We’ve been watching Once Upon a Time since it premiered last year, and I’ve had so-so feelings about it all along. I think it’s a show that has a lot of potential, but it just hasn’t had enough forward movement to be truly engaging. It came back from its holiday break this week with a new episode. Ava is doing the official Fandomania reviews for this show, so I’m putting my own thoughts here instead of there. If you haven’t seen up through the newest episode (“Desperate Souls”), beware of spoilers beyond this point.

The last new episode before the break (“The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter”) was the best episode of the series until its last few minutes. The whole show up until that episode has pretty much just been the kid telling everybody they are fairy tale characters who have been cursed into mundane modern lives while everybody treats him, quite justifiably, like he’s a loon. There’s been rivalry between the kid’s biological mom (who is Snow White’s alternate universe daughter, yes, really) and his adopted mom (who is the evil queen / mayor person), but there hasn’t been anything of substance beyond the mayor being all “I am a major beeotch” and Snow White Junior being all “I will end you, but nicely and without offending anyone.”

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the most grating mom of all?

In the “Hunter” episode, we found out the town sheriff is actually the Huntsman in fairy tale world. I guess we are supposed to have been pining for him to get together with the kid’s bio-mom Emma, but I’ve thought all along that he was just kind of a creeper and maybe a little evil. But anyway, in this episode Emma kisses him and suddenly he remembers all the details of his fairy tale life. Finally! Plot progress! Until evil queen mayor lady squishes his fairy tale heart (which she’s been keeping in a vault under the cemetery) and kills him before he can convince anyone that the kid’s ramblings are true. Big letdown, that. There was a great opportunity for Emma to give some credence to the fairy tale stuff after her smooch buddy keeled over, and I was hoping that would be where the first new episode picked up.

But no, of course not, because that would mean the story is actually going somewhere. This week we rejoined the gang two weeks after Graham’s untimely infarction, and nothing at all has changed, aside from prophecy kid (who bears an eerie resemblance to a pint-sized D.J. Qualls) moping around because his mom offed the sheriff and just might kill his bio-mom the deputy. Evil queen mom and Emma are still bickering pointlessly (seriously, why doesn’t Regina just kill Emma and be done with it?), nobody believes the kid’s stories, and the whole damn town still shows up whenever anything of remote interest happens. How do all these people even know about random stuff fast enough to always turn out while whatever it is is still going down, anyway? But I digress.

Hail, hail, the gang's all here... again!

With Graham dead, the town needs a new sheriff. Regina tries to appoint Gus from Breaking Bad as the new sheriff, and he gets to say some more horrible mirror pun lines (he’s the mirror mirror on the wall in the alternate universe. We get it, already!). Rumplestiltskin cop-blocks her by digging up rules from the town’s charter that force an election between Emma and not-Gus. Wanting Emma to win, old Stiltsy pushes fame upon her by firebombing the town hall and putting Emma in a position where she has to save Regina’s life. No mention of how he knew a giant chunk of random metal would smack Regina in the leg, rendering her unable to save herself, but that’s the least of the problems with this episode.

At the sheriff election debate, Emma needs a leg up on the competition if she’s going to unseat the mayor’s pick for the job. Of course, playing up her role in saving a life—an actual thing one would hope a cop would do as part of her job—is the obvious go-to selling point. By this time Emma has figured out that Mr. Gold was behind the fire, and she turns into George “I cannot tell a lie” Washington. She takes the high ground and calls Gold out on his sneakery in front of the whole town. She does this because she is a Good Guy, and Good Guys don’t do underhanded things. And she does this, believing that admitting Gold set the whole thing up will damn her chances at the position and put Regina’s puppet into office, thereby screwing over a town full of dimwitted innocents. Of course everything works out in the end when Emma is elected because of her willingness to stand up to Gold, but that’s beside the point.

Don't cry, Robert Carlyle! It's not your fault that I dislike Once Upon a Time!

The point is that Emma blatantly calls herself a Good Guy (caps intentional), and the show is selling her to us as the hero, but she is totally cool with sitting on her high horse and watching the town crumble. At least she did the Right Thing, right? That’s not a hero to me. That’s a self righteous snob whose own perception of herself as a Good Guy is more important than actually doing things for the greater good. Therein lies the chief problem with Once Upon a Time. It’s a fantasy story with dark overtones, but it’s never willing to admit that there is morality between the black and white extremes. To the characters of Storybrooke, Maine, there are no grays.

Watchmen’s Rorschach tells us never to compromise, not even in the face of Armageddon. Rorschach also is a dangerous lunatic who thinks he’s a hero. In order to be a true hero and someone we can respect, a character has to be willing to compromise when necessary and to be the one to make the hard decisions. There are times when the needs of the many do outweigh the needs of the few (or the hero’s own vanity), and the hero must sacrifice her own nobility to help those to whom she must be the hero. Occasionally the hero needs to get dirty and even lose some respect in order to do what is right (see Batman in The Dark Knight). A character is not a hero because she looks pretty and conjugates her verbs correctly. A character is a hero because she’s able to do things others can’t or won’t in order to ensure that Good wins out. Emma is not that character, and Once Upon a Time tries to sell us on the notion that that’s perfectly fine.

That’s my jumping off point for Once Upon a Time. I’ve stuck with the show and hoped that it would go somewhere intriguing, but I just can’t respect a series that panders such a narrow view of morality to us. I understand that it’s a family show and that I shouldn’t expect the layered storytelling and complex characterization of something like Lost (for which Once Upon a Time’s two creators actually were executive producers) or Angel (Wesley Wyndam-Pryce solidly embodies the kind of amazing hero you’ll never see on Once Upon a Time). Still, I do expect some sort of depth and credibility in the universe they’re building. It’s impossible for me to understand or empathize with a world full of characters who see everything in absolutes and extremes, with no subtlety or acknowledgement that sometimes good people have to do bad things.

Thus end my rant and my viewership of Once Upon a Time.

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