By Hillary Busis
Updated May 13, 2013 at 04:27 AM EDT
Jack Rowand/ABC
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[Obvious Note: Spoilers for Once Upon a Time‘s second season finale — “And Straight On Till Morning” — follow!]

Far-off places, daring sword fights, magic spells, that guy from Can’t Hardly WaitOnce Upon a Time‘s second season had it all, plus an action-packed finale that sent a sextet of major characters careening into the uncharted waters of Neverland. Want to know more about how the show’s writers planned this epic conclusion — as well as their thoughts on the season as a whole? You’re in luck: EW got the whole story straight from Once‘s co-creators-slash-showrunners, Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz. [UPDATE: Here’s our full recap of the finale.]

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How long have you been planning to incorporate Peter Pan into the show? I remember hearing last year that you had to work out a few rights issues first.

EDWARD KITSIS: Honestly, the whole first year, we wanted to do Neverland, and we never could because of the rights issues — which seemed weird, because Disney had a Peter Pan movie, and they had a show called Jake and the Neverland Pirates. We don’t know how or why, but they figured it out. When we finished season 1, we got the go-ahead before we did what we call “mini-camp” — in between seasons, we take two weeks, three weeks, and just kind of blue sky the season. We learned this on Lost. [Both Kitsis and Horowitz wrote for ABC’s mystical drama.] That’s when we came up with our Neverland.

Initially, did you have different plans for how you wanted to use Pan?

KITSIS: We knew we wanted to do Hook first. The first idea we had was that Rumpelstiltskin was the crocodile. We talked about, “Why would these two hate each other? What is the thing that could come between them?” And we both realized, “A woman.”

One of the finale’s biggest surprises is that Rumpelstiltskin seems to have tangled with Pan before.

KITSIS: He absolutely knows who Peter Pan is. In true Mr. Gold/Rumpel style, he knows more than Greg and Tamara.

ADAM HOROWITZ: And there’s certainly the implication that there’s a history there, one we’re eager to unfold.

Neverland is a mysterious island filled with mysterious people who kidnap boys for mysterious reasons. The whole thing seems like a callback to another show you two used to work on.

HOROWITZ: Uh, I don’t know what you’re referring to.

KITSIS: It’s funny — I didn’t think of that.

HOROWITZ: We honestly hadn’t thought of that, really, until you brought it up.

KITSIS: Peter Pan is my favorite. I love the idea that all the Lost Boys were orphans, and that they wanted Wendy to be their mom. In episode 21, Wendy painted this great portrait of what Neverland is, but of course —

— it’s actually kind of bleak and sad.

KITSIS: Things are fun for a day, but you need your family. You need an anchor in your life. And so I think we’re seeing that Neverland is a very seductive place for children. But now that you say that, the subtext…

HOROWITZ: You can take the writers out of Lost.

KITSIS: But you can’t take the Lost out of the writers.

HOROWITZ: But we can promise you, no smoke monster in Neverland.

We’re not going to find Tinker Bell at the bottom of a hatch?

KITSIS: No, but Ben Linus might be there.

He’s kind of like a fairy tale villain.

KITSIS: He is! He’s the man behind the curtain.

HOROWITZ: Don’t forget, Ben Linus started as Henry Gale from Wizard of Oz.

KITSIS: We’re really not bringing in Benjamin Linus, because he has a very successful TV show [CBS’s Person of Interest, starring ex-Lostie Michael Emerson]. Before people get excited — it’s a joke!

So now we’ve got the Neverland stuff, we’ve got Bae and Mulan in Fairy Land, we’ve still got Storybrooke — how do you plan to cross between worlds next season? Will episodes still include flashbacks?

HOROWITZ: At the end of season 2, we’ve placed our core group in a very difficult situation. Some of them are on the boat; some of them are behind in Storybrooke; some of them are in another land. So the question is, how do we best continue telling their stories? Sometimes that will require flashbacks; sometimes it won’t. We want to continue to expand the storytelling modality of the show, like we did in season 2, where we were able to do things like flash back to Emma for the first time, or see time during the curse.

KITSIS: We are not going to be doing episodes next season that have five different worlds in them. We definitely plan not to overly confuse or complicate the show. It’s about simplifying.

NEXT: New characters, the show’s darker tone, and that pesky prophecy

Speaking of simplifying — over the course of season 2, you introduced a ton of new characters. Do you ever worry about the cast getting too unwieldy?

KITSIS: What’s funny is, we added a lot of characters [in] season 2 — but more new characters are introduced [in] season 1, as opposed to the pilot. The characters that got on the boat at the end of the year — we’re really interested in watching this kind of dysfunctional family on this journey together, and I think we’ll meet new people along the way. But our hope is never to have the new people overwhelm it. Season 3, we really want to dive deeper into our core characters, and continually tell their story.

HOROWITZ: We now have the ability to draw out familiar faces from the past when they’re appropriate. Hopefully, the audience is now familiar enough so that it doesn’t feel like you’re adding new characters, but like you’re playing within a large, rich world.

KITSIS: To us, it’s much more fun that Robin Hood steals from Rumpelstiltskin, and that’s who he’s going to kill, as opposed to Knight #3. But what happens then is that people are like, “Hey, it’s a new character!”

So when you drop in somebody like Robin Hood, you don’t necessarily intend him to get a backstory episode. It’s a possibility, but it’s not inevitable.

KITSIS: It is not. Would we like to tell a Robin Hood backstory? Someday, but not at the expense of the other characters.

Between things like Regina killing an entire village and Rumpelstiltskin and Cora’s sexually charged spinning, this season’s been a little darker and sexier than season 1. How difficult is it to keep Once feeling like a family show?

HOROWITZ: These fairy tales always have an element of darkness, and for us, there’s a big distinction between darkness and unpleasantness. And we never want to go there. We’re never going to be a serial killer show. We want to touch on the darkness and the scariness that are inherent in these stories.

KITSIS: This year probably was a little darker. But as Adam said, we’re not trying to alienate our entire audience; what’s fun about this show is that everybody can watch. But season 1, don’t forget, we had Regina rip out the Huntsman’s chest and control him, and she killed her own father.

HOROWITZ: We also try to never lose sight of one of the guiding principles of this show, which is hope.

KITSIS: Even if you look at the end of the year — what’s happened to Henry is a very dark thing. But what he wanted in the beginning of the year was his family to come together — and here they are on a ship, working together to go after him.

HOROWITZ: The irony is, he’s getting [a family] without being there. Emma, Regina, Mr. Gold, Snow, Charming – they’re all united together for a common purpose, which is him.

How do you think Regina and Snow are going to relate to each other, now that they’re working on the same side?

KITSIS: Regina and Rumpelstiltskin are on that ship, and we know what tricks they employ to get what they want. We also know that the Charmings have their own code of honor.

HOROWITZ: Just because you want the same thing, doesn’t mean you agree on the methods. And that’s going to be some of the drama there. Despite the fact that they all want to save Henry, they have a long and difficult history with each other that they need to deal with.

So after Regina’s selfless move in the finale, do you think she’s been redeemed, or at least gotten closer to redemption?

KITSIS: The metaphor we used in the [writers’] room was, she was an alcoholic and magic was her bottle. One of my favorite moments of the year is when she looks at Emma in the finale and says, “Everyone thinks I’m the evil queen. Let me die as Regina.” In that moment, that was her arc of the season. Now that they took Henry, now that she’s on this ship, the game has changed, because the goal is not self-betterment — the goal is to save her son.

And Rumpel is also fighting to save Henry, despite that prophecy saying Henry will be his undoing.

KITSIS: Rumpelstiltskin’s whole life, he’s always chosen power over love. He even did it in the finale — he tried to kill Henry in the opening. And then when he sees that boat coming, he knows what he has to do. He knows this is a one-way trip, but he knows it’s the only way to lighten his heart.

But then again, I’m sure you picked the wording of that prophecy very carefully — because “undoing” doesn’t necessarily mean “death.”

HOROWITZ: “Undoing” — he could be untying his shoes! In all seriousness, it’s kind of what Belle articulates at the end of season 2: The future, it’s never what you think. That doesn’t mean it’s not going to be terrible, but it’s never quite exactly what you think. What that prophecy actually means and how it’s going to play out is something he’s going to find out the hard way.

Read more:

Episode Recaps

Once Upon a Time

Everything you’ve ever read about fairy tales is true—the residents of Storybrooke are living proof.

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