For seven magical years, ABC’s Once Upon a Time gave Disney fans a fairytale equivalent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Snow White and Prince Charming lived up the road from Rumplestiltskin, Little Red Riding Hood worked at the local diner and Jiminy Cricket was the local shrink. Uniting all was Jennifer Morrison’s Emma Swan, the cynical Bostonite, whose life changed forever when the son she'd long since given away arrived on her doorstep. Only Emma could bring the residents of Storybrooke, Maine, their happily ever after.
Not that this was ever forthcoming. Series creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz threw just about everything they could think of into maintaining the show’s longevity, with storylines ranging from the tender and ingenious to the tepid and insidious. Each episode of every season in the show’s lengthy run brought twists and turns for its characters, with new arrivals frequently bringing new stories into the fold. It would be fair to say that some worked better than others.
As Once Upon a Time fans well remember, the show regularly juggled a handful of variably successful storylines. So many, indeed, that it occasionally felt more like the showrunners were just attempting to keep new seasons running than following logical or necessary arcs. Not all were so trivial, though. Sometimes, new storylines were the show’s saving grace and reminded fans why they loved it in the first place.
Without further ado, here are our picks of the 10 Storylines That Hurt The Show (And 10 That Saved It).
20 SAVED – Anna and Elsa
By the end of its third season, there was a feeling that Once Upon a Time had run its course. Ratings were down and even hard-core fans had begun to suspect that Kitsis and Horowitz were running low on fuel. What it needed was a spark, not to mention publicity to remind lapsed viewers that the old magic was still there. Both were supplied by the introduction of Anna and Elsa.
Back in 2014, Frozen was barely a year old and hype was strong. Bringing the Disney hit into the show helped it find a new lease of life. While they didn’t stick around long, Anna and Elsa reminded fans that OUAT was capable of delivering sparkle and a snowstorm of genuine emotional impact.
19 HURT – A Dark Twist on Peter Pan
A key factor that turned the third season of Once Upon a Time into a bit of a drag was its overlong relocation to J. M. Barrie’s Neverland. It hardly helped that past the second star to the right, the show discovered a Peter Pan whose villainy grew tired all too quickly. And that was even before his storyline descended into muddled hokum.
Seemingly able to survive just about anything, Pan’s story dragged on and on until it was revealed that he was Rumple’s father. Yep. With the writers totally dedicated to forcing the boy who never grew up into as many stories as possible, he became a lumpen weight on the show rather than saving grace.
18 SAVED – Snow White and Prince Charming
Snow White might have been the Disney film that launched an enchanted empire but it would be fair to say that Walt’s title character has come under a little feminist fire in recent years. Not only does Snow White fall deeply in love with the first man she’s ever seen after just one glance but later she will be saved by a non-consensual kiss from him, having been struck incapable of looking after herself.
In Once Upon a Time, Snow was never so feeble. As flashbacks throughout the first season showed, this princess could fight for herself. The storyline that brought her happiness with Charming was all the more rewarding because of it.
17 HURT – Gideon
Ironically, the first time Once Upon a Time viewers met Gideon - the future (long story) son of Rumple and Belle - was in the season six premiere: an episode called ‘The Saviour’. However, he was anything but that.
Whiny, dull and a rebel without a cause, Gideon was nobody’s favorite character. Of course, this was largely down to the storyline he brought rumbling along with him. Having been born at magical double speed, Gideon was stolen and raised by the Black Fairy to become an impudent pain in the posterior. Why? So he could repeatedly fail to eliminate Emma and turn out to be one of the most boring plot twists in the show’s entire run.
16 SAVED – Regina and Robin
The tragic tale of love and loss that was the coming together of an Evil Queen and dashing outlaw gave Once Upon a Time a heart wrenching emotional backbone while it lasted. Robin came to epitomize Regina’s wish for a happily ever after and their relationship became central to the show’s increasing concern with morality.
While the couple seemed to face a nearly endless stream of ups and downs, what really hit was the storyline that offered Regina a second chance and taught Robin that people can change. Theirs was a relationship viewers wanted to succeed. It was messy but that made it all the more real.
15 HURT – The Real Maid Marian?
There was one obstacle thrown into the love story of Robin and Regina that actually damaged the show. This concerned the ill-fated Maid Marian, the former's legendary love interest who, in Once Upon a Time, was taken out by Zelena for the sake of a disturbing new direction.
The arrival of Marian in Storybrooke threw a romantic curveball into the final act of the show’s third season but seemed to have served its purpose when it transpired that Marian was no longer Robin’s true love. The problem was, this wasn’t actually Marian and Robin would still wind up abandoning Regina to look after her. The final nail in the coffin came when Zelena - disguised as Marian - tricked Robin into getting her pregnant.
14 SAVED – The Miller’s Daughter
Once Upon a Time questioned the very concept of evil in fairy tales when it spun the backstory Regina’s dastardly mother to the fray. In a neat twist on the story of 'Rumpelstiltskin', writer Jane Espenson delved into Cora’s past as a lowly miller’s daughter. Sneered at by King Xavier, Cora boasts that she can turn straw to gold and, with the help of Rumple, does.
The real beat of this story, however, was the revelation that Cora’s heartlessness was not without reason – she kept it locked away in a box. That Regina’s will to give her mother the opportunity to love again resulted in Cora’s passing helped prove that the show was capable of much more than flimsy fan serving.
13 HURT – Dark Swan
This storyline had all the potential but nothing to offer when it came to the delivery. Had the revelation that Emma was on the cusp of a Natalie Portman-esque descent into darkness for the show’s fifth season not been so heavily promoted in the run-up to its delivery then it might not have felt quite so disappointing.
As the storyline played out, there was never anything particularly interesting about the dark twist. Sure, Emma bought a new wardrobe and (briefly) robbed Merida of her heart but who didn't in this show? Ultimately, the lack of long-lasting repercussions meant that this swan was just treading water until her inevitable return to the light.
12 SAVED – Rumple and Belle
Before his arc became little more than a back and forth boomerang between good and evil, Rumplestiltskin was a show highlight. When it turned out that he would be the Beast to Belle’s Beauty, fans were in heaven.
In what was perhaps the closest Once Upon a Time ever came to directly retell a popular fairytale, hearts were melted as Belle taught Rumple how to love again, whilst seeing a different side to the character who would later be revealed to be Captain Hook’s crocodile too. If the Belle and Rumple storyline got too messy for its own good further down the line, initially it was pure magic and a smart demonstration of what the show could be at full power.
11 HURT – Grumpy Originally Had a Different Name
Back when it first launched, Once Upon a Time seemed to spend more of its runtime in flashbacks than in the present-day action. While this allowed for the odd sweet yarn and some juicy background for the leads, there were times in which the constant diverges were little more than frustrating distractions.
The worst of these was the season one episode devoted to Grumpy. As his backstory revealed, the seventh of Snow White’s dwarves were originally called Dreamy but earned a new name after having his heart broken by the Blue Fairy. Many problems plagued this storyline but the inclusion of a rule to explain why there are no female dwarves was a low point.
10 SAVED – Mulan’s Happily Ever After
If we’re honest, this storyline is more of a 'should have saved' than 'did save'. Although, when she was first introduced, it appeared that Mulan had feelings for Prince Philip – whose himself loved Aurora – season three finally rewarded viewers with the news that this was no more than misdirection. Mulan’s heart yearned not for the Prince but for his Princess.
Given that the Disney canon is overloaded with a history of straight white couples, a gay storyline was much needed. While Mulan never revealed her love to Aurora, the character finally got her happily ever after with a true love’s kiss from Ruby. It was a little too little, too late but there’s plenty of fan fiction out there.
9 HURT – Greg and Tamara
Few characters strike woe into the hearts of Once Upon a Time fans as the memory of Greg and Tamara do. The former first arrived in Storybrooke as a child, in the midst of the First Curse, with his father and wound up fleeing the town alone, scarred forever thanks to the maleficence of Regina. So far so fine, if ultimately tragic.
Things took a turn for the worst, however, when Greg returned as an adult, with one-note fellow magic-hater Tamara following. Their story lacked humor and felt totally out of sync with the magic-loving show. Worst of all, a final twist revealed that the pair had been working for Peter Pan all along. Yep, him again.
8 SAVED – Zelena’s Origin Story
Whichever way you rate Once Upon a Time in terms of quality, even the most critical must surely admire the show’s capacity to repeatedly save itself via the introduction of vibrant new characters. Zelena - aka: The Wicked Witch of the West - was both of these when she arrived on the scene. To boot, her smartly conceived origins story helped pull the series from a bit of a rut.
With the revelation that Zelena was the abandoned first daughter of a power-hungry Cora came a sad but ultimately wicked storyline strong enough to prevent Zelena from ever feeling like a gimmick. It was a circumstance that turned her into a villain and envy that made her skin green.
7 HURT – A Camelot ‘Love’ Triangle
The decision to land Once Upon a Time in Camelot, the mythical home of King Arthur and his knights of the round table, never felt like a particularly organic move but it was the love triangle the show found there that really soured the story.
As Arthurian legend has it, Sir Lancelot did have an affair with Queen Guinevere whilst she was still married to the King. As OUAT had it, Arthur’s concern that he was on the verge of losing his wife led him to magically enchant her into staying with him. Against her will. Were the storyline not creepy enough, Arthur actually gets away with it. Poor Guinevere is never set free.
6 SAVED – Cruella De Vil is True to Her Name
Cruella De Vil joined Once Upon a Time with a flurry of fan-favorite villains - including The Little Mermaid’s Ursula - but flew quickly to the top of the pack. Aside from the sheer fabulousness of the extravagant character’s personality, the storyline that really set Cruella apart was the curse that had left her unable to eliminate another person.
The more Cruella’s past came to light, the more she gained in tragic resonance. But then came the twist. Unlike many of the show’s villains, Cruella wasn’t driven to the dark side from a kinder place, to which she could return. Here was an all-out baddie with no regrets. For seasons in, the show needed one.
5 HURT – The Wish Realm
Once Upon a Time’s so-called ‘Wish Realm’ episodes essentially embodied all that had gone wrong with the show by the time it reached season six. Across hours of nonsense, Kitsis and Horowitz indulged themselves in a lame world of fanfiction - one in which almost every character was given a ‘hilarious’ alter-ego, simply because Emma had wished she were never the savior.
Were it not enough that this alternate reality lumped viewers with crass twists on their favorite characters, the 'Wish Realm' episodes opened gaping plot holes when their collateral seeped into the main action. Nothing worked in this storyline and the show never really recovered.
4 SAVED – The Curse is Broken at the End of Season One
In another (another) version of Once Upon a Time, it would have been easy for Regina’s initial curse – the one that created Storybrooke in the first place – to have been dragged across many seasons. It was a brave move, then, that saw the show bring the conceit to a close after just one. It could even be argued that this was a decision that helped the show run as long as it did.
Breaking the curse allowed Kitsis and Horowitz to blow open their original premise, gifting their first run a corker of a cliff hanger in the process. And yet, it was more than that, breaking the curse beckoned more complex storytelling, new realms, and fresh ideas.
3 HURT – It’s All Written by 'The Author'
Whilst there was never any doubt that Once Upon a Time was the product of a group of writers’ imaginations, bringing a contextual ‘Author’ character into the show was a big mistake in season four. This was a figure who rolled onto the scene and wiped away any sense that the major players of the show had free will in deciding their fates.
Henry’s storybook had been around in the show since the very first episode but never deserved to come to the fore. All that was added here was convolution and lazy retconning. It didn’t help that Isaac’s version of the Author was a really annoying character.
2 SAVED - Regina’s Redemption
The Regina of season one was a stone cold, child-abusing monster. She was the show’s Evil Queen through and through and was only saved from caricature by the strength of Lana Parrilla’s empowered performance. As it gradually transpired, Regina was capable of much more than arch villainy and had even come to love.
The storyline that brought Regina redemption was a slow burner across the show’s run but proved to be a defining touch. Even when Once Upon a Time lost its way, Regina’s story offered a sense of purpose and reminded fans why they were so invested. If Kitsis and Horowitz got one thing right in creating the show, it was there understanding of the value of character development and subverted expectations.
1 HURT - The Reboot
Justifying the Once Upon a Time reboot’s existence is no mean feat. Sure, there were neat stories and fun characters in there but these never stopped the whole seventh season feeling like an unnecessary epilogue to a perfectly okay ending. Introducing an aged Henry as the show’s new memory wiped protagonist was just one of the faults that ensued.
While many a storyline from the reboot year could feature on this list, it would be remiss not to name the whole thing a misstep hinged on reused ideas and shallow developments. It just didn’t feel like OUAT anymore and, to no one’s surprise, didn’t merely hurt the show but actively wrote it off.
What storylines do you love and hate from Once Upon a Time? Let us know in the comments!