Last night’s season 3 finale of Once Upon a Time hit me harder than anything on the show since its first season. Despite religiously watching the show, I’ve never written about it, but after last night I felt that I had to, as I had a much stronger emotional reaction than I could have expected, particularly in its last minute reveal that sets the stage for season 4. I want to use this moment to take a look back at the series thus far, and perhaps discover why this new development hit me so hard. Needless to say, there will be spoilers for the show thus far, although I’ll give another, specific spoiler warning for last night’s episode when I get to that point.
Once Upon a Time was clearly a show designed to appeal to me. The show is produced by ABC whose parent company is Disney, a company that obviously means a lot to me. It features writers from some of my favorite shows, including Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dollhouse. It centers on a trio of strong female characters (Emma, Snow and Regina) and contains many others, who are not just strong in the “badass” definition of the term, but also in the sense of being well crafted, three dimensional characters. It has a strong cast, with some actors of whom I am particularly fond, and has had some very inventive and creative storytelling.
More than anything, however, I have always loved the show’s focus on hope and belief. The first season was basically about a boy’s hopeful struggle to wear down the cynicism of his mother to get her to truly believe in the fantastical stories he told her. That’s basically the opposite of most shows on television, which are cynical by nature in order to appeal to our increasingly cynical world. I can’t recall another show where words like “hope” and “love” are thrown around so frequently and so sincerely, and that is something that I feel very strongly about. I have loved watching Emma’s journey from skeptical, bail bondsperson to a savior who believes in magic, even if most people who watch the show these days aren’t as interested in that aspect of it.
From the start, Once Upon a Time caught my interest and wouldn’t let go. I loved the dichotomy of all of these fantastical characters with unbelievable stories living in an ordinary town with no memory of who they really are. I liked how each week during season one we got to see a new take on some beloved character, whether Cinderella or Grumpy or the Mad Hatter or Dr. Frankenstein, each of whose backstory has a bearing on their present life. Not every story was compelling as the others, but this sort of anthology method of crafting a universe kept the show fresh and interesting while the larger mysteries and story arcs played out. Getting to play around with well-known stories is always fun, and when you throw in the direct connection to Disney and their versions of these stories things get even better. Getting to see Snow White as a badass thief is a lot of fun, just like seeing Grumpy as a hopeless romantic, and those stories are more interesting when viewed not only through the lens of the original fairy tale but also through the Disney lens, especially as characters specifically from Disney films (like Grumpy) started showing up.
As the first season progressed, the momentum built towards the breaking of the curse, as we learned the complex backstory of Regina (the Evil Queen) and her relationship with Snow White. Rumplestiltskin quickly became one of the show’s most compelling characters, as his love for Belle and his devotion to his son clashed with his lust for power and his constantly shifting agenda. Regina got a sympathetic backstory, which helped explain how she became evil even if it didn’t excuse her actions. And through it all, Emma found herself starting to believe and beginning to truly love the son she abandoned. It all led up to Emma slaying a dragon and breaking the curse with true love’s kiss, bringing back everyone’s memories and presumably saving the day. I was 100% hooked on the show by the end of season one.
Things got considerably more complicated in season 2, as Emma and Snow were sent to the Enchanted Forrest, where they encountered Regina’s mother, Cora, and Captain Hook, as well as a host of other new characters. Once they were finally reunited back in Storybrooke, things became even murkier, with the shifting loyalties and agendas of the various characters. Rumple’s son Baelfire/Neal showed up, revealing himself to be Henry’s father and eventually getting Emma to confess her feelings for him. Snow shows a darker side when she kills Cora, while a couple of mysterious strangers arrive in town and eventually kidnap Henry and take him to Neverland.
For me, season 2 never caught my attention or my feelings the way season 1 did. Obviously, very few shows are ever able to live up to their first season, and while I thoroughly enjoyed season 2 it just didn’t do it for me like the previous season had. We got the obvious (and necessary) beginnings of redemption arcs for Rumple and Regina, and a potential romantic triangle with Emma/Neal/Hook, and a mystery regarding the motives of the two strangers, but those didn’t grab me the way the Storybrooke/Enchanted Forrest parallels or Emma’s journey from skeptic to believer did.
Perhaps my views on season 2 were a bit tainted by things that were going on in the fandom. For starters, while I like a good “tortured villain looking for redemption” storyline as much as the next person, I much prefer the “reluctant hero” storyline Emma experienced during season 1. However, everywhere I went online people were obsessing over Regina’s journey, and that aspect of the show seemed to be getting the biggest reaction from the fandom. That’s totally fine, but it wasn’t something that I could get as enthusiastic about as some other people, and it’s a little frustrating to be inundated with a storyline that doesn’t appeal to you to the exclusion of other stories that are also going on.
The other aspect of the fandom that really got to me was the shipping. I’m not opposed to shipping, and in season 1 I was very invested in Snow/Charming, Rumple/Belle and Grumpy/Nova, but things got a little out of control in season 2. The Emma/Neal vs Emma/Hook debate was so loud and so pervasive that an outsider would have thought that the show was simply a romance instead of an ensemble piece about fairy tale characters living in our world. I had my preference of those pairings, but was content to simply watch and see what happens rather than fighting it out online about which pair is the best. I understand these sorts of shipping wars are common and unending in every fandom (just look at what happened recently with Harry Potter), but I’ve always felt like it usually misses the point of the story we’re all watching. Also, the Emma/Regina shippers really irked me, as it felt to me like a drastic misreading of the show.
Season 2 felt to me like it had gotten too far away from what made season one special to me, and I just couldn’t engage with it anymore. I felt like a lot of the narrative drive of the show had been lost, and while I still loved the characters and getting to explore them further, the show had shifted away from the Storybrooke/Enchanted Forrest dichotomy into something akin to an enormous, extended family drama. However, despite my complaints I still enjoyed the show, and the season’s ending, with our heroes and former villains united to save Henry, gave me chills.
Season 3 had a strong start, with a change in setting to Neverland and a great twist on the well-known characters of Peter Pan. Having Hook acting as a hero against a villainous Pan was clever, and struggle between Regina and Emma/Snow/Charming on the best methods to rescue Henry played out perfectly. However, the Neverland story began to drag after a while, especially once we learned that Pan was Rumple’s father, further expanding the (sometimes ridiculous) family tree of Once Upon a Time. Once they had rescued Henry and returned to Storybrooke things changed again, as Emma and Henry left the town with their memories altered as everyone else returned to the Enchanted Forrest. The show jumped forward a year, with Emma and Henry living in New York with completely new lives while everyone else returned to Storybrooke but with no memory of the last year. It was quickly revealed that a new curse had happened, put in place by Regina’s secret half-sister, Zelena, the Wicked Witch of the West.
The 3rd season had some great moments, despite some frustrating storytelling. I loved seeing the main characters united, and the presumed conclusion of Regina’s redemption arc. Hook developed more as a character, while Neal got a heroic death. In particular, I loved Snow and Charming sharing a heart, Mulan realizing her feelings for Aurora, and Regina being the one to break the curse. However, I still felt like the narrative was a bit sloppy compared to season one, and difficult to get invested in. I was more than a little frustrated with Emma’s insistence, late in the season, of returning to New York with Henry instead of staying in Storybrooke with her family. (Add to all of that the existence of Once Upon a Time in Wonderland.)
So imagine my surprise when the two hour finale hit me so hard. (Spoilers for last night’s episodes from here on!) The Zelena story was (mostly, temporarily) resolved last week, and tonight’s episodes gave us a bit of a standalone story, as Emma and Hook went back in time and messed with her parents’ first meeting, Back to the Future style. It was a fun story that retold the Snow/Charming origin in a slightly different way but which reminded me of the early days. We got to watch them fall in love all over again while Emma finally came to think of them as family and Storybrooke as her home. It was a great episode for her character development, moving things in a positive way and making me feel like she’s continuing to grow both as a believer and a hero. The relationship between Emma and Hook progressed as well, but without feeling forced or simply having to rely on the actors’ chemistry. It was sweet, loving and hopeful, all of which are the things I cherished most about season 1, and all of which had been missing on some level ever since. We even got to see Rumple and Belle get married!
But what really hit me was the show’s final moments, which contained the biggest shock the show has given me yet. After revealing that the woman Emma brought back with her from the past was Marion, which potentially ruined the brewing romance between Regina and Robin Hood, Regina warns Emma, “Hopefully that’s all you brought back.” The scene cuts to the location of the time portal, where it’s revealed that an urn from Rumple’s secret dark magic hiding spot hitched a ride back to the present. It opens and a blue liquid oozes out. It begins to form itself into the shape of a human, eventually revealing a woman in a blue dress. The woman takes her gloves off, throws out her hand and shoots off some ice magic. The camera rises as we see her from behind to reveal that this woman is clearly Elsa from the movie Frozen.
As soon as we got a shot of Elsa’s gloves and I realized what was happening I started crying, hard, for reasons that are hard to express. (I cry a lot, in almost every story, for a variety of reasons, so the tears themselves are not exactly noteworthy.) I certainly loved Frozen and I think it’s a masterpiece, one of the top films that Disney has put out in recent years, but it’s not exactly my favorite. I saw it three times in the theater, have listened to the soundtrack constantly, and have even analyzed its deleted songs, but it’s not my favorite film in any category. (I even prefer Tangled to Frozen, but that’s a topic for another time.) And I’m not exactly surprised that Frozen will be making an appearance on the show, as it seemed inevitable if the show remained on TV. So why exactly did this reveal hit me so hard?
Part of it was probably the unexpected nature of the reveal. Despite how the show has changed since season one, I still imagined a scenario where Elsa, Anna, Kristoff and the rest of the Frozen characters would make an appearance in a single episode like various characters did early in the show. I never expected a huge reveal of Elsa in a way that not only implied she was a villain but which also made it seem that at least a sizable chunk of next season will focus on her story. Part of the shock was also just seeing a live action version of the character, complete with her iconic costume and hair braid and powers, with literally no indication that it was coming.
There was also just a genuine sense of excitement, as Elsa was such a rich character in the film and I can’t wait to see what they do with her on Once Upon a Time. One would assume that this means at least an appearance by Anna and a visit to Arendelle, and quite possibly Olaf, Kristoff and Hans as well. Frozen is obviously still fresh in our minds, and the opportunity to further explore the characters in a different setting and style is very exciting.
But what really made up the brunt of the impact for me is a bit harder to categorize. Beyond all of the “Let It Go,” “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and “The cold never bothered me anyway” jokes that I’ve read today (not to mention the questions of whether Once Upon a Time has “jumped the shark”), there’s a certainly amount of questioning as to how and why Elsa is appearing on the show. Conventional wisdom says that Disney forced ABC and the show’s producers to include Elsa, as a way of capitalizing on Frozen’s success. The film won two Oscars, is the highest grossing animated film of all time, and has children and adults obsessed. At the Magic Kingdom at Disney World, they’ve had to change the manner in which they open the park in the morning in order to stop people from sprinting to the Elsa and Anna meet and greet in order to get to the front of the line (which can be many hours long during the day), and have limited how much Frozen merchandise an individual can buy. It would make total sense for the company to want to capitalize on this success, and it’s easy to believe that they forced ABC into this. The show’s heads say that that wasn’t the case, as they wanted to include Frozen because they loved the movie and thought it held lots of possibility for the show, while observing that it’s actually difficult to get Disney to agree to let them use their characters, though of course it’s impossible to know how true all of this is.
My visceral reaction to Elsa’s reveal has a lot to do with Frozen’s status in the company, just as much as it does with the excitement I have to see how the characters are used next season. There’s something seriously impressive about the fact that a character from a film that came out just six months ago has already made it onto TV, and in such a way that she was completely recognizable to the entire audience without ever having to explain who she was. What I really love about this, and what really got to me last night, was just how bold Disney is being with Frozen and I love to see them really owning their success. I know a lot of people are sick of the film by this point, but there’s no denying its huge popularity, and the fact that Disney is fully committing to it is impressive to see. Disney gets so much crap for being a company that “plays it safe,” that only makes things for children and that isn’t worth consideration as a powerhouse, that I’m thrilled to see them tooting their own horn this time. This reveal at the end of the episode was the equivalent of Disney’s hero pose, a chance to show off how badass they are as a company, and to take their most successful property of late and take it to the next level.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I have a deep personal connection to Disney as a company and an ideology, and it felt a little bit like seeing your best friend finally getting the success and the attention they deserve, particularly after listening for years about how they would never make it. Completely external to the plot of Once Upon a Time, it felt like the crowning moment at the end of one of those great underdog sports movies. It felt like Roy Hobbs knocking the ball into the lights, not just a victory but a victory for the ages, complete with swelling music and sparks raining down. It was a moment that felt much bigger than the simple story reveal that it was, much like the destruction of SHIELD felt much larger than simply its role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, because it effects much more than just one film. I guess what I’m saying is, beyond simple excitement for Once Upon a Time’s fourth season, I feel like this represents a crowning moment for Disney, a victory lap or a triumphant fist raised in the air after winning the championship, and it’s that more than anything that got to me.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that putting Elsa and the rest on Once Upon a Time will be a success, but I can say that I haven’t been this excited about the show since season 1. There are obviously a million questions still to answer before season 4 starts in the fall, starting with who will be playing the Frozen characters, but also how exactly they’ll be worked into the story. Elsa really helped flip the script on the standard portrayal of villains in animated movies, and I think that sort of attitude and storytelling could mesh very well with Once Upon a Time. I imagine that ratings for the show once it returns in the fall will be up, and it’s bound to renew some interest in the show, which can only be a good thing. I hope that the writers will find a way to balance Frozen with Once Upon a Time in a way that will appeal to both fans of the film and fans of the show. And if it’s as big a hit as I imagine they hope it to be, we might end up with Once Upon a Time in Arendelle before the end.
What do you think? Were you shocked by Elsa’s reveal? Was it inevitable? What do you think it means for Once Upon a Time going forward? Who do you want to see play the characters from Frozen? Is there any way the film’s cast gets to do it (Kristen Bell has supposedly expressed interest)? How do you think Frozen will be integrated into the story? What will Olaf look like on the show? Is Elsa the next “big bad” of the series, until Anna shows up to thaw her frozen heart? Is it all a big misunderstanding? How did Elsa end up in Rumple’s dark magic warehouse anyway? Am I the only one who is more excited for the show than I’ve been in a long time? Let me know in the comments!