Remember when I gave ABC's "Once Upon A Time" praise enough for it to be called my professional jealousy? I truly meant that - for 55 episodes in two and a half seasons, plus a 13 episode spinoff. Recently, however, the quality of this show and it's various aspects has gone right down the crapper. As of the previous season, it's finally reached it's inevitable point of no return - it's Jump The Shark. Adam Horowitz and Eddy Kitsis have become the next Mike and Bryan (apologies due to the things they got right with their shows), the next David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (sorry "Game Of Thrones" fans - that show achieves greatness for a multitude of reasons, but those two are not among them), the next Alfred Gough and Miles Miller (the decline process for this and "Smallville" is startlingly similar), and dare I say, the next Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen. I've been both let down by this show and yet still very much entertained by it in how much farther it could fall and how much poorer it gets in both quality and ratings. Thus I prepared this retrospective of a once great show:
SEASON 1: The Dark Curse Saga -
The premiere season of the show had one tight storyline and overarching narrative that makes it impossible to separate into A and B halves like can be done in the later seasons. It had a strong beginning, a stronger middle, and an even stronger end, like the best stories should. It sold us a premise in the pilot and gave us the resolution of that premise and many other major plot threads in the season finale, with enough loose ends hanging for a sequel story or two with this setting and these characters. It knew exactly how to tell it's story and exactly when to stop before it wore out it's welcome, which is what makes it forever the best season in the show. The plots were intriguing, the characters at their freshest and finest, the themes and morality was clear as day, and everything felt truly wonderful and magical in scope, score, visuals, and experience. I've given details and sang the praises of this one in another entry, so look there if you want to know more about this season arc.
SEASON 2A: Worlds Apart - The second season was meant to have one big story like the first season's arc, the Price of Magic Saga. The problem is that the creators hadn't thought out a clear ongoing story past the first season - they only had concepts and ideas for characters and plot threads. So for this season they tried to shove in as much of them as they wanted without actually weaving a proper storyline around these elements, resulting in what would ultimately become a disoriented mess. The first 9 episodes of the season, which actually had a certain premise set up in episode 1 that got resolution in episode 9, aired in late 2012 before a hiatus, meaning that A and B halves for this saga were accidentally created. And the A half of the season had the better plot by far. There have been complaints about how the initial premise - the characters in Storybrooke putting themselves back together after the curse was broken and the exploring of the ramifications of said curse - got sidelined for a new premise in which Emma and Mary Margaret get sent to the Enchanted Forest due to a wraith attack, with claims that this came out of left field. I honestly didn't mind it, and it did NOT come entirely out of left field seeing as the wraith was summoned as a result of THE major loose end from Season 1. Maybe I just didn't have as much of a need to see the Charming family come together as much as others. The handling of the subplot introducing new characters Aurora and Mulan is a better complaint, but even they go on to become great characters in their own right (though Mulan really needed more backstory and personality development). While Emma, Mary Margaret, Aurora, and Mulan form a travelling team in their search for a way to get to Storybrooke, the characters back in town deal with their own plots. David has to step up and become a leader again, Henry wants to become more useful, Regina decides to quit using magic because she wants to become a better person for Henry, and Gold is forced into a similar situation with Belle. It's all effective, engaging, and fun to watch unfold. We also get two new major bad guys - Cora, the Queen of Hearts herself and Regina's evil mother who wants to reach Storybrooke because she has big plans in store, and Captain Hook, a roguish pirate seeking vengeance against Rumpelstiltskin for killing his love, and is willing to screw over anyone else in his way in order to get it. They both proved to be compelling and threatening adversaries. This arc's biggest failing is it's seventh episode. What should have been the start of a climax in which Albert Spencer tries to take over Storybrooke as revenge on David turned out to be a very bland and underwhelming affair, intercut with boring werewolf flashbacks. LAME. Had this been an 11 episode half season arc like they have in Seasons 3 and 4, there would have been more time to do this right. And the handling of magic in Storybrooke also grew to be disappointingly uneven, and it would only get worse as the show went on. The story closes out spectacularly, though. Emma and her mom get back safe and sound, Emma discovers her true worth as a savior and person, and everyone has a happy reunion outing...except for Regina and Gold, who are friendless losers due to their evil. Then they pull yet another "The End...or is it?" by showing Cora and Hook on their way to town. Uh oh! Overall these episodes and it's story felt like a worthy follow-up to the Dark Curse Saga. Not quite as good, but still very high in quality and genuinely solid writing for plots and characters. It retained the magic of the show. And because of this, we were unprepared for the letdown that was to follow...
SEASON 2B: Baelfire Returns - I call it that because past the first episode of this half, the return of Rumple's son Baelfire and all it brought
to the table was the most overarching aspect to the arc. Because otherwise, this phase of the series had no focus. It threw new plots and characters at us every other episode while gradually phasing out the ones we already had, and the writing got really, really sloppy. Morality got blurred, characters started acting out of character, opportunities that seemed obvious to viewers got wasted by the writers, payoff to events, emotions, and arcs got denied to us many times over, and whenever the show wasn't focused on characters we didn't give any damns about, it was over-focused on the villain characters. This became the half-season of Regina and Rumple, who were getting pardoned by the narrative repeatedly and flip-flopping their moral allegiances to the point of losing their edge. Just as bad as that our new villains, Cora and Hook, got mishandled as well. And once they got taken out
of the picture...well, we'll get to that. The arc started with four episodes of quality that ranged from average to subpar, with problems becoming apparent - Regina and Rumple focus, unpleasant tones, Hook constantly failing, Belle getting fridged for Rumple's man pain, needless new additions (Greg Mendell, Jack, Johanna, the Dragon, Robin Hood) and bad stories built around secondary characters (Whale, Anton, August), and the sidelining of main characters, even Emma herself! The next three episodes were actually exceptionally good despite their issues. We see who Baelfire has grown up into and this leads us to major reveals that effect the course of the story. Things get intense and emotional as Cora attacks the town in hopes of claiming the Dark One dagger and it's power for herself. And we get Cora's backstory while she plays her last hand in the present and ends up dying...wait, what? Cora gets killed off while we still have 6 episodes left to go in the season? But she was our Big Bad - she drove the conflict! Who do they replace her with? Enter Greg and Tamara, two normal human beings devoid of purpose and charisma who belong to a secret organization that's being backed by the mysterious "Home Office", one that seeks to remove magic from this world. Oh COME ON! The four episodes prior to the two-part finale were seriously bad, veering the show towards shark-jumping territory. They actually really anger me. The tone got very grim, very mean and hate-filled. Damn near all plot points that come in ended up amounting to nothing, the dark spot on Snow's heart being the most glaring example. Regina and Gold slid back into full villainy yet were allowed to walk free for no explicable reason. Emma and her family became bland non-entities. August, one of the most pivotal and interesting characters from the first season, returned as a wooden man who got killed off in the most ridiculous way possible - death by Tamara's anti-magic taser. Neal continued to be a total douche. The flashbacks shown to us in the 19th and 20th episodes utterly ruined things about not only Regina and Rumple's backstories but their arcs as a whole. And while the focus was solely on the "plot", the "plot" in question was one in which NOTHING substantial or proactive was actually happening, with Greg and Tamara dicking around, acting suspiciously and talking about mysterious details as if trying to entice the audience even when we flat out didn't care because they weren't getting off the pot and DOING SOMETHING! Arrrgh, it was so, sooo bad. The final insult was the set-up for the finale: it was something that could have been set up better by Regina's earlier breakdown after her mother's death, thus keeping Cora still a relevant evil force in the season 'til the end, and cutting down on wasted time so that the Home Office plot doesn't wear on the viewers' nerves. Again, had this only been an 11 episode half season, they could've done the August plot better justice, made the "Belle as Lacey" thing an actual subplot, combined the flashback of 2x17 and the present day story of 2x20, and cut those godawful Rumple and Regina flashbacks! It would had been a better phasing out of Season 2's plot and Big Bad while setting up the next one. But for what it's worth, the finale was actually really good, filled with very powerful moments and a downright brilliant reveal about the truth behind the Home Office, closing the season out with a major "To Be Continued" and setting us up for the next saga that'd actually deliver!
SEASON 3A: Journey To Neverland -
Had Season 1's story not been so near-perfect, this would probably be my favorite arc of the show. The layout for this one is just brilliant and what gets done with it feels extraordinary and magical. It actually makes look back on all that Home Office build-up with a bit more kindness that I gave it when it was occurring simply because I now know it was building to this - it is THAT good. There's just something about the tale of a big, broken, majorly messed up family uniting together to save one of their own, whom they all care for, from the clutches of ultimate evil that makes for an appealing story. There's also the fact that this arc took Neverland and the Peter Pan mythos and made it darker than it's ever been portrayed before. Right at the start, Greg and Tamara get offed (YAY!) as it's revealed that the Home Office that headed the anti-magic organization was in fact a front for the Lost Boys, and our new Big Bad is none other than Peter Pan, who's been taken back to his conceptual roots as a child-snatching demon boy, and also happens to be a greater, darker evil than even the Dark One. Pan is simply put the best villain this show's given us. Portrayed brilliantly by Robbie Kay, he is a monstrous, utterly selfish sociopath with none of the innocence associated with other incarnations of the character and devoid of redemptive humane qualities. They took the hero of his own story and turned him into the villain of all villains, and I loved it! While the arc has fun little side attractions like a backstory that features Excalibur, the appearance of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, confirmation of romantic feelings for Aurora from Mulan, the debut of Ariel, and some classic Neverland stuff such as Tinkerbell, Pan's shadow, and Skull Rock, it's really the main story and development of the core cast that shines here. Emma, Snow, Charming, Regina, Rumple, Hook, and even Neal are all greatly portrayed, with the weak link being, ironically enough, the Truest Believer himself, Henry, but even he has his moments. The first six episodes of the arc are in fact character studies of this cast as they make their way through the jungles of Neverland in hopes of finding and saving Henry, whose heart Pan hopes to absorb into himself so that he can bind himself forever to the magic of Neverland and become an all-powerful, ageless immortal - a process that will end up costing Henry his life. Once this is becoming clear, the urgency of the plot thickens. 3x07 also features one of my all-time favorite setups in the series - Belle and Ariel working together to find something for Rumpelstiltskin and the Evil Queen only to have to contend with an evil, grown-up John and Michael Darling (the heads of the anti-magic organization) who serve the evil Peter Pan. I could not make that up if I tried! At the arc's climax, we learn the shocking truth of Pan's true identity - a truth that ties in with the foundations of this show's entire story to date. Worse: even after Henry's been saved and the heroes head back to Storybrooke, they're unaware that Pan is following them home in an unsuspecting way. Now this arc does have it's flaws - the reliance on magical MacGuffins introduced out of nowhere in order to help situations was repeatedly used, there was shipping melodrama that didn't amount to much, some characters (namely Henry, Snow, Charming, and Rumple) got the short end of the stick for a while, it got padded out with filler at points, the way the actual saving of Henry got handled was unsatisfactory ("I have no regrets!" BAM! "Now let's go return this heart to Henry!"), and some of the flashbacks content, especially in 3x10, is questionable or downright needless. However, it's all absolved by the arc's finale, which surprised us all by actually wrapping up the entire story that the show had been telling since the pilot, bringing everything full circle, complete with the Dark Curse (cast by Pan) that Regina now had to destroy at the cost of her happiness, Rumple's life ending where it all began: with him and his father, and Emma finally accepting her family just before she has to lose it but gain a happy ending for herself and her son Henry, the boy who started it all for her. And it is just beautiful, ingenious, and perfect. From start to finish, this part of the show blew me away. They'd ended a story but closed the episode out on a last-minute sequel Hook (get it?) to set up the new chapter they were about to open, starting in the next half of the season. The Winter finale had been a game-changer and now a window of opportunities was left wide open for the creators. I now officially liked all of these characters and was eager to see what was in store for them - what future stories could be told with them now. So after this high point, what came next? Well, sad to say, this is where the disappointment truly comes in...
SEASON 3B: Wicked Witch's Revenge - For the second half of Season 3, which was also the first chapter in the new ongoing storyline, the show finally delivered on it's promise to incorporate Oz. And with Oz came the Wicked Witch of the West, who was to be this arc's Big Bad. And with the Wicked Witch came.....flying monkeys. Yeah, if you've seen previous entries, you know where this is headed. This is the arc where the show finally started it's process of Jumping the Shark. The premise was decent enough - Storybrooke has mysteriously re-appeared in Maine and all the characters there have lost their memories of what transpired in Enchanted Forest during their return, thus have no idea who cast this curse and why. The most likely culprit is Zelena, the Wicked Witch of Oz who also happens to be Regina's half-sister, and she currently threatens them all with an unknown evil plan. So it's up to Captain Hook to restore Emma's memories and bring her, along with a memory-wiped Henry, back to Storybrooke in order to save her family. Almost immediately though, there are story problems and issues in the execution of things. Snow should not start getting way too buddy-buddy with Regina, Regina should not have gotten that castle back, Hook's "I'm telling the truth!" stalking plot was uncomfortable, Storybrooke coming back so soon takes a lot of the power out of the events of 3x11, Zelena might as well not be Regina's sister since it barely impacts anything, that blood-lock thing was pointless, and Emma's current boyfriend/would-be fiance actually being a flying monkey was totally uncalled for. Things began to take a real dive after the arc's first two episodes. Rumple was back from the dead, insane and kept captive by Zelena for some reason. This was worrisome since his arc had wrapped up so perfectly, and him being controlled by our new villain gave him serious Badass Decay. When we learn the truth of why this happened, it led to a major character death that came completely out of nowhere and WAY too early into the story even though it was clearly a climax-worthy event. Regina and Robin Hood soon began their unconvincing love story that relied on both of them acting like watered down characters who got strangled by the red string. Oz itself was poorly portrayed, being not too distinguishable from Enchanted Forest, and Zelena quickly lost her edge as a villain when we saw how whiny and pitiful she really was and learned of her inane letdown of a plan. And yet then it somehow got even worse. Plot holes, character derailments, contrivances (Hook's cursed lips), poorly done backstories, wasted opportunities, weak payoffs, inept heroes, overly-efficient Villan Sue Zelena, horrendous attempts at moral equivalency, and sacrificing characterization, world building, and any meaningful relationship scenes for the sake of cheap drama in the form of PLOT PLOT PLOT! The characters of Emma, Regina, and Snow really suffered here - Emma utterly stagnating in her whining about how happy she was in New York and ditching her Savior responsibilities in order to return there with Henry, Regina's character arc lost it's progression in favor of fast-forwarding her to "hero" status so that she could be saint-ified, whitewashed, absolved of everything, and showered with unearned rewards, proving that she was officially the Creator's Pet now, and Snow just became an irritating, patronizing, downright unlikable shell of her former self. The last kickers were that the resolution to the mystery of the new curse was underwhelming, the way in which the curse was broken was downright nonsense, Zelena's defeat was an asspull of an anticlimax to rival Amon's defeat, and the time travel spell that sets up the finale was activated AFTER Zelena dies, meaning that Zelena and her plan was ultimately filler that was here to take up time until the finale could happen. GAAAH!!! I didn't even get into stuff about how badly Belle came off here and how the Charmings have a new baby whom Zelena needed to steal to complete her time spell and who they end up naming after a recently deceased man. The story in this arc was ultimately a huge, underwhelming dud that was not thought out nearly well enough in it's writing and execution. With that said, was 3B completely awful? Surprisingly, no it was not. There was still a lot to enjoy here. Seeing all the characters continuing to bond together as a united family of heroes and sort of-villains rather than be at each other's throat was nice, some characters like Regina and Charming got good development before things went south, the spacing of relaxed episodes and urgent plot-based crisis episodes was done exceptionally well, and that season finale was surprisingly enjoyable and well put-together as both a "Back To The Future" homage and a callback to the earliest, best days of the show. But the standout here has to be Hook: his character development into a true hero was great and entirely believable, and the romance he and Emma come to have just feels earned. Unlike other romances on the show, it doesn't feel forced - it's something they grew into. It's just a shame that all these good things couldn't come together to make a better experience, because there was so much not-so good stuff in the way. Ultimately the biggest failing here is that this arc did not do what it SHOULD have been all about doing - it didn't revamp the show, set up a new direction, status quo, and core cast to follow. It didn't take the fullest advantage of what it had. If they had done that, and in a better written story with a middle that actually connected to it's beginning and end, the series could have been salvaged. Instead, the quality of the show, it's cast, and it's writing got dealt a fatal blow and by the end of the season, it officially made it's jump.
SPINOFF: Adventures In Wonderland - Airing during the same time frame as Season 3 was a one season spin-off show set in the realm of Wonderland, a world that had been touched upon once in both previous seasons. Since it was a one-and-done show, it's the only other instance besides the Dark Curse Saga where the story is tight and largely self-contained, with an overarching narrative that cannot be divided into A and B halves. The quality of the show and it's story was questionable at first - it lacked the real world edge that gave the main show it's specialness, the main romance set up was cliched and unconvincing, the characters didn't seem very compelling, and all the weird CGI of Wonderland was mostly laughable and dated. But the more it went on, the more interesting the plot became, the more emotionally engaging the relationships got, the higher the stakes got, and the more wonderful this cast proved to be. This was actually a solid and very brilliantly done show. It took the concept of Alice In Wonderland and created a thrilling and sometimes dark epic adventure out of it in a FAR better way than Tim Burton's "Alice In Underland" did. It begins with teenage Alice, having been committed to a mental ward due to her wild stories about this fantastical world and about to be given a lobotomy for it, getting busted out by the Knave of Hearts and the White Rabbit, who bring her to Wonderland so they can all search for Alice's believed-to-be-deceased genie lover, Cyrus, revealed to still be alive. But standing in the way is the cold-hearted and treacherous Red Queen, ruler of Wonderland, who wants to get Alice to use up her coveted "three wishes" so that she could then make a wish of her own. However, the true schemer behind this plot is Jafar, evil sorcerer of Agrabah. That's right: they made a Wonderland-based series with Jafar as the Big Bad. Who could've guessed that? Since Jafar has long since been one of my all-time favorite villains, Disney or otherwise, I could have been let down by how they'd portray him. But thank Jesus for the handling of this character - played by Naveen Andrews, he is a brilliantly depicted villain, having a dark and troubled past that explains why he became what he is today and what drives him in his evildoing, but does nothing to change the fact that he is a detestable, barbaric, black-hearted bastard devoid of any feelings of true love and detached from humanity. His goal here is to make a great big wish to Cyrus and two other genies he's abducted that he may not be restricted by the laws of magic, which could give him the power to dominate all as he pleases. It's up to Alice and her friends to stop his mad plan, but the ride is very bumpy. While the love story between Alice and Cyrus does get progressively better, as does Cyrus' character in general, what's truly engrossing to watch is the beta-couple love story between Will Scarlet, the Knave of Hearts, and Anastasia, the Red Queen. Whereas Alice and Cyrus' struggles are often always external, Will and Ana's struggles are very much internal. Will is a show-stealing character for this show, being both very funny yet also very troubled and deep, and Anastasia, due to an unexpectedly likable character and truly marvelous redemption arc, is probably the best development of the cast. The story, like the characters, become even better in retrospect once certain plot details come to light and things come back into play. By the last third of this show, things have taken a turn into incredibly dark and intense territory, with character deaths, emotional and psychological struggles, and even a guest star appearance by Cora! And the series finale is just beautiful, wrapping up the story in a very satisfactory way and ending on an absolutely perfect note. Along with the Dark Curse Saga and the Neverland Saga, this is one of the best things the creators gave us from this series' universe. And if I could say any more words to sell it's greatness to you, then how about this?: John Lithgow as the voice of the White Rabbit. Yes folks, it's just a great as it sounds!
SEASON 4A: Storybrooke Is Frozen - The concerning elements of this one are immediately noticeable. Disney's Frozen is a movie that came out in 2013 and went on to become the most successful animated film of all time to date. The closing shot of Season 3, which ended in May 2014, was Elsa coming out of an urn. Season 4 began with this Frozen-based arc in the Fall of 2014. Um, too soon, Once! Too soon! This was a desperate cash-in and ratings grab to compensate for the fact that the show had been heavily declining in both viewership and quality by the end of Season 3. It had made it's jump over the shark, which means it was now a dying show: Frozen was brought in to keep it on life support. And the odd thing is that it worked. The ratings got a huge boost due to Frozen fans' interest in this season being peaked. Even stranger still? The Frozen stuff proved to be the highlight of this half season. The main story, one that was clearly supervised and influenced by Disney Execs, played out like an AU sequel to the movie in which Elsa and Anna, a few days before Anna's set to marry Kristoff, learn a startling secret about why their parents truly went on the voyage that cost them their lives. Anna journeys to Enchanted Forest in order to find the truth, while back in Arendelle Elsa holds down the fort from invasion plans by Hans and also meets their aunt Ingrid, a mentally troubled woman gifted with ice powers like her. Of course this story gets told through flashbacks, and it's a part of the overall narrative of a larger plot much like the flashbacks of Season 1 were. In the present day, Elsa emerges in Storybrooke with no memory of what had happened to her in the past and she can't find Anna anywhere. Though initially antagonistic towards the heroes in the first two episodes, Elsa soon joins the cast as they try to figure out what happened to Anna and where she is now. But this is hindered by Ingrid, who's revealed to have been in town this whole time as an ice cream vendor and she played a surprising role in Emma's past too! On top of all that, Mr. Gold has found an artifact of great power and is sliding back into his old evil ways in order to claim that power as his own so that his Dark One curse may no longer hinder him. That the Frozen characters are so well portrayed and the overarching story line centering around their involvement here is so intriguing and tightly interconnected between the past and present plots is good enough, but another great thing about this arc is how it manages to draw from the original Snow Queen story and incorporate elements of it into the mythos of Frozen. The Big Bad of the piece, Ingrid, is constantly referred to as "the Snow Queen" and very much resembles the original character, her sister (Anna and Elsa's mother) is given the name Gerda, the evil magic mirror (the Trollden Glass) and it's effects on people are included, and we even have the true villain of the story be a devilish imp in the form of Rumpelstiltskin/Gold. The actors were also perfectly cast. Georgina Haig makes Elsa one of the most endearing support characters to come onto the show, which makes the character's close friendship with Emma that much better to watch. Elizabeth Lail nails Anna completely, and Scott Michael Foster manages to have perfect comedic timing as the deadpan Kristoff. And Elizabeth Mitchell as Ingrid is just superb, making her a truly intimidating, compelling, and memorable villain whom you fear but also feel great pathos for as well. So with all this great stuff, what could go wrong? ...Everything else. All of the problems that plagued the show in 3B are still present, and the things that got done with the core cast in this arc, except for Rumple and maybe Belle, were even worse than what was done in 3B! Right off the bat, Regina does her overnight transformation into a complete Black Hole Sue who backslides on her redemption arc significantly by moaning and whining about how she's doomed to a life of unhappiness just because one guy can't be with her, giving into her evil urges again, still retaining corruptly gained privileges, showing that she still hasn't shaken her immature sense of entitlement and lack of self-awareness, and coming to an utterly absurd notion based around the idea that Henry's storybook dictates fate by determining who's deserving of a happy ending based on who got written as a hero or villain (even implying that events occur because they're written down as stories and that's the reason she was a villain, even though this is bullshit that contradicts both previously established canon and basic logic), and so the author of the book must have the ability to give her a happy ending at last - a plot that becomes known as Operation Mongoose thanks to Henry getting in on it. Ugh! Worse, she has the nerve to blame Emma for what went wrong in her love life and play the victim in front of her, crying "you ruined my life!" Worse still, Robin becomes a skeevy, sniveling, lustful jackass who cheats on his wife Marian while her body's been put on ice because he inexplicably loves the woman who nearly had her killed so much, to the point of the two of them having their now infamous 'crypt sex." This made Robin's character come off as truly repugnant and a disgrace to the legendary icon's name. Meanwhile, Emma's arc, which was set up as one of the most prominent things in the plot, fizzled out after a needlessly two-hour long episode. She ends up being inconsequential in the end, failing to defeat Ingrid OR Gold, even when her own boyfriend's life was on the line! And she's supposed to be the Savior? Speaking of, Hook's plot also suffered at around the same time, receiving a rushed resolution with no emotional pay-off at all. Snow, Charming, Henry, and Belle were in the same boat - plots got set up for them, and then they just got dropped. It was particularly bad in Belle's case because she DID get resolution to her part in the story and in a very great scene too, yet there was zero lead-in to that moment and no payoff for anything that seemed to be building to it. Oh, and Will Scarlet from the Wonderland spin-off joined the main cast here, but you probably wouldn't be able to tell because he was presented as a comic relief side antagonist in an utterly throwaway role. The writing could get downright unpleasant too, with victim blaming, uncharacteristic behavior, moral equating, adultery, rape culture, and melodrama galore. And then came the finale, which spent too much time on Regina and Robin wangst, not enough time on paying off Emma, Hook, Gold, and Belle's plots, rushing out the Frozen cast while teasing at the 4B arc in a flashback. By the end, everything goes to hell with Emma and every idiot in town endorsing and supporting Regina's whacked out conspiracy theories without question, and now the entire main cast was in on this dumbass plot, even the bad guys! I sort of knew going into this show that it would likely fall prey to the live action TV drama curse of Jumping the Shark in it's fourth season and dying out after it's fifth. But this was not Jumping the Shark - this was Jumping, making several dumb moves in mid-air, and then completing the Jump and making the landing over the shark, who then proceeds to tear you apart. And that marked the death of this show.
SEASON 4B: Operation Mongoose - Consistent quality for the show was pretty much dead at this point. This arc was 11 episodes spent driving the nails through it's coffin. As you can tell by what I titled it, the focus was on that horrid "find the author" plot that got built up in 4A, and thanks to all the shit that got thrown out in addition to that premise, this was officially even worse than the worst of 2B or 3B combined. The setup is basically that everyone is trying to find answers to the author question, but then Gold comes back to town with two cohorts, Ursula and Cruella DeVille, and they revive Maleficent, who completes the "Queens of Darkness" who serve Gold in his own plan to find the author and rewrite fate so that villains can get happy endings. So let's look at what got done with our core cast here, shall we? Emma AGAIN gets an arc for her built up throughout the entire plot, this one being about how if her heart was to turn to darkness, her blood could be used by the author to write a happy ending for villains with his reality-warping magic pen. This plan fails, and Emma ends up yet again not doing a damn thing to save the day in the finale. On top of that, her personality got more walled off then ever before due to learning a horrible secret her parents had kept from her, and she often goes out of her way to help Regina in finding her underserved happy ending, because the two women now share an uncharacteristically sisterly bond. Snow and Charming get it even worse, as we find out that because they'd caused Maleficent to lose her own infant child in order to "ensure that their child grew up good", in an action that was "brave but not kind", they've all along been ex-villains on their own redemption paths, doing as much good and acts of heroism as they could to atone for their sin. The development itself and the way in which the Charmings acted about it was beyond poor, effectively destroying these two as credible characters. While Regina was surprisingly put on the back burner due to so much other stuff happening, all the problems she had in 4A persisted and by the end of this arc, they actually got magnified. She is now an abominable wreck of a character whom we're expected to root for in getting happiness but we really want to just see her get put out of her misery already. Her son Henry doesn't fare any better, being reduced to Regina's irritatingly compliant and worthless little underling until the very end in which he's suddenly a prominent character again. Hook gets one episode of character focus and growth, and then he's made into either Emma's arm-candy boyfriend helper or a guy who stands around and broods. Belle, after such a promising upturn at the end of 4A, loses prominence two episodes in and spends the rest of the arc in an out-of-nowhere dating relationship with Will Scarlet, who ends up being even more irrelevant and underexposed than he was in the last arc! We learn NOTHING about this guy, to the point where he becomes a bore and a nuisance whenever he's on-screen. I cannot believe they actually had him call himself "Scrappy", but that's exactly what he is! Most depressingly, even Gold couldn't manage to keep my interest - his evil plan got increasingly dumber after five episodes and he got so pitiful that he was hard to take seriously as the main villain. So if the main characters are no good, what about the plot going on around them? Similarly awful. The morality is so askew and often backwards, the focus gets lost, the themes and plot points are all over the place, the actions taken are so forced and ineffective, the conflicts are beyond contrived (this is especially true for the Charmings' big secret, which was never remotely hinted at before, so it comes off as so obviously a retcon that you're aware was put in here by hack writers), most of the twists are asinine in both nature and execution (there's a particularly outrageous, nonsensical twist halfway through involving Zelena, who's back on the show now - way to kick us while we were down!), and just the feel of the show is no longer one of a fairy-tale based epic revolving around the themes of hope, love, and family. It's a freaking soap opera, with all the morality and drama of a reality show. All the problems it had been steadily suffering from since Season 2 have taken their toll and flattened the show so that's it's no longer recognizable as what it began as- these problems being namely the lack of character consistency, the sidelining of main character focus in favor of new throwaway "toys", the breakneck pace of PLOT PLOT PLOT, contrivances and forced melodrama in both past and present day stories, unfortunate implications with devilish morality, weak worldbuilding, sloppy retcons and inconsistencies, recycled ideas and repeated themes that keep things backtracking rather than progressing, lack of emotional or sensible payoff for anything, and worst of all: the lack of long-term consequences for what should be mold-breaking, game changing events for the ongoing story line. For most bad things, it's rare to be devoid of redeeming qualities, and this is no exception. Out of the 11 episodes, 5 of them are actually pretty damn solid (4x12, 4x15, 4x18, and the two-part finale - though I'll admit to enjoying 4x17 too), some characters have their moments of greatness beneath all the bullshit, Robin, to his credit, is back to his 3B levels of blandness rather than continuing to be like his atrocious 4A self, there are scenes and moments that are particularly well executed and well performed, and the failings of antagonists Ursula, Maleficent, and Gold are compensated for by the strengths of three other antagonists - Cruella, Lily, and Isaac. This show's rendition of Cruella was brilliant, with her backstory episode being one of the best in the entire season, establishing her as an unjustified, irredeemable, and surprisingly terrifying villain. Lily, despite being Maleficent's daughter from that bad plot, comes off as both intriguing and oddly endearing to me. Isaac's the biggest surprise since, well, he's the author on whom the terrible premise was initially based, but he was just such an unexpectedly fun character and such a great villain, especially in the finale - he ended up giving his ex-lover Cruella a run for her money in terms of show-stealing evil dickery! (Zelena's kind of in the middle here - I don't know whether or not to consider her a true villain in this plot. What I do know is that her whole pregnancy thing is total horseshit. Nevertheless, she's still entertaining.). But these things couldn't save the arc from being a trainwreck. The worst part is probably how fake it all feels now - they even have the characters referring to themselves as their archetypes or labels and talking about "happy endings" as if they know they're character's in a fairy tale that someone's writing, and while self-awareness is fine in doses, it does little to help anything when displayed in the midst of another frustrating crisis. Even after a surprisingly solid season finale, they just had to close the season out on the DUMBEST and most predictable plot twist they've pulled yet. Emma Swan as the Dark One. Just....WHY???
SEASON 5: The Future/The End? -
At this point, I'm pretty certain and aware that this is to be the final season of "Once Upon A Time." Two and a half seasons made up one half of the show's main story, so a half season and two more full seasons make up it's other (and weaker) half. They built up so much in Season 4 that would lead us to the end of all these characters' stories, namely three big cues - Emma and Regina are finally coming to grips with their most major issues in their lives (and both have certified love interests), the prominence of the Sorcerer, confirmed to be Merlin, who has been fighting off the forces of evil and been in charge of both his apprentice and the author, has been increased, and the age-old evil dark power behind the Dark One itself has become the major enemy. While the show is well past the point where it's lost it's magic, the potential for an intriguing story is here. I refer to 5A as "The Future" because I believe it to be the arc that will determine the future for both the characters and the show, with 5B naturally being "The End." Every story needs to reach that point. And considering that these kinds of shows usually die completely past five seasons (looking at you "Buffy", "Smallville", and "Supernatural"), ending it here is clearly the best possible thing to do. So let's hope for the best.
Update: Apparently there will be a Season 6 following Season 5 (The Dark Swan/The Underworld), but it's likely to be a radically different thing from the 111 episodes that preceded it due to so much getting wrapped up by 5B and many of the cast and crew checking out of the show, including Adam & Eddy themselves due to shifting the majority of their focus to "Dead Of Summer", which is to be an anthology show like this show should have become past Season 3. And with ratings taking nosedive after nosedive, this is all but guaranteed to be the show's actual final outing, thank God!
My overall message to anyone who cares? I HIGHLY recommend giving the first three seasons and "Wonderland" a viewing and then choosing whether or not to disregard the latter half of the show.
This was a very, very good series....ONCE UPON A TIME.