Ever since season 3, Once Upon a Time has adapted a “split season” approach in order to allow a more “gap-free” airing of episodes. While this idea seemed quite good when ABC was selling it since the “momentum” of the series was sometimes broken due to random stretches without new episodes. However, 2 years of this format has shown that it does not work very well. It leaves the series feeling rather fractured and quite honestly, 11 episodes is not “long” enough to fully flesh out meaty storylines (especially with the extensive characters in the Once universe). The writers have good concepts/ideas, but all of the half-seasons have felt rather disappointing and half-baked. Season 3A (Neverland/Peter Pan) was extremely slow-paced and season 3B (Oz/Wicked Witch) was more hype than substance. What about season 4A and 4B?
Season 4A: Frozen
I adored Frozen, so I was quite ecstatic at the glimpse of Elsa during season 3B’s ending and looked forward to seeing how the Frozen characters/world would be incorporated. Overall I thought Once did a fantastic job translating the animated movie into the “real” world. Elizabeth Lail was spot-on as cute/funny Anna and she honestly had the best lines; I was less impressed with Georgina Haig as Elsa, but grew to like her. The highlight casting though was Elizabeth Mitchell as the Snow Queen; she was an absolute scene-stealer with her gripping performance. I was quite sad to see Mitchell go.
Story-line wise, season 4A was the most coherent, balanced, and well-written arc of all the half-seasons. While certain aspects of the story were rather forced/unexplained, as a whole it had plenty of surprise, fun, and excitement. It brought new life to the show and actually made it feel rather fresh again. I really liked Emma’s friendship with Elsa and it helped to develop Emma’s character into accepting her magic. The blending of the original Snow Queen fairytale with Frozen was quite creative.
The main complaint that I have is that the Frozen characters dominated too much of the screen time and I got rather tired that most flashbacks were based in Arendelle or involved Anna/Elsa. What I loved about the Once flashbacks from other seasons (as I did with LOST) was that each episode would focus on a different character/story that would tie in with “current” events, which kept things fresh.
Season 4B: Queens of Darkness/Heroes & Villains
Similar to season 3B’s Wicked promotional tactic, season 4B was full of hype for the incorporation of Maleficent, Ursula, and Cruella de Vil into the Once world. Consequently, the “Queens of Darkness” was more superfluous than anything else. I still do not understand how they originally banded together in the Enchanted Forest and they did not live up to their “threatening” name. Worse, they were all under-developed (with the exception of perhaps Ursula who at least got a “complete” story, but her end was too abrupt) and did not meet any potential. The most enjoyable “Queen” was Cruella, who had delicious zingers and Victoria Smurfit gave her great sass; her lone flashback was arguably Once‘s darkest and most chilling episode. I really hope we have not seen the last of Kristin Bauer van Straten because Maleficent’s story remains so incomplete. I was under the impression that we would see more of Aurora/Sleeping Beauty, but we only got one scene. For all of her talk, Maleficent seemed rather powerless and was always so easy to defeat that it was laughable. I also did not like her “upgraded” costume (which seemed to borrow from Angelina Jolie‘s costume from Maleficent).
I was always under the impression that the “Author” storyline was a ruse for the characters (namely Regina) to realize that there is no “magical being” that grants happy endings and life is all about choices and consequences. I thought the quest to find such an “Author” was a futile one. How disappointed I was to learn that there truly was an Author who does have the power to “change” things. Fortunately, in the end, the message of the “Author” storyline was indeed that the characters write their own stories and that the “evil Author” who had such “powers” to change fate had gone astray in his duties.
Season 4B is probably Once‘s worst writing thus far. There were too many inconsistencies, too many incredulous plot/character devices to invoke twists/shocks, lack of character development, and just felt terribly disjointed. It seemed to be an array of action rather than trying to tell a coherent story. Here are my main complaints:
– The constant “hero” and “villain” labels/speeches felt very forced and contrived. I hated it. While I understand that this has always been the underlying theme, but having it repeated over and over again was overkill. If there’s one thing the Once writers need to improve on, it’s that they need to show and not just tell.
– I did not think the “twist” with Charming and Snow carrying a deep, dark secret was needed or credible. They had interesting gray layers already! How could they reach Glinda if their hearts were not “pure” in season 3B?
– The immense “fear” that Emma would turn dark was ridiculous. Again the characters seem to act according to the plot rather than maintain their characterizations.
– There are so many phenomenal existing characters and so many unfinished/untold stories that I really don’t understand why the writers forsake them for the inclusion of even more characters. It is like they are too greedy for a large cast and end up underutilizing most of them (or they just disappear).
– Belle is the worst treated “main” character. She was so good in season 1 with her strength and she is supposed to be intelligent and “book smart”, but the writers continuously make her brainless and spineless. It is so frustrating to watch her and Emilie de Ravin‘s acting is going downhill. Also, Will & Belle were a waste of time; the fact that they were dating came out of nowhere. Are we supposed to believe Belle moved on in 6 weeks? They also had no chemistry. I am praying that season 5’s Belle will be better (and she should be with Rumple having to overcome life without any power/darkness). I really do like Belle & Rumple, but she is just so badly written as of late.
– The “villain” Hook is far more interesting than the love interest/background he has become.
While 4B was weak, the two-hour finale offered some hope. The “alternate” world was rather fun and reminded me of LOST‘s season 6 parallel timeline. The “Author” storyline came to a satisfying conclusion and I really liked how Snow summarized what a “villain” makes (someone who forsakes others for their own happiness). The tremendous sacrifice that Emma made to fulfill her promise to Regina of giving her a “happy ending” was so touching. The growth and strength that Regina displayed when she stopped believing in a cursed “fate” and instead faces things highlights her multi-season journey – she is the best written, most layered, and most consistent character of the show. Lana Parrilla is also the best actress on Once with her nuanced and multi-faceted performace (just see the finale where Ginnifer Goodwin seemed rather fake/stiff as Evil Snow while Parrilla was convincing as a tragic bandit). The seeds are definitely planted for some interesting storylines next season.
Something needs to change with Once… and soon. Either they need to get rid of the half-seasons or they need to have an “end-date”. At this point, I am not sure where the series is going. While I continue to love it because of the great “core” characters and for those genuinely magical moments, the creative spark and excitement from season 1 seems to have fizzled. It has so much potential and so many seeds they can sow that I find it frustrating they pursue lesser plots. I am cautiously hopeful that season 5 can improve and am curious to see what will become of Emma being the new “Dark One” and with the new quest to find Merlin.