Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jennifer Morrison, Lana Parrilla, Josh Dallas, Emilie de Ravin, Colin O’Donoghue, Jared S. Gilmore, Michael Socha, and Robert Carlyle.
Reflecting on Season 4, it feels a little like a runaway freight train. So many new characters, locations and concepts introduced here, it seemed as if the creators went through Disney’s Wikipedia, closed their eyes and randomly pointed. Not only was there Anna, Elsa and Kristoff, but we were also graced with the Snow Queen herself, a warlord Bo Peep, Cruella de Vil, Ursula, a return for Pinocchio and more information about the mysterious Author and his Apprentice.
Just like Season 3 before it, Season 4 consisted of two half-season arcs. It certainly makes for more epic storytelling, as there can be just as much of a spectacle made of the obligatory mid season finale, as well as putting our characters into as many crazy situations as possible. However, inherent with this sort of arbitrary structuring is the fact that the pacing of these arcs is inconsistent. Sometimes the plot stalls for a couple of episodes until it suddenly reaches a climactic head and everything unravels all at once. In the case of Season 4B, there were many runarounds and convoluted reasons for keeping the plot going, so the actual villain and endgame was left more uncertain.
Season 4A was dedicated to introducing the characters from Frozen and, cynically, was probably a bit of an attempt to cash in on Frozen fever. This aside, however, it was realised well. Both Anna and Elsa were characterised consistently with their animated selves, and the show made no attempt to retread the ground already covered in the movie. Instead, the events that bring Elsa and Anna to Storybrooke are based some time after the movie, around the time of Anna and Kristoff’s wedding. This helped to expand the characters and the world of Frozen beyond the constraints of the movie.
Both Anna and Elsa really enriched the show and were valuable additions to the cast. Elizabeth Lail gave Anna such brilliant energy and awkwardness, and she was a breath of fresh air in every scene, while Elsa’s friendship with Emma really helped developed Emma’s character in regards to her relationship with her family and her magic. It was with a heavy heart that both characters departed at the end of the arc, as they would have been more than welcome in the main cast, and fit in superbly.
The main villain of Season 4A was The Snow Queen, played by Elizabeth Mitchell. It was commendable that Once had yet another distinct villain, and Ingrid is probably the most captivating villain to grace screens so far. She was calm and cool, as well as quietly ruthless in her own way. More than that, she had a steely determination that she was doing the right thing. She truly believed in everything that she said, and, unlike some other villains we have had, was not interested in domination or harming other unnecessarily, but she had a concrete and understandable goal driven and rooted within her past. This happens to varying degrees with all of the villains in Once, of course, but Ingrid’s backstory was suitably heartbreaking to justify her current state. What’s more, her plan was far more interesting and visually stunning than any plot we’ve seen so far.
Season 4A came to a brilliant and satisfying resolution. Not only was Ingrid’s plan to bring havoc to Storybrooke thwarted but so too was the villainy of Rumplestiltskin, who was driven out of town by Belle, his true love. It was a fist-to-the-air moment as Belle finally stood up for herself and realised Rumple’s true colours. It was appropriate that Belle be the one to rid Storybrooke of Rumple by standing up for herself, but unfortunately his absence did not last.
Season 4B was noticeably weaker than the first half. The promo for 4B revolved predominantly around the so-called Queens of Darkness, consisting of Ursula, Cruella and Maleficent. Indeed, they were introduced in the mid season finale. However, other than plastering their face on posters and using hashtags, the show seemed to have written themselves into a corner with this group. Once it became clear that the band were only back in Storybrooke so that they, too, could rewrite their happy endings like Regina was trying to do, the show then meandered and tripped its way along to its conclusion.
Ultimately, the Queens of Darkness were no threat at all, nor did they propel the Author storyline forwards very much. Cruella, who was consistently played delightfully by Victoria Smurfit, wasn’t interested in a happy ending at all, but rather with taking down the Author in the name of revenge. Ursula never really came into her own or was given much weighty material by the writers, and was neutralised incredibly easily. Elsewhere, Maleficent just wanted to get her child back. With all of these motivations at play, not to mention Rumplestiltskin’s as well, the second half became a bit of a mad jumble.
Part of Rumple’s plan to rewrite the endings for the villains involved Emma turning dark. Though explanations were given, it felt like an arbitrary road mark just to create more drama, instead of it feeling organic – especially since Emma has always been known as a supreme force of good. Rumple desperately trying to turn her evil dragged on through multiple episodes and had flimsy reasoning. As he tried to manipulate her into ever increasing bad deeds, the show wandered dangerously close to suggesting that Emma had absolutely no say in her fate at all, and was merely a victim to her circumstances.
On this topic, Season 4B attempted to give more weight and colour to Snow and Charming. Having been on the periphery of the show for a fair while, it was important to give the pair something meaty to work with, and it came in the form of an originally unknown heinous act committed against Maleficent and her baby. Snow and Charming causing Maleficent’s child to be torn away from her, as well as cursed with darkness, definitely helped the show to blur the lines between good and evil, and led to some interesting conversations. However, ultimately, the show didn’t actually seem equipped enough to deal with the ramifications of this revelation. While Emma was shaken at her parents defying their heroic roots, the show never really addressed how the pair can be heroes even when they’ve committed villainous acts, and yet simultaneously condemn Emma for doing morally grey deeds in the name of the greater good.
Through this season, Once continued to explore the Big Question: what makes somebody good or evil? While sometimes this can be thought provoking, it often fell onto an overly simplistic moralistic route, expecting our heroic characters to only display positive attributes, never make questionable decisions and be unerringly pure, else they are considered to be villainous.
All of these ideas of Season 4B came to head in a dizzying, diverting and fun finale where the Author succeeded in reversing the roles of heroes and villains. It was refreshing to see our characters in such different circumstances without betraying any of their character development. Seeing Snow prance around in Evil Queen regalia, while Regina stalks through the woods trying to escape the kingdom was definitely an interesting concept and its the second year in a row that Once has pulled off such a successful and inventive finale.
The finale also set up the wonderful reveal of Emma taking on the mantle of the Dark One, leaving the season with an ominous look at the dagger bearing the name “Emma Swan”. After half a season of being teased with her descent into darkness only to for her to reclaim her heroism, it’s the only way to properly contextualise a world in which Emma Swan, the Saviour, is evil. What’s more, it sets up some brilliant ideas for the fifth season, which don’t involve any more random villains cropping up, but instead a character who we are already invested and interested in.
Regina was handled consistently well throughout this season. Lana Parrilla is always brilliant regardless of the content that she is given, but she really shone in her journey here. In contrast to the previous seasons, a descent back to her evil ways was never really on the cards for Regina, regardless of how that Marian situation tested her. She remained a hero throughout the season, and continued to make selfless decisions. She sacrificed her relationship with Robin so that he could stay with Marian, the mother of his child, and, by the end of the season, had finally claimed her own happy ending.
Emma also developed throughout Season 4. Throughout the Frozen storyline, she finally started to address some of her feelings of abandonment as a child. Though this did push her towards a darker path, she continued to step up to being a hero, by embracing her magical abilities and properly committing not only to being the Saviour, but also to being Henry’s mother and to being with Hook. The fact that she ends the season as the one who now has to be saved instead of the one doing the saving is bound to be an interesting role reversal.
A relationship I never expected to be meaningfully developed is that between Regina and Emma. They spent the first few seasons alternately at logger heads, and the fact that Emma was responsible for accidentally bringing Marian back from the dead looked set to shatter that relationship for good. However, one of the great successes of Season 4 is the way that Regina and Emma have formed a strong friendship. Firstly, it’s Emma admitting that she relates and understands Regina and wanted to be her friend, to Regina even asking Emma to come with her on a quest to New York towards the end of the season. These two female characters have each other’s backs and it’s truly heartening to see such a nice relationship play out on screen. The fact that Emma becomes the Dark One purely to prevent Regina losing her own happy ending after struggling with the darkness most of her life is just the cherry on the cake.
Rumple’s story could definitely have been better this season. Season 4A saw him at his darkest, and the conclusion with Belle finally standing up to him was spot on. From that point, however, Rumple became all the more intolerable, and the fact that Belle returns to him at the end of the season is genuinely laughable, especially considering that she barely did anything of consequence baring kicking him out of town in the whole season.
A genuinely surprising story beat in the latter part of the season was the reintroduction of Zelena (Rebecca Mader). Mader continues to be absolutely hilarious in the role, delivering the most ridiculous of lines with incredible relish. Hopefully the show continues to put her to good use, and maybe through neutralising her powers she could be a fun addition to the main cast. A consistent piece of comic relief, she’s great to have around.
It isn’t only Belle that’s left floundering this season, though. Not only is Michael Socha in the main cast, yet given absolutely nothing to do, but Snow and Charming are still a burden on the story, fading, more or less, into the background. Snow had some half hearted attempts at a storyline in the first half of the season, as she struggled with being a mother to a newborn, but it really removed her from the kickass, leader Snow that we normally see. The revelation that the couple were responsible for Maleficent being torn away from her baby was intriguing, but mainly seemed to be engineered just to be as outrageous as possible. Even after that point, however, they continued to be insufferable, and just go around being morally self righteous the entire time. Hopefully, they aren’t the helicopter parents they usually are as Emma descends into being the Dark One, but I really hope that the show addresses Emma’s abandonment issues with them. Throughout the season there’s the nagging fact that Charming and Snow are able to do everything they couldn’t do with Emma with new baby Neal. Who wouldn’t be upset by that? That storyline should really come to a head at some point.
Season 4 is a decent enough outing. The first half in particular is very strong, and much of the character development is reason to watch in itself. Season 5 in its turn has a compelling premise, but more flexibility in the storytelling structure wouldn’t go amiss, as the rigid observance of these often cause more problems with the pacing than they do anything else.
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.