ABC’s fantasy drama Once Upon a Time may be the most ingeniously complex show on TV. The series has brought us to two different versions of our world, the “Enchanted Forest” from which most of the characters originate, Alice’s Wonderland, and top-of-the-beanstalk home of Jack’s giants. Along the way, it has twisted the familiar and familiarized the twisted, constantly making viewers re-assess the fairy tales they know so well.
This season, they switched things up even more. With Regina (The Evil Queen) and Mr. Gold (Rumplestiltskin/The Dark One) forced to work with their enemies Mary Margaret (Snow White), David (Prince Charming), and Emma (who broke Regina’s curse to begin with), we begin to learn that there really is no clear-cut good and bad. The Dark One seeks to sacrifice himself for others, Regina seems almost helpful, and the Charming couple become selfish and stubborn. Add to that a Killian Jones/Captain Hook looking for redemption and love, and you have a plot sufficiently crafted to twist your childhood into knots.
This season, they all must work against a common enemy. Their enemy is extremely powerful, conniving, amoral, and unpredictable, especially on his own turf. A talented manipulator, he finds it quite easy to kidnap, lie to, and manipulate children in an effort to further his own ends. He transcends worlds, sneaking up on children while they sleep and removing them from their homes in the dark of night, luring them into his clutches with promises of never-ending fun and games while turning them against their own parents.
He is Peter Pan.
But this is not the Peter Pan you know. In yet another twist, Played by Robbie Kay, this leader of the Lost Boys as downright evil. All of the Peter’s familiar features are there. He flies; he can talk to his shadow; his boys love him. Yet he is a darker villain than just about any fairy tale antagonist you can think of.
I’ve long had a love for Peter Pan. I’ve always seen him as akin to a Trickster figure who lives outside of the world’s rules and structure. He visits from time to time, makes fun of all the things society holds dear, and offers an alternative wisdom. He offers a world where childhood does not mean lock-step training into the rigors of adulthood, but celebration of life for what it is. He offers the lessons of celebrating rather than suppressing the joys and fantasies of childhood.
Still, the traditional Peter Pan is also a lonely figure. He finds Wendy, Michael, and John while searching for a mother. All he really wants is a good story. He’s so unloved, he doesn’t even know what a kiss is. He may vanquish Hook into the eager jaws of the ticking crocodile, but he loses all his friends back to the real world after saving all of their lives. In the end, he’s even more alone.
No such conflict exists in this Peter Pan. Further, this interpretation of Peter is not that much of a stretch from the original book, or even the Disney film. Some of the specific actions are completely made up by the writers of the show, but the basic character is entirely consistent: he does take children from their homes. He is selfish. He is childish and immature. A friend of mine recently posted something to this effect on Facebook: “I just watched the Disney Peter Pan again. I’d forgotten what an ass he is.”
And it’s true. In Pinocchio, Peter would be analogous to the two hucksters that lure Pinocchio to Pleasure Island. Speaking of asses, we all know how that went.
Fairy tale characters are usually one-dimensional. You rarely go into long discussions evaluating the goods and bads of giving Snow White a poisoned apple so that you can remain the prettiest woman around. I’ve never heard the argument, “That’s what you get, Sleeping Beauty. Your parents should have been more careful with their guest list.” That’s a very comfortable way to think about everything, and we’re taught to do it throughout our childhood.
When we see characters like this version Peter Pan, we are forced to re-evaluate our beliefs about what we see as good and what we see as bad. We must admit that good and evil are not clear, and that what we saw as good when we were young may be very different from what we thought it was. Worse, we are forced to admit that how we see things NOW may not be accurate, that all that seems good now may not be as great as you though it was. We must admit that others may see things differently, and that their view is just as valid as ours. That is decidedly uncomfortable.
However, when we question things we grow and change. We become better for it, despite the growing pains. Psychologists say that if you spend time questioning and arguing against your own beliefs, you learn a great deal more than you would by staying comfortable within your biases. So maybe by making us question, this Peter Pan actually becomes a force for our own evolution, a vehicle through which we see ourselves and confront our own values. What makes us uncomfortable about this switched up character reveals what we find difficult to deal with in ourselves. That makes him good, despite his clearly evil personality, blurring the lines even more.
That is what Peter has always been: a line crosser. He scoffs at boundaries. He is selfish and immature, yet traditionally seen as a hero. It is a lonely role to play, but a necessary one, and I think that is why his character has been so popular over the years. It lends itself to re-interpretation, allowing us to examine the same issues from multiple perspectives through the safety of a children’s story. With this non-traditional Peter, the producers of Once Upon a Time got it just right (or at least second star to the right).