Let’s not delude ourselves. Once Upon a Time was never a good show. But it was fun. At a time when television was about breaking bads and gaming thrones, it was nice to have a goofy fantasy where Little Bo Peep was a mob boss and King Arthur ruled the Underworld. Now, the series is over and you won’t find anyone trying to save it. Because it got bad, really bad. So, why am I this sad about it?
After seven seasons, Once Upon a Time took its final bow with “Leaving Storybrooke.” The second half of a two-parter, the series closer felt like an entire season of stories packed into two episodes, which makes me wonder if this was the plan for season eight. It took place in the Wish Realm—a parallel universe from season six—as Wish Rumple and Wish Henry schemed to put all the heroes into their own storybooks, thereby separating them forever. Of course, they didn’t succeed and by the end Regina (Lana Parrilla) decided last-minute to cast “one final curse” to bring every single realm together so that none of them could ever be apart again. That’s... not how it works, Your Majesty.
The trappings of the original series were there. Ginnifer Goodwin and Josh Dallas returned as Snow White and Charming. The actual town of Storybrooke came back, albeit briefly, complete with three of the seven dwarves and Granny’s famous grilled cheese sandwiches. And as Regina was named the democratically elected queen of all the realms (also not how it works), Emma herself (Jennifer Morrison) even showed up. For about 40 seconds. The whole thing felt cheap, rushed, and not very well written—which has basically been Once Upon a Time’s problem for some time now.
As someone who watched Once Upon a Time since the series started in 2011, it’s heartbreaking to admit how awful it got by the end. Because I loved this show. It was Avengers: Infinity War for Disney geeks (I know Marvel is part of Disney now, but it’s true). Once Upon a Time featured an onslaught of bizarre relationships, character crossovers, and the most convoluted family tree in television history. I dare you to find another series where Mulan, Red Riding Hood, and Merida from Brave fight the Wicked Witch of the West outside Camelot.
I still believe the first season of Once Upon a Time is a solid piece of fantasy television. A fun story with interesting characters and a world where anything could happen (including Pinocchio riding in on a motorcycle, which totally happened). Unfortunately, as the series went on, it became clear that there wasn’t a longterm plan for Storybrooke or its inhabitants. The series starting flailing around, latching onto things like the Frozen craze or “Dark Emma” gimmicks to stay afloat. I allowed myself a bit of hope at the start of season seven’s soft reboot, which I felt was pretty good in spite of its problems. But what was supposed to be a fresh start quickly fell back into Once Upon a Time’s old habits, with occasional flashes of something special.
If I look at it logically, the series finale wasn’t great. The story didn’t make a lot of sense, Rumple’s heroic exit and posthumous reward weren’t earned, and the final scene opened up way too many questions that the series will never answer. So, why do I feel this way? Why am I this sad about something I stopped genuinely enjoying a long time ago?
After I finished the series finale, I found myself talking with my husband about how I got into nerd culture. Unlike many of my colleagues, I didn’t grow up buying Star Wars action figures or reading the latest comic books. I didn’t come into my nerdiness until adulthood. Blame it on the religious upbringing, tease-ready siblings, shyness—a combination of all three. For me, Disney was the gateway. My family didn’t understand Dungeons & Dragons, but they totally got Disney. Kingdom Hearts was my excuse to get into RPG video games. Once Upon a Time was everything else.
Watching Once Upon a Time showed me what crossovers were like, how stories and characters could join forces to create new narratives. It introduced me to fanfiction and shipping. And, thanks to the podcast I started for the series, it allowed me to enjoy something with a wonderful community of fans. It might sound stupid, but Once Upon a Time played a major role in shaping who I am today. I probably wouldn’t be here, writing for this website, if it weren’t for this stupid, beautiful show.
Media isn’t perfect. It does a lot of dumb shit. Showrunners leave, actors get cocky, writers give up. And yet we stay. Because these shows, franchises, book series, comics, you name it; they’re pieces of entertainment that mean something to us. To our lives. That doesn’t mean we forgive bad choices or ignore thoughtful criticism—if you’ve checked out any of my posts or podcast episodes on Once Upon a Time, you’d know I love yelling into the void about all the terrible things this series has done. But it does mean we let ourselves accept those things as part of the adventure. And when that adventure ends, so too does a part of ourselves.
So thank you, Once Upon a Time, for joining me on this crazy adventure we call my life. It’s made me a better person, a nerdier person. And it’s taught me the value of a killer apple martini.