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Once Upon A Time Space

Commentary on Episode 1: Pilot

Episode 1: Pilot

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The opening title sequence of this show immediately tells us that this is not going to be just another retelling of the classic fairy tales:

"Once upon a time there was an enchanted forest filled with all the classic characters we know. Or think we know."

Before we have time to speculate how that final phrase, "Or think we know", may be significant, we see the story begin with the famous ending of the Snow White story in which Prince Charming awakens Snow White with a kiss. At this point, we know we are about to see a different tale. Fans who would like to read some of the original tales might be interested in the book Once Upon a Time: A Collection of Classic Fairy Tales available from amazon.com. The book includes an introduction by series creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz and the Kindle eBook version includes a copy of the script for this episode. Potential buyers should know that the book contains the traditional versions of the stories as told by the Brothers Grimm, not the Disney versions that some people expect.

After the famous kiss which ends the traditional tale, the action shifts quickly to the wedding of Snow White and Prince Charming. The highlight of the wedding scene is the entrance of Lana Parilla as the Evil Queen wearing a dress reminiscent of the one seen in the Disney animated version of Snow White. Her speech to the couple immediately tells us the premise of the series. Regina arrives at the wedding Then, when the camera pulls back and the image of the two lovers morphs into a picture in Henry's book, we immediately understand that there is going to be a connection between the fairy tale world and our world. The technique of using a picture in the book for each transition between Fairy Tale Land (which I'll abbreviate as FTL) and our world was repeated throughout the episode and served to give us a much better feeling of connection between the two worlds.

This presentation of the two worlds led me to wonder if we, the audience, were supposed to assume that the events we see in the Fairy Tale Land (FTL) were as "real" as those depicted in the modern world or if they were meant to represent things that existed only in Henry's book and in his imagination. Nothing in the first few episodes allows us to say with certainty which is the correct interpretation; we don't see Regina or any of the other characters in Storybrooke acknowledging that they remember being fairy tale characters. We do see many names and events that have counterparts in both worlds, but nothing that couldn't be explained as merely coincidence. The fact that the writers did not resolve this ambiguity until a few episodes later added a great dramatic tension to the story (For the benefit of readers who may not have yet seen the later episodes, I won't say here how that question was resolved, but you only have to wait for a few episodes before the answer is revealed). Looking at the events in Storybrooke from this perspective adds another layer of complexity for one to question what the show is really about. When Henry tells Emma that she is the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming and that she must rescue everyone from their cursed existence by defeating the Evil Queen, who is his adoptive mother, she doesn't believe him and we have to decide whether or not we believe him. Is Regina really the Evil Queen and is Emma really there to break the curse? Or is that just how Henry tries to express a plea for Emma to rescue him from an abusive mother? Or is Regina really a loving but strict and insecure mother who can't find a way to get through to her son and is Emma there to help Henry learn the difference between fantasy and reality and realize that Regina really does love him? Any of these premises could be the basis for a good dramatic series and I loved the fact that the writers teased us with all three possibilities for a little while, dropping some hints along the way, before they finally showed us the answer to how the two worlds are connected.

Snow White with bluebird

In our world, as Henry steps off the bus, we see the first of many subtle hints relating the two worlds in the fact that a bus in the background is a Blue Bird bus - a reminder of the famous scene in the Disney animated version of Snow White in which Snow White was surrounded by bluebirds. Other scenes throughout the show remind us of the film. In one scene we see Snow standing at the castle window releasing a bluebird. That scene in turn ties to the first appearance of Mary Margaret in her classroom releasing a bluebird as her students build birdhouses. She tells them, "Remember what you're building is a home, not a cage." possibly reminding us that the Queen intends Storybrooke to be a cage for all the residents. We see an additional reminder when, in a twist on the old tradition of bringing an apple to the teacher, one of her students gives Mary Margaret a pear. It seems Mary Margaret doesn't like apples!

Emma Swan arrives

Jennifer Morrison's first appearance as Emma is visually striking as the camera centers on her when the elevator opens. That dress doesn't hurt either! This is the only time in the entire first season that we see Emma wearing a dress and we soon learn that she is probably only wearing this one because she is working "undercover", posing as a date for the fugitive she is pursuing. This reinforces to us that Emma is no "damsel in distress" but a tough, heroic character, as does the fact that she knocks the fugitive out cold when he makes a crack about her having no family. Perhaps there is some symbolism in her name "Emma Swan." The first thing I thought of was the story of the Ugly Duckling who was transformed into a beautiful swan. As we learn later, Emma had a very hard life growing up alone, which could be described as her "Ugly Duckling" phase. As the show goes on, we will see her let down some of her defenses and allow herself to care for other people, which could be considered to be what will truly turn her into a swan.

Emma wishes upon a star

We see another bit of symbolism when Emma returns to her apartment and lights the candle on the cupcake. The candle has a blue star on it, reminiscent of the star wished upon by Gepetto in the Disney version of Pinocchio, which led to his wish being granted by the Blue Fairy. Watching Emma gaze at that star, then close her eyes wishfully, I could almost hear Cliff Edwards, the voice of Jiminy Cricket in the Disney film, singing When You Wish Upon A Star . And of course, just as Emma makes her wish, Henry knocks on her door.

The scene in which Henry introduces himself to Emma is priceless. While a shocked Emma retreats to the bathroom to try and compose herself, Henry nonchalantly calls out "Do you have any juice?" as he rummages through her refrigerator. This is an example of good writing; the scene is written so that he behaves like a real kid - oblivious to the existential angst of the adult and focused on the immediate practical problem that he has just arrived after a long bus ride and he is thirsty!

Emma and Henry with book

The name Henry has a strong connection to the history of magical themes when expressed in its German form, Heinrich. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (Sometimes given in Latinized form as "Henricus") was a sixteenth century German theologian who wrote several influential works on magic (Coincidently for a show which features such strong female characters as Emma, Regina, and Snow White, he also wrote a book which argued for the moral and theological superiority of women, entitled Declamatio De Nobilitate Et Praecellentia Foeminei Sexus, or in English Declaration on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex). His book De Incertitudine Et Vanitate Scientiarum Atque Artium Declamatio Invectiva (Declaration Attacking the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences and the Arts ) revived some of the ancient Greek ideas of skepticism toward unverifiable claims of "ultimate truth" presented by authorities and prefigured later thinkers such as David Hume. Henry's skepticism toward Regina's claims of truth seems to echoe these ideas. Agrippa's most famous work, De Occulta Philosophia Libri Tres ( Three Books of Occult Philosophy (Llewellyn's Sourcebook) ) was an important stepping stone from the magical worldview of medieval times to the scientific view that began to take shape in the Renaissance. Although he was writing in a pre-scientific age and describing a worldview that was based upon magic, he would have an influence on later ideas because Agrippa argued that the world had been endowed by God with "natural magic." Disease, for example, could be treated by herbal medicines which were seen as having magical properties. This was in contrast to the medieval view that illness was a punishment sent by God which could only be cured by prayer. Much of our modern understanding of the world would evolve from such contemplations of "magic"; botany would evolve from studies attempting to determine the magical properties of plants, astronomy would emerge from the superstition of astrology, and chemistry from the magical quests of alchemy. The flowering of the sciences would eventually grow from the key idea of the Scientific Method: that ideas must be tested by independent experiment and open debate. But at first there was still a strong sense of the medieval idea that mysteries of the world could be explained by magical knowledge that was only available to a few. The human tendency to attribute the unfamiliar to "magic" was stated by novelist Arthur C. Clarke as Clarke's Third Law:

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

More than a century after the death of Agrippa, Isaac Newton would be born and would become the Enlightenment symbol of a rational understanding of the world when his famous work Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) created the foundation of the science of physics which persists to this day. But Newton actually spent more time working on alchemy than he did on physics and he devoted more time to studies of theology than he did to alchemy. John Maynard Keynes said

"Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians..."

Neal Stephenson's wonderful Baroque Cycle novels ( Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle No. 1), The Confusion (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 2) , and The System of the World (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 3) ) offer a gripping story which highlights some of these magical and scientific aspects of Newton's life as he interacts with both historical and fictional characters. Might Henry's book represent a similar transition between the magical world of the fairy tales and the "real world" of Storybrooke?

When Henry tells his tale to Emma, we are reminded of yet another classic mythological theme. The hero's quest to find his father is a common theme in many ancient mythologies. The most famous example is probably that of Athena's appearance to Telemachus in Homer's Odyssey in which she urges him to go find his father, Odysseus. Henry's trip to find Emma could be viewed in either of two ways that fit this model. Henry could be Telemachus, following the urging of his book (a source of wisdom, like Athena) to seek his long-lost parent, Emma (his mother instead of his father in this case, but still the same basic theme). On the other hand, Henry could be fulfilling the role of Athena, telling the hero (Emma) to go in search of her father, Prince Charming (and her mother, Snow White as well). This second interpretation seems the more obvious, since Emma is clearly the heroine of the series (although Henry manages to do some pretty heroic things for a ten year old - see the discussion of his role as a hero in the commentary on episode 13, What Happened to Frederick? and episode 21, An Apple Red As Blood). One of the more refreshing things about this show is that they don't ram either interpretation down our throats; the story is constructed with just enough ambiguity that either interpretation (or neither) is reasonable.


The ambiguity in the mythological interpretation of the father quest parallels the ambiguity in the question of whether or not Henry's story is meant to be believed. As Emma and Henry drive to Storybrooke, we see another reminder that the FTL scenes we are watching are depictions of what is in Henry's book. As he looks at an illustration of a torch on the dungeon wall, the picture transforms to the camera's view of the torch and then pulls back to show us Snow White and Prince Charming, accompanied by a guard, approaching the cell where Rumplestiltskin is confined. The guard warns Snow and Charming, "Don't let him know your name. If he knows your name, he will have power over you." Although it turns out that Rumplestiltskin already knows their identities, the warning about names is important. It is the first of many occurences of this theme throughout the show. The magical power of names has a long history in the legends and myths of many cultures. The most direct reference here, of course, is the original story of Rumplestiltskin in which the imp agreed to spin straw into gold for a miller's daughter in exchange for her first-born child. The woman defeated the imp by learning that his true name was Rumplestiltskin, at which point he tore himself in two. But belief that names convey power is found in the traditions of many cultures. For example, many Navajo do not address family members by their name but by their position in the family, such as "sister" or "brother". Likewise, it became common for pious Jews in the time of the Babylonian Exile (around 500 BCE) to avoid pronouncing the name of God (traditionally considered to be "Jehova" but usually translated as "Yahveh" by modern scholars). They would substitute the Hebrew word Adonai (meaning "Lord") in place of the name so that what was written as "the god Yahveh" was read as "the Lord God", which is the form used in the King James Bible. The belief in the power of names has been adopted by many authors of modern fantasy and can be found in the descriptions of magic in the Earthsea novels of Ursula K. Leguin, such as A Wizard of Earthsea (The Earthsea Cycle, Book 1) and in Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away Collection: The Magic Goes Away, The Magic May Return, and More Magic

Emma and power line

Back in Storybrooke, Henry refuses to give Emma his home address. Emma steps out of the car and slams the door in frustration. Just as she does so, there is a short on a power line in the background and sparks fly. Was that shown just to add a little dramatic effect to the door slam or should we infer that there is some connection between the events? Could it be that Emma's emotions have some effects on the physical world that neither she nor we are aware of? Will that short turn out to have some important implications in the future? There may be nothing to it, but they did go to a lot of trouble to arrange that special effects shot.

Just after the special effects shot of the power line, Emma notices that the clock on the town library is stopped and Henry tries to explain to Emma that time is frozen in Storybrooke. This gives us our first view of the town clock which will be such an important symbol. The scene also shows us yet another tie between the FTL world and Storybrooke when Archie makes his first appearance and chides Henry for lying about the reason for missing his session by saying "Giving in to one's dark side never accomplishes anything." The scene then switches to FTL and Jiminy Cricket repeats the same words.

Dragon flying before curse

Returning from FTL to our world, we get to see more of the pages in Henry's book when Emma crashes her car on the way out of town. The pages blowing in the wind reveal scenes from The Wizard of Oz and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, suggesting that we may see some of these tales in the future. The pages finally come to rest at a point which reveals a picture of Gepetto working on the magical wardrobe and this picture provides another transition back to the FTL plot. Emma's baby blanket in FTL is white with her name embroidered in purple. Traditionally, white symbolizes purity or innocence and purple symbolizes royalty (Roman emperors wore purple because purple dye was once very rare and expensive). It is probably significant that the Queen's curse takes the form of black and purple smoke, representing evil and royalty. Look closely at the FTL scene where the black and purple smoke of the curse approaches the castle and you can see a dragon flying ahead of the billowing clouds (I mistook it for a bird the first time I saw the program but rewatching it shows that the creature definitely looks like a dragon).

Grumpy sounding the alarm serves as a perfect transition back to Storybrooke where we meet his Syorybrooke counterpart, Leroy. When Emma awakens in the Storybrooke jail, Leroy is in the next cell whistling the tune Whistle While You Work which the seven dwarves sang in the Disney version of Snow White. Regina's arrival with the news that Henry has run away again prompts Emma to ask about his friends, to which Regina replies, "He doesn't really have any. He's kind of a loner." This echoes one of the first things we heard Emma say in the beginning of the episode when she is asked about her friends and she says, "I'm kind of a loner", reminding us that Emma and Henry are both lonely. We get a reminder of Emma's destiny when she offers to help find the runaway Henry by telling Regina and Sheriff Graham "Finding people is what I do." While she is referring to her bailbonds job, we wonder if it might also refer to Henry's description of her destiny to find her parents.

When Emma joins Graham and Regina in Henry's room we see several items in the room that refer to motifs in the show. Henry has a light carousel decorated with several figures, including a swan. The walls of the room are covered with pictures depicting fairy tale scenes. Most significantly, the room is filled with clocks. There appear to be at least a dozen clocks in Henry's room. I argue in one of the Unanswered Questions of Season One, "Why Doesn't Henry Love Regina?", that Henry's problems with Regina began when he became convinced that time was frozen in Storybrooke, so it seems reasonable that he would have a fascination with time.

Regina with Henry's book

Another of the unanswered questions discussed elsewhere on this site is "Does Regina really love Henry?". When Emma returns Henry to Regina for the second time, I think it is no coincidence that after she asks Regina "Do you love him?" the next scene invites us to ponder that question without a word of dialog. We see Regina holding Henry's book with a look of anger on her face that is more fierce than any I recall seeing her display in Storybrooke while Henry lies silently in bed, looking very dejected. Since Regina said earlier that she didn't know about the book or about Henry's belief that it shows her to be the Evil Queen, we can assume that he has been keeping his beliefs from her until now. In the next episode we will see that Regina is still reading the book the next morning, when she says to Henry "You think I'm some evil queen". Her statement confirms that the scene in the pilot which took place the night before is showing us the aftermath of their first conversation about Henry's belief in the curse. Regina is clearly upset about that book and it is obvious she has just had an intense confrontation with Henry to get her hands on it. We don't know what took place in that confrontation but it's clear from their faces that it was not a gentle, motherly discussion of concern over the book's effect on Henry. Rather, Regina appears angry and desperate to identify the threat she perceives in the book. This doesn't prove that Regina's claim to love Henry is false (even the most loving parents will sometimes have angry confrontations with their children) but it does reinforce our sense that Regina is seriously lacking in parenting skills and she continues to put Henry through an emotional wringer, whether she intends to or not.

Emma obviously shares our concern about the answer to this question of whether or not Regina loves Henry because she immediately decides to stay in Storybrooke to check on him. When the episode concludes as the town clock ticks forward for the first time, it emphasizes to us the importance of Emma's decision to stay in Storybrooke for a week. We know that things are about to get started.

Favorite lines:

Emma: "Oh kid, you've got problems."

Henry: "Yep, and you're gonna fix 'em."

Favorite lines:

Rumplestiltskin: "No more happy endings."

Characters in Episode 1:Pilot
Fairy Tale Name Storybrooke NameNotes on Names
Prince CharmingJohn Doe -
Snow WhiteMary Margaret Blanchard Blanchard is derived from the French "blanc", meaning "white".
Evil QueenRegina Mills "Regina" is Latin for "Queen".The woman who promised her child to Rumplestiltskin was a miller's daughter.
- none - Henry Mills Henry is derived from "Henricus", meaning "ruler of the homeland". Henricus Cornelius Agrippa wrote influential works on magic in the 16th century.
Emma Emma SwanThe Ugly Duckling who became a swan?
RumplestiltskinMr. Gold Rumplestiltskin spun straw into gold.
Jiminy CricketArchie Hopper Crickets hop. Both Archie and Jiminy serve as a conscience and advisor.
?Sheriff Graham-
Blue Fairy?-
GepettoMarcoBoth are Italian names and Pinochhio was an Italian story. Both Gepetto and Marco wanted children.
Red Riding HoodRubyRubies are red.
GrumpyLeroy "Le Roi" is French for "the King". Is Grumpy the leader of the 7 dwarves?