EDITOR'S NOTE: So, Once Upon A Time has not, in fact, finished its first half yet, I jumped the gun a bit on that one - there's still one more episode to go. This happened around this time last year too (not with OUAT, with something else), and will probably happen again next year.
So, with that in mind, while I'm leaving this review up and intact, it's worth taking it with a pinch of salt.
Once Upon A Time
Series 5 (First Half).
I rolled my eyes a bit when this series was starting, because the whole thing about the Darkness, a force sealed in a person-vessel, was so tired and cliche that another series had literally come up with the exact same plot twist at the exact same time. But despite having said that, I did have a little bit of excitement going into this series: Previews showed Emma as a new Dark One, fully evil and acting as an antagonist, and if the show was willing to sustain that over an entire half of the series, I suspected that would lead to some interesting things.
Picking up several months after Emma became the new Dark One, Once Upon A Time's fifth series sees Regina, Hook, Robin, Henry, the Charmings, and Zelena travelling to Camelot in pursuit of her. All does not go well, however, as shortly after entering Camelot they wake up in Storybrooke, months later, with none of their memories of what happened and Emma as a fully realised Dark One with a dangerous plan and a grudge against all of them. Worse still, all of Camelot's people have been transported to Storybrooke, and King Arthur has his own sinister plans for Emma.
I'll say this now: This is the best that Once Upon A Time has been for years - definitely since the end of the second series, and quite possibly since the end of the first.
|'Dark' in this instance often translates to 'white hair with a lot of black leather,|
but worn very tastefully and stylishly.'
That doesn't mean it's even close to flawless, and there are some of the hallmark problems of the third and fourth series: Every appearance that Merida (she's not even a fairytale character, guys) makes is cringeworthy in how cosplay-ish it is, calling to mind that equally cringeworthy and embarrassing Frozen arc of the fourth series. Every time you think she's gone, she comes back, too, getting several focus episodes all to herself - which is odd, because those focus episodes are almost invariably unwelcome breaks from a much more interesting plot.
The most egregious example of this is when, shortly after several big plot twists leading towards the midseason finale, the show abruptly decides to instead have a side story about Merida and Mulan (who's also not a fairytale character, guys).
It's also plagued by some of the issues that have afflicted the show throughout its entire run: Plots that hinge on macguffins and spells that have never been referenced before, making magic essentially seem like a catch-all to do pretty much anything with pretty much anything; a very liberal interpretation as to what constitutes a fairytale (Merida, Mulan, Hook, anyone from the King Arthur stories, and anyone from the Robin Hood stories are not fairytale characters); moderate amounts of melodrama; and so on.
|Merlin is a little long-suffering.|
In spite of those things, this was still a genuinely enjoyable series to watch. Making Emma the antagonist was a great move for the show, and the showrunners actually did follow through and have her be the antagonist for the entire first half of the series, making Regina and Hook the protagonists and only starting to move Emma back into a protagonist role in the finale. They do mitigate that by having her still be good in the many flashback sections that slowly fill in the mystery of what happened at Camelot, but she's very much sharing that role with Regina.
The new dynamic is a breath of fresh air, giving the show new life, and it uses that to its utmost potential, giving the audience a mystery that unfolds slowly over the course of ten episodes, while also giving us some fairly strong episodic plots (mostly of the 'Emma throws something evil at Storybrooke' variety), and some actually quite solid character arcs.
I'm thinking mostly about Rumpelstiltskin here, who despite being out of commission for the first couple of episodes, gets a good character arc about taking the last few steps towards becoming a heroic character and staying that way. It feels, for what may be the first time in several series' worth of the show, like real and lasting character development.
|Oh, right, and the Zelena-Robin pregnancy thing is still a thing, that's - a thing.|
After spending quite some time building up the importance of Merlin's character, the show actually does quite well when he's introduced, too. Gratifyingly, they've resisted the urge to make him American, instead casting Elliot Knight, a London actor who lends Merlin a quiet, wry gravitas. Knight does an excellent job, and while I could have guessed that Merlin wouldn't be around for long, it was still a shame to see him go as quickly as he did.
Other Camelotian characters are not quite as well-cast - Guinevere is fine, and Lancelot would be fine were he not played by an American (stop casting Americans, guys - in anything, but especially not for British characters), but King Arthur, played by Liam Garrigan, comes off less as a king and more as a slightly irate human resources manager at an IT company.
|Long suffering sigh.|
Still, this was a good half-a-series, and I actually am excited for the second half, which promises us a whole horde of Dark Ones. I do think, however, that this is the end of the line for Once Upon A Time: The Dark One, usually in the form of Rumpelstiltskin, has been the threat looming over the show since the first episode, its main villain - with this being a series entirely focused on the Dark Ones, and Rumpelstiltskin having completed his character development, it would feel like a cop-out if the show didn't end after the Dark Ones had been defeated.
(This applies doubly when you consider that, actually, Regina's character arc doesn't have anywhere left to go either, and Emma's and Hook's arcs feel like they're due to draw to a close soon as well.)
But, you know, it ending in ten to twelve episodes time wouldn't be a bad thing. It would ensure, at least, that the show is going out on a bang, rather than the measly whimper that Supernatural will inevitably go out with when it finally limps to its inevitable conclusion ten years from now.