The Heart of the Underworld: Heroes, Villains, or Both?

Here’s a Guest Blog I got to write for Carol Pearson’s site. 

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In a blog I posted on my own site, “Fairy Tales and Disney: Do We Still Believe?,” I discussed ABC’s hit show Once Upon A Time, examining whether or not fairy tales remain relevant in our culture, and specifically pointing out how Once Upon A Time is relevant because it navigates questions of belief and what it means to be a believer, as well as what it means to have a true, honest “heart.”

This show is the creation of Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, the creators of another hit show for ABC, Lost. Once Upon A Time is nonlinear, circular storytelling that often uses parallel narrative and immersive techniques to convey story without the expected kind of structure. Central to the show from its earliest origin in 2011 is the question of what love can do to change our stories and heal the traumas of our past. Questions of belief and heart are fundamental to Disney’s myths, and since ABC’s parent company is Disney, it makes sense that ABC’s fairy tale mash-up would examine these questions. The concept of “heart” has been central to Disney’s myth from the beginning.

From Walt Disney’s famous quip “It’s gotta have heart,” which became a mantra for the studio, to the line “If your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme,”[1] the image of the heart has been ever-present in Disney’s stories. Optimism of all types, and particularly about the way love has the power to change us is an essential part of Disney’s ethos, but Disney’s stories also have always argued that the connectedness that love brings is a fundamental meaning of life, and that true love/true connection is the most powerful magic of all.

In Once Upon a Time, this belief in the heart as true love’s ultimate magic is tested again and again. When Prince Charming dies, Snow White literally breaks her heart in two and places half of it in his chest. From the unlikely romance between Regina (Snow White’s evil stepmother) and Robin Hood, to the redemption of Captain Hook through his love for “Emma Swan the savior” (the daughter of Snow White and Charming, i.e., the product of true love), the heart’s ability to lay the traumas of the past down and learn to offer forgiveness and trust love proves to be the show’s prescription for transformation from villain to hero. This prescription to give and receive love is not limited to romance. Heart’s love and trust are also shown to be the ingredients necessary for the healing of all relationships in this mythic landscape, which through parallel narrative and back story seems to offer a deeper, more holistic interpretation.

Not that all the characters choose to become heroes. One of the things I’ve always loved about Once Upon A Time is its insistence on telling the stories through fractured, pastiche-like piecing together of the traditional tales. Season five delves more deeply into the shadow of the heart image than any of the previous ones, continuing to press the boundaries of how far a character can go and still be redeemed. It spends much of the season with what it calls “the dark ones”, and then, just when it seems as though this show has covered the bases of all the Disney villains, it throws us the ultimate in challenging mythic locales—the Underworld and Hades, Greek myth’s archetypal image of death or transformation.

A tragic death spurs Emma, her family, and her friends to journey to the Underworld to attempt retrieve the soul of her beloved Captain Hook. This version of the Underworld is a parallel, albeit sepia toned and broken, version of Storybrooke, Maine, the town where the storybook characters have lived for the whole of the show[2]. We see Hades soon after the characters arrive in the underworld, and as expected he is prickly, unwelcoming, and clearly a trickster and not the devil, but still a complex character who holds the souls of the dead in the Underworld hostage, manipulating them so that they cannot find out what their “unfinished business” is and move on to a “better place or a worse one” as befits the penultimate choices they decide to make.

In this case, it is a kaleidoscopic version of Hades and Persephone’s love affair. This Hades is cursed by Zeus to rule the Underworld. The reason Zeus has cursed him remains unclear. In Disney’s 1997 animated film Hercules, Hercules banishes Hades to the river of souls for leading a rebellion against Zeus. In that version of the myth, Hades hates his brother, seeing him as a tyrant. This is a re-visioning of the myth, and certainly harkens to Christian images of Lucifer challenging God and being banished to “hell.” Although the reason for him being banished to the underworld isn’t spelled out in this version, the cursing is present. This Hades has been cursed to have his heart stopped. Consequently, he cannot feel joy or experience anything but a desire for revenge.

In an episode titled “Our Decay,” Once Upon A Time gives its fractured version of Hades falling in love with Persephone. This time, Hades finds his “lost daughter” love in the form of Zelena, the wicked witch of the west. In this version of the story, Zelena is the child of the miller’s daughter from Rumpelstiltskin and the sister of Snow White’s evil stepmother. She was banished to Oz by her mother as a child, and it’s clear that her wickedness stems from the abandonment she feels from that. In this way, she clearly is a shadow version of Persephone—the Persephone that would be if Demeter abandoned her to the Underworld instead of challenging Zeus in order to find her.

In a past version of Oz, as Zelena struggles with her plans to destroy Dorothy, she encounters Hades in the woods. Hades confides in Zelena that he has been cursed and that if he found someone to love, his heart would begin to beat again and the curse would be broken. The two spend time together and begin to develop romantic feelings for each other, but Zelena, unable to trust anyone, betrays Hades, winning her battle against Dorothy but sending Hades back to the Underworld in the process.

The series then flashes forward to “where we are now.” In the town of Storybrooke, Zelena fights Belle and The Blue Fairy to try to gain access to the daughter she had with Robin Hood. In an interesting twist, this version casts Zelena as Demeter at this moment, refusing to give up on her daughter and literally going anywhere to be with her. Hades opens a portal between worlds and Zelena grabs her daughter and goes into the Underworld with the child. Belle follows after her, steals the child back, and returns her to Robin Hood and Regina, who at this point has made the choice to trust, love, and become a hero herself.

Hades tells Zelena that he has made the Underworld look like Storybrooke just for her and her child. He wants to create a home for them, to make them feel comfortable. For a couple of episodes he tries to convince her that his intentions toward her are honest. At first, she doesn’t believe him, but then something happens that changes everything. Zelena encounters her mother Cora and her sister Regina together. Their mother is dead, but Zelena and Regina are not. After spending so much time in the Underworld, Cora has come to peace with her past mistakes. She wants to make peace with her daughters so that she can move on to a “better place,” so she returns a memory to them that she had removed by magic when they were children. She reminds them of a time when they were friends and trusted each other. This seemingly small action seems to erase all of the hatred between the women, and suddenly Zelena becomes convinced that she can “redeem” Hades. But can she and will she?

Hades is faced with a choice of whether to tear up a contract he holds in revenge against other characters or to choose Zelena. He chooses her, and when he does so, his heart begins to beat again. His “seemingly” selfless actions have broken the curse that has kept him bound to the Underworld. This is not the end of the story, however. Because Hades is a trickster, it is not clear whether his intentions are honest. His choices have led Zelena to trust him, and it is clear that they do love each other, but how far will that love take them?

Shortly after Hades’ curse is broken, he opens another portal between worlds. They head back to Storybrooke, but trailers for the finale suggest that all will not end easily or happily there. In this version of the myth, Hades and Persephone, while unified, still carry their darkness with them, and like an addiction, this darkness will always be present, something to access if they want to be villains, or choose to change if they want to be heroes.

Once Upon A Time’s heroes are selfless. They choose to love without personal gain and without fear of loss. This is the paradox of this rendering of Hades and Persephone. Will they change from villain to hero? Once Upon A Time suggests that facing our shadow is not irrevocable. It shows us that, as Jung suggests, individuation—coming to consciousness of our own shadows—is the process of a lifetime. While we are alive, while our hearts still beat, our choices are too complex to be categorized simply, but with our connection to our hearts come the freedom to choose.

[1] Written for Pinocchio (1940) by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington.

[2] This version of Underworld is reminiscent of the video game Epic Mickey that was created for Nintendo’s WII in partnership with Disney, where Mickey fights his way through Underland, a dystopian version of Disneyland. The buildings are in ruins, and nothing is quite what it appears.

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