Once Upon a Time Season 5 Review

  • Series Title: Once Upon a Time
  • Season: 5
  • Episodes: 23
  • Discs: 5
  • Network: ABC
  • Cast: Jennifer Morrison, Ginnifer Goodwin, Lana Parilla, Josh Dallas, Jared Gilmore, Robert Carlyle, Emilie de Ravin, Colin O’Donoghue, Sean McGuire, Rebecca Mader, Liam Garrigan, Gregg Germann
  • Format: Widescreen, Color, DVD

Last season, both halves of the season, “Frozen” and “Queens of Darkness” featured female guest heroes, villains, and storylines. This season was decidingly more male, though there is a lot and I do mean a lot going on. Stories, myths, and Disney/Pixar films that Season 5 of Once Upon a Time did their own take on included:

  • Dark Swan
  • King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table
  • Brave
  • Hercules (and his girlfriend)
  • Hades, King of the Underworld
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (mention only)
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Plus the return of the following characters from previous seasons:

  • Ruby, the wolf (of Little Red Riding Hood)
  • Evil Peter Pan
  • Mulan
  • Zylena, the Wicked Witch of the West (Oz)
  • a grown-up, more bad-ass Dorothy (Oz)
  • Cruella deVille
  • Liam, Hook’s brother (and a more detailed look at the brother’s back story)
  • Cora, Regina’s mother
  • Henry, Regina’s father
  • Neal, Henry’s father and Emma’s ex

If that sounds like a lot – it is. The first half of the season is extremely confusing. However, the second half of the season, though at times also pulling in a great deal of conflicting plot threads, manages to pull things together, as well as return to Once’s theme of redemption for characters oft thought as “evil”.

The season opens where the previous season left off, with Emma as the Dark One. With a little help from Zylena, our characters travel to another realm, and immediately meet King Arthur, and search for a way to get Merlin out of the tree he’s trapped in, which, eventually leads to a quest to find Excalibur. However, the first season cuts back and forth in time – and it’s some of the most confusing time and realm jumps that Once has ever done. In the first episode, the main characters return to Storybrooke, with Emma as the Dark Swan, having, apparently embraced the darkness – and everyone else having lost their memories of the six months they were in Camelot. Emma is angry about something but we don’t know what. I found the switching back and forth between Camelot and Storybrooke, not to mention the various time-jumps in Camelot to be really confusing. Several times, I’d watch a scene then realize, “Oh, they are in Camelot. Or, oh, wait, this must be Storybrooke.” Since Arthur, his knights, and many of the main characters are transported back to Storybrooke with our main characters, it adds to the confusion. That Emma, Regina, and the Charmings wear their contemporary clothes from Storybrooke in Camelot on all but the most formal occasions, such as the ball, also adds to the confusion.

In Camelot, Arthur turns out to be a really bad king, and not the king of legend. This Arthur is manipulative, insecure, has a really bad case of impostor syndrome, and over-compensates for his own inadequacies by shifting blame to everyone else. He uses magic to control his wife and kingdom. He acts like a teenager who never grew up and has far too much power. Whereas I liked Evil Peter Pan from season 3 (and the young actor was fantastic!), I did not like Arthur at all. When I watched part 1 of the season last year, I thought they had simply cast a bad actor as Arthur (because it was hard to follow the plot week to week). Re-watching on DVD in a much more compressed time-frame, it wasn’t the actor’s fault – but Arthur was poorly written. Other than all his faults, there wasn’t really a reason for his behavior. Regina became the “Evil Queen” because her mother told her she could be with her beloved boyfriend – then killed him horribly in front of her for her “own good”. Zylena became the Wicked Witch because Cora abandoned her, leaving Zylena with a deep-seated sense that she was unlovable, worthless, and incapable of being happy. Zylena also was incredibly jealous of Regina. But Arthur? All we can tell is he doesn’t feel like he deserves to be king, or he’s so afraid people will find out he’s a fraud so he goes to incredible lengths to stop them (including trapping Merlin in a tree, exiling Lancelot, putting his wife under an obedience spell, and doing the same to his entire kingdom). What was disturbing about the Arthur plot was it takes a hero and makes him a villain – and it doesn’t give Arthur a good reason for being a villain. This Arthur also kills one of his loyal knights (talks him into suicide) for absolutely no real reason. Arthur frames his own knight for stealing from the Camelot camp near Storybrooke, then when he’s placed in jail by David (Prince Charming), kills him and disappears the body – so he can claim the man used a “magic bean” to return to Camelot. This is ploy the Charmings and the rest of the heroes see through immediately, so there’s really no point to Arthur’s actions. Done right, Arthur and the Knights of Camelot can be a very good story, for me, Once Upon a Time did not tell the story right.

Interwoven through the first eight episodes of season 5, we find out Emma’s story. As the new Dark One, she has visions of Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle) who encourages her to embrace her dark powers. Since we see her as Dark Swan in Storybrooke, it appears that she will. At times, the discussions of Light vs. Dark, whether it’s Emma’s Light Magic or just her general decision she has to make for which Side she will serve sound very Star Wars. There are characters who seem to quote Yoda, when talking to Emma about her choice.

The first actual person Emma meets in the Enchanted Forest is Merida, aka “Brave”. Merida and Emma both want a “wisp” to led them somewhere. The wisp is a McGuffin, though Merida needs it more than Emma. While Rumpelstiltskin urges Emma to kill Merida and take the wisp – David, Mary Margaret, and the rest from Storybrooke arrive and take her to Granny’s Diner which landed in the Enchanted Forest thanks to a magical tornado. Merida goes on her quest, finds the wisp, and loses it. Merida later on meets up with Mulan who teaches her how to fight, goes on a quest herself to find a magical helm (which Arthur had stolen from her father or so she thought) and discovers her father is an honorable man. She also learns how to be a good and just queen. Part of her learning is that even though she finds the helm, she doesn’t turn it over to the “evil witch” citing that, as a weapon, it’s too dangerous for anyone to have and she will destroy it. Merida’s test however, was just that – if she had turned it over, or even just kept it, she would not have been a good queen.

Mulan is also having issues – but teaching Merida, and meeting Ruby (of all people), helps her over-come them.

Ruby, in turn, ends-up in Oz, assisting Dorothy (now grown-up and bad-ass), whom she’s fallen for. In the end, the feeling is mutual (when Dorothy is put under a sleeping curse, it is Ruby’s “true love’s kiss” that wakes her). Their kiss is magical. I loved the new Dorothy (not to mention that Ruby, Mulan, and Dorothy – although an odd mix when you consider the source material – sparks on-screen). I enjoyed those episodes, and wouldn’t mind somehow seeing more of Dorothy and Ruby. Maybe Ruby could adopt the name Ozma?

At the end of the Camelot plot, we find out what’s happened to Emma. Hook was wounded in the throat during a skirmish with Arthur. The cut is from Excalibur. When Emma tries to use her magic to unite the two halves of Excalibur (the Sword, and the Dark One dagger), Hook collapses. His wound re-opens and he starts dying. Emma, in tears, cannot face the death of her true love. She stops the spell to reunite Excalibur, places everyone under a forgetting spell, and sends Granny’s, everyone inside, and the population of Camelot to Storybrooke. This returns us to the beginning of episode one, where everyone arrives but with no memory of the previous six weeks.

Emma is saved from being the Dark One. But Hook becomes the Dark One. Emma has to kill Hook with Excalibur to save him and he dies. But Rumple had tethered the Dark Magic back to the Dark One dagger. Rumple is now the Dark One again and Killian’s been taken to the underworld. Emma, Snow, David, Rumple, Belle, Regina, and Henry travel to the Underworld to rescue Hook. They are in a town that looks like a destroyed Storybrooke with red skies, where they discover Hades is Lord of the Underworld. Regina meets Cora (her mother) again. Cora tries to use Regina’s father to manipulate Regina, but Regina, much more grown up now, doesn’t fall for it. In the end, Henry Sr. is able to finish his “unfinished business”, make his peace, and literally walk into the light. Freeing Henry’s soul let’s the broken Underworld Storybrooke clock move forward one minute – and angers Hades. Soon Emma (now having prophetic dreams), Snow, and Charming meet Hercules and his girlfriend. Discovering that both were killed in a quest to destroy Cerebus (who now guards the path to where Killian is being held), the Storybrooke heroes help Hercules and his girlfriend – who walk into the light. Fortunately, this doesn’t become an every episode thing. Bringing back the dead, though, is a theme. Rumple runs in to his dad, Peter Pan. Pan is just as evil as ever, and at first it seems Rumple will work with Pan. But instead, having found a way to destroy Pan forever, with water from the River of Souls, Rumple actually destroys Pan. However, Rumple is too late to stop Belle, who discovers he is now the Dark One, from putting herself under a sleeping curse. Meanwhile, Killian, once rescued by Emma and company, meets his brother, Liam. In “The Brothers Jones”, we discover their full background. Their father sells the two into servitude on a ship. When Liam gets old enough to try to break the contract by joining the Royal Navy and getting a signing bonus (for both him and his younger brother, Killian), Captain Silver gets Killian drunk and steals all their saved money. Liam tears up his papers with the Navy, and stays with his brother. When the Captain Silver steers the ship into the eye of a hurricane to get a fabled gem, Liam attempts to raise a mutiny. It works somewhat, but Liam still feels forced to make a deal with Hades to see to it that he and his brother survive. Hades even “gifts” Liam the fabled gem. The two brothers survive, are found by the Navy, and we know much of the rest of the story from season 3. In Underworld Storybrooke, both Killian and Liam show an incredible amount of hero-worship vis-a-vis each other. They are both willing to sacrifice themselves for each other. Fortunately, Killian is able to save Liam, who, with his dead crew, who now know the truth, also all go into the Light. But, the details of Hades story are lost. Still, having now lost close to a dozen souls, Hades is very angry, not only are Snow, Regina, and Emma tied to the Underworld by having names on gravestones – but the entire group is now trapped in the Underworld.

Zylena, having had Robin’s baby earlier in the season, becomes a character similar to first and second season Regina – she’s “Wicked” but we want her to become good. And similar to how Regina’s love for Henry made her a better person, and eventually her own sort of hero; Zylena, though still manipulative, does honestly love her baby daughter. Sadly, Zylena also believes she is not lovable and that no one could ever love her. Part of why she wants her baby at first, is she thinks a child will love her. But we also have an episode where a young Regina plays with one of Cora’s magical items and is knocked cold and remains unconscious. Cora finds Zylena and convinces her to use her magic to save Regina – something Zylena does easily and effortlessly. However, as she sees the two young girls becoming friends, and even almost acting as sisters – though neither knows they are sisters, Cora decides to separate the two. Cora tells Regina she can’t have friends or rely on anyone but herself. Then she has Zylena taken away, and wipes the memory from both of them. Throughout the back half of the season, Regina is constantly trying to help Zylena, trying to work with her – but since she also seems to always be asking Zylena for something, Zylena thinks Regina only wants to use her. When Cora decides to tell the two the truth, that they met as young children, and were, for a time, sisters, it becomes enough for Cora to also walk into the Light. And Regina and Zylena are more united.

However, to make things more complicated, Hades also appears to fall in love with Zylena. At first Zylena rejects him because she feels she can’t be loved. Then Zylena tries to figure out if Hades is honest about his feelings. At first Regina tries to convince Zylena that Hades doesn’t love her, but someone will. Later, as the two are united as the sisters they are, Regina tells Zylena to try – try to make Hades a better man. Yeah, the god of the Underworld, a better man. It doesn’t end well.

Hades and Zylena return to Storybrooke. Hades meets Arthur, and kills him. Hades then tries to convince Zylena they need to attack first against Snow, and David, and Regina, and the rest of the Storybrooke characters, whom he tells Zylena are after them and will never let them live in peace. Zylena points out they can live in peace, just find a nice house in Storybrooke and settle down. Hades reveals his hand that he’s a lot more interested in power and destruction than in settling down. But before Zylena can leave on her own, Robin and Regina show up. Hades unleashes a magic attack towards Regina, but Robin gets in the way. Robin dies. Zylena is appalled. But it’s Gold who uses a magic crystal from Zeus to get rid of Hades – in another bid for power. Gold is also still trying to bring back Belle, who is still under a sleeping curse.

Zylena opens a portal (at David’s request) to send the various extra characters back to the Enchanted Forest or where ever they happen to have come from. However, it back fires and Zylena, Snow, and David are caught in the portal and immediately end up in a jail. They are in the Land of Lost Stories, though, being in a jail, it’s a while before they know that. In that land, they run into Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gold has gone to New York, with Belle, to perform a spell to revive her – a spell that must be cast in the Land Without Magic.  Also, Henry and Violet, his first crush, run off to New York. Henry’s decided to destroy all magic because he thinks it’s bad. The two teenagers go to the New York Public Library to do research, and find dozens of storybooks. Emma and Regina follow Henry to New York. The two get a txt from Granny telling them what went down in Storybrooke. By the time they catch up with Henry and Violet, Henry has found the anti-Grail, which will destroy magic. In the midst of Gold’s spell to wake up Belle, Henry destroys magic. Opps. Henry immediately realizes he’s made a big mistake, because without magic, they can’t get Snow and Charming back.

Emma tells Henry a story about a wishing fountain – and everyone goes there – where Henry makes a stirring speech, a lot of people throw pennies into the fountain, and the wishes bring back out characters. This includes Jekyll, who uses his separator formula to tear the Evil Queen out of Regina (who has, apparently, been like a recovering alcoholic – and who fears returning to evilness).

Season 5 of Once Upon a Time was, well, I don’t want to call it a mess – because, overall, it was entertaining, and parts of it were really, really, really good. The large guest cast was excellent. Although I found Arthur annoying at first, on a second watch-through, he got better. Hades Shatner-like diction became annoying by the end of the season though. However, I’m getting a bit tired of the idea that every single one of the storybook characters is so obsessed with the idea of Predestination, destiny, and fate. The “evil” characters, such as Regina, and even Zylena, are determined to believe that because they were once “evil” they are fated to never be happy. And in a sense, in the show’s universe and worldview they are right, because Regina has lost, what, three boyfriends now? And the first time someone really seems to love Zylena for who she is – he turns out to be a raving meglomanic who simply wants power, no matter who he has to crush to get it. Even Gold (Rumple) continuously chooses power over the love of a good woman. And Belle is finally fed-up with his choice of power over her. Unfortunately, Belle’s response is to put herself under a sleeping curse – effectively “refrigerating” a fiery, intelligent character who keeps Gold both honest and as a character the audience can relate to.

Secondly, season 5 of Once Upon a Time, was one of the most unFeminist seasons ever on the show. Season 4 had women as leads in both halves of the season, and showed use both good and evil women. Season 5 starts off praising the male hero by bringing in Arthur and his knights, as well as Merlin. That might have been OK, if Arthur hadn’t been quickly shown to be a weak, ineffective king with an inferiority complex. Showing Arthur as a lousy king was a bad move, in my opinion. And, if they were going to do that, the strong Storybrooke woman, especially Regina, Emma, and Snow, should have been able to take the king down. Instead, Regina and Snow (and at times Belle – who’s become the group’s “researcher”) are pitted against Emma. Yes, the early part of second half of the season explains that – Emma did it all for Hook. But at much as I ship Emma/Hook, having Emma make bad decisions due to doomed love puts her right back at the beginning of Season 1, where she’s in jail and pregnant. We also see Snow having to run off some bandits when she is still young, and her father is away. Snow as always been remarkably strong. Feminine, but very strong, and often badass. Yet, who teaches her to fight? Hercules. That completely takes Snow’s power away. It diminishes her. It destroys her agency. It says she couldn’t possibly become a hero without the help of a man. And that she couldn’t learn to fight without a man either. It was much more satisfying to see Mulan teaching Merida how to fight. Besides, Merida was already kick-ass with a bow and arrow, Mulan only helped her to learn hand to hand combat. But taking one of Once Upon a Time‘s strongest women and having her completely unable to fight without a man showing her how? I didn’t like that at all.