In the TV series Once Upon A Time, the villains constantly complain that heroes get happy endings but villains don’t. They all try at some point to fix this by doing what they think will make them happy. It all starts with a curse cast by the Evil Queen Regina to get her revenge on all her enemies, and until her adopted son brings a hero into town to help him, she is on top.
But she is up against it, because fairy tales are ultimately morality plays — good wins, evil is defeated, true love gets its happy ending. They are simultaneously wildly popular and horribly out of fashion. Look at all the fantasy shows and literature based on fairy tales and magic. And yet parents are worried their daughters will believe they must wait for a prince to save them and that promising them happy endings is unrealistic.
As a result of realism, we live in a world that glorifies villains. George R.R. Martin’s popular series A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) is full of bad people doing bad things. Right from the start, when good people do the right thing, they suffer for it. Bad people win again and again. This unusual approach to fantasy fiction has struck a chord, one that frightens me. As a population, we seem to believe that evil will triumph no matter what and that belief is wide spread.
Even humorous children’s movies (Despicable Me; Megamind) that are trying to turn stories on their heads have put villains in the role of heroes. I didn’t realize how odd this was until I saw how much it confused my 6-year-old nephew. He could not understand why we were watching a story about Gru; he was clearly the bad guy, even if he wasn’t that good at it.
But Gru was also the good guy. That he became a hero of sorts by changing over the course of the story was lost on my nephew. My fear is this subtle distinction has been lost on most people.
However, there is hope. My nephew is constantly surprising me, by telling me that this is “evil Batman” or “good Garmadon,” having heroes and villains change from good to bad or bad to good. In his mind, no one is stuck forever in a single role. Everyone can change. And that’s what Once Upon a Time is all about.
Villains get their happy endings, but only by changing. They have to become heroes. They have to make a leap of faith and do things differently. The Evil Queen becomes good and even Rumpelstiltskin sacrifices himself, paying the price himself for a change, with no hope of recompense.
People complain about the happy endings of fairy tales. But I believe in happy endings. I believe that doing the best we can, being the best people we can be, makes the world a better place. A better world leads to better, happier lives, and at some point the good we do comes back to us, often in unexpected ways. Which is why what Rumpelstiltskin’s better half says in “Leaving Storybrooke” (S7 E22) is now one of my favorite sayings:
You don’t do the right thing for a reward. You do it because it’s right. — Det. Weaver/Mr. Gold
How about you? Do you believe in happy endings?