Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jennifer Morrison, Lana Parrilla, Josh Dallas, Emilie de Ravin, Colin O’Donoghue, Jared S. Gilmore, Meghan Ory, and Robert Carlyle.
A broken curse, a return to the Enchanted Forest, Sleeping Beauty, Mulan, Wraiths, Frankenstein, The Queen of Hearts, Captain Hook, a giant, magic beans, a flip-flopping Queen and mysterious strangers hell bent on destroying magic and wiping Storybrooke off the map. Season 2 of Once Upon a Time provided this, and so much more, throwing practically everything but the kitchen sink at the audience and, for the most part, was a marked step up from the previous season.
Mostly, the flashbacks throughout the second season helped to weave together more fairytales and establish connections between our main characters and other new ones. They added and built to our understanding of our characters and helped us to understand them emotionally as well as developing our knowledge of their exploits before being cursed to Storybrooke. Along with this, we were also introduced to several new characters who helped breathe fresh life into the series.
One of the major successes of this season was the introduction of Colin O’Donoghue as Captain Hook. He’s so instantly captivating that it’s no wonder he’s set the fandom aflutter with his roguish charm. Despite being introduced as a villain, Once expands upon Hook’s backstory, entwining him with Rumple’s history which really helped the audience understand and appreciate him. The twists in his backstory were also wonderfully achieved and helped him to come across as a pirate with a massive heart. His more fluid view of morality is refreshing, not the mention the seemingly instant chemistry he has with most of the other cast members. It’s small wonder that he was promoted to series regular.
Though we met Cora in Season 1, she was definitely expanded upon much more this season, allowing us to understand both her and also her daughter Regina much better. Barbara Hershey is simply delightful in every scene that she is in, and she truly comes across as a credible villain against our band of heroes. Rose McGowan also does a phenomenal performance as a younger Cora, which adds further depth to the part. She could easily have held the season as the Big Bad, but this season has a far different approach to its story telling compared to Season 1.
While Season 1 was primarily focussed upon breaking the curse, and various expository flashbacks to reveal “What’s the hidden story behind x inhabitant of Storybrooke?”, Season 2 features far more smaller story arcs that gently ebb and flow from one to the next. Part of the brilliance of having the curse finally broken and magic being introduced back to Storybrooke is that the present storyline can start to have some meaningful stakes and adrenaline. As diverting as the flashback sections were in the previous season, there’s a limit to the sense of jeopardy when you know our core cast have come out of it unscathed.
It’s a refreshing change of pace, and it allows for the themes that are brought out in each episode to have a meaningful and lasting sense of change. For example, while the first season had the focus upon how evil was created, it was slightly unable to explore whether the opposite is true. With Regina and Rumple now existing with their fairytale counterparts, the show is much better placed to explore redemption arcs for the pair of them. A brilliant choice of the writers was to throw Emma and Snow into a survival situation in the Enchanted Forest early on in the season. This allowed for a much more frenetic pace of the episodes, with the storylines split between Storybrooke, The Enchanted Forest and the flashbacks, and also allowed for more variety as the writers had more avenues to explore. It also meant some meaningful and necessary bonding between Emma and Snow considering the curse being broken and being aware of their relationship as mother and daughter.
Throughout the season, the audience’s interest is further piqued by the multiple plot twists and revelations that help move the action bodily forward. The emergence of new enemies with different motivations, as well as twists upon well-known fairy stories are thoroughly intriguing, and the whole story arc of Tamara and Greg secretly being agents of a mysterious, secretive and dark iteration of Peter Pan is genuinely spine-tingling. There are so many twists and turns throughout the season, in fact, that it would be near-impossible to list them all.
This doesn’t mean that the entire season is successful, however. Despite some brilliant instalments, and some lovely new character additions, such as Aurora (Sarah Bolger) and Mulan (Jamie Chung), Once went a little bit overboard with their introduction of new characters and fairytales this season. With a whole universe still to discover, Once frequently went down the route of breadth instead of depth. While they made some steps to remedy this towards the tail-end of the season, by honing in and focusing upon the core cast of characters, it still meant that some of the episodes were entirely throwaway and ultimately inconsequential. Backstories concerning Frankenstein (for two episodes!) and the Giant led to some of the more stagnant and boring instalments in the entire programme, destroying the momentum that Once had built up in other areas.
The show continues to be heavily reliant upon CGI environments when using real set pieces or locations would be vastly more effective. As ambitious as it is, it is really hard to take any of the actors seriously when it looks like they are inhabiting a PlayStation 2 game.
Villains continue to be the more well-rounded and developed characters. While Emma and Snow both had some meaningful development this season, there was far less focus upon them than their villainous counterparts. Though Emma continues to go through the events of the season, being thrown into terrifying battles with trolls, developing magic, confronting the demons of her past and starting to form a relationship with her estranged parents (who, by the way, are her age), her go-to coping mechanism appears to be repression, which somewhat limits her character growth, except in regards to her role as Henry’s mother. Elsewhere, Snow does have an intriguing brush with darkness, but then ruins this potentially interesting plot trajectory by crawling back to the good side, with the programme ultimately concluding that good guys must always do the right thing, otherwise they are evil.
Despite peddling this message, the show also continues to try and redeem Regina and Rumple in a somewhat meandering and frustrating way. Though the pair ultimately ally themselves with good (sorry, spoiler) by the end of the season, both of them suffer significant setbacks along the way. Though Rumple’s storyline is based around him getting his son back and having his family again, it doesn’t take long after he has been reunited with Bae for him to go back to the way he was before, all because of Belle becoming “Lacey” – a plot point that I would thoroughly like to erase from the entire time stream.
Regina fares little better. Her narrative throughout the season is about her drive to be good so that she can prove herself to her son, Henry and get him back. Ultimately, however, this motivation, since it isn’t in the name of self betterment but rather some sort of subterfuge, is easily changed by her mother, Cora. Even though Regina still wants Henry on side, she makes horrendously bad decisions all because it’s easier to be villainous than it is to try and change herself. Lana Parrilla is the saving grace of the character really, and it is a testament to her that she still manages to play the constant ping-ponging of Regina’s allegiances with a fresh energy despite its repetitive nature.
Furthermore, some of the fairytale flashbacks felt as if they were retreading ground that the show has already covered. At this point, it feels as if every single possible angle has been played with Snow and Regina’s conflict in the Enchanted Forest, and having to see yet another instance where Regina passed up an opportunity to redeem herself really undermines her character and development.
Despite introducing mounds of new characters who benefit from episodes which expand them considerably, Once still flounders with what to do with some of its core cast. Though Emma, Snow, Rumple, Regina and even Hook get plenty of storylines and screen time, Ruby and Belle, and even to some extent Charming and Henry, really don’t get much to do all season. At least Henry and Charming are frequently featured within the main storyline, but most episodes Ruby and Belle sit around and do not contribute.
Both Belle and Ruby are characters with mounds of potential that is currently being unexplored. When both of them were upgraded to regular status, it seemed that the writers had some sort of grand plan of what to do with them. However, short of one episode focussing upon how Red learned how to turn into a werewolf, and a hugely promising solo Enchanted Forest flashback episode devoted to Belle, the pair have very little to do. The writers show that they can write for both of them, but instead they struggle to include them in the main action, which is a massive disappointment when they’ve found ways to integrate Hook, Aurora, Mulan and Cora into the main narrative.
Though narratively using shorter story arcs makes for a more dynamic and engaging viewing experience, it can also take a bit of a toll on the audience’s psyche, not to mention the poor characters. After a while it feels as if the characters will never actually get a moment of piece and a massive part of the draw to tune in each week is for the dynamic between the character often regardless of what they get up to. A solid character-based episode as a breather would almost be better than yet another obstacle or enemy for the group to have to face.
Overall, the second season of Once Upon a Time was thoroughly engaging. The new storyline opportunities of having magic back and allowing our characters to grow and develop really helped strengthen the audience’s connection to the characters, which covers up a whole host of other problems with the show. Though some moments were messy, the numerous plot twists and shock moments helped to maintain the momentum for most of the season’s run, and the blockbuster ending is sure to have people tuning in for the third season.
You can watch Once Upon a Time Seasons 1 – 7 on Netflix. It is also available on home media and other digital platforms for purchase or rent.