Once Upon An Annoying Subplot
January 10, 2012
On one level, ABC’s Once Upon A Time is really interesting. It mixes fantasy elements and real-life drama, and each episode focuses on an individual story while still bringing us some movement in the larger plot of the town. But there’s a big problem for me when television that’s supposed to be somewhat family-friendly, even to the point of integrating classic Disney characters into its fairy tale cast, can’t stop doubling down on a major anti-family theme.
[This post includes major spoilers for those who haven't seen the show at all, and minor spoilers for last Sunday's episode.]
The show begins when a young boy, Henry, shows up unexpectedly on Emma Swan’s doorstep and announces that he’s the child she gave up for adoption. Emma returns Henry to his home, and learns that he believes everyone in his town is a storybook character under the influence of an evil spell that made them forget their true selves. Emma sees Henry’s fairy tale fantasy as a sign that he’s deeply unhappy, and she decides to move to the town to be near him.
In doing so, she ignores the wishes of Henry’s adoptive mom, Regina. The show presents that as totally okay, because Regina is a controlling, emotionally distant woman who, by the way, is secretly the evil queen who cast the spell that trapped all the storybook characters in the real world in the first place. Regina also has a history of bad parenting, since she’s Snow White’s wicked stepmother.
Instead of giving the main characters of Once Upon A Time some level of nuance, Regina and Emma’s dueling moms routine is portrayed as a struggle of good against evil. The audience is told that Regina can’t truly care about Henry, because the curse that she used to doom the town has literally made her incapable of love. There are a few times when Regina feels like a more realistic woman whose obsession with revenge has just carried her too far into darkness, but then the show has her go and do something cartoonishly evil like kill her own father or rape a huntsman.
Henry thinks that Emma is the key to fixing the curse and helping his friends and neighbors remember their storybook selves. Emma doesn’t believe in Henry’s other world, but sometimes indulges his stories anyway. Emma and Regina clash over everything, especially when it comes to Emma’s relationship with Henry or her growing role in the community. Regina makes cutting remarks over Emma’s fitness to be a mother, while multiple characters make references to Emma being Henry’s “real” mother. At one point there’s even a suggestion that Emma might be able to challenge Regina for custody.
The last few episodes before the break seemed to have moved away from such directly crummy portrayal of adoption. But then on the most recent episode, Mr. Gold (who is fairytale’s Rumplestilskin) told Regina that her claim to be Henry’s mom was just a technicality.
Seriously, ABC? I want to like this show, but you aren’t helping matters. Adoptive families are real families, and you need to stop suggesting otherwise. I get it, Regina is evil. That doesn’t excuse the constant undercurrent of scorn heaped on her in the name of being an adoptive parent. I may check out the rest of the season in hopes that they find a way to move around that unpleasantness, but the idea of the good birth mother swooping in to save the town from the evil adoptive mom is such a major part of the show that I don’t have much hope of that happening.