Once Upon a Time returned for its sixth season with an episode entitled, “The Savior”. There remain, of course, lingering plot points yet to be resolved from last season (what else is a season finale for but to set these up?): Mr. Hyde (Sam Witwer) now controls the town; Belle (Emilie de Ravin) is trapped in her own dream; and unbeknownst to everyone, the evil queen lives on after her split from Regina (Lana Parrilla). All this yet to be resolved, plus a hint that this season will involve the Aladdin universe.
For all the cliffhangers, and the sometimes campy costumes and special effects, Once Upon a Time has always been more than spectacle and cheap plot thrills; it offers a good deal of substance. Much like the fairy tales on which it revolves, the show’s simplicity can be deceptive. In one sense, fairy tales are the most basic forms of narrative; they’re stories for children, after all. Yet psychologists tell us these “stories” are at the root of our unconscious, that they define who we are, both as individuals and as a culture. In much the same way, a show about fairy tale suggests a certain level of simplicity; thinking about fairy tales meta-textually though, as Once Upon a Time does, demands a degree of rigor that’s anything but childish.
Perhaps the most important motif for the series takes us back to the original plot device that set the series in motion: the book of stories and the writer himself (a role now played by Henry [Jared S. Gilmore], the very character who originally discovered the book). The book’s the source of the tales, of course, but its nature is more complex than that. As we’ve discovered, the book creates reality, stories become what is written: a paradox for certain, but also a nifty allegory for what the actual show is up to: fusing the “real” world with fantasy.
The show returns back to this touchstone time and time again. We’ve seen villains try to steal it in order to turn themselves into heroes; we’ve seen characters search for missing pages to solve clues; last season we discovered there’s a whole library in New York filled with storybooks.
But the same motif shows up in less obvious guises as well. This week, for example, Emma (Jennifer Morrison) begins having visions of herself in the midst of a heated sword fight. After consulting with Hyde, who points her in the direction of a red bird, which leads her to a girl calling herself “the oracle”, Emma discovers these visions apparently foretell her future. Like most visions of the future, the “reality” of this future is in some doubt. Among other things, there’s no context for what she sees. Like a photograph, or a film (or a television show), her vision reflects a reality without actually being that reality.
Meanwhile, Regina argues with her sister Zelena (Rebecca Mader), who she still blames, to some extent, for Robin’s (Sean Maguire) death. This leads her to a heart to heart with Snow (Ginnifer Goodwin) and, more importantly, to ponder the nature of death and what’s become of Robin. Hades (Greg Germann) told us Robin’s soul was destroyed, that he ceased entirely to exist, but Regina has her doubts. As it often does, the show asks both a literal question — did Robin cease to be, or put another way, was what Hades said “real” — and a more metaphysical one about the nature of death: is the afterlife “real”, and if so in what sense?
The fantasy/ reality split, however, is most apparent this week in Gold’s (Robert Carlyle) plotline. Like Emma, Gold too has consulted with Hyde, who told Gold he might wake Belle — under a sleeping curse since last season — by entering her dreams. Using dream dust (naturally), he manages to insert himself into the “story”, only to discover that Belle is dreaming of her past, of a time when she was a slave to the Dark One, living in constant fear of what he might do to her. Gold’s only choice then is to “re-create” reality, which involves taking Belle through a kind of condensed version of their entire relationship to the point where she can see him for what he’s become rather than the Dark One he once was.
It’s easy to lose track here of what reality truly is. Belle and Gold inhabit a dream, a reflection of reality perhaps, but not true reality. Within that dream, Belle relives her past; again, a reality, though also not a reality. Finally, for Gold, the goal is to recreate only part of her past, to stop reality at the moment when Belle realizes she loves him, but before she realizes their love can never be. In so doing, he hopes to “change” reality, both the reality of the dream and the reality of waking life. “We’ve done this before,” Belle murmurs, as the memories begin to return to her. “This time is different,” he assures her.
It’s what he says next that further confuses the issue: “None of this is real. This is the truth.” The statement both is and isn’t contradictory. On the one hand, “this” can’t possibly be the truth, both because it’s her dream and because what he’s trying to reveal to her is only part of the past, part of the truth. At the same time, in his desperation to regain her love, Gold’s attempt to woo her is the truth; these are his true feelings for her or, at least, this version of him is more real than the one from the past. Yet only in the place where “none of this is real”, can he express that truth.
A lot of fantasy-based television has become very “meta” over the last several years as a means of questioning reality (a la postmodernism) — Buffy the Vampire Slayer springs to mind, and The X Files (and the long-running Supernatural features at least one “meta” episode per season). “Hey look, none of this is real”, they want to remind us. Once Upon a Time manages to question reality in a much more direct sense, by simply telling stories. In an important sense, the show reminds us that virtual reality isn’t something computers made possible. Rather, it’s always been available, through our dreams, our fantasies, and through the stories we’ve been telling since our ancestors first began to speak.