3 Things That Defined ABC’s 'Once Upon A Time'

3 Things That Defined ABC’s 'Once Upon A Time'

The series reached happily ever after by returning to its roots.

After seven seasons of swordfights, magic spells, and plot twists, ABC’s Once Upon a Time has aired its final episode. The aptly-named “Leaving Storybrooke,” as it gave closure to the community fans of this show have followed for so long, made a point of turning its focus to the three core things that this show was about.

It’s difficult to explore these three topics without spoilers. In the interest of making this article accessible to people who haven’t yet watched Once Upon a Time but plan to, I’ve explained all the vague references below in footnotes.

Here are the three things at the heart of this beloved show.

1. Family

Family love – specifically the love between parents and children – is the very foundation of Once Upon a Time. In fact, all of the conflicts in the increasingly complicated plot can be traced back to a single event, in which a parent made a very difficult decision, out of a desire to keep their child safe (1). This show firmly establishes that the love a parent has for their child, and that a child has for the parent, is true love, a fundamental force for good in the universe, as magical as any other kind of love in a fairy tale (2).

It might even be more magical than romance. In my opinion, the parent/child plotlines of this show were consistently better than the romantic ones. One character in particular, who never interested me while they were a love interest, became much more engaging once their story stopped being about romance and started being about parenthood (3). Of course, that isn’t to put down the lovely romances in this show (4), or the many other kinds of family love portrayed besides parent/child (such as siblings and grandparent/grandchild).

2. Stories

Once Upon a Time is very meta. It’s a story about stories, about characters who are on some level aware that their lives are governed by literary rules. They refer to each other as good and evil, and strive towards happy endings. In later seasons, concepts such as authorship and adaptations actually become a part of the show’s mythos, to fascinating effect (5).

But even more than this, the show was about what stories mean to us. In a very early episode, a character states that stories give us hope (6). Stories also give us joy, and the joy of the people writing this show was palpable while watching it. Seeing characters who had never met before interact on-screen (7), or seeing stories we knew and loved told in different ways (8), was the fun of watching Once Upon a Time (9).

3. Redemption

Yes, this show used the often-simplistic fairy tale concepts of “good” and “evil.” But it approached those concepts with an unusual amount of complexity. It gave attention to why “evil” characters became that way – because of their own actions, or the actions of the people around them. As far as I can remember, only one character in this entire series went without a sympathetic backstory (10). Also, the story gave these “evil” characters ample opportunity to change their ways. Though the show’s need for continuing drama resulted in some characters infuriatingly remaining unable to learn their lessons (11), overall the show promised that evil was not a permanent end-state. It was an incorrect path, one that could be turned away from with the support of family and friends (12). The road was not portrayed as easy – often an “evil” character’s past actions kept coming back to haunt them, despite their current commitment to good – but it was portrayed as possible. And that’s a hopeful message we could use more of in television.

It may be time for this show to end, but perhaps the story, and its fans’ love of it, will inspire more of that kind of hope in future creations.


(1) Rumplestiltskin takes on the Dark One’s power in the first place because he doesn’t want Baelfire to fight in the Ogre War – and that starts everything.

(2) While I was kind of hoping for an Alice/Robin true love kiss to break the Seattle curse, it was very fitting for it to be a Henry/Regina kiss instead. After all, the first Dark Curse was broken when Emma kissed Henry.

(3) I’m talking about Hook here. Maybe it’s because I’m ace spectrum, but I never found him appealing as a lover character. But once we left original-Hook behind and started following wish-Hook and his daughter Alice, then his story became one of my favorites.

(4) Snow/Charming, Regina/Robin, Ruby/Dorothy, the unrequited but nonetheless adorable Mulan/Aurora, Alice/Robin… I could go on.

(5) “The Author” as a role in-universe, someone who can change the stories but is supposed to record them, was an interesting thing. It goes along with the feeling I’ve often had while writing, that I’m not so much creating the stories as I am discovering and telling them. Also, by “adaptations” I mean how there’s more than one Cinderella and Rapunzel and so on. This show took the idea that there are many ways to tell a story and made all of those ways a part of its canon.

(6) Mary Margaret to Emma, in their first conversation, oh so very long ago, back when Henry’s voice was oh so very high.

(7) We never did get that awkward Thanksgiving dinner, but the table scene at the end of Season 6 was pretty close.

(8) To this day, Season One episodes “Red-Handed,” “Hat Trick,” and “Skin Deep” are some of my favorites, for the way they transform Red Riding Hood, the Mad Hatter, and the Beast’s stories.

(9) I have to add, when Cruella de Vil drew a sword in a recent episode, I laughed and said aloud, “Now this is the ridiculousness that we fell in love with this show for!”

(10) Cruella de Vil, of course! Her sympathetic backstory turned out to be a lie. Killing puppies was never going to be sympathetic in an American TV show.

(11) For god’s sake, Rumple… Robert Carlyle is just too good at playing a villain for them to let him be anything else for more than an episode.

(12) “The Good Queen.”

Cover Image Credit: ABC

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To The Friends I Won't Talk To After High School

I sincerely hope, every great quality I saw in you, was imprinted on the world.


So, for the last four years I’ve seen you almost everyday. I’ve learned about your annoying little brother, your dogs and your crazy weekend stories. I’ve seen you rock the awful freshman year fashion, date, attend homecoming, study for AP tests, and get accepted into college.

Thank you for asking me about my day, filling me in on your boy drama and giving me the World History homework. Thank you for complimenting my outfits, laughing at me presenting in class and listening to me complain about my parents. Thank you for sending me your Quizlets and being excited for my accomplishments- every single one of them. I appreciate it all because I know that soon I won’t really see you again. And that makes me sad. I’ll no longer see your face every Monday morning, wave hello to you in the hallways or eat lunch with you ever again. We won't live in the same city and sooner or later you might even forget my name.

We didn’t hang out after school but none the less you impacted me in a huge way. You supported my passions, stood up for me and made me laugh. You gave me advice on life the way you saw it and you didn’t have to but you did. I think maybe in just the smallest way, you influenced me. You made me believe that there’s lots of good people in this world that are nice just because they can be. You were real with me and that's all I can really ask for. We were never in the same friend group or got together on the weekends but you were still a good friend to me. You saw me grow up before your eyes and watched me walk into class late with Starbucks every day. I think people like you don’t get enough credit because I might not talk to you after high school but you are still so important to me. So thanks.

With that said, I truly hope that our paths cross one day in the future. You can tell me about how your brothers doing or how you regret the college you picked. Or maybe one day I’ll see you in the grocery store with a ring on your finger and I’ll be so happy you finally got what you deserved so many guys ago.

And if we ever do cross paths, I sincerely hope you became everything you wanted to be. I hope you traveled to Italy, got your dream job and found the love of your life. I hope you have beautiful children and a fluffy dog named Charlie. I hope you found success in love before wealth and I hope you depended on yourself for happiness before anything else. I hope you visited your mom in college and I hope you hugged your little sister every chance you got. She’s in high school now and you always tell her how that was the time of your life. I sincerely hope, every great quality I saw in you, was imprinted on the world.

And hey, maybe I’ll see you at the reunion and maybe just maybe you’ll remember my face. If so, I’d like to catch up, coffee?



Cover Image Credit: High school Musical

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