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TV Review: ‘Once Upon a Time’ – Season Four Finale

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Those of you who read me regularly know I have not loved this season’s Once Upon a Time. Some of it is my own bias; I have been unhappy with what I have viewed as the subverting of one character (Rumplestiltskin, played by Robert Carlyle), altering him, incomprehensibly, from a complex, troubled villain into a simple irredeemable bad guy. The season finale, while far from perfect, does much to redeem the series for me, making me surprisingly excited for season five!

“It’s time villains finally win,” Rumple tells the author at the beginning of the season four finale. I just don’t get that. Those are words to be spoken by someone inherently evil who wants bad to win out over good. That’s never (quite) been at the heart of Rumple’s being. It would make more sense for a subtler message of “I want to change my story and finally no longer be pulled by the dagger of the dark one’s power. Be done with the struggle.”

That sentiment would jibe with the Rumple of season three’s finale, in which he murdered his own father for a greater good. Actually, Rumple has been there before, and each time he has made the wrong choices. That fact is the fine line that distinguishes a hero from a villain. At any one point in time, a good person can make a bad choice and do the wrong thing, and just as possibly a “bad guy” can have that moment of absolute clarity (or maybe a lapse in a self-interested drive) and do the right thing. That balancing act is what makes for compelling storytelling.

The last few episodes have endeavored to explain the “why” as a man whose heart has so blackened over time as to be on the verge of losing all capability of loving anyone or anything. But the fact remains that the change came so suddenly and without (until very recently) being given access to the heart of Rumple’s thoughts, I think that some of the explanation has been a response by the show’s creators to a very large mistake in writing Rumple this past year. In other words, perhaps not too little, but perhaps a bit to late for believability.Once Upon a Time season finale

The other issue I have had with Once Upon a Time this year has been the redemption of Captain Hook, erasing much of any sense of “bad” about the character and making him the victim of circumstance. I get that he’s an immensely popular character, but the change in his character lacked the same subtlety as the alteration in Rumple’s character.

And in the season finale, Hook is changed into his alter-ego: a cowardly deckhand. That’s actually a really interesting choice by the “authors” of story: creators Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis. It’s a great reversal, putting him in an unequal power position–a bookend to his first encounter with the pre-Dark One Rumplestiltskin. Cool.

They’ve done better with Regina’s redemption arc, showing us her constant struggle against the desire to use her considerable powers to find an easy fix. And for that the producers get a hearty Bravo (and one as well for the fabulous Lana Parrilla, Regina’s alter ego). I’ve also liked the exploration of Snow (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Charming’s (Josh Dallas) secret life. For too long they have been so good as to be the blandest thing about the series.

The season finale deals interesting with the yin-yang of Snow and Regina. I liked Regina as the real Outlaw Queen. She’s conflicted and complex, neither good nor bad, but confronted on all sides by choices, leaving us wondering whether she will make the correct one (and in the end, she does).

And although I’ve thought that the villainess trio has been a bit too much, I do like the idea of the author and his ability to change the story. Let the villains be heroes and the heroes be villains–a refreshing (but not new) inversion of the classic fairy tale meme. That’s not exactly what happens, however. Yes, Snow White becomes the epitome of evil, thinking nothing of crushing hearts and turning the Seven Dwarves into six.

Enter Henry, whose pure heart makes him the perfect author, and with a swipe of a quill changes much back the way it is meant to be. Jared Gilmore really comes into his own in the finale, being the pivot point for much of the two-hour story’s action.

And in the end, it does come down to Rumple’s story. His heart blackened to point of no return, his life being crushed by the weight of all he’s done over the centuries, Rumple can now no longer forestall the inevitable. His last bit of humanity (and his final breath) is spent warning Belle that should he die, the Dark Power within him will run wild through the ether of Storybrooke, endangering them all.

The Storybrookians come to his aid and, with the help of the Sorcerer’s apprentice, withdraw the blackness from his heart, trying to imprison it forever. But such darkness is not to be contained.

Engulfing the apprentice, and then Regina, it finally settles on Emma, taking her–and transforming the Dark One dagger into hers as her own name appears upon it, much like Rumple’s had when he killed the former Dark One back in Season One.

But one thing that has made me a bit uncomfortable this season has been the sense that anyone can be “all good” or “all evil,” and heroes are heroes and villains are villains. The show had taken that subtler approach throughout the series first three seasons. We’ve seen good guys be tempted by their evil inclinations, and good people turned to the dark side.

This is why Rumplestiltskin, to me, has always been the best incarnation in the series of this idea: an essentially good man, beaten, bullied and battered finds a way to acquire power over his foes. Using it over the course of hundreds of years, he still retains that thread back to his good inclination, whether through finding his son Baelfire or reclaiming his love with Belle. Redemption had always been a possibility, but his fear has always pushed it to just beyond his reach.

And as the season ends, the stage is set for next season. And I have to say, that after a season of being less than enthusiastic, I am consumed by hope for the future of the series. For the narrative has been completely reset. I hope. Emma is the Dark One! How interesting to inflict the one with the lightest magic with the burden of the darkest, most evil of magic. What will that mean for her? For Henry? For all of Storybrooke. I hope that Kitsis and Horowitz milk the possibilities, for they are fascinating. We are all driven by both good and evil inclinations, and the best of our possibilities reside in tempering one (but not obliterating it) and nurturing the other.

And, who else here is excited about the introduction of Merlin’s world? I have always been a fan of Arthurian legend in all its guises. I say, “Bring it on!” Arthur’s story–and Merlin’s, and for that matter all of the characters in that particular story were complex blends: good, heroic, ambitious, brave, and terrified. My fervent hope for next year is that these wonderful character of legend come to life in new and refreshing ways, really bringing the Once Upon a Time game up to the possibilities foretold in seasons one and two.

Once Upon a Time returns to ABC in the fall.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her debut novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse comes out October 11 from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • WML

    The finale was somewhat redemptive, but I still harbor a lot of angst against the overlords (Kitsis and Horowitz) for killing Neal off. And now we know he’s really dead. The Captain Swan ship never did anything for me (maybe because of my gender, but I really am not invested in their relationship at all. Heck, I am not overly fond of the Hook character. He was nasty then all of a sudden, he was the most desirable guy on the realm? Please…

    My favorite character has always been Rumple. He was a very nuanced character for three seasons. He was capable of doing good; he was capable of doing evil things. In the beginning of OUAT, he was impish – we didn’t know anything about him. Carlyle is a great actor, and the OUAT writers did a great job writing stories that made me invest a lot of my empathy for the character. Most people want to do good; most people do not always succeed, at least not all the time. This is what we saw in Rumple – a flawed human being, that despite his insecurities, despite his bad decisions, he was always hoping for a better tomorrow. In the fourth season, the writers portrayed as a man consumed by the need to always lie to get his way (and for the lies to never work out for him). They did their best to make him unlikable. It is a tribute to Carlyle’s ability as an actor that even with the material he worked with, he really did make Rumple unlikable. Almost. By the barest of threads, some people believed that he was a soul worth saving. I am sure that this wasn’t what the series creators wanted, but Carlyle was able to affect the character with some humanity, even if the series creators were intent on creating the typical cardboard villain.

    It was interesting to see how Carlyle first scene in the finale. He didn’t want to forget his son. His love for him was such was that he didn’t want to forget him. He wanted a past in which he didn’t cause pain for his son and for himself. We are taken back to the whole point of OUAT to begin with. The spell was cast so that the father can find his son. That was a great story line. Somehow, I can’t help but think that the overlord’s fascination with the Captain Swan ship turned the show into something it was not originally meant to be. And it made the show much worse. Much less interesting.

    It was interesting to see Rumple save his grandson’s life. Henry knew that his grandfather was “evil” – and yet perhaps for the first time, he sees what his grandfather strives to be – someone who is noble, someone who helps other people and demands nothing from them. We then see him with Belle and their child. And we see him remember what he did. And we see him make another bad decision, to preserve his happy ending. Or so we think. Except for one thing. He didn’t kill Regina. He said “it is done” or something akin to it. What he actually did was make it possible for Robin to profess his true feelings for Regina. He could have easily killed Regina and make the alternate reality the only reality. It appears he knew that wounding Regina would lead to the alternate world being undone – hence he disappears after striking Regina. It is as if the writers wanted to show the world that Rumple is capable of making the “right” decision. I don’t know if my interpretation of the scene holds water, but I choose to believe that Rumple did indeed do the right thing.

    The scene with Belle was interesting. Belle didn’t want Rumple to do any further harm to the good people of Storybrooke. And yet, when Rumple needed her most, when showed that he cared for her more than he cared for himself, she stayed by his side. Not only did she quell his insecurities, but Emilie de Ravin did a fantastic job of conveying the real depth of their relationship. I was smiling when she said that “I don’t love Wil.” That she knew he was flawed. That in spite of who he was, that he could have had his happy ending. If he only believed. And then, near death, it was her love that perhaps saved him. We don’t really know how this is going to work out. It was great that the people of Storybrooke didn’t watch him die. They tried to save him. And they did, though what Rumple will be remains to be seen. If ever an actor is suited for defining, or in this case, redefining a character, it is Robert Carlyle.

    I posted elsewhere that Rumple’s true redemption arc may actually just starting. He longs for a son that will never be back. Henry longs for a father that he will never see again. Perhaps, Neal will yet serve as a conduit for his father’s redemption. And through his father, his own son will experience the love that his father always had for him. And with Belle at their side. Perhaps…

    I write mostly about Carlyle because he is my favorite actor in OUAT. Lana Parilla is a fantastic actress – she and Carlyle rule the roost, so to speak. I hope that Carlyle will be featured more prominently in the coming season. I’ve seen too much Hook and Emma. Alas, with Dark Emma, it appears we are going to get more doses of the Hook/Swan ship. Here’s hoping that it is not so.

    I think that Merlin is Lily’s father. I wonder what role Lily will have in the coming season.

    As a casting note, why can’t they hire Hugh Laurie as Merlin? An acerbic, all knowing, off putting, ultimately good hearted, smartest guy in the realm type of wizard? I’d go for that. And maybe, Cameron, err. Emma Swan, can get her dark hair back while she plays the dark lord.

    • Hugh Laurie as Merlin. Hmmm. Love it. BTW–Hugh Laurie on #VEEP!!!! Love it. Love it Love it!

  • Connie Standish

    Hi I haven’t viewed your blog in a while, but I saw your review on the season finale of OUAT. I was wondering, how did you feel about the fact that there was no True Love’s Kiss for Rumple and Belle? A lot of fans were really disappointed in this; I was even disappointed and I haven’t even seen the episode yet. There was so much build up for True Love’s Kiss, that it seemed like a wasted opportunity; but maybe there’s an underlying reason for this. Do you think this cliffhanger ending is going to be the start of the healing process for Rumple and Belle? Thanks 🙂

    • WML

      I hope you don’t mind me answering a question meant for Barbara. I am sure she has her own take on this, but it has been said that true love can be expressed with nary a word, nary a touch, nary a kiss. And in that scene between Rumple and Belle, OUAT showed that true love is more than the ephemeral moments of a kiss.

    • Hi Connie. Like WML, I don’t think the actually kiss was needed. Intent was clear. Whether that saves Rumple or now, I’m not sure. It will be interesting to see what their storyline for next season will be. With Rumple essentially cryo-preserved on the brink of death, his heart white (!) and I assume bloodless. I have to wonder if he’ll play a major role in the first part of next season. But we shall see! I definitely have renewed interest in the show, and do want to see where this all leads. I’m not sure I’d like a purely good Rumple–or the terrified, bullied Rumple of his pre-Dark One days, but we shall see.

  • Kelz

    Hook has always been a character motivated by love. His piracy was motivated by his love and loss of his brother . His revenge on Rumple was over Milah. Look at Rumple – he was motivated to be the Dark One so he could protect Bae (and then look at the mistakes he made choosing his power over his love of his son). And then spends hundreds of years alone, pining after his son and helping to put the forces in motion to create a dark curse to be sent to the land where he can find him. Rumple and Hook aren’t so different. Yes, along the way, Hook got wrapped up in his darkness and revenge, and this season has shown how easy it is for ANYONE to slip back into it. In fact, I think his “slips” this season have made it easier for Hook fans to understand why Rumple slips so much as well (and Regina). I like them both, but I don’t think Regina has a better redemption arc just yet, as she is still blaming others for bad things that happen in her life, she does not fully accept the consequences of her actions just yet. Excited to see if Emma’s sacrifice and other things she’s been through in S4 help her grow even more in S5. And as for Hook, I don’t think it’s fair to say his redemption arc has been too easy. It’s taken him two seasons to hear an “i love you” from the woman he loves, and he’s worked hard throughout those seasons as well to earn the love of emma and her family. He always had a “man of honor” inside of him, it was love that helped to bring it back out. Just like the deaths of those he loved driving him into darkness.