Once Upon a Time was once a great show that married the lighter, sweet elements of fairy tales with their darker implications — that of the boogeyman under your bed or the pervasive mommy issues that pop up throughout folklore.
But what was once an intriguing revisionist fairy tale show became glorified Disney fan fiction, where you could see Elsa from Frozen team up with Prince Charming against warlord Bo Peep, or witness Mulan falling in love with a battle-scarred Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. (Sadly, these all sound wackier and more fun on paper than they were on screen.) Anchoring this growing cast of Disney and public domain characters was Jennifer Morrison‘s Emma Swan, whose bounty-hunter-turned-Savior — and daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming — provided the catalyst for the story. Now after six seasons, Morrison announced that she won’t be returning to the show as a series regular, calling the show’s fate into question. Does this mean the (happy) end for Once Upon a Time?
Emma Swan was purportedly the main character when the show began, brought to the mysterious, fairy tale-filled town of Storybrooke by her long-lost son Henry, who she had given up for adoption as a teenager. As the show went on and its cast grew, Once Upon a Time became an ensemble show, and Emma’s story took a backseat to the development of former villain, the Evil Queen Regina (Lana Parilla). But Emma remained the anchoring element of the show, with this season especially emphasizing the sacrifices she’s made as the Savior of the town and its inhabitants.
But on Monday, Morrison announced on her Facebook page that she would not return to Once Upon a Time for its seventh season, stating that “creatively and personally, it is time for me to move on.”
Emma Swan is one my favorite characters that I have ever played. My 6 years on ONCE UPON A TIME has changed my life in the most beautiful ways. I am absolutely blown away by the passion and commitment of the Oncer fans. I am so honored to have been a central part of such a special show.
If ABC Network does in fact order a season 7, I have agreed to appear in one episode, and I will most certainly continue to watch ONCE UPON A TIME. The creativity of the show runners has always inspired me, and I cannot wait to see the ways that they continue to develop and reinvent the show.
Morrison’s exit would follow her character’s parents, Ginnifer Goodwin and Josh Dallas, who told fans earlier this year that they would not be returning for the show’s next season. Goodwin and Dallas, who met and married while on the show, have had two kids through the course of Once Upon a Time‘s run, so it makes sense that they would be leaving. But Morrison’s exit is a bit of a shocker, considering how pivotal she still is to the show, despite its focus turning to other characters like Regina or Robert Carlyle‘s Rumpelstiltskin.
Although Season 7 still hasn’t been confirmed yet by ABC, showrunners Eddy Kitsis and Adam Horowitz have already been readying for a cast shake-up, with the Season 6 finale set to introduce two new characters that would supposedly lead the show after Morrison, Goodwin and Dallas’ exit: a young man/cynical recluse (played by The Walking Dead‘s Andrew J. West) and a precocious 10-year-old girl (Jane the Virgin’s Alison Fernandez).
Though the show seems ready for Emma Swan to leave, the introduction of brand new characters to replace a character who was the anchor for six seasons seems to me to be disingenuous to the characters and the show’s message. Sure, it’s been done before, but it’s rarely a good idea. This isn’t Lassie.
The core three stars of the show are leaving Once Upon a Time. Sure, Regina is just as important a character as them — with the best, most compelling redemption arc that this mess of a show has managed to pull off — and Carlyle’s talents are probably the reason the series hasn’t descended into the uneven disaster its writing promises to be. Plus there is a whole cast of unexplored characters who steal the show in their one-off episodes: Emilie de Ravin‘s Belle, Rebecca Mader‘s Zelena, Eion Bailey‘s August. But like I said before, it’s a bad idea for shows to replace their main leads.
Just look at Scrubs Season 9.
Most of the main cast left the show with its supposed finale in Season 8, leaving viewers with completely new main characters who struggled to leave an impression. It was a disaster. Scrubs star Zach Braff even acknowledged that the ninth season tainted the show’s legacy, and encouraged viewers to forget it ever happened. Sadly, we can’t forget it, and it should remain a cautionary tale for shows that try to go on past their expiration date.
While shows like The Vampire Diaries have limped on without its main star thanks to the strength of its main cast, I doubt Once Upon a Time will be able to pull it off. The strength of the show has always been in its talented and charismatic cast, who gamely power through inconsistent characterization and bad writing. While many talented stars remain, the cast may lose the ongoing battle against the showrunners to keep their characters and the story afloat. Because come on, who else can sell a story that involves at least four time jumps, three bouts of amnesia and villains who get forgiven for mass slaughter in a blink of the eye?
Once Upon a Time should write its happy ending before the show taints its own legacy — whatever that legacy may be.
For now, Once Upon a Time is a messy, sweet and entertaining show that has benefited from the magnetism and talent of its actors. With its cast leaving left and right, it will only have its weak and paradoxical writing to rely on, and the occasional stunt casting that capitalizes on the most popular Disney brand of the moment (hello Frozen and Brave!). Let’s face it, Once Upon a Time is not a good show. And with many of its main cast members leaving, it is in danger of becoming an emphatically bad show.
Morrison is willing to return in a guest star capacity to wrap up her character’s arc. Let Emma Swan get her happy ending, and with her, let the rest of Storybrooke finally reach the final chapter of their story. Because even an often-frustrating, sometimes delightful, undeniably magical show like Once Upon a Time deserves a fairy tale ending.
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