Season 7 Review
Starring Lana Parrilla, Colin O’Donoghue, Andrew J. West, Dania Ramirez, Gabrielle Anwar, Alison Fernandez, Mekia Cox, and Robert Carlyle
For many fans, Once Upon a Time ended with its sixth season. Perhaps it would have been better if it had. After all, the sixth season was the natural ending point for several reasons. Firstly, the book ended. The Final Battle was complete, and everybody could move on to what came next. There was no natural need for a next chapter, after all. The themes within those six seasons had been wrapped up into a neat bow. Emma as the Saviour had come on a brilliant journey from jaded orphan to a human being much more capable of being open and part of a family, while Evil Queen Regina had successfully completed a redemption journey.
In freeing itself of its past, Once had a brilliant opportunity to completely reinvent itself. Unfortunately, in trying to appease audiences, it appears that they just rehashed the basic premise of the first season and did a very poor imitation. Yet again, there was a curse. Except, this time, instead of the sleepy, charming New England town of Storybrooke, we were presented with the gritty, inner city up-and-coming area of Hyperion Heights. The novelty of that new location ran out fairly swiftly.
The new characters simply didn’t gel with the audience in the same way that Snow and Charming were introduced in the first season. Throughout that first season, there was a very clear idea of the direction of the show. Regina was the one responsible for the curse, Snow and Charming were cursed to be apart and Emma was going to save everybody and free them. With season 7, however, curses have become old hat. It wasn’t enough to just have a curse, but instead an ongoing plot point was who was responsible for the curse and what their motivations were. It became more a game about plot twists than it was about the emotions of our characters.
Neither the flashbacks, nor the current day action, gave us much insight into what made these new characters tick, and those with the most potential were criminally underused. While the more villainous characters like Victoria and Ivy were filled with nuance and depth, they were often shifted to the background, while characters like Jacinda took centre stage but rarely demonstrated any sort of emotion.
Throughout the season we are expected to root for and champion the love story between Henry and Jacinda, but the flashbacks make no effort to sell that connection and invest within that relationship. Without that basic level of work, the sense of tension and impetus completely fades away. In contrast to Snow and Charming, who we were introduced to as True Love, we never really see what Henry and Jacinda are like in a relationship. There’s also the disadvantage that we already know Henry, so we need to see even more of Jacinda to be entirely convinced that she is the right woman for Henry. The show does a very good job of telling us how important it is that they two belong together, without actually showing us.
Without having an outside presence within Hyperion Heights, there is also less energy in combatting it. Emma was a third person witness to the happenings in Storybrooke, but there is nobody in Hyperion Heights separate from it, who is responsible for saving them. In making it unclear who is responsible for the curse, and who is destined to break it, it doesn’t make the show more interesting, it just makes it messy. The show has forgotten why curses were such a big deal in the first place. It’s because they were meant to cause misery in those that they affected, and separate them from those they loved. Since we never really had a sense of the strength of the connections shared by those in Hyperion Heights, this element is hugely lost, and we don’t see terribly much struggle from our characters, apart from Jacinda briefly being poor, and some feeble attempts at drama in her and Henry’s relationship.
There were poor substitutes for the dynamic of the first season. They almost tried to conflate too many characters into one space. Henry was simultaneously fulfilling the part of Snow and Charming’s love story, in the fact that we were meant to root for him to get with Jacinda, as well as performing part of Emma’s function in the story as the jaded interloper who gradually begins to open themselves up to love. What worked about Emma’s story in the first season, though, is that it wasn’t based around romance. It was based upon her overcoming her upbringing as an abandoned orphan and becoming a mother to Henry. Henry and Lucy’s dynamic doesn’t work the same way because he doesn’t know that she is his daughter. It’s also unclear what we’re meant to be rooting for him to do: to open up and become more hopeful and get over his past, or just to fall in love already. It’s tricky to do both at the same time.
What’s more, Jacinda is also written to have elements of Emma thrown in too, and also shows a great dismay at the world. Two very grumpy people aren’t exactly a match made in heaven, nor a pairing that the audience want to see much of. What’s more, while Jacinda’s angst seems contextually driven within the world she is surrounded by, and is very much in keeping with her fairytale persona of Cinderella, all of Henry’s emotional problems are created by the curse. His backstory of having a wife and child who died simply isn’t true. It’s not like Emma’s damage, which is based within fact and is something that leaves scars, it’s something that will magically disappear once his cursed memories are erased and, as such, it’s difficult for the audience to root for that character development.
The lack of clarity within the storytelling, and what the direction of the season is, is a massive failing of this season. I feel like part of it is reluctance on the part of the writers to properly commit to any particular idea, but the lack of a palpable protagonist makes this curse feel like trudging into a boggy unknown. After a few episodes, enough characters have their memories back such that the main action follows what they’re doing and the actions of all of those still under the curse ultimately feel entirely inconsequential. When you have an episode about trying to save Henry from dying when the curse is broken, and at the same time a subplot about him and Jacinda throwing coins into a cup it doesn’t really have the same impact.
Considering the wealth of opportunities available to them to create the new world of Once Upon a Time, the decisions made actually served to make the entire series more complicated instead of making it more accessible to new viewers. In making the wish realm from Season 6 an actual reality, it meant that suddenly there were two copies of some of our characters. In reality it was a feeble explanation as to why Colin O’Donoghue was in the cast, but his role within the show could easily have been filled with a new character that may have been better fleshed out instead of essentially the same character we had seen many times.
Additionally, the decision to recycle characters that had already been used in the Enchanted Forest, such as a new version of Cinderella and that family, as well as Alice, was confusing and overly complicated. Also, perhaps unnecessary, considering the wealth of fairytales that are out there to be explored still. The flashbacks also lacked any form of palpable tension, so there was less of a sense of what evil our characters faced in the regular world, which, again, was largely because the creators either were making it up as they were going, or were trying to pique interest by holding their cards close to their chest.
The largest shame is the massive amount of potential that there could have been in this series. Following Henry on his journey after the events of the first six seasons could have been a brilliant opportunity to see him develop and grow, explore his inferiority complex at being part of the most iconic fairytale story ever yet not feeling like a hero, and finally achieve a victory – or, even better, suffer a devastating blow that might actually contextualise and explain his current-day malaise. Instead, there’s just a continual confusion over whose story it is to the extent that by the end of the season it’s tried to be Henry’s, but also Rumple’s, and also Regina’s.
Part of me wishes that the show had been more bold and started entirely anew, with just the character of Henry, and perhaps Regina at a push (and only if it was feasible within the plot). It was almost as if having Colin O’Donoghue, Robert Carlyle and Lana Parrilla in the cast made the writers feel like they didn’t have to try as hard with the story and that the audience would just tune in regardless. Ultimately, it limited the storytelling. A season that was based upon it being Henry’s story ultimately floundered. While Regina’s ending in the finale makes her presence worthwhile, neither Rumple nor Wish Realm Hook were necessary to the story being told in this season, especially since Rumple’s redemption is hardly earned at all when compared to his character in Season 6.
Even going with the Hyperion Heights premise, there were massive fumbles. The season premiere is brilliantly strong and sets up the show with massive amounts of intrigue. By continually flopping around as to which character is the villain, over complicating the back stories and waking up a new character each week, Season 7 became tied down by all of its plot and left no room for much emotion to build either between the characters or with the audience. Ultimately, they just reverted to the old Once Upon a Time without investing much new energy into what this season, or onwards, could be. Which is likely why it was cancelled.
Ultimately, the show became to rely upon sensationalist plot beats to be as controversial as possible to persuade viewers to tune in the next week, instead of actually delivering upon decent characterisation, which is the bedrock of successful TV. By the end of the season, I actually feel like I have less of a sense of many of these characters than I did in the season premiere. It was so focussed upon being different than it was before, it was more about how “Oh this is slightly different to Season 1 because…” and including new elements like a massive focus on a serial killer loose in Hyperion Heights while Hook and Rumple investigate it as police officers. There was such a focus on making it different, they forgot to make it good. Or, even worse, they didn’t think it mattered if it was good or not.
A huge pratfall that they fell into was a revolving door of villains. Early plot twists (which were quite surprising) meant that our villain shifted originally from Victoria, to Ivy, and then to Gothel, who was barely developed. Facilier was also around, did very little, and died. The ultimate villain who our heroes had to face was a wish realm version of Rumple which, even as I type it, makes me roll my eyes so hard I think I’ve actually caused a sprain. Without a good villain, there was no one to root against, and made the season lag in the middle and, when Gothel’s plan actually took effect, it was full of major plot holes that spoiled the enjoyment of the episode.
Let’s graduate to the small positive elements of this season. As supposedly the anchor of this season, Henry plays a massive role in moving the story forwards. With this meant a cast change, to replace Jared Gilmore with the surprisingly dashing Andrew J. West, who played the part with buckets of charisma. In particular, he had fantastic chemistry with Lana Parrilla and Jennifer Morrison, forging believable relationships with both, which helped to make his performance as Henry consistent with what we knew from the first six seasons.
Lana Parrilla continues to deliver as Regina and is a highlight, but, unfortunately, is given far too little to do this season and her happy ending, while a major moment, feels quite disconnected from her character work in Season 6 as she barely underwent any development this season. A saving grace was the reintroduction of Rebecca Mader as Zelena, which truly did enhance the latter part of the season.
Rumple was given a brilliant storyline throughout Season 7, as he sought to separate himself from the dagger so that he could die and be reunited with Belle. Unfortunately, apart from his focal episodes, he wasn’t given terribly much of substance to do, meaning that his ultimate sacrifice didn’t pack too much of a punch. The way that he adapted and changed in the name of Belle’s legacy was massively touching, but season 7 majorly glossed over some of the more unsavoury aspects of his story to rush through to his redemption. Bearing in mind his season 6 journey and treatment of Belle, it seems a little unjustified.
There were definitely some standouts in the new cast. Victoria and Ivy had a delightfully complex relationship that elicited some of the more emotional moments of the season, mainly due to the incredible performance of Adelaide Kane. Unfortunately, Ivy flounders after Victoria’s death, and the show never really properly digs into the ramifications of that decision. In fact, without Victoria or Ivy in charge, the season flounders in general, and it would have been much better suited should they both have remained in the show. What’s more, Ivy had a palpable and deliciously entertaining chemistry with Henry, which would have been an intriguing and subversive new storyline to explore, if the creatives had been willing to think outside of the box and adapt from their roadmap of the season.
Alice/Tilly was a brilliant new addition to the cast. Rose Reynolds’ bombastic energy lit up the screen every time she appeared, and she was instantly likeable. The relationship she shares with Zelena’s grown up daughter Robin was a particularly well developed element of the season, and it stands up against many of the True Loves we have seen on the show. The fairytale elements and the symmetry between their bond both in the Enchanted Forest and Hyperion Heights helped the audience root for the pair to be together in a way that Henry and Jacinda just didn’t have.
Mekia Cox, promoted from recurring to regular cast after the first few episodes, also has some nice moments as Tiana and Sabine, demonstrating a headstrong view, keen eye for justice and was certainly no stranger to hard work. Unfortunately, her role in the Enchanted Forest was never fully expanded upon and she never amounted to much more than being Jacinda’s best friend in Hyperion Heights, often disappearing for weeks at a time, in the way that Belle and Ruby used to.
Ultimately, Season 7 is an unfortunate smudge upon the brilliant legacy of Once Upon a Time. The entire season meanders and is muddled and confused. The mythology that it adds to the show makes it a pale imitation of what came before and it fundamentally forgets about making the characters believable and likeable. The finale completely falls down in terms of logic and just doesn’t have the sense of high stakes that it should do. At the heart of it, it feels like there was never truly an effort or commitment to making this new series work, which is a tremendous waste of such colossal talent, and potential.
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.