My dad was the one who pushed me into watching ABC’s fairy tale-driven fantasy drama. I’m not sure how he stumbled onto it, but he was persistent, using the lore of my favorite Disney characters as bait. So one Christmas break, I couldn’t sleep thanks to a pesky cold, so I started watching Season 1 on Netflix. Binged the whole season in a matter of days. I couldn’t stop. Caught up by the middle of Season 2. Now well into Season 5, the series as a whole has had ups and downs. The Pan story and Frozen arc were not strong points. This season has been surprisingly fresh, thanks to the dramatic Dark Swan. But that’s not why we’re here. We’re here to look at where it all began, at that very first episode —
Once upon a time…
After a few cards giving some brief exposition, the episode starts with Snow White and Prince Charming at their legendary moment, with Charming breaking the deadly spell with true love’s kiss. Which leads right into —
Their wedding, though it’s immediately interrupted by the Evil Queen. Snow quickly draws Charming’s sword – a nice move showing her strength. This isn’t your typical Disney Princess. She’s not afraid of weaponry. And that’s pretty great.
Emma’s entrance is far more modern, in a form fitting pink dress. On a “date,” she identifies as a loner, without family. It doesn’t take long for Emma’s current identity as a bailbondsman (woman) trapping a guy who skipped out. She busts him, bashing his head against his own steering wheel after he makes a crack about her lack of family.
We follow Emma back to her apartment, and can I just say I’ve always loved Emma’s apartment door, with the writing scrawled across it. A little heavy-handed? Maybe. Still love it.
At this point, the writers go to great lengths showing just how alone Emma is, seeing her big, empty apartment, blowing out a birthday candle on her little cupcake.
Enter Henry. I’d forgotten how little he was. Precocious without being obnoxious, he’s a instantly likable.
We cut back to the past to see a pregnant Snow, worrying about the witch’s curse. There’s obvious chemistry between Josh Dallas and Ginnifer Goodwin (Congrats to them on baby #2!), so watching them is a delight.
With a storytelling tactic of switching between past and present storylines a la LOST, it’s interesting in this first episode that they use the illustrations in the book to transition from real world/present to Enchanted Forest/past.
Finally we get to meet Rumplestiltskin – slimy and volatile, even locked behind bars. He makes a deal with Snow, revealing Regina’s spell, and why Storybrooke is the way it is (hello, more exposition!), in exchange for the baby’s name.
In Rumple’s explanation, the final battle will begin when Emma returns in 28 years (guess this is one big, long, epic battle, 5 seasons later…).
Back in real-time, there are signs that Emma’s return is shaking up the town already, as the power lines spark when she slams the car door. Henry’s theory is starting to look more plausible – Archie, Henry’s therapist, advises strongly against lying. When Henry tries to tell Emma Archie’s true identity, she brushes him off — and just as quickly, we’re brought into the Enchanted Forest, with Jiminy Cricket, who has Archie’s voice, speaking to a round table of fairy tale peeps.
There’s no shortage of Easter egg-level foreshadowing here, which is bold as a pilot with no promise of a future. As Regina flips through Henry’s book, the camera pauses on illustrations of flying monkeys and Wonderland caterpillars — a great idea to entice fairy tale freaks…. like me… to keep following along.
Later, in a burst of emotion that adults usually don’t express to children, Emma confesses her traumatic childhood to Henry, who doesn’t even bat an eye, and tries to convince Emma it didn’t happen the way she thinks.
Henry’s so innocent. He’s a great age for this story – old enough to be wicked smart, young enough to be innocent and full of hope. That innocence gives the whole show a wash of genuine storytelling, free from jaded irony and bitterness. It’s so refreshing.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few quips expertly laid out. Like when the Evil Queen describes where she’s sending the cursed kingdom: “Somewhere horrible. Absolutely horrible.”
In the Enchanted Forest, the last we see of Charming before the curse takes over is dead in the arms of Snow. In Storybrooke? Turns out he wasn’t quite dead. Now he’s John Doe, an unidentified man in a coma at the hospital.
As the episode comes to a close, Emma checks into Granny’s B-n-B, Mr. Gold/Rumple appears, collecting cash from Granny. He owns that place. The town. We’re now well aware of the power Gold has, and even this early on, it’s clear he knows more than the rest of the town.
And just after Emma checks into Granny’s, the clock tower, frozen forever, ticks back to life.
The episode slowed in the middle a bit, but picked up brilliantly in the end. Emma and Regina’s confrontation, resulting in Emma deciding to stay in Storybrooke for a bit, leading to the clock tower working again, with Henry’s big smile on his face — I couldn’t contain myself; I had to keep watching. Hooked. (Get it? GET IT?) Seriously, OUAT does a great job using mystery elements encoded in common fairy tales, not only providing clues to the viewers, but letting them think they’re one step ahead, figuring out who is who and how they’re all interconnected. A great story, indeed.