Justifying My English Degree: Heroes on the Periphery: The Dynamic Villains of Once Upon a Time

God, has it been two months? Apologies for neglecting the blog, been busy with end of the year grading of papers and the like, as well as dragging myself back to work on Breaking Ties, which is 3-4 chapters out from the finish line. In the meantime, my boyfriend and I have been rewatching this on Netflix, and having the sorts of conversations about the characters that are normal to fans, which inspired me to do a JMED on it. Some spoilers follow.

The Show: Once Upon a Time

Creators: Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz

Principal Actors: Robert Carlyle, Lana Parilla, Jennifer Morrison, Ginnifer Goodwin, Josh Dallas

Synopsis: A woman with a troubled past is drawn to a New England town where fairy tales are to be believed.

The Critique:

At first glance, it’s pretty understandable why an urban fantasy writer would be into a show like this, even though it’s closer to suburban fantasy, a subgenre of UF populated with luminaries of the craft like Rachel Pollack, but the concept of the show, fairy tale characters in a modern world, has been touched on quite a few times, notably by Bill Willingham’s series of graphic novels Fables which has recently been adapted by Telltale Games, or even the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Last Action Hero which follows the adventure of a movie character being brought into our world. The concept runs the common theme of characters, usually heroes, that previously lived in a world of clear-cut morality coming to grips with a world where thanks to moral ambiguity and other realities of our society, the bad guys can win.

Once Upon a Time runs a similar gamut at first blush: Regina (Parilla), the Evil Queen, brings practically every fairy tale character and Disney movie you can think of into our world, wipes their memories, and appoints herself Mayor of the town they all get stuck in, and proceeds to enjoy the spoils of her victory for the next 28 years, all thanks to a curse she bartered from Rumplestiltskin (Carlyle). It’s all done to give the biggest possible middle finger to Snow White (Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Dallas), but she’s eventually foiled by the daughter of her enemies, Emma Swan (Morrison), who breaks the curse. The show’s episodes run a standard formula of moving along the modern world’s plot while giving flashbacks to the time before the curse to flesh out the characters and reveal their motivations and reasons for their natures and action, as well as getting a chance to revise and inject some moral complexity into otherwise simple characters with simple motivations.

At first glance it would seem that Emma and Snow are the two central characters of the show, but respectfully, if you didn’t get this from the title of this essay, I disagree. I instead believe that Regina and Rumplestiltskin/Mr. Gold, are the two primary characters, whereas everyone else is on the periphery. As they are considered the villains, at least for the first season, they are the primary plot-movers whose actions prod the heroes into action, or more accurately reaction. Whenever a hero character seems to make a proactive decision, it’s soon revealed through dramatic irony that they’d been prodded along by either Regina or  Gold all along, usually as pawns in the never-ending chess match between the two. Flashbacks which seek to deepen the peripheral characters often reveal that said depth is provided through interaction with (or more often manipulation by) Regina or Gold.

One of the things you’re taught either in high school or in early writing classes at college is the idea of static and dynamic characters. Static characters essentially remain the same throughout the story, no matter what happens, and more often than not want a return to the status quo. Dynamic characters often begin as static, but often some twist of fate or drastic event causes them to become a force of change. While I’m not going to be an apologist for Regina and Gold, they’ve both done some truly awful things in service to themselves, they’re the only real forces of change. Though some would argue that Emma is the true force of dynamism in season 1, as she breaks Regina’s curse that had held everyone in relative stasis for almost three decades, the plot is all too quick to reveal that it was all a machination of Gold to restore magic, and push along his own story to his own ends. And while Emma does show some dynamic qualities, as a skeptic she’s the slowest to change.

Gold and Regina, on the other hand, receive the most in-depth attention in both backstory flashbacks and modern plotlines. I believe this is due to our nature of wanting to understand villainy, why bad people do bad things, and how, if they can understand their motivations, we could perhaps rehabilitate them. As viewers, we can’t simply accept that Regina is the Evil Queen, we want to know how someone could get to the point where they’re willing to kill their own father, husband, and God knows how many others to spite one woman, and we soon learn that she was in fact a good person once in a strong relationship, and all too ready to be stepmom to a little girl who thought she was awesome that she thought was pretty awesome too, and then, as Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke told us was the cause for all villains, she had one Hell of a bad day. She took a look at the status quo and decided to change it to serve her needs. Selfish, that’s a given, but definitely dynamic as you watch her character fall farther and farther.

Gold is no different, his initial role as the town coward and its consequences pushing him into desperation to become the Dark One by force and in turn become the creepily giggling Faustian dealmaker that dominates much of the series, though unlike Regina, he has bouts of static development, broken mostly through Regina’s involvement. However, one could argue that they simply transition from bystander to villain and that would be the end of their dynamic trend, but I would still disagree.

As I stated earlier, we want to understand those that are capable of villainy so that, if we can nail down their motivations, we can possibly rehabilitate them, and rehabilitation is definitely a form of dynamism, though I doubt Gold and Regina would ever be fully rehabilitated outside of a series finales. Instead, in the aftermath of the curse on Storybrooke being broken, Gold and Regina remain the only two proactive characters, while everyone else generally fades into their previous fairy tale roles and attempt to resume their previous course, even if it’s in a new world. The denizens of Storybrooke seek only a return to their old world, a return to the status quo previously disrupted by Regina and Gold. Regina and Gold, on the other hand, now have to deal with both their magic returning as well as the consequences of their actions, with plenty of opportunities for redemptive action that sometimes they even take. The chances of Regina and Gold ever becoming heroes is low, but their characters are still changing, shifting, moving from villainy into the modern favorite of anti-heroes, committing unethical acts out of pure motivations, often to spare the heroic characters from dirtying their hands.

With this much attention on two villains as well as practically every plot being somehow connected to their motivation, rehabilitation, or moral stumble, the heroic characters move a little further to the edge of the spotlight. They might get to remain the moral center, but the dynamic center belongs to the villains.

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