Sunday, October 07, 2012
“Once Upon A Time”: Breaking the curse with true love
All of this is front and center in a dramatic contrast between Emma (Henry’s real mother who gave him up for adoption as a baby) and Regina (who adopted Henry in revengeful scheming against Snow White and Prince Charming, who are Emma’s parents and Henry’s grandparents). Emma’s love for Henry is true; we see proof of it when her kiss breaks the spell of death and restores everyone’s memory. But we’ve already seen evidence that Emma’s love is true in the actions and choices she has made and continues to make—sacrificial choices, choices to risk her life for Henry and others, but perhaps most poignant, choices to do what is in the best interest of her son instead of herself. In “Broken,” Henry asks Emma to protect Regina and she does—in spite of her anger and desire for retribution. But it costs her: once again, Emma is separated from Henry.
The role of sacrifice in true love is enriched and supported by the story we simultaneously watch unfold in the Enchanted Forest—one that cleverly is revealed at the end of the episode to be not a flashback but “flash-present” (the influence of Lost writers plays out well here). Against a soul-sucking wraith, Prince Phillip sacrifices his life to protect Sleeping Beauty and Mulan. "Love is a sacrifice of your own happiness," Mulan tells Beauty.
In contrast to this thread, are characters like Regina and Mr. Gold (aka Rumplestiltskin). While Regina professes love for Henry, her actions speak otherwise. While she may have deep feelings for Henry, she constantly chooses to put her own desires for revenge, control and power above Henry’s best interest. In “Broken,” in an effort to manipulate Charming and Snow to protect her from wraith unleashed in revenge by Gold against her, she tells Charming that he must be a role model of compassion for his daughter Emma. Yet when Regina regains her power of magic, her very first act is not compassion but an attempt to kill Charming. In Once Upon a Time, magic always has a cost—and Regina’s first use of magic has an immediate one: Henry walks in as she’s strangling his grandfather and he calls her “a monster.” Her words of love are lost on him. Her love is not true love; it is selfishness masquerading as love. She only succeeds in driving Henry farther from her.
We also see the destructive power of selfishness on love in the relationship between Gold and Belle. Gold is bent on revenge against Regina. Manipulating others with clever words and machinations has become his default—even with his beloved Belle. When she calls him on his deceitful behavior towards her in his quest for revenge, he automatically reverts to sarcasm and she leaves him.
Yet, unlike Regina, Gold is aware of and even regrets who he has become—we see it on his face when Belle leaves and hear him confess it to her when she returns. While Gold tells Belle he will not leave this dark path, she sees his honesty and awareness as hope and stays with him, determined to help him turn from darkness to good.
But we get the feeling Belle is in the same boat as Henry. While both Regina and Gold long for love, their selfishness is paramount. They are bent on their own agendas and desires, and even though it has cost them the objects of their desire in the past (Regina her father and Gold his son), they continue down the same paths.
On a larger scale, I am also intrigued by the pivotal role love is playing in breaking Regina’s curse on the inhabitants of the Enchanted Forest and the fairy tale world. While the folks of Storybrooke remember who they are and time has started in the fairy tale land again, there are relationships to repair and a land to heal—and love seems to be playing a central role in all that.
All this reminds me of our own Story and the powerful Love that is breaking our own curse, bringing resurrection out of death. And this sacrificial Love invites and helps us to recall who we are—and enables us to love with the Love we are loved by. Yet even as our own curse is breaking, we are still on the yet-to-be side of our Happy Ending. Death and sin are doomed, but they still wreak havoc. We live in a land that aches for repair and restoration. Our relationships cry out for healing and reconciliation. But the power the Truest Love advances us forward in the work of the Creator to heal and repair his land—to give us the Happy Ending we were created for.
The inhabitants of Once Upon a Time are working towards their own happy endings—and in fairy tales, we know they always get one. That is one of the best things about fairy tales. I resonate with J.R.R. Tolkien’s description of the “Consolation of the Happy Ending.” As I mentioned awhile back, Tolkien shows us how fairy tales help us make sense of our own Story. They don’t deny the existence of sorrow and failure, Tolkien says — in fact, “the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and … [gives] a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” Fairy tales, says Tolkien, give us a taste of the deepest truth: the gospel itself, a Story with the happiest of endings.
Once Upon a Time keeps giving tastes of that—and that’s why it continues to bring God-talk into these open spaces.