Legendary Relationships: Something Like a Fairytale (Emma and Mary Margaret in Once Upon a Time)

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By Liz Fisher “Legendary Relationships” is a regular column which will examine relationship moments between women in popular media.


Sometimes it takes awhile to get over your mother shoving you into a magical wardrobe that transports you to another reality so that you can escape a curse and eventually save the world. Though it might not be something a lot of women have to deal with, that’s been the case for Emma Swan on Once Upon a Time this year. 

Thanks to Once Upon a Time and Doctor Who, this just might be my favorite relationship dynamic: a mother daughter relationship, already primed for complicated and heightened emotions, made all the more complex by time travel/alternate universe travel. I’ll give a brief rundown of Emma’s relationship with her mother thus far for those who may not watch Once Upon a Time. Emma is the daughter of Snow White (Mary Margaret Blanchard) and Prince Charming (David Nolan.) As Snow was giving birth to Emma, Evil Queen Regina put a curse on the land and all its inhabitants. Knowing Emma was destined to save all the inhabitants of fairytale land from the curse and hoping to give her the best possible chance to survive and do that, Snow and Charming placed her into the magical wardrobe and sent her into the other world (a world very similar to ours) free from the curse. While Snow and Charming ended up in the cursed Storybrooke, remembering nothing of their former lives and living as Mary Margaret and David, Emma grew up with no knowledge of her parents. She was a foster child and largely alone in the world. Last season, the son Emma had given up for adoption found her and led her to Storybrooke. She and Mary Margaret were drawn to one another despite not knowing their relation. They became friends and roommates and found something in one another that eased the loneliness and disconnectedness they both felt. “It’s strange,” Mary Margaret said to Emma, “Ever since you arrived here, I’ve had the oddest feeling we met before.” At the start of this season when Emma’s actions lifted the part of the curse that made people forget their previous identities, Mary Margaret remembered her past as Snow and suddenly her feelings for Emma made perfect sense to her. Emma was her daughter. While Mary Margaret couldn’t wait to see her daughter and embraced her eagerly, Emma couldn’t accept their new reality as easily. Not only had Emma often played the motherly or at least big sister role in the previous incarnation of their relationship, comforting Mary Margaret through relationship and legal drama, but she had spent her whole life thinking her parents hadn’t wanted her. When Mary Margaret confronted Emma about her reluctance to accept her newfound family, they had the following exchange. Mary Margaret: We’re together, finally, and I can’t help but think you’re not happy about it.

Emma: Oh, I am, but no matter what the circumstances, for twenty eight years I only knew one thing, that my parents sent me away.

Mary Margaret: We did that to give you your best chance.

Emma: You did it for everyone because that’s who you are. Leaders, heroes, princes and princesses. And that’s great, amazing, and wonderful but it doesn’t change the fact that for my entire life I’ve been alone.

Mary Margaret: But if we hadn’t sent you away, you’d have been cursed too.

Emma: But we would’ve been together. Which curse is worse? Everything Emma had believed her whole life was called into question the minute she realized Mary Margaret and David were her parents. She’d spent twenty eight years feeling abandoned and alone. And, in her first moments with Mary Margaret and David after the reveal, her inner conflict between wanting to accept the love they were offering her, something she’d always yearned for, and needing to hold on to the feeling of abandonment that had become a part of her emotional armor, protecting her from further hurt, was obvious. Emma continued to keep Mary Margaret at a distance when, in an attempt to break the remainder of the curse, Emma was pulled into what remained of fairytale land and Mary Margaret jumped in the portal after her. “Is that why you came through the portal? Because you thought I was helpless here?” Emma asked. “No,” her mother replied. “I came through to be with you.” Mary Margaret’s hurt and her desperation for Emma to understand and believe in her love were obvious on her face but Emma’s walls remained in place. But, in a way, fairytale land forced Emma and Mary Margaret into the mother and daughter roles Emma was resisting so fiercely. As Emma tried to assert her independence in unfamiliar surroundings, she only found herself getting into more trouble. It fell to Mary Margaret, who was familiar with the land, to save her. For instance, when Emma rushed in with her gun in an effort to protect Mary Margaret she ended up alerting the ogres to their presence. As a result came a particularly memorable scene where Mary Margaret took out an ogre who was about to kill Emma. Mary Margaret used a bow to deliver a single arrow to the ogre’s eye while shouting, “Back away from my daughter!” Emma was impressed, especially after learning Mary Margaret hadn’t used a bow and arrow in twenty eight years and wasn’t at all sure she could make her target. Mary Margaret was still willing to draw attention to herself and possibly get herself killed in order to defend Emma. Though it was obvious Emma’s resistance to Mary Margaret was beginning to thaw at that point, the real revelation came a bit later. Mary Margaret and Emma, along with traveling companions Princess Aurora and Fa Mulan, traveled to Snow and Charming’s former castle in hopes of finding the magical wardrobe which transported baby Emma and finding their way back to Storybrooke. Unfortunately, Evil Queen Cora was after the same wardrobe. When it looked like Cora might get the wardrobe and use it to go after Emma’s son Henry, Emma set the wardrobe on fire and destroyed their best chance of returning to their loved ones. When Emma tried to apologize, Mary Margaret stopped her saying she understood that Emma had to put Henry first. It was then, surrounded by the crumbling remains of what was meant to be her nursery, that Emma understood that Mary Margaret gave up her own dreams in order to do what she thought was best for Emma. “I was angry at you for so long, wondering how you could choose to let me grow up without you,” Emma said. “Just seeing all this… you gave up everything for me. And you’re still doing that. I’m sorry, I’m not good at this. I guess… I just… I’m not used to someone putting me first.” Mary Margaret’s reply was simple: “Well, get used to it.” The two embraced and, for the first time since they learned of their relationship, Emma gave herself fully to the comfort Mary Margaret offered. As they exited the room, Mary Margaret turned for one last look and envisioned the room as it once was, ready for her brand new baby girl, the one she never got the chance to raise. It was a bittersweet moment, certainly, as she cleared the vision from her head to follow her now fully grown daughter. But Mary Margaret and Emma had just agreed to lead Fa Mulan, Aurora, and the rest of their group in a battle against Cora. And, if you can’t raise your daughter, fighting an evil queen with her is pretty much the next best thing, right? I know I’m looking forward to it. I have a feeling this is a mother/daughter team that you don’t want to screw with and Cora had best look out. I look forward to seeing how they continue to navigate their fledgling mother/daughter relationship while working together to save the world from evil.