Once Upon a Time: A Storyteller’s Thoughts on Trust and Heartbreak
Heartbreak is strange thing. The aftershocks of love, the breathlessness of losing it, can change a person. The truth remains that no one is exactly the same after having been in love. You can’t be. Someone else touched your life, helped you to grow, and maybe (if you’re really lucky) helped you see yourself differently.
Love is a game-changer. But so is its loss. Have you ever seen someone fresh after a heartbreak? There’s a hollow look to them, a constant precipice of grief. Most people spend a few days face-deep in a pint of Häagen-Dazs, watching stupid movies, and wallowing. Eventually, you dust yourself off, put on actual clothing (instead of the oldest pajama pants you own), and get out of the house. You move on, despite the fact that it feels like someone’s ripped out your heart and crushed it to dust.
This is compounded tenfold, of course, if your mother is a magic-wielding, social ladder climbing, heartless liar (Stable Boy). I am referring to Regina’s mother, Cora, in Fairytale Land, played to the hilt by Barbara Hershey. We meet a younger, doe-eyed Regina who cannot seem to please her mother. Emotional abuse abounds, as well as physical abuse in the form of magic. Like most victims, Regina does what she can to get along. In a heartbreaking moment, she promises to be good. (I’d like someone to define her mother’s definition of good. Because I’m fairly certain it’s not all roses and pixie dust.)
As the story unfolds, we learn that the young Regina and Snow have a great deal in common. Both women believe wholeheartedly in the power of love. However, we are given a glimpse of a young Snow (perfectly played by Bailee Madison. I was really impressed by her), whose horse has run off with her. Regina rescues her, comforts her, and encourages her to get back on her horse, saying, “The only way to overcome fear is to face it.” But this seemingly innocent encounter brews a dark trouble.
Regina is in love with the stable boy, Daniel (if he had said as you wish, I would’ve lost it). Her mother, being evil, would not approve and would stand in their way. Once Regina saved Snow, the princess’s father visits and proposes – which is quite possibly the fastest courtship EVER. (Was HE under some kind of spell? Or is he just the Let’s Go to Vegas type?) Regina’s mother accepts for her. (And you thought YOUR parents were controlling. Eesh.)
Regina is thrown into a panic. She meets with Daniel, tells him what happened, and they agree to run away together – until Snow discovers them kissing. Except, miracle of all miracles, Regina appeals to Snow, telling her about love, true love, and how she loves Daniel. At one point, Regina proclaims, “True love is magic,” which echoed Rumplestiltskin’s admission from a few episodes back. And Snow, showing shades of her future self? She gets it. She even agrees to keep the truth from Regina’s mother, because Cora won’t understand.
Everything seems like it will work out. Until Cora corners little Snow, playing on the loss of the child’s mother to wheedle information out of her. (This, I have to say, was masterfully done. Hell, for a second I almost believed she was sincere.) Trying to protect Regina from the pain of losing her mother, Snow confesses Regina’s heart and her plan. Snow, being a child, thinks she is helping – that she’s doing the right thing.
Of course, after a particularly harrowing confrontation in the stable, we learn that Regina’s mother is the carrier monkey for all that is evil. She admonishes Regina, only to appear to relent when he daughter stands strong. Regina, in a moment of hope and weakness, puts her trust in her mother. She knows better than to believe her, and yet, like every child – wants to believe her. A few happy moments pass, until Cora rips out Daniel’s heart and crush it to dust. Now, Regina has to marry the King. Snow, unknowingly, tells her that she looks beautiful in her wedding dress, thinking that she is going to marry Daniel. From that discussion, Regina begins to harden. You can see the idea of revenge begin to surface in her trained mask of a face. In that moment, Regina has begun to resemble and emulate her mother. We’re reminded that evil isn’t born – it’s made.
This episode is all about trust, perceptions, and choices. For whatever reason, Regina doesn’t hold her mother responsible for Daniel’s death – despite the fact that it was her hand in his chest. Like most people after a loss, she needed to BLAME someone. Anyone. She held a child responsible. Perhaps something of her died with Daniel. With his loss, Regina became the worst version of herself. And losing love? It can do that to a person, but that I think it’s a choice. Regina may not have been evil at the start, but in that moment with Snow? She chose evil.
Which brings us neatly to Storybrooke, where things are never what they seem. We’re given a flashback to Mr. Gold asking for Regina’s help with his legal problems. Then, he tells her to frame Mary Margaret for Kathryn’s death. Which, presumably, is how the whole heart-in-a-box fiasco came to be. Gold, it’s interesting to note, openly refers to Regina as Your Majesty when they’re alone. To me, that reads as the southern “Bless her heart,” which is laden with a meaning other than what’s in the actual words. But that’s just me.
In present day Storybrooke, Emma is frantically trying to prove Mary Margaret’s innocence, teaming up with August – who is as alarmingly sincere as he is mysterious and dashing. With Henry’s help, they illegally uncover a broken shovel at Regina’s house, which would implicate her in Kathryn’s death. Except, when she goes back the next day, with a warrant – the broken shovel has been replaced with a whole one. Emma blames August, and we discover that she’s having trouble, lately, telling the lies from the truths. Her superpower? It’s a little broken. She is having trouble perceiving things as they are, and not how they seem. Mr. Gold cleverly asserts, “perception is everything, not just in court but in life.” That is so, so true. We tackle life through the lens that we see it. If we cannot ascertain what’s in front of us, how can be handle it? We can’t. And, occasionally, we go the way of Evil, like Regina, because of it.
There’s a small reveal for David, who chases after Emma to ask how Mary Margaret is. Emma gives him the talking to that we all wanted to give him, citing that he didn’t believe in her and that he practically accused her of killing Kathryn. He apologizes, says that Mary Margaret misunderstood what he was trying to say, and admits to being surrounded by confusion. Something, I think, Emma can relate to. From David’s expressions and admissions, he seems sincere. He’s just a guy who screwed up, perhaps by not stepping up in the way Mary Margaret needed. But he never stopped believing in her. And that, loveys, in the key. The love is still there. And as Daniel the stable boy said, “true love in the most powerful magic of all. It can overcome anything.” Even, say, David failing to be Charming – which is a very human thing to do. Everyone, at some point, fails to step up or show up. It’s how we handle the aftermath of it that proves our meddle and our hearts.
Later, Emma, in a lucky moment, learns that she has trusted the wrong people. Her “friend” Sidney, the reporter, has been working for Regina all along, and she finds a bug he planted in her office. Betrayal doesn’t make Emma upset; it pisses her off. And a pissed off Emma is a motivated Emma. She apologizes to August, and then rips into Mr. Gold, who promised he could get Mary Margaret out of trouble. Mr. Gold, as deliciously ambiguous as ever, exclaims that “there’s still time to work a little magic.”
Of course, we (the audience) know that he means this literally, because he is Rumplestiltskin (not, I must say, Rumpey. People who refer to him as such may be transformed into chairs or snails). At the end of the episode, Emma finds a dirty, panicked Kathryn alive (!) in the parking lot at Granny’s. Again, we are reminded that nothing is what it seems. Rumplestiltskin might be playing both sides toward a middle, candles burning at both ends. I don’t think he’s either good or bad; I think, like most people, he has the capability for both.
Our lives are often shaped by who we trust, who we let in, and who we love. There are instances where we trust the wrong person – a parent, a friend, a lover, a stranger. That act can damage us. Our hearts harden, even just a little bit. We are wounded by our experiences. It is inescapable, sometimes. But in those moments, we are met with a choice. We can let our pain change us, or we can push forward and keep trying. That reminds me of something Neil Gaiman wrote in his poem Instructions, “Do not lose hope — what you seek will be found. Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped to help you in their turn. Trust dreams. Trust your heart, and trust your story.”
There’s the crux of it: trust your heart. Trust your story. That is all any of us can really do.