Season 1 of this magical show was just that- magical. It was filled with mystery, intrigue and beautiful romance with introductions to so many characters and new and unexpected twists on fairy tales we know and love. There were quite a few back stories for characters now rarely seen, so indeed where they really triumphed in this first season was with the main storylines specifically the love story between Snow and Charming, Emma’s journey in her destiny as a mother and the Savior, and Regina and Rumple’s deliciously evil plots as well as moments of true humanity. Here are the best from the enchanting beginning of the series.
1. “The Land Without Magic” (Season 1, Episode 22)
Every character went through a season-long journey and every story reached their gripping conclusion with the promise of more to come in the beautiful and compelling first season finale of the series: from Emma finally believing in magic, Rumple reuniting with Belle, Regina admitting the curse is real and displaying real vulnerability at the thought of losing Henry, to Snow and Charming proving how magical a true love reunion can be. The exciting and lovely flashbacks revealed David’s heroics to find and awaken Snow and bookended the “Pilot” in a lovely way, most especially paralleling Emma’s heroics to save her son Henry. Both father and daughter were aided by Rumple (with him having ulterior motives) fought Maleficent in Dragon form, and woke a loved one with true love’s kiss. So many bold and compelling choices were made from the curse being broken to showing that true love need not only be romantic . Indeed, a mother’s love is deep and endless, and Emma’s journey of belief in magic was matched in her journey of learning to open her heart to her son. This episode was beautiful and poignant and the perfect way to end an amazing first season.
2. “Pilot” (Season 1, Episode 1)
The episode that started it all is not only one of the best of the series, but also one of the best pilots ever. Establishing the tone of the series perfectly we see mystery, magic, family drama, epic love, hope and belief are abundant and showcased exquisitely with each character in different ways. The approaching of the dark curse was intense, evocative and dramatic. And the beginning of Emma’s story was sad but hopeful as we see a woman who is strong but deeply wounded. She may be cynical but still buys a cupcake on her birthday and makes a wish. And then her life irrevocably changes. That belief that love and happiness are possible and that things can get better is the theme of the show and is demonstrated touchingly by Emma’s wish as well as the final image of Henry as he sees the Storybrooke clock tower move for the first time in his life. These images epitomize that beautiful and timeless theme: hope.
3. “Snow Falls” (Season1, Episode 3)
This was the story of how Snow White and Prince Charming fell in love and while it was undeniably sweet and fairy tale romantic, it was also a new kind of romantic story that Once does so perfectly. As creator Edward Kitsis says, sometimes true love starts by hitting the other in the head with a rock. Indeed their love story was not all hearts and flowers – she stole his mother’s ring, he trapped her in a net, they argued and went on an adventure fighting black Knights and trolls, and somewhere along the way love blossoms seen in the beautiful moment that she tries that ring on her finger. They may have parted but it was the start of the journey – a journey mirrored so beautifully with Mary Margaret awakening David in Storybrooke with the story and a kiss, and Emma slowly awakening her heart by seeking friendship and moving into Mary Margaret’s spare room. This is a heartfelt, lovely episode.
4. “Hat Trick” (Season 1, Episode 17)
One of the episodes with a decidedly darker tone is also unique and fantastic with the insertion of a new and intriguing character. Once Upon a Time’s version of the Mad Hatter is named Jefferson and in this episode he is simultaneously sympathetic in his heartbreaking backstory where he is separated from his daughter, and frightening when he kidnaps Mary Margaret and Emma insisting the Savior can make his array of hats “work” with her magic. Jefferson implores that the problem with the world is “everybody wants a magical solution to their problems but everyone refuses to believe in magic.” It is true. Real or metaphorical, if we stop to see the magic around us, if we believe in something, if we bravely open ourselves up the way Emma does when she calls Mary Margaret family, that is the real “trick “of life.
5. “Heart of Darkness” (Season 1, Episode 16)
Seeing Snow White as a badass bandit with gumption and heart was definitely a new take on the character. But seeing the sweet natured princess with a thirst for revenge and no belief in love was something entirely new and fantastic to watch. Of course what made this moving was that her dark turn was the result of a loss of love, or more specifically memories of the one she loves. And when he does everything in his power to protect her heart, we see one of the most poignant and romantic moments of the series, and definitely a prelude to the love story their daughter would soon experience with Hook. These moving flashbacks combined with the intense, heartbreaking contrast with present-day Storybrooke showcase the beautiful theme that still is so prevalent on the series: true love is stronger than darkness.
6. “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” (Season 1, Episode 7)
Somber, intriguing, and melancholy with a tinge of hope, this was the first episode where it really felt as if that irony surrounding hearts occurred: a show that often involves hearts been ripped from people’s chests made us feel as if we were experiencing the same. It was indeed heart-wrenching to finally learn more about Sheriff Graham only for him to die at episode’s end. We learn he was the Huntsman who was sent to kill Snow White but showed her mercy and suffered enslavement because of it, and his journey in present-day Storybrooke to find his missing heart, growing close to Emma, and regaining his memories thanks to a Savior magic filled kiss, was deeply profound despite the sad ending. With lovely performances and a evocative atmosphere, we see that we can break free from our bounds real or metaphorical, and that our souls are strong showcased with Graham feeling deeply and choosing to take control of his life despite his heart not beating inside his chest. And for Emma, we see what this honorable man represented for her character and her journey – that flicker of hope that she can move on and open her heart to a man. His death was heartbreaking but audacious and compelling storytelling.
7. “7:15 a.m.” (Season 1, Episode 10)
Many of Season One’s best moments was that of the love story of Snow White and Prince Charming and the one we so desperately wanted between David and Mary Margaret. Despite knowing that they would indeed find each other in the past, that did not lessen the beauty nor intriguing aspect of their story and seeing Charming want to defy the king and risk everything for love, and seeing Snow make the difficult sacrifice and deny her love to save his life was wonderfully romantic drama and made you want David and Mary Margaret to come together all the more. The idea that love can never be denied despite obstacles and curses set the precedent for the series and those final moments where despite purposefully changing their routines the two still “found “each other and shared an amazing kiss, showcased that some things are truly meant to be.
8. “The Stable Boy” (Season 1, Episode 18)
Well into the series now, it’s always great to revisit how we arrived here and this was the first episode that truly showed Regina, not the Evil Queen. And as horrible as she was that season, this backstory made her into a sympathetic character, and it was indeed sad to see her relationship with a child Snow White go south so drastically and to see Regina’s own mother do exactly what a mother should not do – destroy her child’s happiness because they think they know what’s best. And while you still were not rooting for Regina and Storybrooke during her quest for revenge, especially in the chilling scene where she taunts a sobbing and apologetic Mary Margaret knowing she’s innocent, “The Stable Boy” emphasized how tragedy affects everyone differently and can send you toward a very dark path and that life is often very complicated.
9. “Skin Deep” (Season 1, Episode 12)
As Once Upon a Time does so wonderfully, classic fairytale characters are never exactly what we expect, and it was definitely unexpected to see that Rumpelstiltskin was also the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, and that this very dark, manipulative character had fallen in love and shown a soft and vulnerable side. The best part of this episode was that it explored something deeper than someone feeling ugly and being brutish. It was much more complex than that and indeed the love story of Rumple and Belle is complicated and fraught with heartache as Rumple not only wants to maintain power but cannot believe she would love him, hence why true love’s kiss did not fully work. So much has happened since but in this episode we saw most especially that love can come in the most unexpected places.
10. “The Stranger” (Season 1, Episode 20)
When the leather clad, handsome and mysterious stranger rode into town on his motorcycle, with us soon learning his sole purpose was to help Emma believe, we wondered who exactly he was. The truth resulted in a compelling, heart-wrenching tale that brought more of Emma’s past to light and saw her really open up about her insecurities and unwillingness to believe in her destiny. From the flashbacks of little Pinocchio, to the climatic and intense scene where August brings Emma to the tree they were magically transferred transported to this world in, begging her to believe saying they all need her, one could help but be moved. It was a dramatic push the story needed and the best episode for the “typewriter wrapped in an enigma wrapped in stubble.”