In the final moments of Once Upon a Time's “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” Evil Queen/Mayor Regina (Lana Parrilla) crushes Sheriff Graham’s heart between her fingers in a jealous rage, and he drops stone cold dead in the arms of our heroine, Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), who is crying buckets. I can’t say as I blame her. Firstly, because Sheriff Graham (Jamie Dornan) is drop dead sexy, and secondly, dude just died in her arms after giving her probably the best kiss of her sad little life. I’d be wailing.
Sheriff Graham's death came at the end of an episode chock full of Sheriff Graham goodness. As many fans -- myself included -- had speculated, Sheriff Graham's fairytale persona turned out to be none other than The Huntsman. You know, that guy the Evil Queen hired to kill Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and bring back her heart, but he lets her go because he's just such a nice guy, and brings back the heart of a stag instead. Once Upon a Time's Huntsman does the same, only our Queen is such a complete cow that she rips out his heart as punishment and keeps it for her own. And because she has his heart in a box -- and thus the power over his life and death -- she basically controls him into being her personal, emotionless sex slave. Gone is the sweet hairy man raised by wolves who sheds a tear over every single kill, and in his place, the ruthless killer she'd been looking for all along.
Back in Storybrooke, Sheriff Graham is beginning to remember his old life, the first of the fairytales to do so. A hurried kiss with Emma -- an attempt on his part to feel something, anything -- leads Graham to seek answers in strange places, including Henry's book. But being the first person to believe Henry's insane story (that everyone in Storybrooke is a fairy tale character, they just don't remember) does him no favors. Eventually, Graham's madness escalates into an angry confrontation between Graham, Emma, and Regina outside of a tomb that the seemingly crazed and feverish Graham is convinced Regina is using to hide his stolen heart. Graham dumps Regina and runs off into the sunset with flaxen-haired Emma. This is when the show turns it up to eleven. Regina IS keeping Graham's heart inside the tomb, in a secret room under her father's grave. She pulls it out of its golden box and squeezes until it turns to ash in her hand. And Graham -- poor, delicious curly Graham -- dies with a smile on his face.
It's a cruel moment, especially if you didn't know there was supposed to be a death in the episode (I doubt there are many people who didn't know -- ABC's promos screamed it halfway to Mars: "Somebody's going to DIE!!!"). It's cruel for the characters, and it's cruel for us as viewers. Giving a character a moment of triumph only to pull it out from under him or her is by no means a new thing that happens on television, and that's because it always, always works (A particularly sad moment from Buffy the Vampire Slayer's second season comes to mind, as well as an incident from Kitsis and Horowitz's alma mater, Lost, involving Maggie Grace's Shannon). Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz were quoted earlier in the week as saying:
"Well, if a battle is going to begin, there has to be stakes and unfortunately, sometimes stakes are people's lives . . . It's not about doing it purely for shock value. What it's about is we want the stakes to be real. What we want to do is obviously we want the show to be as dramatic and exciting as we can make it, but we also feel seven hours into the show, we want the audience to know that what's at stake is big. It's life and death. You need to feel like the world of Fairytale Land and the world of Storybrooke both have their own dangers and these dangers are real."
If that's all they were going for, mission accomplished. For me, Sheriff Graham was the most interesting character on the show, and it wasn't just because I found him deeply, deeply (deeply) attractive. His connection with the Queen is dark and twisted, and yet believable, and his connection with Emma is one of the only two friendships she's formed since she's been in Storybrooke (the other being with Mary Margaret/Snow White). Maybe the story needed Graham to die, but maybe it also needed him to stay just a bit longer. Seven episodes in the grand scheme of things just ain't that long of a time. Two seasons down the road, will we still care about the death of Sheriff Graham? Will Emma? One kiss and a few weeks of being coworkers, and she's set to launch an epic war against the Queen of Bitchville? I'm not so sure.
More importantly, are the other characters developed and interesting enough to fill the narrative hole he'll leave behind? To be honest*, that's the one that really concerns me. Aside from the still problematic over the top nature of Lana Parrilla's queen, the biggest issue that I have with Once Upon a Time is the way that it isolates its characters. There's a certain point in the life of every television show where the creators need to give up some of their control and just let their characters mingle. Fictional communities are built just like real ones: they evolve. Good drama lies in the emotional connections made between characters, and if characters are constantly isolated from one another emotionally, that's not going to happen. The fairy-tale world is beautifully conceived and has a real community feel, mostly because we already know these stories, but the Storybrooke half of each episode is always the weaker half (aside from this episode, which not coincidentally had lots of good, real interaction between characters). What Sheriff Graham brought to the table was emotional connection. Without him, it's basically Emma Swan against the world, and I have no idea how that's going to work out. Her righteous rage could fuel a thousand fires, or it could fizzle into nothing. Were you shocked by Sheriff Graham's death? Sound off in the comments.
*If I'm really going to be honest, I should probably also confess that I am angry because, like a large population of the internet, I wanted Sheriff Graham and Emma to pine for each other with big sad doe eyes and then to make sexytime and have lots of little curly haired law enforcement babies. Opportunity WASTED, SHOW.
Once Upon a Time returns January 8th on ABC at 8/7c.