Fairy tale ending: Inside the magical Once Upon a Time series finale
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“Oh, man, I’m fired. Guys, I think this might be my last day!” Once Upon a Time is in its final days of production, and Ginnifer Goodwin is feeling particularly punchy after flubbing a line during a pivotal scene. Her Snow White stands before our beloved heroes at a massive war-room table, giving a rousing speech about hope as it seems all but lost. A great evil threatens to steal their happy endings once and for all — if it sounds like a moment from the pilot, there’s a reason for that. As actress Jennifer Morrison puts it, “The heartbeat of the show has always been hope.”
Despite being the brainchild of Lost writers Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, Once’s premise — Snow White and Prince Charming’s (Josh Dallas) daughter Emma Swan (Morrison) returns after 28 years to rescue a variety of legendary literary characters, like Jiminy Cricket (Raphael Sbarge) and Little Red Riding Hood (Meghan Ory), from the Evil Queen’s (Lana Parrilla) dark curse — seemed a lot to swallow when the series launched in 2011, and many critics expected the fairy-tale mash-up to fail.
Instead, OUAT went on to become one of ABC’s top performers, bewitching audiences with emotionally grounded and relatable stories that resonated with adults and children alike for seven seasons. “Even though it’s about fairy-tale characters, the writers have written [the show] in such a way that really goes to the heart of everybody,” says Colin O’Donoghue, who joined the show in season 2 as Captain Hook. “That’s hopefully where it will endure.”
Part of the show’s initial appeal was the OUAT bosses immediately bucking age-old expectations, setting a game-changing tone of female empowerment with a very simple, if not monumental moment in the pilot: sticking a sword in the hand of Disney princess Snow White. “When we wrote it, we didn’t realize,” Kitsis says. “We wanted her to pull a sword and not be a damsel in distress, and that is what people respect about Snow White — she’s a fearless warrior for good.”
“At the time that we made the pilot, no one was doing anything like this,” says Goodwin. “Honestly, these guys wrote a truly female-driven show. It was instrumental then in my choosing to take the part.” Goodwin notes OUAT’s female-forward approach was also used behind the scenes — she was No. 1 on the call sheet for years until Parrilla took the top spot in season 7. “I hope that Once is remembered as being groundbreaking, that it’s remembered as being representative of the strongest kinds of complex and beautiful women.”
That was never more apparent than with the character of Regina Mills. She started out as the show’s ultimate villain, unleashing a curse that trapped everyone in a land without magic, where Regina could live out her own personal happy ending. But it was one that turned out to be anything but happy, evolving into a Groundhog Day-like prison of her own making until she adopted Henry (Jared Gilrmore), eventually leading to the arrival of Emma Swan, who went on to wake the cursed characters.
Slowly, but surely, Regina conquered her own demons, becoming not just an ally to the Charmings, but family. “Regina is a very hopeful character because she’s so flawed and complex,” says Parrilla. “Following Regina’s journey over the years, we’ve seen that she’s made some mistakes, but she picks herself back up. I think she’s an inspiration to many, including myself; I’ve learned so much from her.”
Aside from its compelling leads, the show’s fortitude also stemmed from its ability to reinvent itself from season to season, sometimes multiple times within. The Once universe expanded into a playground sandbox where characters like Aladdin (Deniz Akdeniz) and Belle (Emilie de Ravin) could cross paths with Tinker Bell (Rose McIver), the Wicked Witch (Rebecca Mader) or Dr. Frankenstein (David Anders). The show even birthed a short-lived Wonderland-set spin-off.
The biggest reboot came last year when — after the exits of six major cast members — Parilla, O’Donoghue, and Robert Carlyle (as Rumplestiltskin) were left to take center stage alongside Andrew J. West as an older version of Henry (Jared Gilmore), Dania Ramirez as a new iteration of Cinderella, and Rose Reynolds as Wish Realm Hook’s daughter Alice. But audiences waned without the original cast, seemingly losing hope at the worst possible time. “It makes me sad that something so positive on television is being taken off the air when we need it most,” says Parrilla. “It breaks my heart.”
Even the characters of Once may come to lose hope as the series heads into its final episodes. Despite developments in Hyperion Heights that could signal a brighter tomorrow, an unleashed villain intends to follow through with a dangerous plan, the painful effects of which would be felt by our cherished characters for eternity. “I would definitely say the last episode is as epic as probably any episode that Once Upon a Time has ever done,” O’Donoghue teases. “It’s like taking the best of all seasons and jamming it into one — literally.” West concurs: “The finale is maybe the single most massive episode that the show has ever done. And I mean that in all sincerity.”
Though their future may look bleak, Snow White would (and does) tell our heroes to keep hope alive, a notion Morrison attributes to why the show “had such a strong connection with the audience.” It didn’t hurt that the show launched in a time when social media allowed fans to share in the characters’ experience, cheer their triumphs, and criticize their missteps in real time, creating a community of fans who have cemented a strong bond over the years. “It’s brought a lot of people together that maybe never felt seen,” says Mader, who joined the show’s ranks in season 3. “These people will now be friends forever, because of a TV show that we made — that’s really special.”
For some, it’s much more than that; the mark that OUAT has left is indelible. “There’s been a couple of times where people have said that they were so desperately alone that they’ve considered taking their own lives,” O’Donoghue says. “Through the show, they’ve met other people who felt the same way and realized they’re not alone. That blows me away.”
Sometimes, even the OUAT actors can forget how much the show has affected fans, something season 7 addition Reynolds learned while filming the final episodes. “It didn’t really hit me, the impact of this show, until I went to Steveston,” says Reynolds of the real-life Storybrooke set that the show will return to before series end. “We had people coming out to see it, and even just being on the street I saw in the pilot, that is when it really hit home for me that this is a big deal and this show is epic. Working with [returning stars] Ginny and Josh as well has hammered that home even more.”
Though the Once bosses depicted their originally planned ending in the season 6 finale, they have cooked up a particularly magical final chapter that brings the show back to the beginning in a number of ways — keep your eyes peeled, as there are Easter eggs galore. “The pitch for the whole show was ‘What would a world look like in which the Evil Queen got her happy ending?’ I feel that we’ve finally figured out what that would look like,” says Goodwin, just one of the season 6 departures who returns for the finale. (Read who else is returning here.) “We saved Regina’s happy ending for the end,” says Kitsis. “Her journey has really been watching somebody confront the demons within and emerge on the other side a better person.”
“I know everyone’s been waiting for Regina’s happy ending and no one really could define what that is, and no one really knew what it was going to look like, and nor did I,” Parrilla says. “Once Robin died, it was really hard to foresee another love in her life. But I’m happy with where her happy ending is at.” Parrilla remains coy about the specifics of Regina’s happily-ever-after, only teasing that it takes place “in the same location” as the opening of the pilot.
O’Donoghue, meanwhile, offers that Hook’s fate is intrinsically tied to Rumple’s. “I remember thinking [the ending] was just such an amazing way for this relationship that Bobby and I have invested in over six seasons,” O’Donoghue says. “It’s been so integral to both of our characters, so I thought it was a really beautiful moment and very, very important to me for that to be the happy ending for Hook.”
The notion of happy endings has been vital to the success of the show, particularly Once’s central message that no matter who you are as a person, good or evil, everyone deserves a happy ending — all three of this year’s legacy characters initially entered the show as villains. “It’s so important to send that message,” says Dallas, “particularly in this day and age, when we have so much negative in the world, and to know that you do have a second chance, that you can have redemption, is super-powerful.”
But the question remains whether Once will get a second chance in the future, someday joining the pantheon of shows getting the reboot or revival treatment. “Look, you never say never, but for now this is our ending and the end of this show for us,” says Horowitz. “But if in the future something else happens with the show, we’ll be excited to see what that is.”
Once Upon a Time’s series finale will air over two weeks, starting Friday, May 11, and concluding Friday, May 18, at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.
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