Disney’s ‘Once Upon a Time’: Why Season 4 Failed

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

“Once Upon a Time” on Disney+ does a good job of reimagining Disney characters and other stories. The complicated and surprising relationships are part of the fun. The writers have a truly difficult task of creating new back stories for beloved and iconic characters. These stories need to remain true enough to the characters that fans won’t be turned off by them while also being new enough to maintain viewers interests. The writers did a great job for the first three seasons. Season four, however, failed in at least two of its major storylines.

[Spoiler Alert] This article contains spoilers for the TV Show “Once Upon a Time” through season four. If you’re planning to watch “Once Upon a Time,” do not read any further. The magic waits for you to experience on your own without undo influence. Simply bookmark this page and come back to it when you’ve finished season four. Otherwise, the article continues after the trailer.

Three New-ish Villains

Akin to a superhero team-up, “Once Upon a Time” brought together three of Disney’s greatest villains to team up with Rumpelstiltskin. Or at least, that’s what it seemed to have done in the episode where they were introduced. Ursula the sea witch, Cruella De Vil, and Maleficent came to Storybrooke with one thought on their minds — they wanted villains to get their happy endings. This team-up should have had the residents of Storybrooke and viewers shaking in their boots. Unfortunately, expectations were set too high for this trio of iconic villains, who on television couldn’t meet the bar for a variety of reasons.

Imposter Ursula

The first reason was because Ursula wasn’t Ursula. The first Ursula on the series was the sea goddess who had been missing for long enough that no one believes she’s real. After the Evil Queen impersonates Ursula, the sea goddess slaps her down and warns her not to do it again. The Ursula source material from “the Little Mermaid” movie is a villain who sees causes the sea to rage and steals the souls of the powerful; she bested King Triton. Alas, the viewer is duped into believing that this Ursula is one of the previous incarnations, and she isn’t. This Ursula is a daughter of Poseidon named for the sea goddess. She’s not even evil, really. She’s just upset that her father doesn’t understand her, and he took the only thing she had of her mother — her voice. In the end, she’s the first to leave the team as she reunites with her father, and they go back to the sea. This wouldn’t have been bad, except the audience doesn’t find put that she’s not Ursula until a couple of episodes into the team-up.

Cruella De Vil

“Cruella De Vil, Cruella De Vil\ If she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will.\ To see her is to take a sudden chill.” Cruella wants to kill puppies. Who wants to kill puppies? Only someone truly evil, and this the writers got right. Cruella De Vil in “Once Upon a Time” is true to her character, and she has some magic to go along with it. Unfortunately, she is sacrificed in an attempt to turn the savior dark. This wouldn’t have been so bad, but there wasn’t enough tension built up to it. Cruella deviously takes out Maleficent; she should at least be a match for the savior or have a plan that would work to trick the savior. Instead, she makes a false threat to kill Henry that the savior takes seriously. The savior blows Cruella off a cliff only to learn later that Cruella couldn’t have actually killed anyone. This act is supposed to turn the savior dark because heroes aren’t supposed to kill those who can’t defend themselves. The problem is that it’s hard to buy this “innocent’s” death as problematic. It is clear that Cruella was capable of killing someone at one point — her mom and three husbands — while also being able to skin dogs and wear them as fashion. The savior can’t really be faulted for believing that Cruella could and would have killed her child.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

Maleficent is an iconic villain, who is as elegant and beautiful as she is cruel, at least in the 1959 movie “Sleeping Beauty.” In 2014, Disney’s live-action “Maleficent” portrayed the Mistress of Evil as more of a misunderstood mother figure and it worked for the movie. “Once Upon a Time” casts her in this instance as a milque-toast Maleficent who is neither scary or commanding. Either of the film versions of the character would’ve been able to take on the savior; it would be a fair fight with Maleficent’s experience being the difference maker. The TV version couldn’t fight her way out of a wet paper bag.

The four villains together should have been able to wreak much greater havoc on the heroes and Storybrooke. Instead, they broke up without really making a dent, even after Maleficent put the whole town asleep. The fell apart and fell flat.

The Author

The expectations set for the villains weren’t the only ones the writers failed to meet. The Author’s story is possibly one of the greatest missed opportunities in television storytelling. The Author is set up as the man who can give villains their happy endings. Instead, he turns the villains into heroes, and the heroes (who were villains in previous stories) still get their happy endings following the rules of the book.

How much more delicious would it have been to see the villains, in their villain forms with their villain personalities, get their happy endings? That was what was promised under the premise: Villains are going to get their happy endings. Rumpelstiltskin as the light one doesn’t cut it as a storyline and doesn’t give the villain a happy ending.

Maybe the problem was that the villains’ happy endings all involved the heroes dying. That would have made it really difficult for Henry to fix. However, the writers could’ve overcome that problem by having the villains locked in dungeons, facing executions that were thwarted, or even the realization that destroying the heroes was beneath their dignity and position of power.

A Footnote to Disappointment

When Henry snaps the pen in half claiming no one should have that much power, what he’s really implying is that no one should have the power to reveal the truth and that there are no new stories to tell. The audience is told time and again that the author is supposed to record these stories because they contain truth. The power in revealing the truth is a tremendous responsibility for every writer, and there are a lot of stories left to write. Henry’s action was expedient and ended the immediate storyline. It was probably also a good idea not to give a pre-teen the ability to dictate reality. However, it was just shy of honest in revealing the greater truths of fiction.

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Earned a Master’s in Creativity and Innovation from Malta U., author of “Disneyland Is Creativity” and other books, other works available at www.penguinate.com.

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Shad Engkilterra

Shad Engkilterra

Earned a Master’s in Creativity and Innovation from Malta U., author of “Disneyland Is Creativity” and other books, other works available at www.penguinate.com.

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