For seven years, Disney’s Once Upon A Time oscillated between being truly good and original content to being a trainwreck of what-the-hell-was-that?
I saw it through to the end, and while I’m glad I did, it meant I had to suffer through what I would argue was not only the worst season of the show but the worst season of any show ever: Once Upon A Time Season 5.
Yes, the Frozen arc was flawed, yes, Once Upon A Time Season 6 was directionless, and yes, Once Upon A Time Season 7 threw out the timeline, but Once Upon A Time Season 5 is the season that nearly led me to quit the show.
What made Once Upon A Time Season 5 so bad?
Let me break it down.
Lack of Forethought
One of the major problems with Once Upon A Time Season 5 was they seemed to be bringing in characters or shiny toys for the sake of bringing them in without thinking about how they would affect the overarching plot.
When that character or shiny toy didn’t amount to anything, they would abandon it because they didn’t think it through.
Like how Lancelot came back, but we’re not sure how he was alive or where he’s been, and then he just disappeared again.
Or how come Emma was acting all evil and like she blamed her family when they returned to Storybrooke without their memories of their time in Camelot?
How come Killian wasn’t haunted by former Dark One’s in Storybrooke just because Emma wiped his memory? He was still the Dark One, wasn’t he?
Or how come nobody tried true love’s kiss on Emma in Camelot? And how come when she and Hook did kiss in Camelot, and she was actively trying to get rid of the darkness, it didn’t work?
What on earth did that horse do to end up in The Underworld with unfinished business?
Many of these are just things that don’t make sense, but they could have made sense if the writers had thought them through and come up with reasonable explanations.
This lack of forethought had been happening in preceding Once Upon A Time seasons and was bearing poorly thought out fruit on Once Upon A Time Season 5. Mostly, it led to what we call a lack of follow-through.
Lack of Follow-Through
Once Upon A Time Season 4 set up a lot of plotlines. They brought back Maleficent and introduced her daughter Lily. On Once Upon A. Time Season 4 Episode 23, Lily told Emma that she wanted to stick around to find out who her father was.
Henry became The Author, with the power to write the storybook.
Will Scarlet was brought over from Once Upon A Time in Wonderland. A lot of mystery surrounded his being in Storybrooke, and he spent some time with Belle.
Fans of the show were looking forward to seeing how these plotlines developed, but we did not see Mal or Lily on Once Upon A Time Season 5. They weren’t even mentioned.
Henry’s being the Author is briefly referenced during the first half of the season and does come into play in the second half.
However, despite his new power and the introduction of a love interest for him, Henry gets very little screen time and character development on Once Upon A Time Season 5.
For example, Granny and the dwarves hitch a ride to Camelot with The Heroes because they are sick of being left out of all the action. They then proceed to be left out of all the action.
We barely see them. Granny’s Diner is more of a utilized character than Granny.
The show also establishes that King Arthur has brainwashed his wife into submission. Even when Arthur dies, Guinevere remains in her brainwashed state.
We never check back in with her and see her and Lancelot have a happy ending saving Camelot.
In The Underworld, Mary Margaret is teased as regaining her badass warrior persona on Once Upon A Time Season 5 Episode 13. Then the character is sidelined.
David also notes on Once Upon A Time Season 5 Episode 3 that he doesn’t just want to be remembered as a man who kissed a sleeping princess awake 30 years ago. However, his character is similarly sidelined.
Ginnifer Goodwin needed to take a step back because she was pregnant, but what was the excuse to sideline David?
His becoming a Knight of The Round Table sadly did not amount to much.
Ignoring Their Own Rules
Once Upon A Time, as many shows that involve world-building, established some in-universe rules during the early seasons.
One of the rules they established was that the only way to become a Dark One is to kill the current Dark One. This is completely ignored when Dark One Emma uses her magic to turn Killian into a Dark One so that he won’t die.
This development upset and confused many, as it went against what we’ve always known. If it were possible for a Dark One to do that, wouldn’t Rumple have done it for his son?
The rules of magic were also established in the Onceverse, though they were stated more explicitly on Once Upon A Time In Wonderland.
In fact, the whole villain arc of the Wonderland series centered on Jafar trying to change the rules of magic.
The rules of magic are as follows:
1) You can’t make someone love someone.
2) You can’t bring back the dead.
3) You can’t change the past.
The second half of Once Upon A Time Season 5 centers on The Heroes going to The Underworld to bring Killian back from the dead, and in the end, they succeed. Zeus restores Killian to life as a reward for helping defeat Hades.
This is problematic because once you start bringing people back from the dead, death loses meaning. The resurrection was clearly contrived for convenience’s sake.
What’s more, The Heroes were all gung-ho to go on a rescue mission to the Underworld, despite the magic users among them being aware of this rule.
Mishandling Redemption Arcs
Once Upon A Time has always emphasized hope and the idea that love can redeem even the darkest souls.
Once Upon A Time Season 4 ended with Rumpelstiltskin’s heart being scrubbed clean of the darkness and Emma Swan taking up the mantle of The Dark One.
This provided many possibilities. More than anything, it seemed like an opportunity to redeem Rumpelstiltskin.
This is first because he no longer had The Darkness inside him, and second because it allowed The Heroes a chance to understand and sympathize with what made him so evil in the first place.
Instead, The Heroes adamantly advocate for Emma but disregard a newly pure and powerless Rumpelstiltskin worthy of their time or help.
Rumple becomes a hero, pulling a sword from the stone, but he relapses to Darkness in the end.
Killian Jones becomes a Dark One alongside Emma and embraces his newfound darkness rather quickly, despite all the character’s progress throughout the series.
Yet, once he is no longer The Dark One, he is forgiven, redeemed, and resurrected, despite all he did.
Worst of all, Zelena has a quickie redemption in The Underworld!
So does King Arthur!
For more of my thoughts on mishandled (and well handled) redemption arcs on Once Upon A Time, check out this post!
Once Upon A Time Season 5 brought us to Arthurian Mythology and The Underworld.
These are accessible to Disney because the movies The Sword in The Stone and Hercules had a lot of material Once Upon A Time could have played with.
The idea of making the legendary King Arthur a villain was an intriguing concept, but it was poorly executed, and Merlin was killed off just when his character was getting interesting.
As for the Underworld, that plot was entirely underwhelming. Hades in the movie is a fun and charismatic villain, but his interpretation on Once Upon A Time was weak and meh. His romance with Zelena was meh and weird.
He wasn’t a fun character, and his flaming hair was all wrong. Honestly, Disney’s Descendant’s 3 did a better job bringing the god of the Underworld to life.
Megara, also, was a huge disappointment. In the movie, she was a badass. She didn’t need a man, she had a complex backstory, and she was willing to sacrifice herself for love.
On Once Upon A Time, she barely exists. Hercules barely met her when he was alive, died trying to save her life, and now meets her again in The Underworld only to pursue adventures off-screen. So much for that romance.
I will admit that Hercules being young Snow White’s first crush and her first kiss, was a bright spot of the season. There were just so many dark spots that it got eclipsed.
Aside from bringing in Hercules and The Sword in The Stone, Disney also decided to bring in Merida from Brave.
However, she wasn’t so much a character, as she was a tool for Emma and King Arthur to get what they want. Her presence, despite a charming performance from Amy Manson, was forgettable.
Once Upon A Time Season 5 also brought back some fan-favorite characters; Ruby and Mulan. However, their roles during the season were incredibly brief.
Mulan coming back and having great chemistry with Merida, not to mention a bond with Ruby, only to end up as alone and miserable as she was when we last saw her on Once Upon A Time Season 3 was very unsatisfying.
It was also never explained why she left The Merry Men.
As for Ruby, at least her absence since Once Upon A Time Season 3 was explained. Fans were also thrilled to finally get a cannon LGBTQ ship with a true love’s kiss. Ruby fell in love with Dorothy from The Wizard Of Oz.
However, this relationship was very difficult to invest in because it was incredibly rushed. Dorothy had been forgettably introduced briefly on Once Upon A Time Season 3 during their Oz arc.
This older version of her was also forgettable and not so easy to warm to. Ruby and Dorothy’s romance arc would have been better served if it had been spread throughout the season.
Once Upon A Time Season 7 proves that the show could give us a season-long LGBTQ ship to really root for, i.e., Alice and Robin. We deserved it sooner, though. Ruby deserved it. She deserved a lot better, and so did Mulan.
Let’s not forget, this is a plot that takes place in the land of the dead. Many characters could have been brought back. Graham comes to mind, but we never saw him. He wasn’t even mentioned. Nobody looked for him.
With all the build-up for Merlin and Nimue on the first half of the season, you’d think we would have seen one of them, but nope.
Both David and Snow have lost their parents, but we didn’t see Queen Eva, Ruth, King Leopold, or Robert.
Ruth was a fan-favorite, and in the cases of the other parents, Snow and David could have used some closure (and a heftier storyline)
We’ve already discussed how Ruby was in The Underworld for a bit. Maybe if she’d had more time there, she could have gotten some closure with Peter, Billy, or her mom.
Eating her boyfriend really ate Ruby up and affected her future relationships. Imagine if they could talk about it. And who didn’t love Billy? There would have been so much for Ruby to explore in The Underworld.
Belle could also have used some closure with her mother. I’m on board with anything that helps her be more utilized, and being an expectant mother herself might have made it the perfect moment.
And after everything he just went through with Zelena, maybe Robin would like to talk to the actual Marian instead of a fake one.
We did see Neal for five minutes when he told Emma he’d moved on to a better place because he had no unfinished business. This is a load of crap when one considers how he died and never saw his son again.
Couldn’t he have seen Henry or Rumple? Would it have been so bad for him to be a part of the story instead of just a cameo?
We also see Prince James, David’s twin brother, who apparently resents him for being the twin their mother kept or because he got all the glory or something (frankly, it was a bit confusing).
This could have been a great chance to round out the James character and provide a bonding moment between brothers.
It could have been great material for the David character and could have brought in their father a season early, plus, again, Ruth. Family reunion!
Instead, James is a two-dimensional villain who we never sympathize with.
He gets thrown into The River of Lost Souls, a fate described as worse than death.
Another person who ends up in The River of Lost Souls is Milah.
She is Rumple’s ex and Killian’s ex, plus Baelfire’s mother.
Rumple pointing this out to Emma, and Milah’s reaction to it all was, hands down, the best part of Once Upon A Time Season 5.
Despite that moment, it was still incredibly disappointing that Milah and Killian didn’t get any screen time together, especially considering he went on a centuries-long revenge quest in her name.
Speaking of, Millian isn’t the only ship to suffer from Once Upon A Time Season 5.
All the ships sunk on Once Upon A Time Season 5. Rumbelle, CaptainSwan, and OutlawQueen were never the same again. Snowing was the same, which is the problem.
Rumple and Belle have never had the easiest time of it, but one thing that’s always been clear was that they loved each other. Even when Belle banished Rumple at the town line, she was more hurt and angry than out of love.
Rumple’s story has always been about redemption, as I’ve said ad nauseam. Belle has always been a part of that. Once Upon A Time Season 5 played the same song, but the tune rang less true.
Belle fought for Rumple when he was helpless, but even after he was a hero and she admitted she loved him, she decided she didn’t want to be with him. Then, he became The Dark One again.
She came back to him after learning he lied to her, and Rumple calls her on maybe being more attracted to the darkness than she’ll admit, but there’s little follow-up for this.
During the second half of Once Upon A Time Season 5, Rumple fully embraces the darkness, and Belle finds fault with everything he does.
Despite having a baby on the way, all they do is make their relationship even more and more broken.
Then Belle goes under a sleeping curse, which Rumple can’t wake her from because apparently, they aren’t true love anymore.
Okay, let’s talk about CaptainSwan.
CaptainSwan had some points in its favor in the earlier seasons of Once Upon A Time. Killian Jones was a charming and incredibly attractive bad boy type, and he and Emma had a bunch of chemistry.
(Of course, when you look like Colin O’Donoghue, you have chemistry with just about everyone!)
Killian and Emma were both orphans, and they bonded over that. They also flirted a bit, which gave their ship and the show some much-needed levity.
Their courtship was light and fun, with some real deep moments, like “you traded your ship for me?” and “Don’t you know, Emma? It’s you.”
However, on Once Upon A Time Season 5, they went from fun and flirty with a side of deep to epic and tragic and toxic.
Emma, a character who we know has walls up to her head, went from not being ready for a relationship to crossing moral lines to save Killian and then literally dragging her family to hell to save him.
I think I’ve made my feelings on resurrection plots clear, but to believe Emma, of all people, would go to these extremes for someone she’s only been dating a few months is a bit of a stretch.
Basically, they wanted to make CaptainSwan as epic as Snowing, even having Emma say, “I will always find you,” the Snowing motto, on her way to the Underworld.
CaptainSwan didn’t have the juice for that, and making them epic and tragic took away what was fun about them.
Someone pointed out that Once Upon A Time was at its best when focusing on familial relationships and that the couples worked best as subplots. This is true.
Once Upon A Time Season 5 stopped being a well-rounded show and just became the Hook and Emma show, and for whatever reason, the couple didn’t have what it takes to hold the show up.
While not a CaptainSwan shipper, I was willing to give them a chance, but after Once Upon A Time Season 5, I was fed up, and I wasn’t the only one.
Aside from taking away from every other aspect of the series and losing their fun side, many have described Hook’s behavior toward’s Emma as toxic.
Yes, he was The Dark One for some of it, but nobody accepts that excuse when we’re talking about Rumple and Belle, so why should we accept it with Killian? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
In the case of both Rumple and Emma, when they were the Dark One, their goals were usually to protect those they loved, even if it meant crossing lines to do so.
Killian told Emma he wanted to hurt her and that she was a pretty blonde distraction from his true goals of revenge.
He feels bad in The Underworld, and Emma absolves him without a second thought, something anti-Rumbellers have accused Belle of doing. Again, goose, gander.
Finally, the main ship that was screwed over on Once Upon A Time Season 5 was OutlawQueen. After seemingly overcoming every obstacle to their love, Robin was needlessly killed off on Once Upon A Time Season 5 Episode 21.
Even though he was killed trying to stop Hades, and his sacrifice actually led to Hades’ defeat, Zeus, like Killian, didn’t resurrect him. He stayed dead.
Not only that, but he died in the first place because Regina chose to trust Zelena, you know, the woman who raped him. Some have speculated that Robin was killed off to make Zelena’s redemption arc more palatable.
Regardless of the reason, neither Robin nor Regina deserved for it to end that way. How many boyfriends does Regina have to watch get murdered? Why couldn’t they be happy together?
Snowing are very happy together. They have a brief marital tiff on the first half of Once Upon A Time Season 5, but it’s quickly resolved. There is no conflict or real plot for Snowing.
As I said before, the show doesn’t do so well when they focus too much on romance because they don’t seem to know how to write it. Once Upon A Time Season 5 put a spotlight on that flaw, and we all suffered.
I hate to bring it up because it seems like such a minor thing, but the lighting and overall look of the show during The Underworld plot really bugged me.
It just wasn’t visually pleasing. It hurt my eyes and made me not want to watch. I get that they are in The Underworld, but was it essential to make it look like that? Did they need that red filter?
Also, I get that they wanted to use the same set from a production perspective, but it really made very little sense for The Underworld to look exactly like Storybrooke. Their explanation did not hold water (just like Zelena and Hades’s courtship).
I know it’s a bit nit-picky, but I’m figuring if it bugged me this much, it bugged others, and when you have this many things wrong with your show, you don’t want to add anything else, even if it’s just visual.
As had become their habit at that point, the show wrapped up Once Upon A Time Season 5 with a two-part finale that had little to do with the season and was meant to set up for the coming one.
This involved Henry taking a field trip to New York with Violet to get rid of magic. Now, I’m all for more Henry, and he and Violet were cute together. It was nice he got screen time. It’s more what they did with it.
Let’s forget that Henry randomly decides getting rid of magic will solve all his problems and then change his mind because that actually happened before on Once Upon A Time Season 2 Episode 17.
(They did it better then, but we know quality had declined since then, so points for doing something mildly in character?)
Let’s focus on how Henry gets magic back. He stands on a statue in the middle of Manhattan and asks people to believe in magic. Let me repeat, this 14-year-old returns magic to the world by getting New Yorkers to believe!
It took a year for Henry to get Emma to believe, not to mention proof and corroboration of his story. That was in Storybrooke, which was under a curse, and it was his mother. These are strangers in Manhattan!
For those of you who haven’t been to Manhattan (pre-pandemic), it’s full of crazy people putting on shows or shouting things out. It’s also full of cynics and people who rush past strangers every day, giving them a wide birth.
People are constantly asked to give money to homeless people, and sometimes they do, but often, they turn away, pretending not to see. And that’s just money. Henry is asking for genuine belief in magic.
(And money, because he wants them to make a wish in the fountain).
What New Yorker would stop in the middle of Manhattan, listen to this 14-year-old who is either crazy or looking for attention, and believe what he is saying?
He’s actually more likely to get a few people who take pity on him to cough up a coin than he is to get genuine belief in the middle of Manhattan! Mostly though, he’s going to be ignored.
I respect the suspension of belief in fiction, but that was just a bridge too far for me.
Well, there you have it:
Between lacking forethought and follow-through, ignoring their own rules, missing countless opportunities, screwing up redemption arcs and well-beloved ships, the visual aspect, and that scene at the end, Once Upon A Time Season 5 was the most unbearable season of the show.
I challenge anyone to find a show that screwed themselves and their fans so thoroughly in the course of one season.
Did you like Once Upon A Time Season 5? Did you think another season of the show was worse? What about a different show?
Let me know in the comments.
Leora W is a staff writer for TV Fanatic..