Once Upon a Time In Wonderland was an intriguing concept. Where most TV spinoffs usually feel forced, like an attempt to simply cash in on the success of the parent show, Wonderland at least had potential. The world of Once Upon a Time is so vast, and we’ve only scratched the surface of the many worlds and realms that have been seen and mentioned on the show, that it seemed like the perfect setup for a spinoff. We’d gotten a few glimpses at Wonderland, either dealing with Jefferson/the Mad Hatter or Cora/the Queen of Hearts, but the potential was there just waiting to be tapped. Unfortunately, the end result didn’t exactly live up to that potential, but it was still an experiment worth trying and provided us with some memorable characters.
Wonderland started strongly, with a grownup Alice in a mental institution, ready to renounce her “imagined” experiences in Wonderland and have a “procedure” (lobotomy) in order to forget her pain and return to her family. When we first met her she was a broken and hopeless figure, from whom any chance at happiness had been taken and for whom the memory of Wonderland served as a reminder of all she had lost. We learned via flashback that she had fallen in true love with a genie, Cyrus, who had been killed by the Red Queen. Upon returning to our world, her father, who thought she was dead, refuses to believe her stories and has her committed. However, just before her procedure, the Knave of Hearts and the White Rabbit arrive to break her out because Cyrus is still alive. After an exciting escape, Alice finds herself back in Wonderland and on a mission to rescue Cyrus from the Red Queen and the villainous Jafar, who want Cyrus for his wish-granting abilities.
From there the story became considerably more complicated, as any Once Upon a Time fan would expect. Every possible character received multiple layers of flashbacks, explaining their backstories and seemingly giving everyone complexity and depth. We learn of Alice’s unsatisfying relationship with her father, who seemingly does not love her enough to believe the stories with which she returned from Wonderland, and how her return there in an attempt to find proof of her adventures led her to meet Cyrus the genie. Cyrus and his brothers were cursed to be genies after stealing water from a magical well in order to save the life of their mother, who eventually became a powerful sorceress who taught Jafar, only to be turned into a magical staff by Jafar so that he can use her powers. Jafar discovered as a child that he was the illegitimate son of the Sultan, whose love and approval he craves until the Sultan tries to murder him, before his training at the hands of Cyrus’s mother. The Knave of Hearts was formerly Will Scarlet, a member of Robin Hood’s Merry Men, who journeyed with his love, Anastasia, to Wonderland in order to build a new life together. Unfortunately, things weren’t as easy as they planned, as poverty drives them to desperation and in a twist of fate Anastasia abandons Will to marry the Red King, becoming the infamous Red Queen. She is taught magic by the Queen of Hearts, who eventually removes Will’s heart and makes him her Knave, before he has a chance encounter with Alice and the two become friends. This web of interconnected characters are all brought together once more as a part of Jafar’s plan to change the laws of magic, for which he’ll need to gain possession of the three genies, their bottles and their wishes.
If all that sounds a little out there, then you’re probably not a Once Upon a Time fan, as that sort of twisty storytelling has been a staple of the show since the beginning. If all of that sounds like a little much for a 13 episode, one-season spinoff… well, you’re not wrong. Wonderland definitely suffered from having far too much context-providing backstory and not enough driving narrative. The first half of the season focused on Alice’s journey to find Cyrus and his struggle to escape from Jafar, while finding a good balance between that story and the flashbacks that helped expand our understanding of the characters. However, the second half of the short season, after Cyrus and Alice were reunited, was a bit of a mess, as things became too complicated too fast while lacking a clear direction for our heroes. The writing in general on Wonderland was not up to the level of its (admittedly cheesy) parent show, and at times it seemed like those in charge of Wonderland didn’t have a firm grasp of the show’s direction. (Some of this might be attributed to the mixed messages sent out by ABC as to whether Wonderland was really just a single season miniseries or just the first season of a full-time spinoff.) ABC’s mishandling of the broadcast schedule for the show certainly did it no favors, as it would have been much better served airing in either the fall or the spring and not stretched so thin in an attempt to make it feel like a full season. If it hadn’t been for my DVR I would probably have completely missed the second half of the season, given that it was off the air for as long as its first half run. In fact, it would be interesting to binge watch the series and see if my opinions change.
Wonderland made the most of its mixed universes with some interesting design choices. Zapping from Victorian England to Wonderland to Agrabah to the Enchanted Forest to Storybrooke made the show feel bigger and more expansive than perhaps it truly was. The show weaved in all manner of familiar things, including the hookah-smoking Caterpillar, the Carpenter, the Bandersnatch, the Jabberwocky but also iconic items from Aladdin like the flying carpet. Wonderland didn’t do much to connect itself to its parent show, but perhaps that was for the best, as it allowed the show to stand on its own feet. And while the show’s design was often great, the visual effects were often beyond disappointing. Clearly the show didn’t have a budget to compare to Once Upon a Time, but with a few exceptions (like the White Rabbit) the effects usually ranged from painful to laughable. Things got better as the episodes progressed, but they were never particularly good.
Wonderland did get the most important thing right, in my opinion, and that is in its cast and characters. In fact, the actor I originally tuned in to watch, Naveen Andrews as Jafar, turned out to be far less interesting to watch than the rest of the group. Between this show and After the Dark, Sophie Lowe had really impressed me. She made Alice the perfect balance between badass tough girl and well-rounded character. She has an expressiveness and honesty which really helps to sell the cheesier aspects of the show and helped fill in the emotional gaps sometimes left in the writing. Michael Socha’s Knave of Hearts/Will Scarlett was a great find, as he really helped fill in as an audience surrogate for the show, full of snark and sarcasm but gruffly heroic all the same. (He will be joining the cast of Once Upon a Time starting next season, though it’s unclear how that will fit in with the end of Wonderland.) Peter Gadiot was suitably charming as Cyrus the genie, while Emma Rigby was much better in the second half of the season as the conflicted Red Queen than she was in the first half just playing the villain. And the casting of John Lithgow as the voice of the White Rabbit was simply brilliant.
What I loved most about Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, however, was that it had a clear emotional direction to the show, even if the story couldn’t always keep up. From the first moments of the season this was a show about Love, specifically true romantic love but more generally love of all sorts. The unending and pure love between Alice and Cyrus was the driving force for the show, especially in the early going, and it was refreshing to see a show fully embrace something that others would probably laugh at or deride. As things progressed the show didn’t shy away from showing that love can be complicated and often comes with a lot of baggage, as we saw with the failure of Alice’s father to love her enough to believe her story, or with the relationship between Will and Anastasia, or Jafar’s need for love from his father. But it also showed the strength of love and the power it has to overcome obstacles, particularly when love is true. In that way, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland adhered much closer to the stereotypical Disney version of fairytales complete with a happy ending, which stands in contrast with Once Upon a Time’s often murky, shades of grey morals. In the end, Wonderland was uniquely refreshing, in spite of its faults, and while I may not be sad that it won’t continue on for more seasons, I’m glad it was made. As a story and a production it could often be messy and imperfect, but as a hopeful and romantic tale filled with interesting and compelling characters it hit just the right spot.