The Root of Evil--ABC's "Once Upon A Time" Makes Evil Characters More Human

Curator's Note

In ABC’s “Once Upon A Time,” they have put a twist on our familiar fairy tale stories by placing them all in a town (without any recollection of their fairy tale past) in our modern-day world where “there are no happy endings.” Each episode of the show focuses on a certain character, who they are in this modern day world, and what fairy tale character they actually are. But, they put an additional spin on these fairy tales by retelling them differently from their traditional stories, and in doing this, the show tries to make these fairy tales more real and the characters in them more human as opposed to fantastical and imaginary.

More specifically with Snow White’s evil queen and Rumpelstiltskin we are given a glimpse as to why they became evil. As you can see from the video, the evil queen wanted to enact revenge on Snow White, and in her view, this is the only way she can be happy. By showing that the evil queen was capable of love, for both this unknown person and her father, she becomes more human instead of just an evil being out to destroy good, as she would be in the original fairy tale.

The same holds true for Rumpelstiltskin. He was trying to protect his son, and because he can see no other way, he takes this power and becomes evil. Knowing that Rumpelstiltskin was a desperate man, a coward even, who was only trying to save his son, we become more sympathetic to his character because he’s more human to us through his back story.

In getting the background on these two evil characters, it changes how we view them in the modern setting in the show. But not only that, it changes our opinion on evil in general. Evil no longer becomes an abstract idea that is the opposite of good, but rather the people that have embraced evil did so because they saw no other way or were hoping to use this evil power for good. These two characters become more human to us through these portrayals, making us feel sympathetic towards them, and allow us to hope that perhaps they don’t have to be destroyed entirely like they are in the original fairy tales, but that they can be changed for the better and be redeemed.


 I find the concept of giving "evil" both a backstory and some sort of emotional grounding fascinating. It is telling that the dichotomy of good and bad appears to be complicated in contemporary narratives or retellings. It seems that fairy tales, at once morality lessons and (occasionally) fantastic flights from reality (and sometimes morality) can resonate even louder with the exploration of the darker sides of the story. While I'm against saying "things have gotten more complex these days," I do think our desire for character psychology has become more varied, which is fantastic. I definitely want to check out the show!

I agree that the dichotomy of good and bad does tend to be blurred in more modern stories (and you should definitely watch the show!). I think it makes the story more real and relateable to the audience. People are not as clear cut and black and white as the past fairy tales seem to make their characters. There's a little bit of good and bad in everyone, and by showing this in modern stories, for both the good and bad characters (at least as they appear on the surface), the characters are no longer flat but become more like us.

I’ve found the most interesting part of the show is the retelling of the fairy tale character stories. In doing so, the writers have created multi layered characters breaking down the strict good vs. evil binary structure as you’ve noted. The original fairy tale stories had a clear hero and villain, but the show suggests that any one has the potential to grow into darkness like Regina/Evil Queen. The audience finally gets the back story of the Evil Queen in Episode 18, “Stable Hand.”

Interestingly, the show was initially marketed through this binary as seen in one of the early twenty-nine second montaged advertisement spot for the show entitled “Good Vs. Evil!” I’d argue the spot does three things in particular (each done in nine-seconds). In the first nine seconds the dual narrative format of the show is introduced. The spot first introduces the fairytale setting, and later the to the present day town of Storybrooke. It begins with a person wearing all black on horseback, and cuts to Prince Charming brining Snow White back to life with true love’s kiss. Next there is an establishing shot of a part of the fairy tale world with ominous clouds quickly moving and a dark castle. Starting with the fairy tale narrative does two things. Introducing the fairy tale world first is chronologically accurate because it took place in the past (twenty eight plus years ago according to the story). Second, it grabs viewers with the iconic images and sounds that are distinctly embedded in their memory from Disney fairy tales. Portraying images and characters (Snow White and Prince Charming here) that are already familiar allow viewers to easily jump into the series. At the same time there are images the audience isn’t familiar with (the dark rider, and the castle) indicating the familiar stories have been adapted and are malleable. The present day narrative introduces Jennifer Morrison’s character Emma Swan and Storybrooke. In the first ten seconds the audience understands that there are two distinct but intertwined narratives.

The second nine seconds in the spot reveals the good/evil binary. The montage format aids the delineation of a binary and the tension inherent in it. Both in the ad and through the series the good/evil distinction is indexed visually where white connotes “good” and black “evil.” Over a black screen is white text that reads “Good.” Immediately followed by two shots of Ginnifer Goodwin as Snow White (wearing a long white dress, standing in an open doorway, smiling as she sends a blue bird into the sky) and Mary Margaret Blanchard (at a window, wearing a white shirt and sweater and light green skirt, smiling, sending a blue bird into the sky). A black screen with “VS” written is followed by a fight scene between a figure dressed head to toe in black armor and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas). The sequence captures the discord of the good and evil co-existing manifested in physical combat. The same text over a black screen reads, “Evil” with shots of Lana Parilla who plays the Evil Queen (dressed in black head to toe, with her back to the camera walking through a doorway she turns around looking combative) and Regina Mills (dressed in a grey suit with a black shirt, with her back to camera walking through a doorway she turns around looking combative). This ad clearly sets up good embodied by Snow White/Mary Margret, and evil personified by The Evil Queen/Regina Mills.



Thirdly in the last nine seconds the ad emphasizes the link between ABC’s successful series Lost explicitly linking it to Once Upon A Time. The connection between Lost and Once Upon a Time comes up with the inclusion of text that reads, “from the writers of of Lost.” There is cut between each word with a shot from the show, and the cuts become increasing quicker building anticipation. The images from the show that pop up between the text include but aren’t limited to: a moving hand from the clock in Storybrooke, a key, Rumplestiltskin’s face, an eye opening, Snow and Charming almost kissing at their wedding, and Charming throwing a sword at the Evil Queen during the wedding. These glimpses may suggest that those images are key signposts for the show, similar to the signposts audiences would look for in Lost. The promise of writers from Lost invites the audience to anticipate a dark and mysterious element to the show, and perhaps suggests the show will have success like Lost.

The last sequence is of Rumplestiltskin (behind bars) played by Robert Carlyle who says, “it has begun…” signaling the show has started… come watch!

I had a lot of questions when I was thinking about the second ten-second segment of the advertisement. What I wonder is how problematic this codifying of good and evil in such clear lines is? Although the characters are deconstructed a bit it seems too easy to rely on “white is good” and “black is evil” binaries that are rooted power relation hierarchies in terms of race, class and gender. Additionally, since the show seems to be driven by women with some sort of power is this good vs. evil binary gendered? Does the show actually delineate ‘good’ performances of femininity vs. ‘evil’ performances of femininity?  I wonder which will be reinforced as the series continues or if the binary will break down more.



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