ABC’s Once Upon A Time loved a good villain.
However, what the show loved, even more, was redeeming a villain. As the show was all about hope and happy endings, this should come as no surprise.
Over the course of seven seasons and one 13-episode spinoff, Once Upon A Time redeemed a total of 13 villains.
Some of these redemption arcs were incredible and iconic, redefining redemption arcs for TV fans everywhere; others were lackluster and poorly executed.
Join us below as we rank redemption arcs from the OUAT universe, and yes, that includes Wonderland.
#13: Zelena AKA The Wicked Witch of The West
Zelena was first introduced on Once Upon A Time Season 3 Episode 12. We knew she was going to be the new big bad of the season.
Between following Robbie Kay’s amazing performance as Peter Pan and reimagining the iconic villain from The Wizard of Oz, Zelena had her work cut out for her.
In fairness, Rebecca Madder did a fantastic job with the role. Zelena was absolutely wicked.
She killed Neal, enslaved Rumple, raped Robin to get back at Regina, and purposefully got pregnant to rub said pregnancy in her sister’s face. That’s saying nothing of what she did to Maid Marian, or that time she teamed up with King Arthur.
Zelena was as wicked as they come, and her backstory wasn’t nearly sympathetic enough for us to feel sorry for her. She was whiney and entitled, blaming people who had nothing to do with the life she led.
All that aside, Once Upon A Time is a show about redemption arcs, and had Zelena’s been handled more realistically and with a better timetable, it might have been more palatable.
Zelena’s redemption was motivated by becoming a mother, learning to love her sister, and finding true love with a man.
Again, all of these things could arguably lead to redemption and did for others in the series.
However, instead of slowly getting one of these things so that they could really affect her, Zelena was hit with a triple threat and a quickie redemption over the course of a few episodes.
First, she becomes a mother (to a child she conceived by raping her sister’s soulmate so that she could give him what the fertile Regina never could).
Quickly, we see her putting her child’s safety first when she realizes her magic is hurting her. Good start.
Then, she and Regina, sisters and sworn enemies who did not grow up together, learn they met as children and were briefly close before their mother tore them apart and erased their memories. Okay. Weird.
I’m all for Regina getting more family. Still, truthfully, after everything Zelena has done to Regina and all the hate and envy Zelena felt towards her, it’s hard to believe the two could put the past aside simply because they now remember a brief kinship they shared as ten-year-olds.
Finally, we learn that Zelena once had a chance at True Love, magic cure-all, with Hades, Lord of the Underworld.
Zelena decides to be happy with her ex, friends with her nemesis turned sister, and a loving mother. It’s all a little quick and neat, isn’t it?
Then, of course, the evil guy who loved her because they were both evil and full of envy chooses to keep being evil and wants her to keep being evil with him. She chooses her sister, which, given what we know of her, makes little sense.
Then, when a grieving Regina rejects Zelena, she teams up with her sister’s “Evil-Half,” and continues to be a villain. She never really switches sides completely or stops being a bitch to everybody.
They still call her redeemed and invite her to Thanksgiving, though, because, bygones?
It didn’t seem like the writers intended to redeem Zelena when they first introduced the character. They kept her around because she was fun and witty, but she caused more problems than she solved.
Yet it was all quickly swept under the rug when it was convenient for them, and she’s never made to answer for all the terrible things she did.
Redeeming Zelena, and especially the how of it was terribly lazy writing. Even if you like her, you have to admit that that came out of nowhere.
They should have kept her the villain we love to hate, given her a slow and meaningful redemption arc, or, and this is my favorite, killed her off like they appeared to on Once Upon A Time Season 3 Episode 20 and never brought her back.
Of course, that would mean no baby Robin, and therefore, no MadArcher, which would be sad. Then again, maybe Regina’s Robin wouldn’t have died. It’s a mixed bag.
However, I think we can all agree this was the worst redemption arc the show did. If they had to redeem Zelena, they could have done it way better. Plus, did they really have to?
#12: Rapunzel AKA Lady Tremaine AKA Victoria Belfrey
For those who didn’t watch Once Upon A Time Season 7, this doesn’t refer to the Rapunzel introduced on Once Upon A Time Season 3 Episode 14 or the Lady Tremaine introduced on Once Upon A Time Season 6 Episode 3.
This refers to Cinderella’s evil step-mother from a New/Alternate Enchanted Forest introduced on Once Upon A Time Season 7.
We later learn that she is also an alternate Rapunzel, who turned evil because while she was locked in a Tower, her husband remarried, and she felt replaced.
Then, when her husband chooses to save the life of Ella, the daughter of his new wife, instead of their daughter Anastasia, she’s overcome with grief and rage.
She’s determined to save her comatose child, neglecting and berating the daughter she has left, Drizella, for daring to consider her husband’s new wife a mother. Plus, she has her husband killed, abuses Ella, and does many other bad things.
Her story is sympathetic, but her treatment of her daughter is inexcusable. Plus, again, the abuse and killing of people.
In the end, Rapunzel sacrifices herself to save Drizella, the daughter she neglected and mistreated, from being killed by Mother Gothel, who locked her up all those years ago.
Now, sacrificing oneself to save a child is great redemption. The problem is that, not unlike Zelena’s redemption, it came out of nowhere. Rapunzel was once willing to kill Drizella to save Anastasia.
After Drizella lets her mother know that she loved and missed her when she was locked up, Rapunzel suddenly decides she does love her daughter, and she’s sorry and willing to die for her?
That doesn’t add up. Not when Drizella went out of her way to show her mother loyalty, obedience, basically anything for a scrap of love in return and was repeatedly told she wasn’t good enough for her mother to love because she wasn’t Anastasia.
She apologizes in her last moments to make Drizella feel like she wanted her dead, but she did want her dead at one point.
Now, she’s making it sound like it was all in her daughter’s head. Drizella is left confused, thinking her mother loved her all along, and somehow she missed it.
No. Rapunzel did not love Drizella all along. She clearly despised her for finding comfort in the maternal figure who was there when she was trapped and was willing to sacrifice her to bring back the daughter she believed missed her.
She blamed a child who was barely old enough to remember her for wanting a mother and loving the only one she remembered having.
Maybe almost losing her could shock her into seeing the error of her ways, but it could have been written better if that was the case.
#11: Cora AKA The Miller’s Daughter AKA The Queen Of Hearts
Speaking of mothers who didn’t love their daughter’s enough, Cora was the epitome of that. One child she gave up, leaving her to die in the woods so being an unwed poor mother wouldn’t hold her back.
And Zelena got the better deal than the child she kept. Cora repeatedly abused Regina, both mentally/emotionally and magically/physically.
It all culminated in Cora murdering Regina’s boyfriend right in front of her to force her to marry a king old enough to be her father (and who nearly was).
Cora killed Queen Eva, Lancelot, countless others. She manipulated and hurt everybody who stood in her way, as well as those who stood by her side.
It seemed like she wasn’t capable of compassion or love for anybody, and there was a reason for that. You see, as a young woman, Cora removed her heart from her chest, so its incessant feeling wouldn’t keep her from her goals.
Cora was ruthless without her heart, and her redemption came when her heart returned to her chest moments before her death. She seems to finally see and love her daughter, telling her she would have been enough.
The idea seemed to be that had Cora kept her heart, she could have been a loving mother and a better person. When Once Upon A Time Season 2 Episode 16 aired, this line of thinking would have worked.
However, as the show evolved, we learned that people without hearts could love. It is with her heart missing from her chest on Once Upon A Time Season 3 that Regina not only finds love with Robin Hood but shares True Love’s Kiss with her son Henry.
While completely heartless, Regina uses light magic based on love to stop the villain and save the day.
With this new information, we must look back at Cora’s seeming redemption and wonder if it’s fair to blame all her actions on her heartlessness. If we can’t, then having her heart restored didn’t redeem her at all, and she died as she lived, as a bitch.
#10: King Arthur
One of the big twists on Once Upon A Time Season 5 reveals that King Arthur, the hero of legend, was actually kind of a dick. He was obsessed with becoming a hero and a great ruler who saved Camelot as Merlin had foretold.
Because of this, he ignored his wife and his people to pursue the missing part of Excalibur, AKA the Dark One Dagger. In his absence, his wife, Guinevere, took care of the kingdom, and Lancelot took care of Guinevere.
When Arthur sees his obsession could cost him his marriage and his kingdom, instead of changing his ways, he uses magic to brainwash (and likely rape) his wife and his kingdom. Plus, he kills people.
Overall, Arthur was not a good dude, and he got him when Hades, Lord of the Underworld, killed him simply for being in his way.
It’s in The Underworld that Arthur finds redemption. On Once Upon A Time Season 5 Episode 21, Arthur teams up with Hook to defeat Hades because he wants to move on to Mount Olympus instead of going to the bad place.
On their quest, Hook and Arthur bond, saving each other and earning a Mount Olympus spot. Instead of moving on, Arthur decides to remain and rule over the Underworld, supposedly to save it from the villains who currently run it.
The thing is, Arthur didn’t really change. He deduces that the prophecy that he would rule over a “broken kingdom” refers to The Underworld and not Camelot as he always thought. It’s the destiny he’s been chasing forever, so of course, he would do it.
His earning a spot at Mount Olympus has less to do with him changing and more to do with his role in defeating Hades, which is what Zeus wanted. He only helped in the first place to avoid eternal damnation.
Also, all the wrong he’s done s still done. Guinevere is still cursed. He doesn’t fix that or apologize to her.
I realize he’s in no position to do so, being dead and all, but the fact that the consequences of all the bad he did are still in effect and he does nothing to rectify them is points against him.
Making Arthur a villain was a nice surprise, but his redemption was weak. The character wasn’t likable, even as a guy you love to hate. Frankly, OUAT would have been better if the characters had never gone to Camelot, but that’s a rant for another time.
#9: Rumpelstilskin AKA Mr. Gold AKA The Dark One AKA Detective Weaver
As I address in my post on how the writers of OUAT screwed Rumple over, Rumple’s redemption was seemingly written into the series from the beginning. For the first two and a half seasons of the show, Rumple’s redemption arc was picture perfect.
Then things started to go downhill. By Once Upon A Time Season 6, not all audience members wanted Rumple to be redeemed. He had backslid so many times. His redemption was hard to trust when it happened.
Rumple’s final redemption was death, which kind of fit because he had lived so long and deserved to rest. Plus, after everything he did, seeing him live would have left us questioning if he was going to backslide again.
Still, it would have been better if they had leaned into his initial redemption on Once Upon A Time Season 3 Episode 11 and let the character grow, instead of all the unnecessary back and forth.
I could wax poetic on Rumple’s mishandled redemption arc, but it would be redundant, as I already have in the post linked above. I encourage you to check that post out.
#8: Captain Hook AKA Killian Jones
One of the unusual and refreshing things about OUAT’s redemption arcs, at least the ones they did well, was that instead of going for the familiar trope of person-redeems-themself-for-lover, they did the underrated and underused person-redeems-themself-for-their-child.
Killian Jones is the exception to this. When we met Killian, he was a villain and a rather charming one. Fans loved him. It’s no surprise that OUAT decided to redeem such a popular character, especially considering how much they love redemption arcs.
The first time Killian did “the right thing” was on Once Upon A Time Season 2 Episode 22. He put himself at risk to save the town and then again try and save Henry.
The implication at the time was that Killian’s about-face was due to his guilt over having failed his almost stepson, Baelfire, long ago.
He nearly gave up his revenge once for the chance at a family with the son of the woman he loved. Now, he needed to save that man’s son.
Many argue that Baelfire should have been Killian’s redemption. However, fans wanted CaptainSwan, and the writers needed an excuse to keep a character without many ties to the main cast around, so Killian was redeemed through his love for Emma.
When compared to the redemption, an alternate wish universe version of his character found on Once Upon A Time Season 7, a redemption motivated by his love for his daughter Alice, it’s clear which storyline holds up better.
Not only was Killian’s redemption through romantic true love weaker than if he found it through fatherly love, but it wasn’t consistent.
Killian’s villainy stemmed from his desire to get revenge on Rumple. His redemption would require him to give that up.
However, despite the truce the two strike on Once Upon A Time Season 3, Killian still blackmails Rumple on Once Upon A Time Season 4 Episode 4 so that he can get his hand back.
Killian likes the Hook, and we like him with it. He said he wanted his hand back so he could hold Emma better on their date. His feelings for her motivated him to blackmail his old enemy, which only brought out the worst in both of them.
Later, when Killian becomes The Dark One, he gives in to the darkness entirely very quickly. He’s willing to send the woman he loves and her friends to The Underworld. When he chickens out of his plan because he still loves Emma, he’s called a hero.
How is he a hero for sacrificing himself to stop an evil scheme that he was causing? If you want to kill someone but change your mind, you aren’t a hero for saving that person’s life.
You’re just not as bad as you were before. It’s noble to turn yourself over to the cops afterward, but again, it doesn’t make you a hero.
When Killian marries Emma on Once Upon A Time Season 6 Episode 20, he says that when they met, all that mattered to him was getting revenge, but she showed him that love was worth more. That implies he gave up his revenge, right?
Except that earlier in that same episode, he used Dreamshade, which he’s been saving since Neverland, on Rumple. He admits it isn’t just to get Rumple out of the way and stop his next plot.
Once it’s all over, and the Black Fairy is defeated, he still intends to skin himself a crocodile. He still hates Rumple and still wants revenge on him.
The Killian of Once Upon A Time Season 7, by contrast, was bros with Rumple because they both cared for his daughter and her happiness. Their bond is so strong that when Rumple sacrifices himself for his final redemption, it’s to save that Killian’s life.
Killian was a great character, played by a talented and charming actor, and his redemption could have been a great arc. However, it was rather poorly handled.
For more on Killian’s disappointing redemption arc, check out this TV Fanatic post by Sarah Novack.
#7: Ursula AKA The Sea-Witch
It made sense for Ursula to be redeemed. It wasn’t hard to see it coming. Why? Because she was never all that evil.
When we learned Ursula’s backstory, her motivation for turning to darkness was incredibly weak.
Yes, she grieved her mother, her father tried to control her, and when she showed Hook kindness, he betrayed her. These are all reasons to lose faith in goodness.
Still, it was clear she would look past all that and abandon villainy if she could just get her singing voice back. It was a quick fix, tied up in a neat little bow. Truthfully, it could have been fixed eons ago if it had occurred to Killian and/or Poseidon.
Also, this Ursula wasn’t the one who tortured Ariel. That was Regina. Honestly, other than aiding Maleficent and Cruella occasionally, I’m a little foggy on what evil things she ever actually did.
She may have been disillusioned with good, less innocent and naive than she once was, but she wasn’t really villain material.
As soon as we learn her backstory on Once Upon A Time Season 4 Episode 15, she is redeemed and then written out of the show.
Ursula’s whole arc was more little mermaid than seas witch, and frankly, it was disappointing.
#6: August AKA Pinocchio
August was a fascinating character. He was flawed in a morally ambiguous way that the show lacked in its later seasons.
He did bad things, and many still don’t excuse him for A) Abandoning Emma, B) Breaking up Swanfire, C) Calling the cops, D) Stealing the money, and/or E) Pretending to be Baelfire with Rumple.
Plus, he stole Tamara’s money for the cure from The Dragon when he thought she needed it to cure her cancer. Granted, nobody really cares about Tamara, and she didn’t even have cancer, but it was still a dick move.
Pinocchio had a difficult backstory, though not much time was spent on it. Fans were left to extrapolate motivations for his bad behavior.
Some justifications were that he had a bad childhood, being handed the responsibility of caring for an infant, on his own, in a new land, as a child himself.
He ran away from a bad foster situation and had to make it on his own in a land he didn’t understand.
We don’t really see that, though, except little snippets. We assume he struggled because it makes sense, but we don’t see him struggle or understand how he ended up where he did.
We also have no clue about his life before becoming a real boy, save what we learned from the Disney movie. OUAT preaches monsters aren’t born but made.
We didn’t see August get made. We simply met him as an adult who made selfish, desperate choices. His backstory wasn’t given enough screentime; the same can be said for his redemption arc.
Aside from being rushed, August’s redemption is weird. He sacrifices and is rewarded for his selflessness by being aged down. He loses his memories of being August. It’s supposed to be a fresh start and a happy ending.
This happy ending left many fans with a sour taste in their mouth. August, as we knew him, was basically erased.
Of course, we do see fully-grown August again. After ignoring his child counterpart for two years, the show needs him for plot reasons, so he is aged back up on Once Upon A Time Season 4 Episode 14, for plot reasons, and then forgotten.
Maleficent’s redemption wasn’t half bad. She became a mother and put aside her evil goals to get to know her daughter. It’s classic OUAT redemption, mother and child. What could be better?
We never learn what Briar Rose, the first sleeping beauty, did to make Mal hate her, and Mal’s cursing of Aurora, the second sleeping beauty and Briar Rose’s daughter, is done only done to punish her mother.
Unlike with Ursula, we have plenty of proof that Mal is evil, and it’s clear motherhood softens her and that she wants to put her daughter first. However, without knowing why she was evil in the first place, it’s hard to understand her redemption arc.
We don’t know what she’s turning her back on. We don’t know if she was justified in her hatred, what happened to her that led her to this point, etc. This is why Maleficent isn’t higher on this list. Her redemption worked, but it lacked context.
#4: Drizella Tremaine AKA Ivy Belfrey
Drizella was introduced on Once Upon A Time Season 7 as the evil step-sister of an alternate Cinderella from an alternate Enchanted Forest.
She was a compelling character with a compelling backstory. Her redemption, while slightly rushed, was relatively satisfying. The only real issue was that it was a tad repetitive.
Drizella was eerily similar to Regina, and her redemption arc was a mirror of the one The Evil Queen had gotten seasons ago.
There were differences, of course. However, between her issues with her mother, her choice to cast The Dark Curse, her search for love and acceptance, and her hairstyle, many felt Drizella was Regina-light.
However, as many enjoyed Regina’s redemption arc, which was done way better than most on the show, it couldn’t hurt to have something a bit similar.
Drizella’s dynamic with Regina was also one of the highlights of her arc. Regina tried to mentor Drizella because she saw some of herself in the burgeoning witch, and she didn’t want Drizella to turn into her. Best laid plans, and all that.
Drizella’s redemption came from learning that her mother did love her, from having someone like Henry care about her, and, most of all, from rediscovering her relationship with her sister.
She was on a journey we would have liked to see more of, and it was sad to watch Drizella and Anastasia go through a portal and out of our lives, even if they had earned their happy ending.
Because, yes, even if it was a bit repetitive, Drizella’s redemption did feel earned.
#3: Regina Mills AKA The Evil Queen
Regina’s redemption arc is the most famous and popular redemption arc on the show. Fans saw themselves in her and rooted for her as she struggled to leave evil behind.
Regina’s backstory was truly tragic. She was abused and manipulated by her mother her entire life, culminating in the murder of her boyfriend.
It was hard for Regina to understand love because of her mother’s treatment of her. Then Rumple manipulated her and fed her hatred to make her into the monster he needed.
None of that excuses Regina’s actions. She made her own choices. Still, it was hard not to feel for her when we saw all she’s been through.
Regina just wanted to be loved, and she found love with the son she adopted.
She wasn’t always the best mom to Henry, but that was sort of retconned later on in the show, where Regina was made out to be the epitome of a great mother.
We saw how much Regina loved her son, how she would sacrifice anything for him. Given that family was one of the cornerstones of Once Upon A Time, this made Regina’s redemption inevitable and highly appealing.
Regina’s redemption arc was not rushed. It was drawn out as we watched the character grow, realistically backslide slightly, and then, with the support of her new family, find her way to proper redemption.
Overall, it was well done. That being said, there were some flaws.
On Once Upon A Time Season 3 Episode 9, Regina admits that she doesn’t regret any of the bad things she’s done because if she hadn’t, she wouldn’t have her son.
Some have argued that her redemption is more about getting what she wants, i.e., a relationship with her son, than showing genuine remorse. She doesn’t want to do better because she believes it’s right.
She wants to do better because if she doesn’t, she loses Henry, and given a choice, she wouldn’t do anything different, even if it meant saving lives, as long as she got Henry.
That’s an oversimplification of her sentiments, but it is an important point to make.
Regina may have ostensibly switched sides, but she occasionally crosses the line, such as when she stole Belle’s heart to manipulate Rumple. Whether or not Rumple deserved that is debatable, but did Belle? I should think not!
There are also things she’s never been held accountable for, such as raping and murdering Graham.
On Once Upon A Time Season 5 Episode 23, Regina goes so far as to call her past evil self an alter-ego known as The Evil Queen; she attempts to split herself off from that part of herself.
The Evil Queen was never an alter-ego. Regina only has one personality, and she needs to own her choices.
Despite these flaws, Regina’s arc was inspiring for many. It had the staying power to last the length of the series and to keep people tuning in for it until the end. There’s a reason Regina was one of the most popular characters on the show.
#2: Ingrid of Arandelle AKA The Snow Queen AKA Sarah Fisher
Ingrid was the villain on Once Upon A Time Season 4‘s Frozen arc, a response to the movie’s popularity. While the arc was flawed at best, Ingrid herself was actually a great character with a compelling and satisfying redemption arc.
Much like the series’s protagonist, Emma, and the film’s protagonist, Elsa, Ingrid had a power show couldn’t completely control. She feared her power, even if her sisters promised they would never fear her.
When Ingrid loses control and accidentally kills one of her sisters, the other turns on her and locks her up. This causes Ingrid to believe that someone without powers could never understand her and that her sister’s support was false.
She becomes The Snow Queen, the villain of the Hans Christian Anderson story Frozen was based on. Her hurt causes her to lash out at everyone who doesn’t have powers, while she still seeks companionship from those who do.
When Ingrid discovers that her sister did love her after all, she sees the error of her ways. Both of her sisters are dead, and she can’t bring them back, but she can undo the curse she cast.
She’s no longer angry. She’s ready to accept her fate. Reversing the curse can only be accomplished with her death, and she willingly sacrifices herself, welcoming death and a chance to see her sisters again.
Ingrid’s redemption is compelling because she acknowledges what she did was wrong, she apologizes to those she hurt, and she undoes the harm she inflicted at the cost of her own life.
#1: Anastasia AKA The Red Queen
Finally, the best redemption arc in the Onceverse was Anastasia from the spinoff, Once Upon A Time In Wonderland. This isn’t surprising, as OUAIW is better than OUAT overall.
Anastasia, not unlike Drizella on Once Upon A Time Season 7, has an arc that mirrors Regina’s.
Like both Regina and Drizella, she has a bad relationship with her mother.
Like Regina, she has a poor man she loves and wants to run away with.
Unlike Regina, she actually succeeds, only to discover that it is tough to be poor. She chooses comfort over love, and by the time she regrets her decision, it is too late to go back, or so she believes.
She’s groomed by none other than Cora to be a ruthless ruler and sorceress. She ignores and kills her subjects without a thought. She conspires with Jafar to force the love she lost to come back to her.
It is only at her lowest (up until that point, at last) on Once Upon A Time In Wonderland Season 1 Episode 9 that she starts to regret her dark ways truly.
At the mercy of the subjects she mistreated, she realizes that she was a truly terrible queen and that despite all her power, nobody cares for her, and she has nobody but herself to blame for it.
When she once again has power, as the master of the genie in the lamp, she has the option to run from Jafar and start a new life. Instead, she decides to stay and fight for the people she failed.
She humbles herself to apologize to The White Rabbit, who she much wronged, and asks his help in saving Wonderland. She truly wants to right her wrongs, even if it is the more challenging thing to do.
When she is powerless once again, her wishes are made. She and Will are at the mercy of Jafar. She sends a message to Alice and Cyrus to save themselves.
She despises both of them and has no reason to think they would rescue her, but she wants some good to come from all the bad she has done.
At the end of Once Upon A Time In Wonderland Season 1 Episode 13, we see that Anastasia becomes the White Queen of Wonderland and that she and Will, her White King, fill the land with wonder once again.
Anastasia’s arc has the positives of Regina’s without the pitfalls. As she was a leading character on her show, as opposed to a temporary villain like Ingrid, her redemption took center stage and could be explored fully.
Also, it has a happy ending, which is what we want from these shows. Who needs a martyr?
Did we miss someone? Do you agree with the order? Disagree? Scroll down to Show Comments and let us know.
Once Upon A Time and Once Upon A Time In Wonderland are both available for streaming on Disney+.
Leora W is a staff writer for TV Fanatic..