Once Villainy- 6 Villains to Love (to hate?)
Sure, heroes are easy to love, but surprise! Where did this genuine love and sympathy for villains come from? How did that happen? I’m a moral person, do the right thing, obey traffic signals, play well with others at work et cetera, so what is going wrong here? I’ve said it before and will say it again, I fell in love with Once when Rumplestiltskin popped Cinderella’s fairy godmother. I had a visceral jubilant reaction to this! Then I was worried.
(Spoiler warning: this article assumes knowledge through the end of Season 4. I choose not to discuss Season 5 much because it is currently unfolding and this is definitely a retrospective analysis.)
I watched Breaking Bad and enjoyed Walter White very much, but I was groaning in horror for him every time he did something even worse, which was at least once or twice every episode. I felt no genuine consternation when his plans got foiled. I wanted him caught. But Rumple? When he does something abjectly terrible I worry for him! I think thoughts like, “Oh Rumple, you can do better.” My feelings toward Rumple are nurturant rather than punitive or terrified.
Why?? What makes Once villains so different?
At first I felt a creepy delight for these left of ordinary villains. With Regina and Rumple, a dark fascination set in. It was obvious from the outset that these were not two-dimensional stick-figure villains which do little aside from steal, cackle and kill. How did they get to where they are? Once allowed me to ask those questions because of its demonstrated commitment to backstory from the get go. The whole premise of the first season is how did these characters end up in Storybrooke? If we get to know how the nice people got to Storybrooke, then might we also get to know how our nasties arrived to villainy?
Yes. In spades.
With a few notable exceptions (to be discussed), Once villains have very human and believable motivations. Instead of only seeing one superficial motive, like greed for example, we get to explore how their character flaws led them to their motives. Taking a deep look into the heads of the villains gives us the opportunity to trace the string of awful back to its source. This is a very shiny point indeed for Once.
The real magic begins with what happens to us next. When we see and feel what happened to cause this brokenness in our villains, we can then look within ourselves and see moments in our own lives where we felt those same emotions. From there, empathy is born. Which decisions did we make? How hard was it to decide? Suddenly instead of feeling disdain or revulsion for the wrongdoers, we wish we could have been there for them to help when they needed it most. By distilling our characters down into basic elements, patterns emerge and why we care for these characters more than their less compelling cousins bubbles up.
For basis of comparison, let’s illustrate this by choosing a few foundational character parameters: the inciting incident (the moment each of these characters turned toward darkness), the character flaw which allowed it and the reason the flaw existed in the first place, its origin. The fact that these characters actually have that much canon (explicitly within the body of story) detail available for us to mine goes beyond remarkable. Many stories don’t even have this level of psychological detail for protagonists, never mind villains. It is usually just omitted in favor of bombs, car chases and shoot outs. (Just another reason to love Once!)
Our most believable villains:
Inciting Incident: Cora murders Daniel
Character Flaw(s): exquisitely self-centered, holds on to anger
Genesis of the Flaw(s): Mommy issues! Cora modeled narcissism and cruelty.
Inciting Incident: Hordor threatens Baelfire and humiliates Rumplestiltskin in front of his son
Character Flaw(s): Utter lack of self-confidence and self-esteem
Genesis of Flaw: Daddy, abandonment, childhood bullying
Inciting Incident: Tripped by a snotty princess
Character Flaw(s): Malicious ambition, narcissism
Genesis of Flaw: Drunk for a father, resilience gone wrong
Inciting Incident: Met a Shadow
Character Flaw(s): selfishness, narcissism
Genesis of Flaw: Papa sold him to a blacksmith, never had a childhood
Inciting Incident: The Wizard shows her Regina’s “charmed” life
Character Flaw(s): superiority complex, perceived martyrdom
Genesis of Flaw: Adoptive father reveals his disgust, rejects her specialness
Note: this is a look at origins, not trajectories. Yes, these many characters have evolved!! But that’s fodder for another article.
I would be remiss if I did not also point out some of Once’s less successful villains and outliers. We’ll start with the rather distinct outlier whom I would call a successful villain, then we’ll talk about the weaker characters.
Inciting Incident: Possibly being chased by Mommy’s dogs, but unknown
Character flaw(s): psychopathy, sadism
Genesis of the flaw(s): Unknown, both she and her mother say she’s just always been that way
I think, even though we know relatively little about Cruella in comparison to our previously discussed villains, that this character’s success hinges on the fact that she does depart from the Once pattern above of rotten childhoods. The explicit explanation for her malfunction is that she was born that way. This makes us rethink our understanding of villainy both in the Once universe as well as in the real world. Rumple tells us that “Evil isn’t born, dearie, it’s made.” But then there’s Cruella. This gives us room to begin thinking very carefully about how much of personality is learned from social contexts (childhood et cetera) and how much is really wiring that happens in utero. Her status as an outlier is, in my opinion, the invitation to ponder required for a compelling character.
Come to think of it, the invitation to ponder is a sine qua non for audience investment in all fictional characters regardless of their status as hero or villain.
Now for our less than stellar villains, the ones I found the least compelling, the least believable.
Inciting Incident: Accidentally murdering her sister
Character Flaw(s): Borderline obsessive guilt? Dysfunctional grief system? Best I could do here.
Genesis of Flaw(s): Lack of familial support? Getting stuffed in an urn?
Here’s my problem with Ingrid. Coming up with the above elements was difficult except for the inciting incident. Unlike our other non-Cruella villains, Ingrid had a great childhood with a family who loved her and that she loved. She had and demonstrated great empathy herself. This is why her villainy strains belief.
Horrible accidents happen to people with strong empathetic skills all the time and they don’t suddenly lose all empathy and spiral into manipulative psychopathy. Usually, depression is the result. The fact that her family did her wrong doesn’t seem like enough to me to get her to willing to kill an entire town. Ingrid truly could understand what was going on in the minds of others and could understand her sister’s fear that led to the bread bin issues. It seems like Ingrid’s capacity for forgiveness is the final straw that broke the villain. Ingrid could forgive so the only peg we’re left to hang her behavior on is craziness, a loss of the ability to perceive reality. That is a very weak peg and there is little evidence of that.
Character successes or failures are about resonance with the audience. A major limitation of this little character study is that I am only one person. I am certain that there are some who did resonate with Ingrid and disagree with me entirely. Her creators would be likely first in line to tell me I’m wrong. That’s totally fine. I make no claim of authority on this subject, only the claim of the reasonable amount of thought and study and effort which has gone into writing this article. Personality preferences, after all, come down to opinion and now you have mine.
My other disappointment would be Ursula. I was expecting more from her. Her parameters chart is fairly easy to put together, though there are issues there too, but I was left wishing there had been a little more bite.
Inciting Incident: Poseidon, via Hook I know, stole her singing voice
Character Flaw(s): resilience weaponized
Genesis of Flaw(s): MerKing using his kid for vengeance
While I appreciate the twist on the fairytale here, in addition to not getting to spend enough time with Ursula to really bond, I don’t buy her turn toward the darkness. It seems like she would have gone after her father after taking his power, but someone whose greatest motivation in life is helping others by singing to them doesn’t seem like the type to go career evil. I can see her sulking and depressed, but not evil. Same issue as Ingrid.
Also, the Ursula I loved from The Little Mermaid was NASTY. I really wish they had taken the opportunity to explain how she got that way.
Pattern? It’s hard to turn a person with too many positive psychological resources believably evil. (But see Season 5!!!)
I know I haven’t touched on all the villains I possibly could have, consider this a highlights reel, but the methods to making convincing and lovable villains are clear now. Once smartly uses mishaps during the formative years as a launching point for far reaching problems in adulthood. This is a common theme in our real world. Once writers apply the mechanisms which produce particular flaws with spectacular results in most cases. They have done their homework and it shows. Among many sparkling attributes, Once shows strength in its characters.
Our love for Once villains doesn’t stem from some moral lapse of ours, quite the opposite in fact. It blooms out of our own capacity for empathy. Ok, so my enjoyment of exploding fairy-godmothers isn’t empathy (that’s delight over a genuine surprise and creativity), but my rather dogged loyalty to Rumple is entirely empathy. Once has built a bridge between most people in the mainstream of society and those left by the wayside, the downtrodden, the less fortunate.
Before, was it easy to walk by the addict on the corner and dismiss that person as worthless? Now do you wonder, but what if that’s Rumple? Are we losing a special light on this world to the horror of addiction? How on earth can we pull these people from darkness? I don’t know if Once will give us an applicable recipe (what a complex problem after all), but it has already shown us the way to look past the surface.