Once Upon a Time: Fairy Tales for Our Generation

Once Upon a Time: Fairy Tales for Our Generation
  • Usually, the conversations I have are focused on trying to bring deep ideas from sophisticated topics which include a lot of nuance -- like politics, religion, and youth rights -- to a wider popular audience. I want to try here to do the opposite, to talk about a popular TV show -- Once Upon a Time on ABC -- and raise it up by discussing its deeper messages. We might broaden the conversation with some more participants, but for now, I've invited an old friend from high school, Emily Mantell, to be my study partner -- if you will -- on this.

    Emily, I guess we can start by saying what we like about this show. I definitely want to get to the theme of existential loneliness I've mentioned to you in our private correspondences, but let's start with something lighter. The first thing I love about this series is that if fairy tales were real, this is what they would be like.

    What do I mean? You know I spent a significant portion of my life as a Haredi (Ultra) Orthodox Jew. There, I saw a significant trend to "hagiographize" history. Only say the good things about the historical leaders of our group (and bad things about the guys in charge of the other groups). There are some things other groups might regard as good qualities about our historical leaders, but because of our views, we don't; let's pretend those facts don't exist. In America, there's a move away from this, but we have traditionally done the same thing with narratives of people historically regarded as heroes (e.g. Christopher Columbus, Edmund Burke, founding fathers, and Reagan). It struck me while watching this show that if fairy tales were real, they would be whitewashed by tellers of history. Red is a nice girl, we don't want to talk about her eating her boyfriend. Let's separate out Little Red Riding Hood and The Wolf. Facts would be confused, Hook -- who is no saint -- would be made into the villain. And the themes of sadness and disappointment so clear in the series where the characters succumb to their inner demons and feels forced to make a deal with Rumpel would be ignored in pursuit of the narrative of the hero and his or her happy ending. There is something simple but brilliant in the writers' -- Kitsis and Horowitz -- narratives of good fairy tale people being mostly good but vulnerable to sins in and of themselves. Meanwhile, while we tend to want to make the bad guys of history completely evil to provide a contrast to the history, there's often more nuance; in this show, even folks like the Queen, Hook, and Rumpel have good sides which might well provide their redemptions. Not that we should whitewash evilness either, Cora doesn't seem to have many redeeming qualities.

    Just my initial thoughts.
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  • We saw from the flashback with the Queen and Tink that the former also once craved power over love by refusing to go and meet Robin Hood, but she seems to have somewhat redeemed herself by trying to sacrifice herself to save Storybrooke at the end of the second season (albeit it does not feel like a full redemption and she may well fall into darkness again). Rumple has not yet had that redemptive moment; when he thought Neal was dead he was willing to sacrifice himself to save Henry, but with Henry standing between him and Neal, his self-preservation may indeed kick again.

    I do find this sense of loneliness stemming from abandonment of great interest. In my view, the loneliness seems to be with almost everybody this season, stemming from their relationships with other characters. The orphaned Lost Boys' feelings of not having a home, Neal's distrust of Rumple, Rumple's as yet unexplored feelings towards his father symbolized by the doll he carries with him as well as his inability to connect to Neil, Emma's anger at Snow and Charming, Tink's being cast out by the Blue Fairy, the Queen's separation from Henry, and Henry's feeling of abandonment that he (prematurely, in my opinion) got after he thought he imagined hearing Neal's voice in the last episode. Pan for his part is a charismatic leader who excels at manipulating these feelings for personal gain.

    Existential loneliness has been an interest of mine since we were in high school together, before I knew what it was called. Soloveitchik describes the feeling well: "I am surrounded by comrades and acquaintances. And yet, companionship and friendship do not alleviate the passional experience of loneliness which trails me constantly. I am lonely because at times I feel rejected and thrust away by everybody, not excluding my most intimate friends..." Nothing thrusts that loneliness into your face like feeling emotionally abandoned in a world far away from home -- and feeling your home is no longer your home -- like Neverland.

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  • Emily, you put it so well, I don't really have much to add.

    I have but three additional points:

    1) You'll recall that at Hidden Lake almost everybody -- including our counselors -- was called by their first names. Pan may be immortal, but he looks like just another boy; he similarly expresses his charismatic leadership as one of the boys or "first among equals."

    2) Believe it or not, I agree with you about the factors which would lead one to think Henry's turn to the Lost Boys was not premature. My only issue is that Henry is the Truest Believer who spent the entire first season trying to convince people fairy tales were real. Now Mr. Truest Believer is swayed by merely thinking he heard his father's voice? It seems to have taken Henry much less time and effort to lose faith in his parents than it took many of us at HLA to understand we were not going to get "pulled" or withdrawn from the school! But perhaps reasons for Henry's willingness to lose faith in his parents will be explored further in future episodes.

    3) A SHAMELESS PLUG! Here's a link, for those interested in the conversation with Bill: http://www.replyall.me/yout... . It should be noted that what Bill went through was I think rougher than our experience, but still, HLA was no picnic.

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    Not to make a commitment to necessarily saying something after every episode, but I hope we can continue this conversation informally as the Once Upon a Time and perhaps Once Upon a Time in Wonderland series progress.
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