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Once Upon a Time - From Souls of the Departed To The Brothers Jones - Review: "The Issues with Season 5"

3 Apr 2016

I don’t have the best track record when it comes to posting the reviews on time: some of it has to do with the increasingly hard stuff going on with my life, but even then I still have some windows of time to do it. Lately, I’ve been neglecting my duties as reviewer and for that I have to apologize: life happens, but I still have responsibilities. That being said, there’s still another factor that ways in with the reason I have been neglecting: I’m starting to have some issues with Once Upon a Time. That’s no justification, and I also don’t mean to say I don’t enjoy the show (because I still do), but I’m fairly less excited. More than ever, now on season 5B I feel like the show is entertaining, but not engaging. So while I wanted to apologize for my irresponsibility (and commit to stop it from here onwards) I also wanted to take this opportunity, not just to review the last episodes, but also to talk about the issues the show has had as a whole lately.

I’ll just outright say the thing that bothers me the most: there are no stakes on Once Upon a Time. Simple as that: there was a time back in season 1 when Graham died, or in season 3 when Neal died. Back then, Once Upon a Time was a show in which beloved characters could fall, where the writers were willing to push the envelope even if a little bit. This show hasn’t been particularly brave at taking character’s lives, but it was a reminder that people could die on this show. That doesn’t feel like the case anymore.

Could you think of Snow White dying? Or Prince Charming/David? What about Regina? The last character death on the show was Hook and we’re in the middle of an arc to resurrect him. Before that, the last character death was Merlin, which had a nothing more than a recurring gig on Season 5A, and it was a shame since he was a strong character. But let’s talk about resurrection: ever since the show brought Rumple back from death I was worried OUAT could be leaning to this trope that does nothing but erase all the stakes. Even if Emma Swan was to die now, the Charmings would probably bring her back by living with a quarter of their hearts, giving half of what they have to let Emma live.

Resurrection only works on a limited amount of shows. On Supernatural it worked because it meant Dean and Sam had no escape from their torturous destiny or because something equally important had to be lost. On Resurrection, it worked because the show worked around the premise of people returning from the dead and it explored the emotional landscape of the characters upon seeing their loved ones again. But on the rest of the supernatural TV shows it ended up being a cop out on a cliffhanger: suddenly, the massive sacrifice loses its meaning since the character who died is coming back.

And this is where Once Upon a Time is seeing a big problem right now: this whole arc dedicated to save Hook only undermines the sacrifice he made back on the midseason finale. It also means that Emma made the right decision by turning him into the dark one, after all, in the end they will get to be together. By doing this, the show is enable the character’s past mistakes just because there is magic to solve every single problem.

Magic has been one of the most troublesome aspects of the show: first of all, if you don’t have magic, you are essentially useless. By season 3 and onwards, what have Snow and David brought to the table? Nothing at all, they are just Emma’s emotional support, but they don’t add up anything to the show anymore. Their biggest accomplishment have been essentially side quests. Characters with magic powers such as Regina, Rumple and Emma, and even one timers like Elsa, have proved to be more useful than them.

If that would be the only problem, then there wouldn’t be an issue, however, OUAT’s reliance on magic has come to the point where character progression simply doesn’t matter for the story. “The Dark Swan arc” was an exciting idea since it would allow Emma to navigate darkness, shaking the status quo of the show to make for a compelling story in which Regina had to step up to be the savior, where non magical characters would have to rise up to the occasion and find a way to stop the most powerful enemy they ever had, allowing everyone to evolve. But what happened? The whole Dark Swan arc ended up being a ploy to tell us that Emma and Hook were meant to be together; Rumple made a severe character regression by switching back to the dark one, Snow, David and Henry stayed the same, Robin Hood was there, I guess, Zelena was a bit fun and Regina also stayed relatively the same. No one evolved through this journey. Maybe Hook a bit, by the end, but I would say that was the work of season 3 through 4.

Season 5A ended up being mostly an excuse: granted, it explored Emma’s vulnerabilities, but at some point it sounded like a broken record. OUAT seemed like it wanted to be cool with magic and trying to trick us to think that there were stakes, but in the end no one died (Hook is going back to Storybrooke with everyone, that’s for sure), no one evolved, and everything kinda just reseted.

At some point, this show became just a series of continuing reset: the characters have already evolved as much as they will. As much as I love Regina being a hero, with her sassy tone and her cold headed choices, is there more ground to explore with her? Is there for Emma, Henry, Snow and David?

These weeks on the Underworld have showed the characters as we have seen them for years: Emma is entirely focused on one thing to do, Snow and David try their best yet they are on the sidelines (Snow only proved useful for that side quest with Cerberus. And yes, I’m calling it a side quest), Hook is conflicted about something, Rumple flip flops between bad and good. How long can the show keep this up?

At this point I just assume that whatever problem they come across they will fix it somehow, maybe with some supporting character’s casualties, but the life of the main cast is not in question.

The 100th episode was an episode I enjoyed because it was nice to see many characters of the past popping back up, and seeing how Regina has grown to the point where she couldn’t come to betray her friends, the support Emma gave her towards leaving to save her father and give him the chance to move on. It was a simple story, and while OUAT has proved again and again how much Regina has grown, it has worked so far because Lana portrays her conflicts convincingly enough and display emotions that feel real.

Labors of Love fell short because it felt like a detour that was pretty much about Snow and her teenage passing fling with Hercules. The way they took out Cerberus was pretty boring and it didn’t showcase the long lost Snow badassery; though seeing her beginnings as a hero was mildly interesting, it never rose to be truly compelling. The most interesting bit of the episode went to the plot B, in which Cruella tells Henry that he should fetch the quill to resurrect her in order to change Emma’s status as a killer, which is a flawed concept on itself since what mattered is that she did it, not that Cruella is brought back (nothing can erase the fact that Emma did kill Cruella back then, unless Henry completely rewrites that).

Labors of Love failed to keep me interested through the hour, so Devil’s Due was a way more welcome change of pace: it was way more entertaining to see Rumple conflicted about Hades’ proposal than anything that happened on the previous week. And while I’m still frustrated by how easily the character sway between good and bad, at least Robert Carlyle carry the role flawlessly and makes it all the more interesting.

The most memorable thing that happened was him throwing Milah to the sea of lost souls. And yeah, the whole exchange when she met with Emma was fun too. The episode carried on the energy brought by exploring Rumple and Milah’s relationship, and seeing Rumple taking her chance to see Neal again was the dose of pain OUAT has been sorely lacking lately. I honestly felt bad for her. Even the flashback (my least favorite aspect of the show) portrayed its character under interesting lights.

Then, last week’s “The Brothers Jones” brought in the sap with a character we barely know. The whole drama with Liam, Hook’s brother, allowed Hook to get over his inferiority complex as he no longer sees him as a god, but feels like just a way for the show to delay the solution to defeat Hades for another week. While exploring the brother’s dynamics could have been a big win, the episode failed to connect as it took too long to show Hook Liam’s dark shades and it just made more drama with Emma for the sake of it.

Hook says he is not coming back, but come on, do we truly believe that’s going to be the end of S5B? If so, it would have been a massive waste of time. So all of this feels like delay: Hook’s intention to settle things on the Underworld should feel like a big character moment, but I just know the show will sway him on the end to go back to Storybrooke.

Surprisingly, the biggest character progression the show has done so far in this arc is with Henry: he has all this power and he doesn’t want to stay on the sidelines anymore, and he is finally going to prove of use as he recreates Hades story as it is missing from the story book. This is to say that the show has finally put Henry on an interesting position as opposed to the previous seasons: he recognizes how he has always been something to protect rather than someone who can fix things. I praised the season 4 finale because it allowed Henry to act rather than react, and here I finally see the same trend following.

I don’t want to sound overly negative with everything I have wrote so far about the show, but I think it is needed: I intend to keep reviewing it, I still love it, I still get entertained by it and there’s definitely good stuff on it, but I can’t help but notice that I’m fairly less excited by it with each coming week. I just don’t feel there’s any stakes, because regardless of what happens to recurring characters, I know the main ones will live another day.

With this whole resurrection schemes, OUAT is digging into the worst trope of fantasy: leave dead all the recurring characters, make your main characters immortal. I just have lost faith that the show will ever pull a moment like Graham or Neal’s death. Everything that happens will have little effect on the characters because the writers have run out of ways to make them evolve. If no character were to die, that’d be fine, there wouldn’t be stakes, but as long as the characters grew, it’d be fine. However, we’re starting to see them get stuck, there’s no progression. How long until they start going backwards? Will we see Regina becoming evil again for S6?

That is my main concern for the show: so far the show keeps itself fun, but the excitement is almost gone for me, because the twists are no longer engaging: everything will work out in the end. At this point I would love to see Hades taking Rumple’s child and rising him because it would add a spark of interest, it’d do something different. Or, I’d love for Henry to use the quill to change things, or that Snow or David got a magical weapon to fight on equal ground to the magical characters, or that the show finally brought Lily and Maleficent to see what happened with Lily’s father, or just do anything that breaks mold from the pattern.

That’s what bothers me: Once Upon a Time is having a hard time breaking mold. I think that’s why we have seen such a huge viewership decline this season, because people are getting bored of OUAT following the same trends every year. It’s still fun, but it doesn’t feel fresh. My biggest wish for the show is that it’ll do something new and exciting. Until then, I’ll keep watching, I’ll keep enjoying, but I just need that spark of originality and excitement that I got from the show when it started to come back. I felt it last season, but where is it now? Hopefully, it’s to be found on tonight’s episode.

Souls of the Departed: B+
Labors of Love: C-
Devil’s Due: B
The Brother’s Jones: C+

About the Author - Pablo
I'm currently studying Psychology while also writing fantasy books (one already published in my home country, Chile, you can check it out on the facebook icon). I watch many different types of shows, including my favorites Revenge, Game of Thrones, Once Upon a Time and about 23 more. Currently writing reviews for Once Upon a Time, The 100 and Supergirl
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