Once Upon a Time: A Storyteller’s Thoughts about Self-Discovery
Figuring out who you are is a tricky thing. It can, and often does, take a lifetime to parse out. Even then, I think we only graze the surface. Discovery is a process, not a single instant or a certain place. Revelations arise and fall away at unknown whims. I think that the moment we stop being surprised by who we are, who we could be, is the moment we stop growing as people. That is a dangerous state of being.
Some people never grow up. Some people get stuck in a mindset or attitude. You know the type. There’s always that one guy who you went to high school with, who keeps talking about The Big Game. But what happens if a person who was frozen in time, so to speak, suddenly wakes up? How would that person go about constructing or extracting an identity or sense of self? It is reasonable to assume that there would be a certain level of uncertainty, the kind that surfaces when we, as people, are nervous or unsure. Emerson once wrote that “[t]o be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Notice that he did not claim it would be easy.
Mirrors lie. Words lie. Worse yet: memories lie. (One of my favorite quotes about the nature of memory, “Memory is a mirror that scandalously lies” — Julio Cortázar)
But do actions?
Take the character of Little Red Riding Hood/Ruby (played by the lovely Meghan Ory) from ABC’s Once Upon a Time, specifically this week’s episode Red-Handed. (In case you need a refresher, here’s how the show works: The Evil Queen put a curse on everyone in Fairytale Land, transporting them to the Storybrooke in the Real World. No one can leave.) In Storybrooke, Ruby is a rebel with a confidence problem. She’s got red streaked hair, a wild side, and a desire to see the world – all while wearing a skirt shorter than a napkin (major props to Meghan for being able to rock that look with aplomb). She longs to experience life. Basically, she’s every teenager, magnified. Curiously, it is her conversation with August (the mysterious motorcycle-riding writer who is the first stranger to visit Storybrooke ever. He’s played by Eion Bailey, who I’ve adored since Center Stage.) that allows her to change. Until the sheriff, Emma Swann (Jennifer Morrison), came to town change was impossible. She set the clock moving, quite literally.
After talking to August, Ruby quits her job at the diner, urged on by the need to DO something. To SEE something. Anything. It doesn’t really matter what. In fact, she hadn’t thought about that part at all. She acted, without thinking, going on instinct alone. (That’s important.)
Her counterpart in Fairytale Land is just as rebellious. Where she differs, at least initially, is her grasp of self. When she found poor, displaced Snow White (who cleverly gives her name as Margaret – no, Mary. It’s important to note the connection between names and identity. The curse took away each character’s true name, thus stripping away parts of who they are. The act of naming is an act of power.), she doesn’t hesitate to take her in. You see, there’s a vicious wolf on the loose, eating people and livestock. She’s pretty badass. She knows how to track. She wears a beautiful red cape, until the very second that her grandmother stops paying attention, and she takes it off. Because she doesn’t want to be told what to do, like Ruby.
But it turns out that Red doesn’t really know who she is. She has plans to run away with Peter, the young blacksmith. When she and Snow discover that the wolf isn’t just a wolf – it’s a person cursed to turn when the moon is full – she runs to Peter, suspecting that it’s him. They devise a plan, so that they can still be together. She’ll tie him up with chains so he doesn’t hurt anyone. “You’d do that for me?” he asked, echoing a question she’d asked him earlier. “I’d do anything for you,” she answers, just as he did. That, right there? That’s love, pure and simple.
The trouble is, Red is the wolf. The cape she’s supposed to wear would keep her from transforming. In a tragic moment, she kills Peter. It is then that she discovers who she is: a killer, a monster, a wolf.
Or is she? Isn’t this transformation just one more curse? And who HASN’T felt like they turn into a raging wolf, sometimes? Granted, in real life, we don’t rip out people’s throats. But still. Red discovers who she is in a moment of blood and pain. It is a kind of birth. If the classic Little Red Riding Hood is a cautionary tale about innocence, lost and found, then Once Upon a Time’s rendering is about self-realization and discovery.
The discovery doesn’t end there. Back in Storybrooke, Ruby takes a job at the Sheriff’s station, helping out Emma. She slowly starts to understand that she’s capable of more than she ever realized. That she is smart and useful. In fact, she helps Emma track down David, who Mary Margaret encountered in the woods acting strangely. He’s wandering the area of the forest where Kathryn went missing. As an interesting carryover from Fairytale Land, Ruby has a heightened sense of hearing and smell, like a wolf. That little gem made me wonder what else people could, potentially, carryover from their previous lives. It’s not just certain facets of personality. It’s powers. Perhaps, then, it’s also magic. (We’ve seen a glimpse of that, I think, with Mr. Gold / Rumplestiltskin – as well as Regina / the Evil Queen.)
David, once found, is completely terrified by the idea that he blacked out and murdered his wife. He’s lost some time. He cannot remember an entire night, which presumably he spent in the woods. Then, Ruby (in her last act for the Sheriff’s office) discovered a box that’s been buried near the troll bridge. The box, exactly like the one that contained the Huntsman’s heart, holds Kathryn’s heart. On the lid are fingerprints. (Side-note: the symbolism of the heart in the box is a powerful one. Like the characters themselves, they’ve been held in a box, captured in time. In a way, Storybrooke is a kind of half-death. Each character is functionally alive, but reined in by the Curse.)
Horrified and grieving, David throws himself at Emma’s feet in a tearful, heartbreaking moment of desperation. But the kicker is that the fingerprints don’t belong to him. They’re Mary Margaret’s. At this point, in a nice showing of dramatic irony, the audience pretty much knows that Regina’s to blame for this, having a penchant for murder, tampering with evidence, and heart-snatching. Perhaps because she doesn’t have one of her own, she keeps thieving others.
Slowly, the characters of Fairytale Land are discovering who they are, and who they might be, in Storybrooke. Pieces of personality are revealed, but which pieces are lies? What truth could a mirror hold or yield, if the mirror itself is distorted? In a perfect world, it would be easy to form an identity, without outside influence or interference, without those bumps in the road, or forks, or the occasional ditch. But part of who we are as people arises when we face those challenges, when we rise to them, when we move beyond what we think we’re capable of. Just like Red. Just like Ruby.
Somewhere, we each have a heart in a box (not, dear gods, in the literal sense. Unless your name is Buffalo Bill – in which case, put the lotion down). A secret. Something stashed away from prying eyes. In a way, everyone is an unknown wolf, a darker side hidden in shadow.
Like Mary Margaret, we can be accused of something we did not do. Fingers pointed. Spray-painted accusations written as bright as shame. Like David, we can blame ourselves for something we are afraid we might’ve done. Who hasn’t taken responsibility for something, unnecessarily? Like Emma, we’re all just looking for the truth (although, that being able to KNOW when someone’s lying? I’d like that superpower). Like Ruby, we want to belong. We want to matter.
Sometimes, we are the monster. Sometimes, we are the wolf. And sometimes, like the case of the heart-in-a-box, things are not what they seem.