Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jennifer Morrison, Lana Parrilla, Josh Dallas, Emilie de Ravin, Colin O’Donoghue, Michael Raymond-James, Jared S. Gilmore, and Robert Carlyle.
Considering the fairytale fever dream that Season 2 of Once Upon a Time was, the restraint demonstrated by the writers in Season 3 is commendable. For this season, the creatives took the decision to split the storytelling into two distinct halves, separated by the mid-season break. It’s a cunning move, and almost makes one season into two mini-seasons, as well as affording a natural breaking point over Christmas. The first 11-episode arc concerns our heroes’ trip to Neverland to Save Henry, before we then graduated to a new, magical realm: Oz, in order to do battle with The Wicked Witch for the latter half of the season. It definitely made for more build and epic storytelling, though it wasn’t unilaterally successful.
Despite the strong buildup at the end of Season 2, when the viewers learned that Tamara and Greg were the agents of a mysterious and deadly Peter Pan, the Neverland saga never really took off. Pan, played by Robbie Kay, never really lived up to the menacing air that was used to describe the character, and never really proved himself to be a credible threat to our band of heroes. Not only this, but the storyline was muddied and full of character inconsistencies, as well as stalling for a number of weeks while nothing much of consequence happened. While the storyline ultimately reached a climactic end, a good ending doesn’t make for a well-structured narrative overall.
The Neverland story arc did give us plenty of time to develop the characters while they were on the island, however. Hook, in particular, developed from being a bit of a cad in Season 2 to proving his mettle as a hero. He demonstrated that his attraction and commitment to Emma was genuine and even selflessly saved Charming from death, while passing up an opportunity to save himself in the process.
Rumple was also meaningfully developed throughout this arc. He spent most of Season 1 and 2 flip-flopping between good and evil, depending upon who would further his own interests. This section of Season 3 saw him settle upon a heroic course of action, accepting the prophecy heard in Season 2 and vowing to sacrifice himself in order to save his grandson, Henry. After a lifetime of self-interest, it was definitely a brilliant act for the character and one which paid off in the finale in a truly emotional moment.
While there were a few characters introduced during this saga, such as Tinker Bell (Rose McIver), the biggest impact was felt by Ariel played by JoAnna Garcia Swisher. The innocence, energy and giddiness of the characterisation really encapsulated the animated princess. While little was done to adapt or twist her fairytale story, and she suffered from a slightly weak backstory episode, she proved herself to be a valuable addition to the story. Ultimately, her tale seems to be just about tied up over the course of this season, which is a shame, but refreshing for the show to recognise when a character has offered all that they can without them becoming overused or fading into the background.
The second half of the season fared much better. Boosted by the strong, game changing mid-season finale, the show seemed to bombilate with a fresh energy. The cast also seemed to be having a much better time back in Storybrooke after quite a sizeable spell in the same jungle set for half a season.
The success of the Wicked Witch story in part came from the intriguing premise that Storybrooke’s inhabitants had forgotten the past year of their lives in the Enchanted Forest and were consequently unaware of the reasons why they had been brought back to Storybrooke. Having this premise helped the return to form seem more unusual and made it into a much larger mystery. It also helped the flashback portions of the story to be much more purposeful than the vague moral symmetry that had been used before in the show. Instead, key events of that missing year in the Enchanted Forest were revealed.
This story also helped to flip the roles within the series quite cleverly by having Henry forget all about his adventures in Storybrooke. This allowed Jared S. Gilmore to highlight more of his acting skills and prove that it’s actually the character of Henry who is annoying, and not him personally. It also afforded some brilliant emotional exploration for Regina, and for Emma to step up and be a committed parent to her child at last.
This half of the season was also paced significantly better. Every episode advanced the overarching plot in an emotional and dramatic way, keeping the audience consistently tuning in for the next episode. The twists and turns kept coming as well, with multiple unexpected bends in the story.
The Wicked Witch, or Zelena as she is now known, was a brilliant villain for the show. Rebecca Mader played her with barely contained glee. With the tales of redemption going on for most of our other villains, like Hook, Rumple and Regina, it was nice to have a character who just delighted in being evil. That’s not to say that she wasn’t given any extra dimensions: both of her flashback episodes helped to flesh out her motivations so that she didn’t seem a caricature.
The show also demonstrated an appreciation of necessity within the second half of the season. Though there were some new characters introduced or brought to the fore, such as the reintegration of Robin Hood (Sean Maguire) and the introduction of Glinda the Good (Sunny Mabrey), these inclusions were always necessary and served the story, instead of being another opportunity for Once to put a new spin on a familiar tale.
The Wicked Witch arc didn’t use Robert Carlyle to the best of his ability, as Rumple was mainly used as her lackey. While it gave plenty of opportunity for the rest of the cast, this arc ultimately did undo a lot of Rumple’s positive development throughout the series. I understand that it’s unrealistic for somebody to completely change their colours over the course of a number of episodes, but when that backslide also entails actively manipulating and lying to his “true love”, it makes that entire storyline infuriating, especially for a show that has a brilliant track record of writing spectacular, well-developed and independent female characters.
Regina’s journey this season was well achieved. Even though she had changed allegiances significantly throughout the past seasons, her character journey from the end of season 2 was honoured, and she consistently demonstrated throughout the third season her commitment to being a hero. Along with that came her own romance, which was also fabulously written and acted by Lana Parrilla. She continues to be a highlight of the series, and any scene that she’s in is simply delightful. She isn’t anywhere near as squeaky-clean as perennially-pure Snow White, but that would be an unrealistic turn. Instead, she keeps all of her wonderful Regina traits, such as her acerbic wit and overall irritation with most of the heroes and powers those towards more noble pursuits. She’s definitely come a tremendously long way since being the main antagonist of Season 1 and the best part of that journey is how it hasn’t taken any shortcuts and has been built and performed organically through the series.
Emma also really hits her stride, especially in the second part of the season. Jennifer Morrison seems to have brought a fresh energy to the show, and Emma’s qualities as a leader have really been brought to the fore. She doesn’t fade into the background amidst all of the famous fairytale characters, but really drives the plot forwards whenever she is involved, and manages to remain truthful to her past as well. Lots of Emma’s scenes are highlights of the season, and she is captivating regardless of who she shares the scene with, whether it’s Regina, with whom she has developed a brilliant camaraderie during this season, her parents, Henry, or Hook.
Ironically, however, ostensibly the central couple of the show: Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) have been pretty poorly written here. Since the show embraces all of the chief tenets of fairytale storytelling, part of that is extolling the virtues of heroism, which can actually be quite rigid and limiting. Here, it mainly results in the pair becoming unbearably dull.
The first half of the season had Snow very aggressively trying to be Emma’s mother in a way that was overbearing and clingy, and actually caused to create more of a rift in their relationship than before. Charming spent the first part getting poisoned, and then getting healed but prevented from leaving the island – all of which he did not reveal to his true love Snow. Though it might have been refreshing to see an actual argument between the two, Snow immediately accepted that she would give up her life to stay with Charming in Neverland, handily demonstrating that codependency is a prerequisite for true love.
The latter half of the season did serve to mellow Snow’s more clingy qualities, as she prepared for the imminent birth of her second child, and she returned to more of the wise and approachable Snow of the earlier seasons, as well as making brilliant strides in her relationship with Regina. Attempts to give Charming depth were also present, but seemed to come a bit out of the blue and were ultimately of little consequence. That’s not to say that Josh Dallas and Ginnifer Goodwin’s performances are anything but beguiling, but the writers definitely struggle to find the nuance within being eternally virtuous.
Elsewhere, Belle (Emilie de Ravin) continues to be under-utilised. The episodes in which she has a major starring presence, such as “Dark Hollow” frequently show her to be an incredibly engaging and interesting character. Yet, when there are all the characters at play, the writers continue to sideline her. When she is featured, it’s predominantly in regards to her relationship with Gold/Rumple, and not of little consequence to her life outside of that partnership. It’s a shame, and it’s got to be one of the most frustrating and, unfortunately, repeating problems with the show. Belle has masses of potential, but the writers don’t seem to recognise the need to actually use those characters to their fullest.
Looking forward to the future of Once Upon a Time, the blockbuster finale gave a sizeable hint as to what’s to come: Frozen. While Once will inevitably be accused of capitalising upon the hit film’s success, the latter half of Season 3’s storytelling fills me with hope that it will be executed well, while continuing to develop our characters. Once has yet to satisfactorily prove, however, that they can appropriately pace their mid-season arcs, if Neverland is anything to go by, so hopefully they do not stick so rigidly to this structure to allow for other, shorter arcs to also take place. The finale of Season 3 was so successful, in fact, because it stood on its own and was its own unique problem, as opposed to being another step in an overarching plot.
Ultimately, Season 3 was the most consistent series to date. Though there were problems with the first part, the second half of the season saw the series really hit its stride and demonstrate the best of what Once Upon a Time can achieve. The characters were consistently well written and performed, and the villains were well-developed and credible. The creatives also managed to use graphic effects more sparingly and to greater effect. Hopefully, Season 4 can be even greater than what we have seen here.
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.