May 11, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “Once Upon A Time”


Season 4 of ONCE UPON A TIME was a rather misshapen one.  The Fall cycle was a tie-in to Disney’s blockbuster Frozen (creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz swore it was their idea and not a corporate mandate), and although it didn’t bring out the best in the series, it delivered in the ratings.  The series also decided to bring in Michael Socha from the departed Once Upon A Time In Wonderland as a series regular and never figured out what to do with him.  (By the end of the season, he’d more or less disappeared.)

The Winter cycle lacked Frozen‘s billion-dollar boost, and ratings have sagged, although not enough to put the show in any trouble.  Creatively, the cycle started out with too many campy villainesses, who just to make things even broader, mostly interacted with Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle), all of which made the show seem like even more of a costume party than usual.  It wasn’t until Ursula from The Little Mermaid (Merrin Dungay) and Cruella de Vil (Victoria Smurfit) were jettisoned, leaving just Maleficent (Kristin Bauer von Straten) of the trio, and the actress toned down some of her own mannerisms, that the cycle resolved into a satisfying story about Maleficent and her daughter, who turned out to be Lily (Agnes Bruckner), the troublemaking friend of our heroine Emma (Jennifer Morrison) from her days in group homes, as well as the damage Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) had done when they sacrificed Lily as a baby to save Emma.

As they did last season, Kitsis and Horowitz finished off the main storyline in the season’s penultimate episode, reuniting and reconciling dragon mother and daughter, and wrote a nearly self-contained 2-hour season finale (Hour 1 directed by Romeo Tirone, Hour 2 by Ralph Hemecker) that ran with the season’s B story runner.  This concerned The Author (Patrick Fischler, a valuable character player in everything from Lost to Mad Men), who–it was never exactly clear–was part-scribe, part-creator of the fairy tale universe, with the power to control and change some aspects but not others.  The cast had been on The Author’s trail all season, with both Rumpel and Regina (Lana Parilla) seeking to give themselves happy endings that Storybrooke didn’t provide.

Most of the finale took place in an alternate universe created by The Author for his own selfish reasons, where he was a bestselling novelist, villains got their happy endings and heroes were miserable and powerless.  The plotting put Henry (Jared S. Gilmore) front and center, as once again the only one around who knew that everyone was existing in a story, and that was a bit problematic, because Gilmore isn’t the most expressive member of the cast.  However, once he started exploring the bizarro world, it played as something like a body switch story, and it was fun to see Snow White as a tyrannical queen (even if Goodwin seemed on the verge of giggling whenever she was supposed to be most evil), and especially Parilla, having a great time occupying Snow’s old position as the queen’s exasperating bandit foe, and Colin O’Donoghue’s Hook as an insecure deckhand instead of a swaggering pirate.  It was probably a mistake for Kitsis and Horowitz to cram both a dragon attack and an ogre into the piece, not to mention some floating black flotsam of Evil, as they overloaded the show’s CG department, with results that looked even cheesier than Once‘s effects usually do, and the final plot turn of Henry becoming the new Author seemed like too big and meta an idea for the show itself, which immediately retreated from it.  (Henry broke his magic quill.)  Still, it was a fast-paced and nicely performed mini-movie.

The last stretch of the season, as Once customarily does, set up the next Big Bad.  This one, though, may be a little different:  instead of a famous figure from literature or pop culture, Emma herself absorbed all the evil that had previously turned Rumpel (whose black heart is apparently now pure again) into The Dark One, and Merlin himself will be required to set her free from the darkness.  Kitsis and Horowitz, as Authors themselves, aren’t flawless storytellers, but their imagination is unflagging, and even a subpar Once Upon A Time has higher flights of fancy than most of its TV counterparts.  There are plenty more tales for it to tell.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."