“And you may think this is just a story, but that’s the thing about stories—they’re more than just words. They live inside us. They make us who we are. And as long as someone believes that, there will always be magic.” (Henry Mills)
I’ve always loved stories. I’ve always believed in the power of stories—the stories we’re told, the stories we tell, the stories that reflect who we are, and the stories that show us who we can become. When I look at my life, I can see that I’m the sum of a million different stories that all showed up to shape me exactly when I needed them.
One of those stories ended last night, and I can’t let it go without a proper sendoff.
Once Upon a Time is a show about many things—crazy timelines, strong women, second chances, and hope. But it’s also a show about stories. One of the most prominent themes throughout the show’s seven seasons has been that you have the power to control your life’s narrative; you can write your own happy ending. You can choose whether people see you as a villain or a hero. You are the author of your story. And that’s where hope comes from—knowing that it’s never too late to change your story, to find your happily ever after.
Hope lives in the hearts of those who know that our stories aren’t written in stone; they can change as we change—and those changes can be for the better.
This kind of hope was found throughout the series finale, “Leaving Storybrooke.” As Rumplestiltskin faced down his worst enemy—his own darkness—it struck me that there was no better way for his story to end. No one has tormented Rumplestiltskin more than his inner demons, the voices in his head telling him he would always be a coward so he should always choose the coward’s path—the path that favored power over love. But at the very end, Rumplestiltskin chose to define himself on his own terms. For so long he let everyone—including himself—call him a coward, but it wasn’t too late for him to write a different ending to his story. In this story, he died a hero’s death rather than continuing to live a coward’s life. And because he made that choice, his story had the happy ending he felt he would never be worthy of—a reunion with his beloved Belle for eternity.
The same themes could be found in the final story for Regina—a woman who once believed her happy ending was destroying Snow White’s happiness. Her journey from the Evil Queen to the woman who ended the series as the elected Good Queen of all the realms shows that changing your story isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it. Happy endings are earned through hard work, and there’s hope to found in that lesson, too. Everyone can have a happy ending—no matter who you once were or how lost you got along the way. It may look nothing like you once thought it would, but that’s because you’re not who you once were when you first imagined your happy ending.
Regina thought her story was over so many times—when Daniel died, when she cast the curse, when the curse broke, when Robin died… But she finally came to know the truth—those weren’t endings; those were chances to start again, to choose a new story, to find a new dream. Once Upon a Time has always preached the importance of second chances, and it turned out that the second chance Regina needed the most wasn’t a second chance at love but a second chance at being a leader. There’s a powerful message in that ending: You can find your happy ending in the work you do and the respect of people around you; it’s not always about romance.
So many of these characters ended their stories with second chances. Rumplestiltskin got a second chance to prove he wasn’t a coward, as well as a second chance at a life with Belle. Regina got a second chance at being queen. Wish Hook got a second chance to be close to Alice. Wish Henry got a second chance to be a better person surrounded by love. And Emma got a second chance to hold her baby in her arms and watch that baby grow up with a man who loves her by her side.
There will be many enduring images from this finale—Snow’s tears when placing the crown on Regina’s head, Rumplestiltskin and Belle holding each other in peace at last, the final shots of Storybrooke—but one that will stay with me forever is the last shot of Emma Swan. With her son on one side of her, her husband on the other side, and her daughter held close to her heart, it’s all I wished for this character, and it’s all Emma wished for on that blue star candle all those years ago. The woman who taught all of us to punch back and say “No, this is who I am,” did exactly that. She’s no longer a lost girl, no longer a woman who believed her chance at happiness had passed her by, no longer afraid of an uncertain future. She has a home, she has a family, and she’s finally living her happily ever after. She’s a princess in a leather jacket and a ballgown with a pirate husband and a diaper bag on her arm—she’s never going to fit the perfect princess mold, and that’s good. Because that gives us hope.
We don’t have to be perfect to have a story that matters. We don’t have to do everything right to be loved. We don’t have to have it all figured out to be happy. Throughout the years, these characters have made mistakes, taken wrong turns, and messed up so many times. But in the end, they were never beyond hope. They were never too far gone into the darkness; they always found their way back to the light.
The story of Once Upon a Time is the story of a bunch of people of varying degrees of imperfection finding their way toward their best selves. And that story will never truly end.
Because that’s the thing about a good story—it’s always there when you need it. We may have left Storybrooke, but we all carry its magic with us now. Storybrooke is a part of all who spent time there over the last seven seasons. And it will live on as long as there are people who believe in the power of love, second chances, and hope. This place gave so many of us a home, and we’ll take a part of that home with us everywhere we go.
Nothing we love ever truly leaves us, so I won’t say goodbye to this little town in Maine. Instead, I’ll say I’m so grateful to have so much of my story shaped by my years visiting Storybrooke. And I’m so grateful to all of you who shared its magic with me.