Looking back on Once Upon a Time's Pilot | TV Review

To kick off my quarantine watching, I’m embroiling myself once more in the immersive and slightly confusing quagmire that is ABC’s Once Upon a Time.

Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jennifer Morrison, Lana Parrilla, Josh Dallas, Jared S. Gilmore, Raphael Sbarge, Jamie Dornan, and Robert Carlyle

Alright, full disclosure, I did actually start rewatching this a couple of weeks ago, so not sure if it strictly should be considered a quarantine rewatch, but since my darling partner Ben is busy doing an arrangement for some showtune or other, I might as well entertain myself writing up my little recaps of what has happened thus far.

So, I absolutely adored Once Upon a Time back in the day. Disney princesses? In the real world? Sign me up. Mind you, I’m certain that if I’d have gotten into it when the first season was airing weekly, I probably would have become bored/frustrated. I mean, I’m already getting frustrated at the idea of Snow White not knowing that she’s in a curse before even starting the first series, especially because as the series rumbles on, curses get broken with increasing regularity – and there’s also precious little question as to what is going on in this particular curse. We know already when we arrive in Storybrooke that these characters are cursed. Anyway, I’m interrupting what I am about to say, which is very rude of me.

So, Once Upon a Time as a programme employs a split narrative device. In this context, we are presented simultaneously with the “real” modern day storyline, predominantly based in a fictional town called Storybrooke, in Maine. The other narrative focuses upon past events in the Enchanted Forest, and other such kingdoms. From the creators of Lost, each episode features flashbacks about particular central characters, which contextualise their current situations and behaviour patterns. All of it with supernatural and fairytale elements, of course.

For the purposes of this recap, and keeping everything neat plotwise, I’m going to retell these two separate parts of the story separately, but within the episode they are intertwined for peak dramatic effect.

The Enchanted Forest

The episode opens on perhaps the most iconic fairy tale moment ever: Prince Charming, as he rides through the forest on his steed, to kiss Snow White, as she lies death-like in her glass coffin, struck down by the Evil Queen’s nefarious curse. The kiss, of course, being true love’s kiss, breaks the curse and we next see our couple as they celebrate their wedding. The festivities are interrupted, however, by the appearance of the Evil Queen, who vows that she will take away their happiness.

A pregnant Snow is quite shaken by this, and she and Charming visit their prisoner, Rumplestiltskin (henceforth known as Rumple, because it’s hard to spell), who is able to tell the future. For the price of knowing the name of their unborn child, which is to be Emma, Rumple reveals that the Evil Queen will indeed enact her curse, resulting in all of them being imprisoned for years, with their happiness taken from them. The solution to this, he claims, is Charming and Snow’s baby, Emma, who, upon her 28th birthday, will commence the final battle.

To prepare for the oncoming curse, the Blue Fairy reveals that there is a mystic tree that will protect from any curse, but warns that it will only protect one. The plan is for Snow to go inside the tree to be protected from the curse, such that she can then give birth to Emma, raise her, and then break the curse.

Unfortunately, as the curse approaches, Snow goes into labour. Though they try to move Snow to the enchanted wardrobe, it is too late for her to move. With Regina’s forces advancing upon the castle, Charming prepares to take the baby alone to the wardrobe. After a fight with Regina’s forces, Charming just manages to send away the baby before getting severely wounded.

Snow manages to find Charming’s body, as Regina lauds her victory over her. As the curse closes in, Snow attests that good will always win.


Henry Mills reads a storybook as he travels to Boston. At a fancy restaurant, Emma Swan manages to hunt down somebody who has skipped town after embezzling funds from his company and abandoning his family. As it transpires, she is a bail bondsman, and retreats home to celebrate her birthday, alone, with a single cupcake. A knock at the door announces the arrival of ten-year-old Henry, who announces that he is Emma’s son.

Henry begs her to come home with him, and Emma reluctantly agrees, anxious not to form any sort of attachment. On the journey, Henry reads some of the stories in the book to her, which are the fairytales that we can see playing out in the Enchanted Forest. While Emma dismisses them as fiction, Henry is adamant that they are real tales. Though Emma doesn’t believe what he says, she does note that he is not lying and firmly believes in this idea himself.

Arriving in Storybrooke, Emma notices that the town clock has stopped. Henry explains this as being a side effect of the evil curse that the Queen has enacted, freezing the inhabitants in this town. Emma questions why nobody has ever left, but Henry says that this is because bad things happen when people try. Seeing therapist Archie Hopper, Henry explains that that is really Jiminy Cricket, but Archie is unaware of this, having been frozen in time in Storybrooke.

Though Henry begs Emma not to take him back to his mother’s house, who is the mayor of the town, Emma does so. When arriving at the house, the mayor runs out, revealing herself to be none other than Regina, the evil Queen in the Enchanted Forest. Emma discusses with Regina that she has nothing to worry about, as she has no intention of taking Henry back, and that his father doesn’t even know about him. Regina instructs Emma to go home, and Emma gets back into her car, but not without first telling Regina about Henry’s obsession with fairytales, which Regina was previously unaware of.

While trying to escape Storybrooke, a wolf appears out of nowhere, causing Emma to swerve and hit the town sign, rendering her unconscious. She awakes in a cell, accompanied by Leroy – who we recognise as Grumpy from the Enchanted Forest – and Marco (Geppetto), who is the handyman. Sheriff Graham believes that Emma was drunk when she crashed her car, but she attests that she was not. Regina arrives at that moment to reveal that Henry has once again vanished. They release Emma so that she can help locate him.

Using his laptop, she discovers that he used a credit card to pay for a birth-mother tracking website. The credit card belongs to Mary Margaret Blanchard, who is Henry’s teacher. Regina and Emma arrive at school, to talk to her, revealing that Mary Margaret is in fact the cursed persona of Snow White. Regina angrily reprimands Mary Margaret for giving Henry the fairytale book in the first place before storming off, but Mary Margaret reveals to Emma that she knows where Henry is: his castle.

At the playground (which is like a castle), Henry reveals that he is disappointed with how things are happening. He thought that Emma arriving would start the final battle and free everybody from the curse, and tries to persuade Emma to stay for one week to prove that he is not crazy. Emma is adamant that she is not any sort of saviour, and tells Henry so, telling him that, while Regina is not perfect, at least he has somebody and that, though he was adopted, she did what was best for him, while she believes that her parents left her on the side of a highway, without a care for whether she lived or died. Henry attempts to explain that she was in fact put through a magical wardrobe, but, unsurprisingly, Emma does not believe him.

Upon returning Henry to Regina, Regina warns Emma that she has no parental or legal right to Henry, as she chose upon a closed adoption. She warns her, again, to leave town, else she will destroy her. In the hospital, Mary Margaret volunteers and attends the bedside of John Doe (Prince Charming). Emma checks in to the bed and breakfast at Granny’s Diner, meeting Mr. Gold as she does so, who comments upon her “lovely name”. A curious observation, considering that he appears to be the cursed persona of Rumplestiltskin.

In his bedroom, Henry watches as the town clock moves for the first time. Emma’s arrival in Storybrooke appears to be weakening the curse.

Character Counterparts

Snow White

Prince Charming

The Evil Queen

Jiminy Cricket




Red Riding Hood


Blue Fairy

Mary Margaret Blanchard

John Doe

Mayor Regina Mills

Archie Hopper

Mr. Gold





Sheriff Graham

Henry Mills

Emma Swan


  • This is such a strong series opener. Every character reveal in the episode is beautifully timed, as well. Wonderfully structured as we’re introduced to each of the subsequent characters.
  • I’m fairly certain that Prince Charming and Snow disguising themselves so that Rumple doesn’t recognise them, as if he doesn’t know who they are from their faces, as if they’ve never met, is going to be a major continuity error as the series progresses. I refuse to acknowledge that they won’t undo this in the flashbacks.
  • Ruby/Red Riding Hood is criminally underused in this episode – as she always will be. Justice for Red Riding Hood.
  • It’s interesting that, even though we have to assume that Henry’s story is correct, because we “see” it in the past, there is still no confirmation as yet that the tale that he is telling is true. Though I always assumed on my first viewing that he was correct, it now occurs to me that they keep the element of doubt up for quite some time.
  • Mr. Gold’s comment about Emma’s name is curious in the first episode. Why does he say it so knowingly? Does he know something about her, especially considering Rumple was the one who foretold that she would break the curse?
  • So, spoiler alert (ie. don’t read this bit if you don’t want it spoiled: obviously) it was subsequently revealed that Mr. Gold only regained his memories upon hearing Emma’s name in Granny’s diner, which has completely changed the way that I view that scene, and also helps explain why Rumple asked for Emma’s name in the first place.
  • There are brilliant performances across the board in this episode, I just can’t even.
  • Lana Parrilla is just so deliciously evil, isn’t she? And yet, she never plays it two-dimensionally. You always get a sense that she has a full understanding of her character’s hatred and bitterness that will be unwound as the series progresses.
  • Emma is such the perfect antithesis of what you’d expect the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming to be. We’d expect her to be some barefoot princess dancing through life in a cheerful, chirpy way. She is so much more realistic and nuanced from her depiction here. You understand why she is so shut off, having been abandoned by her parents. It’s also the perfect place to start her, as a writer of this series, as you can clearly see already how she is going to grow and develop as the series continues.
  • It’s interesting that they choose to reveal Prince Charming at the end of the episode. Apparently, the scene was originally intended to be held back until episode 2, and originally originally, the intention was for Charming to be killed off in the Enchanted Forest. You can understand why this storyline wasn’t expanded upon, as it’s hard to root for a “happy ending” while aware that Snow’s true love has been slain. There would also be absolutely no redeeming Regina, which might have become a consideration from the writers once they realised that Lana Parrilla is an absolute gem who they’d likely want to keep on as somebody for the audience to root for despite her (myriad) transgressions. Personally, I think that this reveal could have taken far, far longer, but that’s easy for me to say with the power of hindsight and wanting to see a long game concept play out. Sure, that works from my modern TV standards, thinking about how it could be constructed as a binge-able drama, but might not have translated to an audience tuning in on a weekly basis.
  • I’m enjoying dissecting these episodes, how about you?

Join me next time when I deconstruct the next episode of Once Upon a Time.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. belfusion1 says:

    You’ve made me curious to watch this now. Never, ever before has it held any interest but suddenly I’m keen to give it the obligatory ten minutes 😘


    1. Mark Goodwin says:

      Thank you! Well, it’s on Netflix – and it’s not as if there’s a shortage on time at home these days! 😜


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