Once Upon a Time: A Storyteller’s Thoughts on Prince Charming
There are two worlds: one of fairytales, with Evil Queens, happy endings, and magic – the other a slightly more real place, where love is messy and people are muddling through. There are times where everyone wishes that life were a fairytale, that evil was easy to spot and defend against. Where love, though occasionally tumultuous, is epic and grand. The stuff of legends. In that world, people are heroes. Good triumphs. Obstacles are overcome. True love’s kiss is a panacea.
But the real world? It’s not that easy. Things are complicated. Nothing is black or white. Grey is worn like battle armor. And love, though beautiful and real, is never easy. In this world, mistakes happen. Words are swallowed. Love isn’t easily captured. Even when it’s true and you fight like hell. Even if you try. Sometimes, in this world, it is not enough. Pain happens. People get hurt. Tequila is consumed. Hearts get broken. Damage is done.
Shakespeare said, the course of true love ne’er did run smooth. To that, I’d add: sometimes, you careen off a waterfall, darlings. Sometimes, you drown in the consequences. It doesn’t matter how beautiful or rare it is. In the real world, we fumble around – because life isn’t easily parsed out. The heart certainly isn’t.
Consider, then, for a moment – a person living in both these worlds. Okay, a character. Yes, I’m referring to Prince Charming/David from ABC’s Once Upon a Time. (Basic premise: The Evil Queen put a curse on everyone in Fairytale Land, transporting them to the Storybrook in the Real World. No one can leave.) This show has quickly become my favorite, because it’s wonderfully written, full of layers, and the acting is so divine. I admire the whole production greatly, because nothing is what it seems – even when you think you understand. (A lesson for life, that.)
Take Prince Charming and Snow White – even in Fairytale Land, they’ve got it rough. They both nearly die. One nearly marries someone else. And in a desperate moment, Snow takes a magic draught that does an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Because of how the show began, we know, of course, that they end up together. But that knowledge doesn’t make watching their trials any easier.
In the Real World, there’s David and Mary Margaret (Charming and Snow). He wakes up from a coma. They fall in the best kind of crazy, stupid love. The kind that makes you forget yourself, and ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ cease being words. They’re just letters without meaning. David and Mary Margaret have the kind of passion that tears people apart. And it does, slowly, bit by bit. They love each other in such a palpable way; it almost doesn’t matter that he’s married to Kathryn who he feels suspiciously little for. It almost doesn’t matter, but it does. Week after week, they dance around, half in pleasure and half in pain. It might just be tv, but the portrayal is dead on. Ask anyone who has ever loved in the wrong direction. Small looks. Waiting in coffee shops. Little moments, gobbled up in order to get through the day. Because what you feel is a consuming, whirling passion born of the very best madness.
Eventually, David says he’s going to leave his wife; Mary Maragert can’t take the lies and sneaking around. She wants to be honest, because in love – that’s what you DO. You want to be able to hold hands in public, not sneak off into dark corners (although, to be fair, dark corners can be fun). While he’s explaining things to his wife, he hesitates in his confession. An expression of conflict and fear blanket his face. In that moment, you can feel him waver, waffling because the conversation is freakin’ HARD. How easy is it to tell someone that you love someone else? It’s not. In the real world that we live in, it takes balls of steel. But I digress. David takes the easy road and doesn’t tell her there’s someone else, despite the fact that he promised. The wife finds out, Mary Margaret finds out he lied – and things go very wrong, very fast. David and Mary Margaret break up, and she’s been labeled the town slut. (Okay, that was a little Pleasantville, but I get it.)
Here’s the thing: people who watch the show were OUTRAGED. They were aghast that Prince Charming would fail to do the right thing, that he’d choke like that. Because he’s Prince Freakin’ Charming. Except…he’s not. Not really. This the Real World Charming, aka David.
And David? He’s human. He’s flawed. He makes mistakes, like we all do. Who hasn’t punked out of a difficult confession, skirting around the bombshell of an admission? Who hasn’t, at some point, taken the easy road? No one can say they’ve NEVER done that, especially in a situation like that. It’s not like missing a phone call or a lunch date. It’s “honey, I’m so totally head over heels for someone else. I can’t see straight.”
The course of true love ne’er did run smooth. In the case of David and Mary Margaret, it is a run full of rapids and rough waters. From a storytelling perspective, it can’t be easy. If they just got together and things were awesome, we (as an audience) would probably get bored. The twists and turns, the ups and downs, the moments of shouting at the television (come on, I’m not the only one who does that) are what makes a great story worth it. It keeps the tale dynamic.
And, in all honesty, I think that David’s fumbling were so very human. Withholding that information from Kathryn wasn’t just a character doing something stupid; that was a real life moment, where things don’t go as planned and a person doesn’t do what he should. It also served to illustrate the difference between Fairytale Land and the Real World. Because while each character has retained basic traits, they’ve also lived two lives. And it’s our experiences who help make us who we are.
Sometimes, we chicken out. Sometimes, we don’t show up or step up. Sometimes, we’re all a little bit like David – even in the name of love, even for the sake of love. What he did (omitting the fact of Mary Margaret) was cowardly. But I also think he had good intentions; he was trying to spare her pain. She was, after all, leaving anyway. She seemed almost relieved to be able to go off on her own adventure. It was almost a kindness.
Yes, the decision blew up in David’s face. It resulted in a loss, one that is probably temporary. Because as an audience, we’re pulling for them to get together. (And if you’re not – what’s wrong with you? You probably have a concussion. Seek medical attention.) If Sam and Diane immediately got together on Cheers, it would’ve gone the way of Moonlighting. Anticipation makes a lot of things better; storytelling is one of them. The hard parts, the tough times, they allow the wonderful moments to dance and shine. If things were perfect, if everything happened as it should, the story would suffer. And this is a story, just like real life is sometimes a little bit like a fairytale. Like all stories, it all depends on how you look at things.
Above all else, one must honor the story.