The series takes place in the fictional seaside town of Storybrooke, Maine, which acts like a parallel universe in which the residents are actually characters from various and well known fairy tales that were transported to the 'real world' town by a powerful curse. Its only hope lies with a bail bondswoman, Emma Swan, who was transported from the fairy tale realm before she could be cursed. As such, she is the only person who can break the curse and restore the character's magical memories, aided by her son, Henry, who has a book of fairy tales that holds the key to ending the curse.
Each episode focuses on a character's backstory. One segment details their life in the Enchanted Forest that, when serialized, adds a piece to the puzzle about the characters and their connection to the events that lead up to how the curse began and consequences that it can bring. The other, set in the present day, follows a similar pattern with a different outcome but also offers the same consequences.
Season 1 (2011-2012)
- Main article: Season 1
Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming's (Josh Dallas) wedding is interrupted by the Evil Queen's (Lana Parrilla) announcement that she will destroy everyone's happiness. The Queen fulfills her promise by unleashing a curse upon the fairytale world that rips away everyone's happy endings by sending them to our world. The fairytale characters we know and love therefore become trapped in the town of Storybrooke, Maine, dazed and unable to remember their past and prior identities, assuming new ones, and unaware of the fact that time is frozen. When young Henry Mills (Jared S. Gilmore), the adopted son of Mayor Regina Mills - the real world alter-ego of the Evil Queen - starts believing in the curse and that everyone in town is a fairytale character, due to a book given to him by his teacher, Miss Blanchard (Snow White), he tracks down his birth mother, Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), in Boston, knowing her to be the child of the royal couple, and the key to everyone's salvation. Henry manages to get Emma to come with him to Storybrooke, and fills her in on the curse, but she refuses to believe him. However, Emma decides to stay once she meets Henry's stern and manipulative foster mother, and this leads the young man to continue to try and find evidence to prove his theory. The residents of Storybrooke include: psychiatrist Archie Hopper (Raphael Sbarge) - who used to be Jiminy Cricket; Sheriff Graham (Jamie Dornan) - the Huntsman; Ruby (Meghan Ory) and Granny (Beverley Elliott) - Red Riding Hood and her grandmother; local drunk Leroy (Lee Arenberg), who once went by Grumpy, the head of his dwarf brethren; and the mysterious Mr. Gold (Robert Carlyle), who was none other than the vicious Rumplestiltskin...
Henry takes it upon himself to get Emma to believe in the curse, and save everyone, which includes going past his malevolent adoptive mother, getting Miss Blanchard and David Nolan (Charming's alter-ego) together as a couple, and whatever other steps required to make "Operation Cobra" a success. But even though there's always hope, the battle of good versus evil isn't an easy one...
Season 2 (2012-2013)
- Main article: Season 2
With true love's kiss, Emma Swan, the savior, was able to break the Dark Curse and restore the memories of the previous lives of everyone in Storybrooke, including those of Mary Margaret/Snow White and David/Charming, her biological parents, with whom she's reunited, at long last. However, shortly after reuniting with his long-lost love, the fair Belle (Emilie de Ravin), Rumplestiltskin brings about magic to the small town, which is sure to make things complicated. To add salt to the wound, the townspeople learn that once one crosses the town's border, they lose their memories again, and revert back to their cursed selves, and it soon becomes known as well that whatever kept outsiders from stumbling into Storybrooke is now also gone. After Emma and her mother are taken through a magic portal back to what is now left of the Enchanted Forest, they learn that a corner of the land was spared from the curse, and that the world is now a more dangerous place. With the aid of the brave Mulan (Jamie Chung) and the beautiful Aurora (Sarah Bolger), mother and daughter make it back to Storybrooke... but are soon followed by two cunning, deceptive villains: Captain Hook (Colin O'Donoghue), a one-handed pirate with a vendetta against Rumplestiltskin; and the powerful Cora (Barbara Hershey), Regina's cold, manipulative and heartless (quite literally) mother. Drama is heightened when Belle loses her memories, an outsider by the name of Greg Mendell (Ethan Embry) becomes aware that there is magic in town, and Rumple is reunited with his son, Baelfire (Michael Raymond-James)... who also turns out to be Emma's ex-lover and Henry's father. Meanwhile, Regina tries to better herself, which proves to be excruciatingly hard, Snow White gets a taste of darkness, and Bae's fiancée, the elusive Tamara (Sonequa Martin-Green), comes to town with a dark and perilous agenda... and to meet an equally dangerous ally.
Season 3 (2013-2014)
- Main article: Season 3
Emma, Mary Margaret, Regina, David, Hook, and Rumple team up and sail on Hook's ship to Neverland to rescue Henry, who has been taken there by Greg and Tamara. Meanwhile, Belle keeps the fort up in Storybrooke, and Neal finds himself back in the Enchanted Forest. In Neverland, the gang of heroes (and anti-heroes) face up against a scheming, powerful foe, the legendary Peter Pan (Robbie Kay), who wants to possess something of Henry's: his heart, which he deems to be the heart of the truest believer. Pan tries to deceive the young man with claims that his heart will save the realm of Neverland and all of magic, but in reality he wants it to save himself, for his lifespan is running out. Neal is reunited with his family in Neverland after being helped by Mulan and Robin Hood (Sean Maguire) in the Enchanted Forest, and the rescuers team up with Tinker Bell (Rose McIver) and manage to jump over all the nasty hurdles that Neverland throws their way, including Lost Boys and poisonous plants, and are finally able to save Henry and head back home, bringing with them Wendy (Freya Tingley) and all the Lost Boys. However, Pan comes along for the ride as well and, once in Storybrooke, he attempts to enact the Dark Curse again. Rumplestiltskin is able to stop him, and Regina is able to undo her own curse, nullifying Pan's. In the process, she sends off Emma and Henry and gives them new memories as mother and son, of a shared life together, and the duo goes to live in New York. However, Hook shows up at Emma's door and eventually gives her back her memories, warning her that her family is in great danger again. Emma takes Henry (who still has no memories of his real life) back to Storybrooke with Hook to find that everyone is back there, with no memories of only the last year they spent in the Enchanted Forest. Mary Margaret is pregnant, and flying monkeys are found on the outskirts of town, which leads the heroes to conclude that the new curse that brought them back there was cast by none other than the Wicked Witch of Oz (Rebecca Mader), and thus it is up to them to stop her. The Witch is revealed as Regina's half-sister, and she lets on that she is after Snow White's baby, a product of true love and a symbol of innocence, and other tokens from the heroes, to enact a spell that would allow her to go back in time and change her history. The Witch is defeated, but the time portal is opened anyway, and Emma and Hook fall through it, making some changes in the past that affect the future...
Season 4 (2014-2015)
- Main article: Season 4
Regina fears that her chance at a happy ending may have been taken away by the sudden arrival of Robin's supposedly deceased wife, Marian (Christie Laing). Emma feels guilty for spoiling her "frenemy"'s new romance, which hinders her own relationship with Hook; Rumple and Belle enjoy life as newlyweds, even though the former turns to his usual deceit much sooner than he himself expected to, and the Charmings adjust to having to parent a newborn for the first time. Regina has the idea to search for the author of Henry's storybook, in hopes of getting him to write her a happy ending. Meanwhile, Elsa, the Queen of Arendelle, is brought to Storybrooke as well as the result of Hook and Emma's time travel, and she sets out on a quest to find her estranged sister, Anna (Elizabeth Lail). After some initial problems caused by Elsa's anxiety, finding herself in a strange new land, she becomes acquainted with the Charmings, who decide to help her, but things take a turn for the worse in the presence of the determined and dangerous Snow Queen (Elizabeth Mitchell), who has big plans for Emma and Elsa. Eventually, the chilly woman's plans change when love saves the day, and Elsa and Anna are reunited and taken back to Arendelle. Meanwhile, Robin is forced to leave town with his family in order to protect Marian's well-being, and Rumplestiltskin comes across an opportunity to cleave himself from the dagger that controls him, with the aid of the Sorcerer's hat, but in order to do so he must sacrifice Hook, and when his wife finds out, she banishes him from Storybrooke. Afterwards, the Dark One aligns himself with the renowned Queens of Darkness - Maleficent (Kristin Bauer van Straten), Cruella De Vil (Victoria Smurfit) and Ursula (Merrin Dungey) - with the intent of finding the author as well and changing the rules of the game, making it so that villains win and heroes lose and assuring his own happy ending. The villainesses are eventually either defeated or faced with their own prospective happy endings regardless of the author, but the latter is still found, with the help of August (Eion Bailey) - who's back to his adult form. Emma is reunited with her teenhood friend, Lily (Agnes Bruckner), who is none other than Maleficent's long-lost daughter, exiled to our land by Snow and Charming in a desperate attempt to ensure Emma would grow up to be a hero, and Belle starts dating Will Scarlet (Michael Socha) - formerly known as the Knave of Hearts. Shock befalls Regina when she learns that her half-sister, Zelena, is not only alive but has been posing as Marian this whole time... and now she's carrying Robin's child. Once found, the weaselly author, Isaac (Patrick Fischler), is more interested in his own happy ending and in the idea of writing an interesting story, leading him to favor the Dark One's idea and write a story in which the tables are turned for the heroes and villains. Once Henry and Emma are able to save the day and get everything back to normal, Rumple is cleansed of his darkness by the Sorcerer's Apprentice (Timothy Webber), but the entity of the Dark One escapes and tries to consume Regina, prompting Emma to further fulfill her role as Savior and save her friend, becoming the Dark One herself...
Season 5 (2015-2016)
- Main article: Season 5
When journeying to find Merlin (Elliot Knight), the heroes end up in Camelot, but six weeks later and a new Dark Curse has been cast, and the only person to retain their memories is Emma - or rather, the Dark Swan. She has an evil plot which involves Excalibur, only, as it turns out, it isn't so evil after all. Over the course of the missing six weeks, King Arthur (Liam Garrigan) turned out to be a less than stellar ruler and almost killed Hook in his villainy, meaning Emma had to give in to the darkness - otherwise known as Merlin's true love Nimue (Caroline Ford) - in order to save him. She did this by turning him into a second Dark One, and he cast the curse, killing Merlin, but forgot of his new nature when Emma made it so. Zelena, after giving birth to a baby girl, learns the truth and reveals it to him, meaning he tries to kill Emma and her whole family out of vengeance by attempting to have them dragged off to the Underworld by all former Dark Ones. Instead, he redeems at the last minute and sacrifices himself, but instead of destroying the darkness he in fact redirects it all back into Mr. Gold, who's been trying to redeem for Belle. To honor Hook's sacrifice, Emma and her whole family decide to quest to the Underworld so that they may recover his soul and resurrect him. While there, they meet a number of other souls who need help moving on, thanks to the corrupt ruler Hades (Greg Germann) running interference. As it turns out, he had a tortured romance with Zelena, who shows up along with an impregnated Belle while trying to protect her daughter. She manages to redeem herself in the process, finally making amends with Regina, but isn't the only one to evolve, for Mary Margaret dumps her small-town moniker in favor of being Snow White again. Emma must eventually declare "Operation Firebird" unsuccessful and abandon the Underworld without her true love in tow, and things take a turn for the worse back in Storybrooke with Hades running amok. Eventually, Zelena is forced to see the truth of his evil and kill him with his own all-powerful weapon... but not before he uses it to annihilate Robin. In her grief, fueled further by Hook's convenient resurrection by Zeus (David Hoflin), Regina fears she may revert to the Evil Queen. Luckily for her, when she meets Dr. Jekyll (Hank Harris), she is provided with a serum that splits her from her evil half. Her attempt to destroy it is unsuccessful though, while Gold, wanting to wake Belle from a sleeping curse, has traded his ownership of the town to Mr. Hyde (Sam Witwer), meaning Storybrooke is open to receive new residents from the Land of Untold Stories.
Season 6 (2016-2017)
- Main article: Season 6
Season 7 (2017-2018)
- Main article: Season 7
Main cast and characters
Once Upon a Time features a large ensemble of castmembers, listed below are the eighteen actors of the series who have, at some point, been credited under "Starring", indicating that they are main castmembers. They are ordered alphabetically, and the periods in which they were regulars are featured in brackets, except for those who were always such.
- Gabrielle Anwar - Lady Tremaine (season 7 onward)
- Eion Bailey - August W. Booth/Pinocchio (episodes 14-22, recurring otherwise)
- Robert Carlyle - Mr. Gold/Rumplestiltskin
- Josh Dallas - David Nolan/Prince Charming (season 1-6)
- Emilie de Ravin - Belle French/Belle (season 2-6, recurring otherwise)
- Jamie Dornan - Sheriff Graham Humbert/Huntsman (episodes 1-7, recurring afterwards)
- Alison Fernandez - Lucy (season 7 onward, recurring previously)
- Jared S. Gilmore - Henry Mills (season 1-6, recurring onward)
- Ginnifer Goodwin - Mary Margaret Blanchard/Snow White (season 1-6)
- Rebecca Mader - Zelena/Wicked Witch (season 5-6, recurring previously)
- Sean Maguire - Robin Hood (season 5, recurring otherwise)
- Jennifer Morrison - Emma Swan (season 1-6, recurring onward)
- Colin O'Donoghue - Killian Jones/Captain Hook (episode 36 onward, recurring previously)
- Meghan Ory - Ruby/Red Riding Hood (season 2, recurring otherwise)
- Lana Parrilla - Regina Mills/Queen Regina
- Dania Ramirez - Cinderella (season 7 onward)
- Michael Raymond-James - Neal Cassidy/Baelfire (season 3, recurring otherwise)
- Raphael Sbarge - Dr. Archie Hopper/Jiminy Cricket (season 1, recurring afterwards)
- Michael Socha - Will Scarlet (season 4)
- Andrew J. West - Henry Mills (season 7 onward, recurring previously)
- For more, see the cast list.