Marah Eakin: When news broke yesterday, Gwen, that Jennifer Morrison was leaving Once Upon A Time, we both had the same reaction: Her departure should mark the end of the show. As forlorn badass Emma Swan, Morrison has been one of the show’s central characters—if not its most central character—from its inception. And while the show has developed other beloved characters since Morrison signed on, including Swan’s now-husband Captain Hook, she’s still the center of the show. She is, after all, Storybrooke’s savior—albeit one facing down death in this weekend’s two-hour season finale.
Given its breadth and depth of (convoluted) storylines, Once Upon A Time can—at least in theory—continue without Emma Swan, but does that mean it should? If Emma floats off into the afterlife with the Black Fairy, where will that leave the rest of the Once gang? More specifically, what in the world will happen to Hook, who appears to be a fan favorite who’s probably going to be stuck on Once for the foreseeable future. As far as I’m concerned, Emma’s potential death—or disappearance? Solo honeymoon? Sleeping curse?—wouldn’t result in much in the way of worthwhile storylines, especially considering we’re talking about a family-friendly, Disney-backed ABC drama, where characters like Hook can’t remain crushingly heartbroken for too long, regardless. All of the potential Emma-less outcomes just seem lackluster, and when you’re talking about a fairy tale world—even one plagued by numerous dark ones— that’s just sad.
What do you think, Gwen? Can Once succeed—or even stay afloat—despite Emma Swan’s imminent departure?
Gwen Ihnat: Honestly, I think Once should have packed it in a few years ago. My favorite season was the first one, when each episode introduced a new fairy tale, and it was interesting to see what the take would be on it. Cinderella’s name was Ashley! There are the mysterious wooden puppets in Gold’s shop! We got to see what Maleficent does in her quiet moments! Recasting these fables, even in a wholly Disney way, was unlike most other shows out there, so it made for a fun Sunday-night watch—as well as one, I must admit, that was pretty kid-friendly, so it was one of the few shows I liked watching with my kids when they were little.
Then the show started breaking down into those half-season arcs—like Neverland and Avalon—which could be fun but also kind of pointless, because we always knew what the result would be. I remember Snow telling Emma in Neverland, “When all of this is over”—because of course it was all going to be over. There were never any great stakes. In the meantime, we had the show’s repetitive vocabulary and mythology about “happy endings” and “best chances” and dark ones and “magic always comes with a price,” and it just got super cloying after awhile. Especially with the Charmings. Also why does everyone have to be related to everyone? It was a shock when Elsa showed up and didn’t turn out to be the Witch Of The North or something. And death means nothing on this show; the Blue Fairy has died at least a few times by my count.
There were some fun moments: I loved Emma as the Dark Swan, and she and Hook have cute chemistry, so their long courtship was pretty enjoyable to watch. But it seems like show creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, who also got kind of unnecessarily complicated when they worked on Lost, have written themselves into not just a corner but also a hole. I’ve heard that the white board in their writers room is nearly indecipherable. They had all those characters come over from the land of lost stories, and all that gave us was a now-departed Mr. Hyde and that short Aladdin arc. Seems like a lot of lost opportunities. This Black Fairy showdown is just dark versus light, good versus evil, Rumple versus everyone else again, again, again, even though he’s the most interesting character on the show.
I still do a short recap every week, but that’s mostly just for the chance to hate-watch with the commenters at this point. I really hope the show doesn’t come back. If it does, I agree that an entire reboot is necessary. But with just Rumple, Hook, and Regina, and those new characters with annoying descriptions, I agree that it’s hard to get a handle on what that could even look like. And how could they reasonably explain away the absence of Emma? Henry? Belle?
I think this also points to the kind of shows these are. Dramas that feature legal or medical “cases of the week” can go on indefinitely, because they basically reboot every episode. It’s why Grey’s Anatomy is on its 13th season, and is about to enter its 14th, or why there were so many CSI shows. For series that are higher concept, I’m sure in the first season or so, the creators are just happy to have them on the air. They’re not thinking about what season six will look like, because who knows if that’s even a possibility? Think about how Revenge started out pretty cleanly with Emily taking down a different person every week. Once she started running out of people, things got really gummed up, and they had to add a shadowy “syndicate” to stretch things out. Same with Scandal: That show hung in there for awhile, trying to keep the B613 conspiracy together, but now is completely off the rails; TV Line just ran an editorial begging for its demise. It’s why, this TV season, I’m really loving short, sweet series like the seven episodes of Big Little Lies and the eight episodes of Feud. It’s the old Seinfeld adage: Leave ’em when they still want more. It’s also why I’m very, very set against a season two of BLL, by the way, because those seven episodes are perfect. It won’t have the opportunity to plod along forever like OUAT, where now the show is such a slog we can barely remember what we liked about it in the first place.
Marah, I feel like you’re more of a fan of the show than I am at this point. What has kept you going through all of these OUAT seasons?
ME: For one, I think it helped that I came in about three seasons in, having blasted through the whole thing by streaming it. That’s made me only have to really hang in there since the Frozen era started airing, meaning my fierce fandom has been a little compressed.
Secondly, I think I’m still a fan because I can enjoy the show for what it is. I’m as annoyed as you about all the ancillary characters and the deaths that aren’t deaths and the parallel universes, but that just makes me relish the moments that stand out a bit more. I’m a big Captain Swan person, like most Once fans, so that’s why I’ve found this season particularly gratifying, in some respects.
That being said, my Captain Swan-self definitely doesn’t want to see the disappearance of Emma Swan, even if it means we get a little more of Colin O’Donoghue’s Killian “Captain Hook” Jones on the screen. I’m not as big of a Rumple fan as you are, Gwen—in fact, I’d be happy if he disappeared forever—and I like Lana Parrilla’s Regina, but I could give a rip about a show that just finds the three of them teaming up with a wry dad and his precocious 10-year-old daughter to… combat evil? Find happy endings? This show’s tried to make kids work with Henry and Roland, and it’s never worked, and I’m saying that as someone who thinks child actors can do great things.
Unfortunately, I think if Once stays around it’s because ABC needs it to. The network has based most of its success around your aforementioned Shonda Rhimes shows, Gwen, and Once is its Sunday night anchor. They advertised the shit out of that musical episode, and threw a big party a year ago when the show hit its 100th episode. (I went. It was super fun.) I think I’d rather see ABC place its bets elsewhere, maybe on those kind of one-and-done shows you’re mentioning, Gwen, though I wonder how the financials of those kinds of programs work out.
In short: No Emma Swan, no Once Upon A Time, please. Can we agree on that?
GI: Absolutely. Think of other shows that kept going after the main people left: That ’70s Show after Topher Grace and Ashton Kutcher, or Northern Exposure after Rob Morrow. The Office tried really hard, but it was never the same after Steve Carell. If Jennifer Morrison, the person who gets paid gobs of money to lead this show, isn’t into it anymore, why should the rest of us be?
The musical episode surpassed my expectations (granted, they were rock bottom), and Hook and Emma are now married, making all those Captain Swan people happy. Let’s just kick some Black Fairy ass on Sunday with the “Final Battle” finale and call it a day for Once Upon A Time. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to entice Robert Carlyle back to the small screen again (you’re right, my Rumple love is strong), but I’ll probably always check out Lana Parrilla in whatever she’s in afterward. In the end, Once Upon A Time is one of those shows I’ll probably look back on more fondly for what it tried to do, rather than what it wound up doing. But I’ll appreciate it more for knowing that it’s time to call it quits.