You don’t do the right thing for a reward. You do it because it’s right.Rumple
Starring Lana Parrilla, Colin O’Donoghue, Andrew J. West, Dania Ramirez, Alison Fernandez, Mekia Cox, and Robert Carlyle
Episode 22: Leaving Storybrooke
There we have it. 155 episodes, 7 seasons, more than 100 hours, innumerable fairytale characters and countless attempts to pass off Canadian locations for Mainland USA and Once Upon a Time has reached its ultimate conclusion.
Well, actually, the title for the “ultimate conclusion” should probably go to the ending of the sixth season, which far more successfully tied together an overarching story. The sixth season finale made it clear that the story had been Emma’s the whole time, but that was always something that had been felt throughout the six seasons, even though all the cast were given their opportunities to shine. The seventh season, though boasting a lovely final ten minutes, is otherwise quite lacking in this respect.
But let’s start with the positives, shall we?
Seeing Ginnifer Goodwin and Josh Dallas back on screen as Snow and Charming made it apparent just how much of a presence and impact these characters have. Though the pair stepped back from the action in the later seasons, and never really properly found their feet within Storybrooke, they were brilliantly portrayed in this episode, back to their dynamic as the calm, collected and more knowledgeable King and Queen of the Enchanted Forest. Much as I said we were keeping to the positives, there just isn’t a presence like theirs in the new Season 7 cast, and the writers never really gave it an attempt either.
This episode really does justice to Rumple’s journey this season, and is a satisfying conclusion to his time on the series. For a character who has continually battled with acting out of self interest, his decision to do the right thing was a huge moment, even though it was his final one. The only downside to this was I feel that there wasn’t quite enough investment into his and Rogers’ relationship to justify sacrificing himself to save him. I also didn’t realise that the Curse of the Poisoned Heart could be cured by giving them your heart. Another positive was Regina’s farewell speech to him. Lana really carried that moment, and really sold their connection and shared history.
Then there’s the return of Storybrooke. The sleepy little town has definitely been missed on screens, and the gritty Hyperion Heights did take away of some of the fairytale elements. I wasn’t overly thrilled by the cartoonish overreaction that Granny and Leroy had to Alice and Robin turning up, as it wasn’t completely necessary, but then again Robin really should’ve known the actual helpful people to seek out in town. Then, of course, there’s the return of Emma, brief though it was, and Rumple’s lovely reunion with Belle in the afterlife, which looks suspiciously like a sound studio in Canada with a slightly overeager fog machine.
The ultimate ending is Regina’s. Which makes a multitude of sense. Regina has come the furthest out of all of our characters since the beginning of the series. To start as the chief villain and gradually go on a redemption journey to become a fully-fledged hero is any actor’s dream. Lana played the part consistently well throughout, and Regina has always had a huge focus throughout each season. To have her crowned as the Good Queen of the United Realms is hugely fitting, and massively moving. It’s appropriate that this is her “happy ending” – even though, of course, it’s just the beginning – and not based around a romance. Regina’s journey has always been about acceptance and about finding her place, not about having a relationship.
The way that the camera pans over all of the locations that we’ve visited over the past seasons, and sweeps through the dark, rainy streets of Storybrooke was tremendously bittersweet. The suggestion that these areas live on, and that the story continues, even if we are not there to witness it was massively touching and that lingering final shot a perfect spot to end it.
So let’s move on to those elements which didn’t work. This finale, in general, lacked much of a purpose and any sense of tension. It’s mostly frustrating because it feels like the writers didn’t really try. The heavy use of CGI in particular was a massive drawback for me, especially after most of the season using sets for Hyperion Heights, and location for the New Enchanted Forest took away from some of the drama as it just didn’t seem realistic. What’s more, the pacing of the final two episodes stripped it of a massive amount of potential.
The cliffhanger moving in from the penultimate episode into the final one is that Henry, Rumple, Hook, Ella and Lucy have found themselves trapped in a miniature snow globe, while Regina faces an adolescent Henry. Quite why that’s threatening, I’m not sure. As it transpires, Wish Rumple’s evil plan is to trap all of the Enchanted Forest characters into their own story, in which they are trapped and alone. Fortunately he doesn’t actually manage to do this to any of our heroes, and the worst that happens is that they almost get sent through but ultimately don’t.
There are just too many convenient moments to believe that anything back is actually going to happen to any of our characters here. For example, Alice, Zelena and Robin turning up just when the company are going to die in the snow globe to deliver them Maui’s fishhook of all things, which helps them get out. Rumple giving his own heart to Hook somehow kills his Wish counterpart, even though Wish Hook and regular Hook are entirely independent entities, and Snow and Charming’s deaths in the Wish Realm have no impact upon the real Snow and Charming.
That’s not to say that this finale couldn’t have had tension, though. Ignoring the fact that the concept of the finale is pretty weak in the first place, and largely an excuse to bring back some old faces for a cameo here or there, the structure could have been improved to make it more tense. For example, if the first part had ended with the vast majority of our heroes being sucked into their books and trapped in their torture, the second part would have been much more uncertain.
Say, for example, Regina is kept out of the books so that Henry can deal with her personally, and Alice is left unharmed because she is the Guardian. Then that leaves Alice to go and get reinforcements from Storybrooke to help everyone. Meanwhile, maybe Henry and Ella actually demonstrate true love by somehow managing to escape their books. That could be a really interesting episode that could delve properly into all of the characters’ proper hells. What are their true fears and their true weak spots that could be exploited and turned against them? Those elements would be massively more interesting than all of the random, new fantastical rules that are banded around here.
Another problem with the finale is that it should really tie together the themes throughout the season. While Rumple’s quest was a through line, I honestly don’t believe it’s the kind of storyline that can support a finale, regardless of if he is a season regular since the beginning. It could have been a plot point that found itself resolved before the finale. Rumple still could have had a noble sacrifice; maybe his noble sacrifice could have been to defeat Gothel, leaving the finale free for a different kind of massive threat against our heroes. There just wasn’t enough strength or investment in Rumple’s quest for it to hold up the finale in this way, at the expense of characters like Henry, whose relationship with Ella and Lucy was still barely touched upon.
Similarly, while Regina’s journey was keenly felt throughout the first six seasons, she was mostly on the back benches of this season. While the creators did not know that Season 7 would prove the end of the show, there should have been more made to make Regina’s journey more cohesive throughout this season, and then her ultimate fate would have packed a much bigger punch for the audience.
Ultimately, this finale suffers because of the problems with the season as a whole. The storyline throughout this season has been muddled and confused. Subplots were picked up and dropped with very little thought, and at its core it was far more focussed upon sensationalist plot twists, instead of building a strong emotional core. The creators clearly didn’t know who their protagonist was, and what they were working towards, and while this is an ensemble show, the first season, which they were trying to emulate, always made it very clear that Emma would be the salvation.
The early twists as to who was the cause of the curse were promising, and some episodes really stand out. The episode in which Rapunzel’s history was revealed was fantastic. The mid season finale was massively tense, and far superior to this instalment. Any episode that meaningfully featured Alice was fantastic, and demonstrates that some of the new characters were easily rootable for and nicely nuanced. Ultimately, though, Ivy was written out fairly swiftly after the writers didn’t provide her with enough material, and Tremaine was killed off even though she had potential.
Plans for Gothel clearly changed after news of the cancellation, but ultimately her plan was confused and unnecessary, and she was horrendously easy to defeat. Too many characters were trying to be too many things. Both Henry and Jacinda were made out to be horrendously jaded and there was no investment in what their relationship was. The flashbacks didn’t help build up these relationships either.
There just wasn’t that strength of characterisation that there was in Season 1. That season had an ensemble cast as well, but it heavily invested in its main players. It lent depth to everybody, and made sure there was a definite character journey over the course of those episodes. What’s more, it kept it simple. This season had so many different rules flying around, with some people remembering the past events and loads more not remembering, and it just became muddled. That first season was just focussed upon breaking the curse. Emma bonded with Henry, and came to believe. We got to know Regina, responsible for the curse, but that her villainy came from a place of hurt. We discovered Rumple’s connection to Belle, and Snow and Charming grew closer together. Ruby and Archie were also main cast that season, but they weren’t focussed upon in any meaningful way other than standalone episodes and generally being around.
This season never really bothered to invest in the characters. There was no effort to reassert Regina or Rumple, so they became pale caricatures of their previous complexity. New Hook, after it was explained that he was the wish realm version of regular Hook was not expanded any more as it was just accepted that audiences would like him by virtue of him being Colin O’Donoghue. As for adult Henry, I feel like we missed a massive part of his life. He left Storybrooke to find adventure and become a hero himself, but then when we pick back up on his journey he’s already done all of that. That’s the more important part of his journey, instead of his connection to Ella and Lucy.
The relationship with Ella was never substantially fleshed out, short of a meet cute. Part of that is because the beginning of the season did not introduce them as united, and it did not start with the curse. This is because the show wanted to leave it as a question as to who cast the curse. Ironically, in a desire to strip back the season and make it more simple, it actually just made it more complicated.
Instead of having an easy villain, whose motives would be slowly unfolded, there were many villains to contend with this season. Firstly, Tremaine, then Drizella, then Gothel, then Facilier and finally Wish Realm Rumple. Not to mention the fact that there was also a serial killer running around, who was actually Hansel from the Enchanted Forest. Within the first few episodes, we went from Tremaine casting the curse so that she could resurrect Anastasia (not that it was ever properly explained why being in a land without magic would possibly help that), to it then being Drizella who had cast the curse so she could torture her mother. Except, then it wasn’t Drizella behind it at all, but Gothel, who wanted to enact a nefarious plan that she waited about nine episodes for, while just chilling in the background, while it then transpired that she didn’t need a curse anyway. She also didn’t need to wait eight years until Lucy was eight years old so the entire plot just completely crumbles under extended scrutiny.
In many ways, this season would have worked better as a fresh start instead of having some lingering characters. There should have been a much stronger conception of what the “next chapter” looked like and which character it was focussed on. If it was Henry, then they should have opened that character up to more decent character development. Other than the fact that he was meant to be our Henry grown up, he didn’t really change since we met him in the intro and the added plot point of him having to get over the fictional deaths of his family just didn’t connect because the audience knew that it simply wasn’t truthful so was ultimately trauma that would be erased once the curse broke.
The flashbacks in the first season of Once were also geared towards an easy premise. They were kept entertaining by jumping around in time orders, but there was always the conception and the memory of Regina ultimately turning evil and against Snow, for reasons that were slowly revealed. Many of the flashbacks this season didn’t even feature a particular enemy that was consequential, and everybody seemed to have different people they were fighting against.
While there was much to enjoy and be fascinated early in the season with the new characters and why exactly they were cursed, ultimately this led to not very much resolution and the great potential of new inventions like the Coven of the Eight ultimately went nowhere and wasn’t well developed.
A massive failing, I believe, in the seventh season, is the inclusion of the wish realm in itself. It would have been better if this realm had remained imaginary as it was in the sixth season. In fact, if Colin O’Donoghue hadn’t been involved, or if Jennifer Morrison had been, this would have eliminated this whole plot point I feel. I also feel that if Jennifer Morrison had stuck around, then the cursed storyline would have had an additional impetus because the audience would have been rooting for cursed Emma and Hook to fall in love just like we did for Snow and Charming in the first season.
Ultimately, despite being a “reinvention”, the only thing that Season 7 managed to do was poorly imitate itself. There was nothing really, apart from a sad attempt at a weird buddy cop dynamic, that set it apart from the original Once Upon a Time. There was still a curse, and everybody was under a cursed persona. There were still weekly flashbacks. It would have been more of a departure to base the entire season over the course of a quest, or do something that felt drastically different, but changing a location from Storybrooke to Seattle and expecting that to alter everything dramatically is incredibly foolish.
The season would have been much better placed as clearly being Henry’s tale, and the rest of the story reflected that in the way that it was framed and developed. Having yet another curse as the through line was an incorrect decision, I feel, at least in the way that this one was achieved. We didn’t have enough of an attachment to Ella to root for her and Henry to get together. Unlike Snow and Charming where it’s established that they are together, Henry is a known character and Ella is new, and there simply wasn’t enough justification for the pair to get together.
I feel like I’ve rambled on an excessive amount about the failings of season 7 and I likely will continue to do so in another post that reviews Season 7 as a whole, so I will leave it there for now. It’s a sad ending to what was a hugely imaginative show, but ultimately this series finale lacks a proper impact because of the failings of Kitsis and Horowitz to have more faith in themselves and their vision. They were too timid in their attempts to rework the show, essentially producing the same affair in a different location, repeating familiar story beats that lacked emotional depth. And now, unfortunately, what most people say when asked about Once Upon a Time is “Oh, it’s a good show. Give the final season a miss, though”.
You can watch Once Upon a Time Seasons 1 – 7 on Netflix. Seasons 1 – 4 are now available on Disney+ in the UK. It is also available on home media and other digital platforms for purchase or rent.