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The "Once Upon a Time" season four finale sets the stage for a terrific start to season five.

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

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, ( Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out 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)."

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