Last Sunday, ABC’s Once Upon A Time made headlines when it “broke new ground” by depicting Mulan as queer. In case you haven’t been following the show these past two years, here’s what’s going on: Mulan (probably) was into Prince Phillip last season. She (definitely) is into Princess Aurora this season. All three actors portraying these characters are gorgeous, and the googly eyed falling-in-love faces they make at each other on screen are heartwarming and adorable.
Are you interested in seeing this, but don’t really want to sift through 50+ episodes just to find the cute bits? You’re in luck! I mined this series for all its queer gold and put the shiniest pieces below.
First things first: the premise of the show is that fairytale characters are real, they’re all connected to each other, and because of a curse by an evil queen they’ve been popping in and out of the real world in unexpected ways. That’s the essence of season one, but we don’t really care about that right now (and in fact, I’m going to ignore the actual main characters of the show because they don’t have all that much to do with the queer content). Onwards!
Season two (airing September 30, 2012) opens with what appears to be the traditional awakening scene of Sleeping Beauty. Prince Phillip (played by Julian Morris aka. Wren in Pretty Little Liars) kisses Princess Aurora (Sarah Bolger) and she returns to waking life. You know the drill.
In a departure from the traditional tale, a helmeted warrior figure watches at the edge of the scene. The figure turns away when the couple kisses.
Out of nowhere, Phillip and Aurora’s reunion is interrupted by a surprise attack from a wraith. A short skirmish ensues and the helmeted figure and the prince both attempt to defend the princess against the wraith.
After the wraith retreats, Aurora notices the mystery helmeted person for the first time and asks Phillip who they are.
The helmet comes off. Surprise!
It’s Mulan, played by Jamie Chung!
Mulan reveals that she is friends with Phillip. “In your absence, she has helped like no other,” Phillip says fondly, with a significant glance in Mulan’s direction.
The three set off together, and Phillip and Aurora start making up for lost time. They’re all cute and couple-y…
…while Mulan looks on as the third wheel, a constant pained expression on her face. They banter back and forth a bit, but it isn’t exactly friendly; there’s clearly some animosity between Mulan and Aurora. And it’s just like, ugh, are these two women really going to fight each other over who gets the man? Seriously?
Luckily, this dynamic is short-lived. Before the trio manages to spend even one awkward night together, Phillip realizes he has been marked by the wraith as its next victim. He gives Aurora a goodbye kiss, then sneaks off to face the monster alone.
Mulan goes after Phillip to help, instructing Aurora to stay put. When she protests, Mulan replies tersely: “That thing out there is dangerous. And Phillip – he left to protect you, so even if I don’t believe in his methods, I’m gonna honor his wishes. I’m gonna keep you safe. … Everything he does, he does for you. And now he’s gonna die for you. Love is sacrifice - something you clearly don’t understand.”
Aurora says that she won’t let Phillip face the wraith alone. Mulan gets all protective. “He won’t. But with all due respect, your highness, Phillip’s best chance is me.”
Aurora accuses Mulan of being in love with Phillip. Mulan denies it.
Aurora begins to cry and says she doesn’t want to live without him. Phillip: “Neither do I.” As the wraith flies at them, he yells, “You two each keep each other safe.” He looks back over his shoulder at them and says “I love you” to… Aurora? Mulan? Both women? It’s ambiguous!
Then Phillip’s soul is sucked out through his face and transported to another dimension. His body is left behind.
Aurora and Mulan leave him and Once Upon A Time’s main storyline comes crashing into their bit of story arc. There are a lot of other not-terribly-relevant-to-the-queer-love-triangle things going on, but basically, Mulan and Aurora join two other characters on a quest and get some quality lady-lady bonding time in.
As their journey continues, Aurora realizes that she is able to travel to another world when she sleeps, obtaining valuable information for their quest. Mulan appoints herself Aurora’s protector as she sleeps (and increasingly, as she wakes), and we start seeing the rough edges of their relationship smooth out into something approaching tenderness.
Unfortunately for their information gathering efforts, it turns out that when Aurora is hurt while dreaming, she is also hurt in real life. Mulan notices her injuries right away. She cites her vow to Prince Phillip to protect Aurora, and tells her she should stop.
They bicker like a couple, but ultimately, Aurora has other plans in mind. “Mulan, I was cursed to spend eternity in that horrible sleep. And, the only reason I’m here is because you and Phillip risked your lives to save me,” she says. “Every day since my waking has been a gift, so let me do something with it. It’s my turn to help someone else.”
Heroic, huh? But before she gets a chance to make good on it, Aurora is kidnapped by zombies! Mulan responds to this super emotionally. Obviously, she has grown quite fond of having Aurora around.
While kidnapped, the bad guys try to pressure Aurora into helping them, but she refuses. In return, they rip her heart from her chest while she’s sleeping. But don’t worry, she’s still alive; we’re in fairytale land, so this just means that they can remote control her body to spy on people.
Mulan comes to the rescue with friends in tow. They cleverly break the bars on their jail cell, but Aurora doesn’t want to join them for fear that she will be remote controlled into sabotaging their mission. She asks Mulan to tie her up.
Mulan has feelings about this…
…but eventually obliges with some light bondage, and vows to return. She successfully retrieves Aurora’s heart and comes back to the jail cell. After she gingerly unties Aurora, this happens:
(Mulan puts Aurora’s heart back in her chest. They look like they need a cigarette, but instead of cuddling and whispering sweet nothings to eachother, they engage in the only pillow talk they know how: making a pact to save Phillip. Together.)
They try and they succeed, restoring the third side of their love triangle. Aurora and Phillip reunite and Mulan leaves them to aid other characters with their quests.
In their time apart, Mulan and another character have conversations about how much it sucks to not tell someone you love them when you have the chance. Shortly thereafter, Mulan receives an offer to join Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men. Before answering, she says that she needs to talk to someone (“a loved one”) before she can make her decision.
Mulan rushes to Aurora and Phillip’s castle, where Aurora is clearly overjoyed to see Mulan again.
Look how cute they are!
Mulan says that she needs to talk to her, but before she can confess her love, Aurora drops this bomb:
Mulan tries to play it cool but is obviously heartbroken.
Distraught, she tells Aurora that she is leaving to join the Merry Men. Aurora moves in for an emotionally charged hug and her face looks like this:
And that’s where we are now!
If you want to do some more detailed catching up (there are a lot of other things going on in this show), I recommend the watching the official ABC series recap first. Then start watching continuously at the beginning of season two.
For my part, I’m always happy to see a queer woman of color in the media. There are so few representations on TV, and it’s really nice to see writing where a character’s queerness progresses out of the subtext and into the actual text. I’m hesitant to put a specific label on Mulan’s identity at this point, since Mulan hasn’t, but my gut feeling is that OUAT’s writers intentionally played up the ambiguous nature of Mulan and Prince Phillip’s relationship for a reason. A bisexual reason. Hooray for people avoiding bisexual erasure! Such a pleasant surprise.
As for what happens next: there’s so much suspense! Season three’s fourth episode airs on Sunday, October 20, but keep in mind that this storyline is only one of many; it may or may not be picked up again next episode. (There are a lot of people shipping “Sleeping Warrior,” though, so I would expect to see some significant development one way or the other by the mid season finale.) Perhaps Mulan and Aurora will get together, and perhaps they won’t. The single guys are kind of boring and Mulan isn’t really close with any other available women on the show, but there are plenty of options that could be written in. OUAT has never been shy about adding new characters so this isn’t out of the question by any means.
Also, did you catch the way Mulan and Belle were looking at each other? There’s nothing keeping Belle from dumping Rumple and getting with a certain Chinese war hero. I’m just saying.