Season 5 Review
Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jennifer Morrison, Lana Parrilla, Josh Dallas, Emilie de Ravin, Colin O’Donoghue, Jared S. Gilmore, Rebecca Mader, Sean Maguire, and Robert Carlyle.
I am of the firm belief that practically no TV show, except one with a rock solid premise like Doctor Who, should last longer than about four or five seasons – six at a stretch. Why? Well, firstly, American seasons suffer from having a high episode count. Characters can go on a ridiculous journey over the course of one season let alone several. It can lead to there being character inconsistencies, and plot lines becoming tired or rehashed. Most multi-season American shows experience a peak and then a steady decline towards the end. This is true of Charmed, which had a very strong third and fourth seasons, while gradually declining in quality throughout seasons five through eight. It also happened with Teen Wolf, which struggled after its high-quality third season, and Glee, which undeniably went downhill following Cory Monteith’s passing and the graduation of the majority of the cast out of McKinley High.
I suppose part of that is my connection to British TV series, which generally are of a much shorter length and tell a particular singular story. Often it can feel like American shows are renewed before thinking through what stories will be included, instead of the story coming first.
I feel like Once Upon a Time is starting to go down that route for me. After the strong third and fourth outings, Once’s fifth season was different in tone and certainly lacked a lot of the feel-good positive energy that pervaded the earlier episodes.
It’s still following a half-season story arc structure, which comes with the same problems that it had in the previous years, namely that it stretches or condenses plot points arbitrarily, instead of it actually serving the story especially well. It also means that the audience can get quite fatigued of particular concepts before too long.
Though I am of the opinion that the Dark Swan storyline was paced quite well, overall the season was very angsty. From Emma turning into the Dark One, and then journeying to the Underworld to bring Hook back to life, it felt like the characters were being thrown from ordeal to ordeal and we never really had the time to just enjoy them and their relationships. It always seemed like they were facing a deadly or emotional situation, instead of just happily existing. When these are characters who the audience have developed such a strong emotional connection to, it gets inordinately draining to see them go through terrible event to terrible event.
Once’s fifth season adds a whole lot more to the existing mythology of the show. Not only does it incorporate some more Disney Princesses, in the form of Merida (Amy Manson), but also includes Arthurian Legend and Greek mythology. Both of these concepts fit into the universe well, even if they do seem somewhat of a departure from the original premise of the show and added even more realms to the already overcrowded fairytale universe.
These concepts were balanced well and they didn’t detract from the existing cast unlike previous storylines like Frozen did. Lots of the episodes were used to further the emotions of the main characters and very few had a large focal point upon guest stars. However, the CGI required to create the epic landscape of Camelot or the Underworld was a strain for a Network TV budget, and some of these elements really let down the episodes in question.
In amongst this, the show used some of the new elements of mythology to add to our understanding of the Dark One. It’s been a large part of the Once Upon a Time universe, so to gain some clarity over where the Dark One came from was genuinely intriguing. It also helped give us a glimpse into Rumple’s character through Emma’s struggle with containing the darkness inside, and created genuine jeopardy for Emma.
The first half of the season was genuinely compelling, due to the use of a surprise flashforward at the end of the first episode. Knowing that Emma would eventually succumb to the Dark One and that the quest in Camelot had ultimately been fruitless helped the flashbacks more purposeful, which is something that the show has generally struggled with when there aren’t gaps in the audience’s knowledge to fill in. They always run the risk of being slightly tenuous. The ultimate reveal of why Emma became the Dark One and what happened afterwards was intriguing and surprising.
The second half of the season was less effective, however. The flashbacks were used to add slightly needless elements to our character’s backstories (with the exception of Zelena and Hades’ connection), and the plot in the Underworld dragged. While seeing some old characters was nice, it easily could have been a much shorter expedition that would have ramped up the tension and stakes considerably. A trip to the Underworld would have been a nice subject for a two-part episode, but was overly ambitious to base an entire half season around.
Both parts of the season introduced some new intriguing characters. Merida (Amy Manson) was a particular highlight. Though her episodes did take us away from the principle action of the season, Merida was more than compelling enough for the viewers to appreciate. She embodied the courage, tenacity and gumption of the animated character and it felt like an organic next step from the movie.
In the Underworld, Hades (Greg Germann) was also a nice inclusion within the plot. His past with Zelena gave him enough of a basis for him to feel like a genuine threat, and his motivations made him understandable to the audience.
Out of our main cast, Hook and Emma’s relationship received the most amount of development this season. Though they’ve been together for more than a season, they’ve never really had very much time to just enjoy being a couple – not that that is improved very much here. Still, the plot of the entire season is about the lengths that Emma will go to to save Killian, and that is a massive step forward for her and their relationship.
Rumple also had a lot to do this year with his relationship with Belle. He started the season powerless, until he was fashioned into the ultimate hero by Emma so that he could pull Excalibur from the sword to help her destroy the Dark One once and for all. Following this, however, he took on the power of the Dark One again, without telling Belle, leading to them breaking up (again).
The frustrating part of Rumple’s portrayal here is the fact that over the past few seasons he genuinely seems to have learned nothing. He has tried to be good, and the narrative temporarily tried to attribute all of his misdeeds to being the Dark One, but ultimately he decided to go back to this power instead of trying to rebuild a life for him and Belle. The show went down an interesting route by asking Belle to accept him for who he is, but it also tries to portray him sympathetically at the same time. Hopefully they have much more of a solid grip of Rumple’s direction next season, as it was muddled and confused here.
Zelena was used quite well this season. She was a highlight in the first part, though she was mainly utilised for delightfully sarcastic quips, but she really came into her own in the Underworld story. Her background with Hades and newfound connection to Regina brought her into the fold as one of the heroes, and it felt like an organic development. Rebecca Mader is one of the strongest actors on the show, and Zelena is so easy to root for despite her villainy. Hopefully she’ll continue to be used effectively moving forwards.
Comparatively, however, the main cast don’t get very much substantial development here. Snow and Charming exist primarily in the background and, though they occasionally get an episode to show what they can do, they come out of the season essentially the same character that entered it. The same can be said of Henry, despite his attempts to destroy magic for somewhat spurious reasons, and, to a lesser extent, Regina.
Though Regina does suffer a major loss during the season, she has been safely on the heroic path for quite some time. Though she and Zelena grow closer, that’s probably the most remarkable thing that she has to do this season. Hopefully in Season 6 she has more to confront, with the Evil Queen running around at the same time, but she certainly had much less of substance throughout Season 5.
Another misfire was how little Robin had to do this season. Robin showed himself to be an engaging and interesting character in his appearances in both Season 3 and Season 4, but here he was given little screen time despite the fact that he and Regina were finally together. It seems that the show invested far more in the prelude to their relationship than them actually being together, which was a tremendous loss considering Robin’s death. It could have been majorly impactful and, while it’s upsetting for the audience for what this will do for Regina, it hardly affects the trajectory of the show.
I was pleasantly relieved by how much Belle had to do this season, but I didn’t like how inconsistently she was written. She has made great strides in her independence in the present storyline, and I appreciated how she told Rumple that she couldn’t be with him after all the times that he has hurt her. However, within the episode, she was back with him again, and then it transpired that he was the Dark One once more. Though she later cut ties with him yet again in the Underworld, their relationship continues to be one of the things that Once continually gets wrong. I’m not sure whether the writers can’t see how toxic it is, or simply don’t care, but I hope that, when Belle wakes up, there’s a satisfactory confrontation between the two. It’s been a long time coming.
Ultimately, the danger with any show in its fifth season is that it can start to feel tired, and I definitely felt that with this collection. The characters are starting to develop less than they have in the previous seasons, and overall it just feels draining to watch them endure seemingly endless obstacles and never catching a break. Hopefully Season 6 will give our characters more of a break and a chance to be happy in between the magical assaults.
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.