Between Good and Evil in ABC’s Once Upon a Time

A column article, Shot For Shot by: Laura Akers

Photographer: Chris Hicks

The nature of fairy tales is that they are fluid. Over the years, they morph to fit the needs of the times. Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, for instance, doesn’t just get legs from the Sea Witch; she also pays a heavy price for them—far heavier than the loss of her voice. As a result of her deal with the Witch, each step she takes on land is painful: like walking on sharp swords. And there is no happy ending. Not only doesn’t she get the prince, but he marries another and she is driven to almost kill him before eventually deciding to return to her watery home. A kinder, gentler late 20th century America required a very different Little Mermaid: Walt Disney’s sea-princess is one without pain, but with a happy ending.

ABC’s Once a Upon a Time similarly tweaks the fairy tales that form the basis of the show, again fitting them for the times. It does this in several ways. Hansel and Gretel’s father doesn’t intentionally leave the children in the woods; they are lost and kidnapped by the evil Queen. Jiminy isn’t born a cricket; he chooses to become one. And Little Red Riding Hood isn’t a victim of the Big Bad Wolf…well, you’ll just have to watch to see how that one plays out.

But one of the most interesting ways in which Once Upon a Time adapts its fairy tales is by doing something that virtually none of the old tales did. In the classic fairy tales, good and evil aren’t just black and white—they appear to be essential. That is, good characters are good simply because they are good; no further explanation is needed or given. Likewise, evil in their adversaries is rarely explained. The witch doesn’t need to eat Hansel and Gretel; after all, why would a witch capable of creating an entirely edible house have a hard time conjuring up food for her own diet? She eats children not because she is hungry but because she is evil. Rumplestiltskin steals children for the same reason. Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters are well-off; they really don’t need to make her into a household drudge. They do it because they are evil, and in that world, evil needs no explanation. It is a tautology of sorts.

But not in Once Upon a Time. One of the most surprising, and honestly intriguing, aspects of the show and its handling of these tales is that we get a better look at what are, in the original tales, fairly one-dimensional characters. We are told exactly how far Jiminy has had to come to become the model of a good conscience. We learn precisely what drove the Hatter mad. And how good dwarf Grumpy earned his name. But more interestingly, we learn, in large part, where evil comes from.

While this is true with a host of minor evil characters on the show, it’s most apparent in the main baddies: The Evil Queen/Regina and Rumplestiltskin/Mr. Gold.

Snow (White)’s arch nemesis, her evil stepmother the Queen, is a very different figure than in the Grimms’ tale. Yes, she is absolutely craven in her manipulations and guilty of even more evil than she was back in the early 19th century version. But over the first season, we learn that she was not always evil, and that her great evil is actually the product of something we think of as good: love. Dominated by a seemingly heartless mother, trapped into a marriage with a man she doesn’t love, and forcibly separated from the one she does by Snow’s badly timed honesty, Regina feels that she has lost romantic love, has never enjoyed familial love, and can never love the step-daughter who inadvertently betrayed her.

Unable to escape her marriage any other way, she has her husband killed by a would-be lover, and even murders her own father, whom she clearly loves, in order to obtain the curse that forms the basis for the entire series. Once the curse plunks her and everyone else from the fairy tale world into our own, however, while she does continue to work her manipulations of the townspeople to her own ends, she also appears to try to change her loveless fate by adopting Henry, the young boy who figures out what’s really going on in Storybrooke. While she leaves much to be desired as a parent, it is clear that she does, to the best of her ability, love her son.

And while we cannot bring ourselves to excuse much of what Regina does, to a great extent, we do begin to empathize with her. After all, who doesn’t want love? And since one of the series’ central points is about how love ultimately must and will triumph, her love for Henry holds out the possibility for an otherwise impossible miracle: the redemption of the most malicious of storybook/Storybrooke’s residents.

Certainly, it is also what drives the series’ other villain, the enigmatic Rumplestiltskin/Mr. Gold. For him, however, we are not given an initially innocent and good-intentioned starting point like that of Regina’s youth. No, at least by the end of season one, we see Rumplestiltskin as flawed from the beginning. He is, we are given ample evidence, a complete coward. Having been conscripted to fight in the Ogre Wars to defend the kingdom he calls home, he runs from the fight, gaining a reputation for his cowardice. This, apparently, leads to his wife leaving him to raise their son Baelfire—the only one who seems oblivious to his father’s failing--alone.

As the Ogre Wars escalate, the king demands that all children be conscripted at age fourteen. Terrified of the fate awaiting his much beloved son, Rumplstiltskin does what he’s known for; he runs away. He is stopped and eventually tricked into believing he can end the conscriptions by gaining control of the Dark One, but is manipulated into killing the Dark One and taking his place instead. The power he now possesses appears to drive him a bit mad, and he is wicked in dealing out what he believes to be justice. Eventually, he is given the choice between his son and his power, and abandons his son, which he later repents. It is the love of his son and of Belle that motivates the majority of his actions going forward.

And yet, we empathize with him. Unlike Regina, who undergoes a complete transformation, Rumplestiltskin has always been a flawed being, and as such, is perhaps just a touch closer to us. How many of us, forced to fight in a meat-grinder of a war, would not seek to escape? How many of us, given great power over those who bullied us, would not exact our pound of flesh? While our cultural narratives generally inspire us to think that, given the same circumstances as the protagonist, we too would choose to be heroes, the truth is that we are plagued with doubt that we might not turn out to be all that brave. Rumplestiltskin is precisely who we fear we actually are.

But evil, in Once Upon a Time, is not merely the province of bad guys like Regina and Rumple. Scratch the surface just a little, and even the historically virtuous fairy tale characters have just a touch of evil in them. Snow, after all, attempted to kill Regina in cold blood. And Red…okay, seriously, go watch that episode (“Red-Handed”).

But if evil is, as Gygax and Arneson would have it, putting the benefit to the self over that of the common good, then we must seriously question whether Prince Charming, for example, is on the side of the angels (or good fairies, as the case may be).

While Snow, his love, willingly sacrifices herself (or attempts to, anyway) in order save her father’s kingdom and others, Charming must be forced into doing the same. Initially, Charming accedes to King George’s request (that he battle a dragon) in order gain security for his mother. He is even willing (reluctantly) to forgo her company when, as a result of King George presenting Charming as his son James, Midas arranges a marriage between the young champion and his own daughter—which will require Charming to assume the dead James’ place for life. But once he meets Snow, all bets are off.

After a few hours in the presence of Snow White, Charming appears to forget the cost of his backing out of the marriage to Abigail—that his mother will undoubtedly lose the farm and King George’s entire kingdom may starve. It is only King George escalating his promise of financial rewards to Charming’s mother to an actual threat to kill her that makes the young man briefly reconsider. Still, it is not enough to sway him from his pursuit of Snow—he almost immediately sends her a message asking her to come to him if she returns his feelings. Snow, also manipulated by King George, rebuffs Charming’s advances, saying she does not love him, and disappears into the night.

Which provides the young quasi-prince the perfect opportunity to show himself Snow’s equal in the realm of self-denial: after all, the woman he loves doesn’t love him (as far as he knows), and in marrying Abigail, he saves both his mother and the kingdom he calls home. It’s the right time to suck it up and take one for the team, much as Snow does when she all-but-agrees to be the Huntsman’s prey. Instead, he chooses to put himself before others and takes off after Snow, seemingly without a thought to the fallout that will surely follow.

Nor is his Storybrooke counterpart much better. Upon waking up from his coma, David appears to fall in love at first sight with Snow’s counterpart Mary Margaret, only to discover that he already has a wife. But unlike his betrothed in the fairy tale land who is actually in love with another man and also being forced into their marriage, his Storybrooke wife Kathryn has been pining for him and appears to love him as a wife should. And while their marriage before his accident was at least somewhat rocky, she wants to patch things up and give their relationship another go.

But David almost immediately replicates Charming’s selfishness in our world, first pursuing Mary Margaret and then conducting an affair with her. True to what seems to be Snow’s less ego-centric outlook, Mary Margaret rejects him until he informs her that he’s leaving Kathryn for her. When he goes back on his word to her, she again rejects him, and sends him back to his wife. While David and Mary Margaret do eventually succumb to a kiss, she quickly recovers and tells him (without evidence of manipulation) that if they are to be together, he must be completely truthful with Kathryn and end his marriage. He not only fails to do this, he lies to Mary Margaret and tells her he has kept his promise.

Of course, all of this may be justified by the love Charming/David feels for Snow/Mary Margaret.  But only if one is already predisposed to do so. After all, David’s actions, removed from the context of fairy tales, are all too familiar: he is the quintessential cheating husband, an archetype widely viewed as just a step or two above pond scum in contemporary narratives. Still, many people are quick to excuse this behavior, even when his sins are committed against his one true love. Even Josh Dallas, the actor who plays Charming/David, seemed surprised when I asked him about this point at SDCC this July: does he think that the fact that David has cheated in Storybrooke is something that will alter how Charming feels about himself? Tellingly, Dallas assumed I was talking about the fact that David was married to someone other than Mary Margaret in our world—that in doing so, Charming was being unfaithful to Snow. When I pointed out that since David did not know about the relationship between Charming and Snow but did know that he was married to Kathryn and that this made him guilty of textbook infidelity against his Storybrooke wife, it seemed this hadn’t really occurred to him (he responded very thoughtfully, and said he thought it was an interesting question and something he’d have to mull over and discuss with the writers).

If it has not occurred to the actor playing the role, it is not surprising that it is quickly glossed over by fans. But given the starkness of David’s sins, why is this? Having interviewed three of the show’s writers/producers, including its creators Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis this year, it’s clear to me that little of what they do should be considered unintentional. These are smart people who understand exactly what they are doing. So why take one of the most classically good characters in fairy tales (after all, Prince Charming does nothing wrong and everything right in the earlier stories) and imbue him with such questionable characteristics?

And how does this play into what some consider to be the function of fairy tales in our culture? According to many academics, a good deal of what fairy tales do is to clearly delineate good and evil for children, and acculturate them to expected behavioral norms in our society. In part, it does this by showing how good is rewarded (they live happily ever after) and evil is punished (through often hideous deaths). The message is clear: act in a way that society sees as good and things will always work out.

Except that that never has been and never will be true. Morality is not binary, at least in its execution. There is rarely a simple choice between good and evil, and even in cases where there may be, the human condition rarely insures that good will be chosen.

And the creators of Once Upon a Time seem to get this. It is one thing to make your audience empathize with those who choose evil. Shakespeare was already doing this in the 16th century (Shylock, Caliban, etc.). It is quite another to present them with “good” characters who are, at best, questionable in their actions. And it says a great deal about our culture that we are so slow to recognize this. After all, removed from the context of the fairy tale, Charming/David does not behave like a hero. But because he is forever branded as good in those fairy tales, we overlook his many sins and celebrate his reunion with Snow.

In other words, while being judged good or evil in fairy tales is largely based on how the character acts, in Once Upon a Time, characters are presumed to be good or evil often in spite of their actions. This is essentialism of a different kind: Charming is good, despite his bad behavior, because he is already thought of as a “good” character. Rumplestiltskin is evil, despite the love that drives him, primarily because he is “evil” by fairy tale reputation. Once Upon a Time latches on to our preconception about good and evil in fairy tales to make the case that too often, we let such labels determine our point of view rather than the evidence of our eyes.

In a culture where we are daily bombarded with messages claiming that entire classes of people are evil and a danger to our way of life—gays, Muslims, immigrants, etc—despite a lack of evidence to back up such claims, the reminder Once Upon a Time offers us is particularly pointed.

And absolutely timely.

Laura Akers is a teacher by calling and a geek academic by nature. Her sporadic but lengthy writing for Comics Bulletin (and her own personal musings) tend to revolve around issues of gender, sexuality, identity, politics, religion (and all the other things you’re not supposed to bring up in polite conversation) in TV/film/webseries narratives. You can get topical whiplash and occasionally offended by following her at @laurajakers 

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