I’ve been rewatching the entire series of Once Upon a Time, an episode or two a week, with an online group, with discussion and analysis along the way. Last night, I rewatched the finale for the first time since it aired, and it has to be the most bizarre way to end a series that I’ve seen. Really, the last season was a mistake, and this ending felt oddly tacked on, like it was what they always wanted, and they just stuck it on the finale without any setup.
The final season jumped ahead at least ten years for most of the “flashback” bits, with the character who was an early teen (12-13 or so) at the end of the previous season all grown up and played by a different actor, and then the “present day” bits were at least 11 years after that (since he had an 11-year-old daughter). But there were still some of the adult characters who carried over, and they didn’t change at all even though, based on ages of various characters that gave us some kind of timeline, nearly 30 years had passed since the end of the previous season. And there was never any explanation given for them not aging or changing. They were treated as though they were the age they looked, generally 30-something, even though they had adult children. To complicate things further, these events were taking place in the present, with them having been sent back in time by a curse that took them from the fairytale land where they’d been living to our world (for no reason other than that the premise of this series involves fairytale characters living in modern America, and it would have been a strain on the budget to try to create the setting decades into the future). The season mostly focused on new characters rather than the returning characters, though one of the problems was that there was no clear protagonist.
When that storyline was resolved, they didn’t send these characters back to their world and their own time. They came to the original setting for the series, to live among the past versions of themselves. And then they merged all the fairytale worlds and elected the original villain to be queen of them all. That would be the future version of the original villain, who did become a good guy along the way, but still, when you’re redeeming the villain, you don’t give them their original villain goal as a happy ending. You give them what they really needed, deep down inside, which is probably the opposite of their villain goal. When someone starts the series trying to seize power and never actually gives up power in spite of turning good, except when the responsibility is inconvenient, you don’t end the series by giving her ultimate power. It was even weirder given that this character had barely played a role all season. She hadn’t done any big thing to save the day, hadn’t made a huge sacrifice, so it felt very weirdly tacked on.
That series is so frustrating because there’s so much about the concept that I love — fairy tales, magic in a modern setting, mixing up characters from different stories — and most of the characters and the casting were great, but the writing went way off the rails. I could write essays about how they messed up. There was no coherent worldbuilding, so their magic never made a lot of sense, nor did how their society dealt with magic. And their morality was so screwy. The really frustrating thing is that the premise is pretty unique, so I can’t really find a way to file the serial numbers off and do it right and have it still be those elements that I find interesting. The best I can do is take some of the things as inspiration and go off in a different direction with them.
The first season is still really lovely, fleshing out the story of Snow White in the flashbacks and dealing with a cynical modern-day Disney princess who doesn’t know she’s a princess in the present, set in a small town with a real fairytale flavor. And if I get bored, I can amuse myself by mentally rewriting the whole thing, fixing where they went wrong and imagining what might have been.