All Good Things… Part 3: Once Upon a Time

The series was mediocre, but they had a terrific finale.

Once Upon a Time had its series finale a few weeks ago. Several of you just asked, “Didn’t that show end last year?” and the answer is, of course, no. Despite the fact that a good portion of the leading section of the ensemble called it quits at the end of the previous season the show rebooted itself a bit for one final run. The final season focused on an adult Henry and Regina under the effects of a new curse with new villains and new friends.

The season, by and large, was fine. It wasn’t noticeably better or worse than any of the previous seasons and maintained the same messages of hope, love in all forms, acceptance, and redemption that were common to the rest of the series. Once Upon a Time will never win any awards but in a day and age when many stories are darker and grimmer than ever and reality seems just as dark and grim it was nice to have a show where you knew the heroes would eventually prevail and even half of the villains could be converted to the side of hope. It’s frequently one of the stories I hold up when I tell people, “You can love a movie or TV show even if technically it isn’t very good.”

One of the issues that plagued Once Upon a Time through its entire existence was the fact that the stories were largely forgettable and tended to blend into each other. You might recall that Ariel spends a period of time on the show but chances are you have no idea which season she was in or exactly how her story played out. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Once Upon a Time was ever a great show or even really a good show. But it was a nice show and I’m going to miss it.

The finale, despite being one cohesive story, was split across two weeks – at least on Hulu, where I watched it. And, in the end, the story of the finale is largely as forgettable as the rest of the series but the strengths of the show were also in full evidence.

The themes of the show were rendered everywhere with gleeful abandon. Every kind of love you can imagine is on display – friendship, familial, and romantic – multiple characters who have sought redemption find it in their own ways. Hope was mentioned and paid off more than once.

The other strength of the show was always the large number of reimagined fairytale characters. The villains almost always had depth. The heroes had hopes and fears and flaws to go with their hope and strength. And the final episodes remembered the vast majority of the characters. Almost everyone of any importance who has ever appeared on the show reprised the role one last time for at least a few moments. Notable exceptions were Neal/Baelfire and Pinnochio who played large parts in the first seasons but hadn’t been around for some time and were either forgotten or whose actors couldn’t be enticed to return. Others were probably also missing but, honestly, the show has featured so many cast members during its existence that it was nearly impossible to bring them all back. Several of the characters who did make a return had no lines and only a few brief moments on screen.

So, yeah, Once Upon a Time wasn’t a great show. But it didn’t have to be. And when it came time to say goodbye they did a terrific job. Everyone gets some version of a happy ending and the realm was saved and restored. The whats and hows of this show have always been less important than the whos and whys and OUAT‘s team knew it. The creative team even remembered to say goodbye to the iconic locations as the final moments of the show featured the camera sweeping past Granny’s Diner, Gold’s Pawn Shop, and even Emma Swan’s little yellow beetle. The final shot of the show was the epochal “Leaving Storybrooke” sign. That’s an image that will stick with me for a long time. The same as the messages of hope, love, and acceptance Once Upon a Time stood for.

All good things… Part 2: The Princess Series – The Snow Queen’s Shadow

A terrific book series ends horribly due to questionable reasoning.

I adore The Princess Series. The first three books are masterpiece fantasy efforts that take fairytale princesses with which we’re all familiar then go back to their less familiar roots then changes them in subtle ways to tell a completely unique and fresh story. The series stars Cinderella, known as Danielle, Snow White, known simply as Snow, and Sleeping Beauty, known as Talia. After their original tales, they go on adventures to protect Cinderella’s kingdom from a wide variety of threats. Goodreads describes it a bit like fairytales crossed with Charlie’s Angels and they’re not entirely wrong.

The protagonists and antagonists of these stories are almost exclusively women making it an exceptionally feminist-friendly tale. For those looking for more representation, there is even a lesbian relationship or two included in the stories. Each of the books puts plenty of focus on each of the three women and gives them their times to shine and Jim C. Hines does a terrific job finding a broad range of solutions for each of the three characters to enact using their unique skill sets while breathing life into these characters with interesting, complicated relationships between them that lead to tears and humor in equal measure.

At least until The Snow Queen’s Shadow.

According to a postface following The Snow Queen’s Shadow, the fourth and final book in the series, Hines had initially planned to make the stories more episodic and write a lot of books but decided against it once he realized that one of the characters was in love with another. At that point, he felt he needed to go a different route and serialized his story and ended it after only four novels. I disagree with his reasoning – that the only way to do justice to the character was to have a serialized arc that ended – but we’re not going to get into that, just now.

I’ve said at least a dozen times that ending series is incredibly difficult. Last week I talked a bit about how I interpreted Kevin Hearne’s writing in the ending of The Iron Druid Chronicles as an attempt to deal with some of those pitfalls with mixed results. Hines went in a completely different direction and, if you hadn’t gathered from my single sentence paragraph, there, I was left more than a little unimpressed. In fact, it might very well be the only novel I’ve ever disliked that much and still completed. I’m about to get into SPOILERS but before I do I wanted to make sure you understand; the first three books in this series are great and I really can’t recommend them enough. But I probably wouldn’t bother to read The Snow Queen’s Shadow if I were you. And now I’ll tell you why.

Spoiler alert! Turn back if you don't want any spoilers!

The first thing that bothers me is that the story is still pretty episodic. Each book completes its own arc and while character traits and growth carry over from novel to novel there are not really any continuing story arcs. What that means is that Hines naturally avoided most of the pitfalls that come from writing series that make writing the endings so hard and he still managed to screw it up.

There is only one real problem with the story. And you might be asking yourself, “One problem? You love all kinds of terrible things with far more problems. Solo: A Star Wars Story had at least 4! What is your deal?” And the answer is that it was a really big problem. So big that I have to keep hyping it up a bit. A lot of times in stories with large ensembles you’ll see long-lost characters or frequently recurring guests make returns in the finale in order to say goodbye. If you need some examples think of Star Trek: Enterprise or Once Upon a Time (which I’ll talk about more in the next couple of weeks.) This is a perhaps cliche but very solid way to end a series by making sure even supporting characters get their sendoff, as well.

TSQS does the exact opposite of this. Not only were prominent characters from earlier stories largely or completely ignored but one of the stars of the series was completely removed from it. Snow White is possessed by a demon within the first 30 pages of the book and only barely recovers herself in time to say goodbye to Talia after Talia kills her at the end of the book because it is the only way to slay the demon possessing her. Snow’s body is present but her mind, far more important, especially in a book, is not.

Remember how Hines felt the need to make the story more serialized (even though he didn’t actually do any such thing) because Talia’s unrequited love for Snow deserved a real arc? This was his conclusion to that arc. That Snow be largely missing from the final story and that Talia be forced to kill her.

Only it gets worse.

Because before Snow was completely possessed by the demon she ripped out a part of herself, made this imaginary-sister-come-to-life named Gerta love Talia, and sent her to help the heroes. Talia, with no one else to be in love with, falls for Snow’s “sister” after she is forced to kill Snow. Kevin Hearne tried to have his cake and eat it, too, with Atticus as I described last week but it was nothing compared to deleting a character and then slotting her imaginary sister into the story as an exact replacement and having all the other characters just slot the new one right where the old used to go.

It’s true that not all stories have to have happy endings. But this isn’t just “not a happy ending”. This is actively ignoring one of your three main characters for the entire story followed by a sad ending followed by a super weird and awkward consolation prize for all of the surviving characters. The writing isn’t bad but the decision-making that led to that writing surely was.

I feel confident in assessing Jim C. Hines as an above-average writer based on his efforts in the first three books of this series, though I haven’t yet read his other works. But this book was simply poorly conceived. I like to re-read my favorite books occasionally and I am reasonably certain The Princess Series will be added to this rotation. All of them except for The Snow Queen’s Shadow which I will hopefully completely forget now that I have written this post.