Once Upon a Time in Wonderland and How The Knave Challenges Everything We Know About Fairytales

Once Upon a Time in Wonderland Episode 8 Home (3)

Fairytale characters must be brave and true of heart. Selfless and motivated by pure love. At least these are the rules set forth by the original flavor Once Upon a Time. That series’ simplistic take on good and evil has long frustrated me, but then Once Upon a Time in Wonderland came along and challenged every ideal set forth by its mothership. Nowhere are those ideas embodied better than in Will, The Knave, a hero without a heart.

In the stunning midseason finale, the series revealed Anastasia motives: to change the laws of magic and turn back time in order to have a second chance at happiness with Will. She wants so badly for him to love her once more that she would rewrite time itself. Unfortunately, Will never put his heart back in his chest after Alice retrieved it for him, so he cannot feel the weight of her gesture. Nor can he feel the pain of loss, and yet he emerged as the true hero of the story anyway. He may not be able to physically feel, but he can counteract that emptiness with empathy, loyalty, a sense of humor and self-sacrifice.

Unlike other characters who have lost their hearts, no one is in control of Will. He makes his own choices and when given the opportunity to put his needs above Alice’s he has declined every time. In the midseason finale, Will knew that Alice had bound herself to him, so that if he died so would she. With her life on the line, he could have used his wish to try and save them both, but instead, he asked simply to end her suffering which saved her life and freed Cyrus in the process. It also left Will a genie.

It was the kind of development TV fans love and hate in equal measure. It is beautiful, wrenching and it opens up a wealth of new avenues for the series to explore. I’m most impressed by how it upset the status quo of the Once world. Will is not driven by moral simplicity. He considers his own needs, he is not above running or expressing his disdain over constantly putting his life on the line. However, he genuinely cares for Alice– sans heart. He doesn’t set out to be selfless, but it keeps happening. When he is backed into a corner he more often than not makes the right decision. He is the most unlikely sort of hero: a thief and a liar, but also a friend and a person capable of deep love.

Even more telling, he gets precious few rewards for doing the right thing. He saves Alice…and is repaid by being locked into a lifetime of servitude. He doesn’t take his fate in stride either, instead he utters his now trademark response of disgust, “Bloody hell!” The nature of the character is complex in ways that I’ve never seen on OUAT before. He uses his free will to make both good and bad choices, but there has been little attempt to label his as purely heroic. He’s just Will, The Knave, the guy with the biggest heart even if it isn’t beating in his chest.

This idea extends to Anastasia and Alice as well. One should be the villain, the other the hero, but they can both be remarkably selfish. They are motivated purely by love and that blinds them into leading others into danger. Their motivations are pure, their methods questionable. On more than one occasion, their stubbornness has almost cost them everything. This duality makes them all the more fascinating. Here we have two characters with a common motive who view themselves at odds with one another when in fact their hearts are in the same place.

Finally, there is Jafar, a man mad with power who has been degraded and ridiculed since his mother’s death. He wants to force love from a man too cruel to give it freely. Does it make him a pure and unflinching villain? No. It makes him far more complicated than a wicked queen jealous of the beauty of her stepdaughter or a witch luring children into her oven.

We are over halfway through with Once Upon a Time in Wonderland and the series has already rewritten the laws of fairytales. Moral compasses fluctuate, the true of heart can be heartless and even the most evil of them all was once a scared young boy looking to be loved. Bravo to the writers from never running from the paths less traveled; after all, isn’t that where the best stories tend to lie?

Once Upon a Time in Wonderland continues Winter 2014 on ABC.

Follow me on Twitter @sljbowman