May 14, 2012



Anyone who saw the ONCE UPON A TIME pilot and thought the series would be worth watching only “if nothing else is on” would surely have to be an idiot–and in this case, that idiot was me.  I couldn’t see how the conceit of a show that intercut between a fairy tale kingdom and the modern-day town where those magical characters had (unknowingly) been transported by a curse could sustain for a season, particularly because the pilot showed exactly how the fairy tale story was going to end.

I’m delighted to say I was wrong, and Once has been the most compelling surprise of the network year.  Creator/showrunners Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz cannily spun out their twin storylines all season long, and the predestined ending of the fairy tale universe (after all, don’t we always know how fairy tales are going to end?) didn’t stand in the way of those tales being clever, gripping and unexpected.

Tonight’s season finale (note:  major SPOILERS will follow), written by Kitsis & Horowitz and directed by Dean White, went for broke, with so much happening that it could have been a series climax.  The hour didn’t hesitate for a moment before leaping into the first big payoff of the season:  Emma (Jennifer Morrison), desperate at Henry’s (Jared S. Gilmore) hospital bedside, touching the storybook and having the epiphany that it was all true, everything Henry had told her about the curse and the town and her own standing as The Savior.  This also meant that she knew Regina (Lana Parrilla) was the evil Queen who had poisoned Henry, and we hurtled pell-mell into another huge payoff:  Emma barreling into Regina and the two of them battling it out–until Emma recognized that she’d need Regina’s help to have any chance of saving Henry.

But the episode was just beginning, and before it was done, there’d be a remarkably lengthy sequence (for a series budget) with a CG dragon, the return of a beloved character dead in one of the dimensions, and plenty of double-crosses and reversals, mostly courtesy of Rumplestilskin/Mr. Gold  (Robert Carlyle).  The episode even found space for an original spin on the oft-parodied “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” line from Jaws, and what looked to be a tiny nod to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  All of it led to the biggest payoff of all, the one that seemed designed for the very last episode of the series:  Emma, with a kiss for Henry of true love, breaking the curse on Storybrooke and returning the entire town to consciousness of who they really were, including the reunited Snow White/Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Charming/David (Josh Dallas). Other series talk about “game-changing” season finales, but this truly was one.

So much happened so fast that one might fairly wish the hour could have slowed down a bit, just so we could savor some of the details, but it was never less than thrilling.  Morrison was finally able to realize Emma as the heroine the rest of the series will need her to be, and Parrilla, in just a few shots, did a remarkable job of conveying the complicated mix of resentment, calculation, yearning and regret that makes her Queen more than a cardboard villainness.  Credit, too, to the team responsible for the physical look and feel of the show, which outdid itself this hour in suggesting deluxe production values on what must have been a sliver of a feature budget.

The season finale was so crammed full of denouements that the only question is, what’s left for next season?  The last minute of the episode promised new disasters and challenges to come, yet in such a vague way that it was impossible to tell just where it was all going.  But this writer has doubted Once Upon A Time‘s creators enough–if they say there’s more story to tell, they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt.  And with some of the strongest ratings of any new drama this season, Once should have the chance to tell their stories for quite a few seasons to come.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."