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Love and its Loss: A Vehicle for Change in Once Upon a Time

There’s an old adage that can be both balm and menace, “it’s better to have loved and lost, then to never have loved at all.” If you’re in the middle of a tremendous heartbreak, that sentiment can feel like someone just poured molten lava into your chest cavity. If you’re heartbreak-free and smiling, it’s an anthem, a mantra. Something scrawled on a coffee mug.

Yet, despite living in the real world, the characters of Storybrooke seem to prove this quote to its last letter. Leroy (aka Grumpy, expertly portrayed by Lee Arenberg) falls in love with a woman he can never, ever have. Astrid’s a nun. The absolutely beautiful part of their interaction is how his face lights up whenever he sees her, and she seems to blush to the gills. But, as I said, it’s not a case of unrequited love. It’s a case of impossible love.

Cut to their counterparts in Fairytale Land: Grumpy (whose name, in the beginning, is actually Dreamy) and Nova. Nova’s an apprentice fairy, who is adorably bumbling. They fall in love, even though dwarves are not capable of it. Right there, that’s an interesting barrier to have broken. Just because something isn’t supposed to happen, doesn’t mean it can’t. I think, in the grander storytelling scheme, that is a major tenant of the show. Rules are always bent. Lines are blurred. Appearances and circumstances should not be believed. I keep thinking of the lyrics to “No One is Alone” from Into the Woods.

People make mistakes

Holding to their own

Thinking they’re alone

Honor their mistakes

Fight for their mistakes

Everybody makes

One another’s terrible mistakes

Witches can be right

Giants can be good

You decide what’s right

You decide what’s good

In the end, Grumpy sacrifices his own desires for her. He chooses not to run away with Nova, so that she can grow into the great fairy she was always meant to be. He gives her up for her sake. Although, I’m not entirely sure I agree with that kind of reasoning; she can very well make her own decisions. He walked away, taking that choice from her. But he did it with the very best of intentions, didn’t he? He gave up his own happiness for hers. Perhaps that was a mistake, but it was one born of love.

Everyone make mistakes. No one is without flaws. The important thing to remember, here, is that everyone has a story. No one is exactly as he/she appears to be. A smile can be a disguise. A surly attitude can be a suit of armor. (Btw, this speaks to everyday life, outside of the show. Who hasn’t smiled through a difficult day or time?) It’s important to remember that the population of Storybrooke is filled with people, instead of characters. It is rife with flaws, instead of perfectly formed fantasies. But it seems like everyone is after one thing (with the possible exception of the Mayor), even if the pursuit is misguided: Love. Love is the thread that connects, or disconnects, people – both in Storybrooke and in Fairytale Land. It is, in my opinion, the reason Emma stuck around (she loves Henry). It is the reason Mr. Glass helps Regina (he’s foolishly besotted. He’s so smitten he cannot actually see her. He just feels. That is a dangerous pursuit, like cornering a viper. Or a Snake of Agrabah as the case may be.).

But back to the quote I mentioned in the beginning: it is better to have loved and lost, then never to have loved at all.

At one point, after a particularly terrible day, Leroy and Mary Margaret end up drinking (scotch?) together at the diner. She’s had to deal with some pretty heavy shunning and shaming, because of her relationship with David. (Side-note: this blogger pointed out something pretty neat. There’s a can of red paint in the Mayor’s desk drawer. It is highly possibly that SHE spray painted TRAMP on MM’s car.) Mary Margaret is clearly in pain. She misses David. She is hurt that the town would turn on her. She is drinking to forget, which is impossible, as anyone who’s ever found their heart lying smashed on the side of the road knows. Leroy, who loves someone he has no hope of having a relationship with, reminds her that life is all about collecting moments. It is about making memories, holding onto those during the bad times (when I can, I will get the exact quote). If the memory of love were a flame, it would stay through the darkest winter night. This realization catches Mary Margaret by surprise, and she seems to acknowledge that maybe she’s lost perspective. This exchange has an interesting parallel in Fairytale Land, because Grumpy encounters Belle in a tavern – presumably after Rumplestiltskin threw her out – and she basically explains love to him. Even hurting as she is, because it’s clear that she’s still carrying a gold-spun torch, she espouses the virtues of love. It is better to have lost and lost, then never to have loved at all.

Which brings us to the problem of Kathryn’s, David’s estranged wife. She was her way out of Storybrooke, but her car was abandoned on the side of the road, and she’s nowhere to be found. Technically, it didn’t look like she’d ventured beyond the borders – so what happened? Only time will tell. In the end, Emma is forced to bring David in for questioning. Mr. Glass, still playing both sides to a tricky middle, provided her with Kathryn’s phone records. Unbeknownst to the Sheriff Swann, those records were procured by Mayor Regina, who is about as trustworthy as a singing siren.

As Emma puts David in the back of the police car, Mary Margaret sees it happen. Her face falls, and her heart appears to drop into her shoes. You know, of course, that she hasn’t stopped loving David. There’s no magic “I don’t love you anymore” switch. There is no forgetting potion, as there was in Fairytale Land. No, in reality, there’s love – and the beautiful agony when it’s lost.

That look, when she sees he might be in trouble, is a turning point. You see, she hasn’t truly lost David. He’s very much right there. And he’s very much in trouble. Now, she’s confronted with the very real possibility of losing him for good.

This episode wasn’t just about the backstory of Grumpy, whose pie-in-the-sky disposition is damped by losing Nova — thus turning him into Grumpy. This episode reinforced the central theme of the show: love is force for change. Love is what made Belle return to Rumplestiltskin, after he offered her a way out (that offering, in itself, was a gesture of love). Fear and self-doubt crept in – the thought that one is unworthy of love – and tore that glimmering passion apart.

Love guided Prince Charming to pursue Snow White, and she him. It is what she sacrificed in order to save his life. Love, then, is the gateway to extraordinary things. The loss of love is what drove her to drink the Forgetting Potion. Love is what drove David and Mary Margaret together. But what, curiously, drove them apart? It’s not the absence of love. Instead, it’s mistakes. Perhaps if David had been able to read the letter that Kathryn had left (telling him to be with Mary Margaret – that they have real love), things would be different. But it’s the Regina’s lack of love that spoils things. She took the letter and burned it.

Here’s the thing, though, about love lost: it can be recovered. Hopes can be dashed. Circumstances can rip two people apart. Mistakes happen. And yet, all of those things can be forgiven. You can lose love, like breadcrumbs dropped on a trail. You can run away out of fear. You can turn your back and walk away. Those are all choices. But what cannot be chosen? How one feels. You don’t choose who you love. You can choose what you do about it. When push comes to shove, we (as people) fight for what we believe in, for those we love. Even when it seems impossible – perhaps especially then.

Love, real love, is never easy. But the things in life worth having? They are worth fighting for. They are worth sacrificing everything for. Everyone has a story. Perhaps it is one that sings of passion. Perhaps it is one that sings of heartbreak. Perhaps it is a harmony of both those things. Regardless of which, love is the most powerful force. It doesn’t merely alter how the game is played; it changes the landscape of life itself.

Love lost isn’t the end of the story. Because what’s lost can always be found.

  1. March 5, 2012 at 9:36 am

    *applauds* I LOVE LOVE LOVE this post.

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