SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details of tonight’s Season 6 finale of Once Upon a Time.
The Enchanted Forest isn’t the only place undergoing great upheaval. ABC’s Once Upon a Time tonight ended both its season and a massive chunk of its ongoing storyline, setting up next year’s Season 7 without many of the cast and characters that have been with the show since, well, once upon a time.
Deadline spoke with show creators/executive producers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz (see below) about how the fairy tale fantasy will continue without, among others, Snow White, Prince Charming, the Wicked Witch of the West, young Henry Mills and “savior” Emma Swann – and the actors who played them.
We also spoke about how long they’ve been planning this transition, how they plotted out the end of tales that began with the show in 2011 and the new characters – introduced in tonight’s two-hour finale – that will launch a new round of storytelling. (The duo said new casting announcements should arrive by late June).
But first, a recap of the show’s recent turbulence both on screen and off.
In real life, ABC announced last week that six of the show’s longtime cast members would not be coming back for Season 7, either by their own choice or not. Ginnifer Goodwin and Josh Dallas – the real-life married couple who met while playing Snow White and Prince Charming – apparently had planned to leave, and last week they were joined by Jennifer Morrison (Emma Swan), Rebecca Mader (Wicked Witch Zelena), Jared S. Gilmore (child hero Henry Mills) and Emilie de Ravin (Belle).
De Ravin said last week that she would “have loved to continue exploring Belle’s journey,” but that “the show has decided to move in a different creative direction.”
Sticking around will be Lana Parrilla (Regina/Evil Queen), Robert Carlyle (Gold/Rumplestiltskin) and Colin O’Donoghue as Killian/Hook).
Joining the holdovers will be The Walking Dead‘s Andrew J. West, playing the grown-up version of Henry Mills.
In tonight’s finale – and really stop reading here to avoid SPOILERS – West’s Mills appeared in a flashback storybook scene as a sword-wielding swashbuckler who seemed to perish while saving his young daughter Lucy from some sort of storm-like monster.
From there, the two-episode finale set about wrapping up the tales of longtime characters. In Storybrooke, Maine, Henry struggles to help Emma – locked in a sanitarium overseen by Nurse Ratched – regain her belief in fairy tales, the only hope to stop the Black Fairy’s curse that’s disintegrating the alternate universe land of Snow, Charming, the Queen and Witch, Hook and the rest.
In the final stand-off, a spell-bound Gideon (Giles Matthey) clashes swords with Emma, the fate of fairy tale land hanging in the balance. In an ultimate sacrifice, Emma tosses aside her sword and is slain by Gideon.
This being Once Upon a Time, all is made right with a kiss, and we leave the residents of modern Storybrooke as well as fairy tale land happily ever after.
“Now,” says Snow to the gang, “we get to see what’s next.”
And indeed we do. In the finale’s last scene, little Lucy – who has some connection to a Native American named Tiger Lily (Sara Tomko), so we can expect some Peter Pan doings – is shown in a modern-dress version in an unspecified future, presenting herself at grown-up Henry’s door as his child, carrying, like little Henry did all those years ago, a big fairytale book.
She introduces herself to Henry, who insists he doesn’t have a daughter. “Yeah, you do,” she says. “C’mon, your family needs you.”
And we’re off.
Deadline spoke to Kitsis and Horowitz Friday, two days before the finale and just hours after word spread of the major cast overhaul.
DEADLINE: Big day for you guys today, and I’m sure it wasn’t all easy. Bring us up to speed on what happened with the cast. I watched the finale, and it seems that this had to have been planned all along, with the characters really bringing the story we’ve been watching to an end.
HOROWITZ: It has been planned for a very long time, so while the announcements came today, they were a long time coming. We had reached a point where we felt like it was time to close certain chapters in the book that we were telling and to take some risks and move forward. And try to continue the spirit of what the show is but really find new ways to tell stories. That meant some characters would stay and some would go. We love our cast. We think we’ve been blessed with the best cast in television. So you know, it’s…it’s been an interesting time, you know.
KITSIS: We went into this season knowing this would be Josh and Ginny, as much as they love the show, they wanted to return to LA so we knew that they weren’t going to be regulars. So we’ve had a year to kind of plan what season 7 – and the ending of this year – would look like.
DEADLINE: Was there any thought given to having the same actors play different characters, like an an anthology, like…
KITSIS: Like American Horror Story? We talked about that, but we didn’t feel that it was right for our show because the truth is, is you know we still love writing Rumplestiltskin. We still love these characters and the audience has grown to love them over six seasons, so we didn’t want to do a complete reset/reboot. What we wanted to do was expand the universe and start telling new stories and new worlds with new characters but have some of our characters, who we’ve loved for six years, be the heroes of that journey.
DEADLINE: So there are three actors (Parrilla, Carlyle, O’Donoghue) that are staying, and I assume whatever happens next season is going to sort of be built around them, then built out with new characters?
HOROWITZ: Yeah, I think that’s a fair assessment. Obviously those three are very important to the storytelling we have planned for next season, as is Andrew West as the adult version of Henry, so it’s really four returning characters. And then there’s Allison Fernandez as his daughter, so that becomes kind of the core we’re building around.
We’re not ready to make any formal announcements yet, but we’re planning that there will be more regulars added to the mix and probably more recurring characters as we build out the universe of this iteration of the show.
DEADLINE: What kind of characters will we be seeing? Characters from stories we’ve grown up with? Entirely new characters?
KITSIS: I would say we’ll continue our policy of that mashup. As we’ve said, when we started the show it was like being 12-year-olds taking toys off the shelf. So we will continue to pull from the world of Disney, the world of fairy tales, the world of literature and story…
DEADLINE: And One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest…
KITSIS: Yeah, we’ve had six years of a Cuckoo’s Nest reference. So we’ll continue to do it all.
HOROWITZ: We have some ideas that we think will be a lot of fun, that we want to surprise the audience with next season, but yeah, it’s that mashup quality, like the original recipe of What if Snow White was friends with Red Riding Hood? That kind of stuff is so much fun to us, and it’s cool that we’re going to continue that kind of storytelling.
DEADLINE: What can you tell me about the Lucy character?
HOROWITZ: Well, I think her lineage and who her mother is and how that all fits into our story is a big part of what the show will be next season, so we obviously don’t want to give away that stuff now. But I think in the tradition of what we’ve done over the years, it will be steeped in fairy tale and storytelling mythology.
DEADLINE: What about baby Gideon? How does he fit into the timeline?
KITSIS: We found our happy endings [for some characters] but there are people we still want to know about. Those are all the kinds of things that for us are going to be episodes for next year, so we don’t really want to talk about it yet. We’re just kind of getting into that. But we still have some loose ends with some characters and we’re not going to completely disregard those questions.
DEADLINE: And in terms of logistics back in the real world, when do you guys start writing? When does all this get going?
HOROWITZ: We’ve already started. We’ve already had the writers in and we’ve been working already so yeah, we’re in it.
DEADLINE: Do you have a return date yet?
HOROWITZ: Currently we’re on the same schedule we’ve always been. I mean, obviously we don’t know what the ABC schedule is. They haven’t announced the plans and premieres and all that but as far as our production work schedule…
KITSIS: Production schedule has been the same every year. We start writing in June, we start shooting in July and we run that marathon 22 episodes later all the way to April.
DEADLINE: Are you guys going to be at the upfronts?
KITSIS: Lana. Lana Parrilla I believe is going to be there on behalf of the show.
DEADLINE: Tell me the ending of the finale – when did all that start taking shape? A year ago did you know where you were going?
HOROWITZ: I would say it’s been many years, in the sense of we’ve had this idea of how we wanted to end these stories. The specificity of how it would happen started to take shape last summer as we started to plan Season 6, and Eddie and I have had a pretty strong vision of what that final act for Season 6 would be.
I think the guiding principle was that it’s not happy endings, it’s seeing these people in their lives and knowing that they’re going on and have found some measure of happiness. Just like the way we started the whole show with an iconic happy ending – Snow White being awoken by Prince Charming, to tell the audience, wait, that actually isn’t the ending. The story goes on. That’s what we were attempting to do here at the end.
DEADLINE: Was there any consideration of any characters actually dying? When I saw Prince Charming fall, I’m thinking they’re not really going to kill him off, are they?
KITSIS: Not really. We were on the journey. We loved these characters. It’s a show about hope, so you know we’ve made sacrifices throughout the way but it felt like it was time for them to get their due.
HOROWITZ: We’ve always said that the show can be dark but we don’t ever want it to be bleak…
KITSIS: …and Prince Charming dying at the end felt bleak, yeah.