Warning: Spoilers for the winter finale of ABC's "Once Upon a Time" (air date 12/16/2013)....
It's no secret that "Once Upon a Time" is my favorite show on air right now. I love the "Lost"-like storytelling with flashbacks interspersed with ongoing arc, the modern twist on age-old fairy tales, and most recently the deliciously malevolent Peter Pan as antagonist. All of that came to a surprisingly moving winter finale on Sunday.
To recap, the series is about 28-year-old Emma Swan, who is approached by Henry, a 10-year-old boy claiming to be the son that she gave up at birth. She doubts him but takes him back to his hometown of Storybrooke, which he says is inhabited by fairy-tale characters such as Snow White, Rumplestiltskin, and so on, who've been "cursed" by the Evil Queen to forget who they were. Oh, and the Evil Queen is now the Mayor, and she's Henry's adopted mom. Over the first season, Emma gradually came to believe Henry while working to undo the Evil Queen's curse. She succeeds at the end of the first season, so that Storybrooke's residents remember who they were and regain their magical powers. The second season was a bit uneven and started new ongoing arcs that introduced Captain Hook, among others.
Anyway, leading up to the winter finale, our characters -- including the now-not-so-Evil Queen -- were working to stop the evil Peter Pan from unleashing a new curse that would kill them all. First, to get rid of Pan (who would otherwise thwart their efforts), Rumplestiltskin sacrificed himself, with his next to last line being "I'm a Villain, and villains don't get happy endings." With Pan out of the picture, the Queen can stop the curse, but only at the expense of what she loves most: which is to say, Henry. (Throughout the series, she's been the consistent antagonist, but it's a credit to the writers and to actress Lana Parilla that the Evil Queen is something of a sympathetic character at times.) It's not that Henry will die so that the curse can be stopped. Rather, stopping the curse will undo her original curse, so that all of Fairy Tale Land's residents will go back to the Enchanted Forest. Henry, however, was born in our world, so he can't go with them. Emma, who was born in the Enchated Forest, can go back or she can stay in our world, only because of her special power of being the one who broke the curse. She elects to stay with Henry, of course, but at the price of being split again from her parents (Snow White and Prince Charming).... So it's a bittersweet ending in that Emma, who'd felt abandoned all those years going through foster homes and who finally found her birth parents, was going to be separated from them again, but she's also reunited with the son she gave up 10 years ago. As a final touch, everyone's memories of the past two and a half seasons are going to be wiped out, but the Queen can give her a new set of memories in which Emma never gave Henry up.
It would have been THE perfect ending for the show, as in the end, Emma and Henry shouldn't be part of the fantasy world, but the fairy tale characters shouldn't be in ours. If this is how "Once Upon a Time" ended, I would've ranked it way up there on the list of best TV series finales ever.
However . . . it's just the winter finale, and the last two minutes set up the reboot for the spring episodes. I'm happy that the series is not ending, of course, but I sort of wish the writers had saved this ending for the actual end of the series.
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On the subject of the best TV finales ever (that I've seen), I guess I'd consider as contenders [SPOILERS!!!!]:
M*A*S*H -- though I'm not sure how well it holds up now
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine -- another bittersweet ending in a way that felt perfect for the show
24 -- no happy ending for Jack Bauer but no death either
[The Shield -- haven't seen the ending but I know what happens, and it's appropriate]
Good but flawed
Lost -- it felt warm from the perspective of saying good bye to the characters but the whole "sideways world" of the last season made no sense
Battlestar Galactica -- loved parts of the finale, including the really touching scene where Adama takes Laura Roslin on her last flight across Earth as she dies, but other parts made no sense either
Alias -- glad that Sydney got her happy ending and it was fitting/ironic that Sloane became immortal and then got trapped in an underground cave but the last year and a half were so unwatchable that the finale couldn't undo the bad taste
Prison Break -- I actually liked the final twist where Sara says to her son "let's go see Daddy" but where it turns out seeing Daddy isn't quite what you might have thought . . . there was enough time to put together the foreshadowing, but it was still effective; unfortunately, the resolution of the main characters' dilemma was too deus ex machina
La Femme Nikita (USA Network version) -- the last episode of the fourth season would've been a better ending; those who want happy endings would've preferred the second to last episode, when Michael and Nikita "got away"; but as you can see, I don't really believe in truly happy endings, and the fourth season finale where Nikita gets dragged back in and turns out to have been a mole for the mysterious "Mr. Jones" as a kind of inspector general was a great twist. The "revive LFN" campaign succeeded partly, but only an eight episode short order in which the writers proceeded to kill off most of the characters. Nikita and Michael survived but were split apart at the end. I guess it was appropriately somber but it lacked the punch of the previous season's ending.
Boston Legal -- too many last minute story lines (Crane Poole & Schmidt was bankrupt???) wrapped up too quickly
Burn Notice -- I stopped watching the last two seasons, but did tune in for the finale. Michael's mom's sacrifice was touching, and it was clever how when Michael wondered how he would explain everything to his nephew (whom he and Fiona absconded with, seeing as how his brother had been killed earlier in the series), Fiona quoted the voiceover that Michael uses in the opening sequence ("My name is Michael Weston . . . I used to be a spy. . . .") Otherwise, too much reliance on overused tropes -- outrunning an explosion, fake funeral, disappearance and immediate establishment of a home/life in some foreign country.