade of one-liners paired with her staring at the actual embodiment of her past self, finally ready to forgive; Emma and Hook making pancakes shortly after she declared “I am not nothing, I was never nothing!”; etc. Once always made time for those moments between the battles and plot twists that provide just as much insight into characters as the declarations do.
As mentioned, the show had immense empathy for its characters, but it also wasn’t afraid to make them do the work, especially in their relationships with each other. I think what impressed me most was that, with such a huge cast, for the most part, each relationship felt specific and ridiculously well-earned. It would have been easy for Regina, for instance, to have similar relationships with Emma, Snow, and Charming, all people she hurt in much the same way. Instead, she and Emma slowly but surely became co-parents and best friends, developing a no-nonsense understanding of each other that was pretty unparalleled. Snow, ironically, became a sort of advice-giving sister and sounding board for her former step-mother. And Charming welcomed her into the family graciously, always having faith in who she’d become, even when she doubted it herself.
With a big cast, complicated backstories, and additional characters who would pop up for an arc or two, it would have been easy to miss potential points of commonality. Instead, Once often surprised me with how much characters like Belle and Hook, Emma and Elsa, or Snow and Jasmine had in common. It’s funny to say it about such a sprawling show, but Once was very methodical about things that other shows often overlook or deem too obvious to be interesting. It loved finding those intersections in characters’ pasts, setting up backstories that neatly led to revelations in the future, or building to the kind of full-circle moment that we rarely get in real life.
It wasn’t a perfect show. It ebbed and flowed like the best of them, with entire arcs or characters that didn’t quite work for one reason or another. This entire seventh season, while enjoyable in its own way, has been far more focused on churning through plot than delving into genuine character moments like the ones mentioned above. But, as I said, admirably, this show knew what it was from its very first episode: a show for and about optimists, whether current or recovering. It featured complex, imperfect female characters and romances for the ages, while never once suggesting that those two things couldn’t exist simultaneously. As mentioned, it had two of my very favorite character arcs of all time in Regina Mills and Emma Swan. And most importantly, it took great pains to remind its audience that happy endings are possible.
At its heart, Once was a symbol of why TV was invented in the first place: to entertain, to offer an escape, to bring a little joy. A simple idea, sure. But one that was well worth watching.