Once Upon A Time on abc why Emma Swan is the best straight man on TV

Character Studies: Emma Swan, Once Upon A Time

Character Studies: Emma Swan, Once Upon A Time

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Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 9 2012 1:19 PM

Character Studies: Emma Swan, Once Upon A Time

Jennifer Morrison as Emma Swan

Picture your childhood anthology of fairy tales, a chapter each for Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and the rest. Now imagine dumping a bucket of water (or maybe vodka) onto the book, so that the print runs and all the images bleed together. Princess Aurora, finally awake, is on the hunt for Rumpelstiltskin… with Mulan. Jiminy Cricket puts the Evil Queen on a 12-step program to wean her off magic. Faces blur and change until everything becomes a huge, sodden, varicolored, glorious mess.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer.

That’s basically the ethos of ABC’s Once Upon A Time, now well into its second season. The charmingly batshit show about a town, Storybrooke, in which a compendium of fairy tale characters lead 21st century lives, throws together knights and florists and dwarves with abandon. Recently it has stretched beyond Perrault and the Brothers Grimm into Chinese legend and the worlds of Frank L. Baum, Thomas Malory, and J.M. Barrie. There is absolutely no rhyme or reason to who shows up on OUaT, as long as each figure belongs to some beloved cinematic or literary fiction. When Victor Frankenstein arrived a few Sundays ago asking Snow White’s wicked stepmother for an enchanted heart so that he might resurrect his brother, I threw up my hands. Once Upon A Time is insane. Totally delightful, especially for bookworms—and totally insane.


Which is why it desperately needs its central character, Emma Swan. Emma is, simply, the best straight man on television right now. She is the grounded, skeptical eye of a fairydust-fueled storm of crazy. The estranged daughter of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), she comes of age in our humdrum universe but ends up in Storybrooke as an adult. She moved there because of her son, Henry, whom she gave up for adoption when he was an infant. Henry lives with Storybrooke mayor Regina Mills, aka the Evil Queen, and for most of Season 1 he is the only character—besides Mr. Gold/Rumpelstiltskin and Regina herself—who knows the real, fairy-tale identities of the townspeople. (They’re under a curse that obliterated their memories.) For much of the first season, Emma was presented as a lonely, emotionally stunted pragmatist, who cared deeply for Henry but joined the rest of Storybrooke in doubting his fanciful stories. At times, her need to be sensible was infuriating. When would she finally put the pieces together?

But as Season 2 opens, Emma is a believer. The amnesia curse has lifted and everyone has resumed hi-hoing, fencing, and spell-weaving in their quiet corner of 21st-century Maine. Soon, though, things get wackier: Emma and Snow are sucked down a wormhole into Fairyland. More plotlines begin to compete for our dazed brain cells: There is Storybrooke present, with Charming, Red Riding Hood, Gepetto, Belle, Regina, the Mad Hatter, and others wrestling with the aftermath of the curse. There is Fairyland present, where Emma and Snow wind up. And there is Fairyland past, realm of 1,000 unfolding backstories—not to mention the midpoint between Neverland, Wonderland, a flickering black-and-white Horrorland, and who knows what else.

Enter skeptical, down-to-earth Emma. Traipsing through a wraith-infested forest with Sir Lancelot, her warrior princess mother, and Captain Hook, she embodies the cognitive dissonance that we are constantly battling as the show cherrybombs us with ever-increasing doses of WTF.

In Fairyland, wholly out of her element, Emma becomes our stand-in and our mouthpiece. She makes the mistakes we would probably make. She reminds us that being bewildered is OK—that, in fact, bewilderment lies one step away from wonder, the ideal state of mind for consuming fairy tales. She tries to be helpful: Told by her traveling companions that ogres haunt the way forward, she suggests not building a fire. But of course, ogres are blind, so she’s just inconveniencing everyone with her scruples. A few scenes later, she fires her gun in a misguided effort to diffuse a fight between Aurora, Snow White, and Mulan, attracting the ogre she wanted to keep away. When it knocks her down, she attempts to shoot it, but the monster crushes her weapon like a soda can. “Seriously?” she cries. She can’t believe how different this world is from her own.

Yet Emma remains a skilled reader of people, sensitive both to her mother’s moods and to others’ dissembling. Her relationships with Henry and Snow lie at the emotional core of OUaT. She knows Captain Hook is lying to her before anyone else suspects it. And she is psychologically astute enough to ask him the right questions to uncover the truth.    

In small ways, Emma earns our trust, which is important given the act of transference she helps us accomplish. We don’t want to travel through Fairyland weighed down by the knowledge that it’s all fake. Emma is the mechanism for a kind of audience out-sourcing. We let her take up the burden of all our skepticism. She voices our doubts and disbelief so we don’t have to. While she struggles with the alien-ness of Fairyland, we are free to revel in its possibilities.