In the hourlong preview/recap special that preceded Once Upon a Time season 6, Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis made a big promise. After a surprisingly dark season 5, the show would try to get back to its hopeful roots and bring some happiness to the characters. It makes sense that the goal for season 6 is to be more optimistic, considering that during season 5, actor Sean Maguire described the season as the Once Upon a Time version of Empire Strikes Back. Empire Strikes Back is widely considered the most depressing Star Wars movie.
Sean Maguire to Return to Once Upon a Time in a “Surprising” Way >>> However, the season 6 premiere did not start things off on a good note. If anything, things got much worse for pretty much every character on Once Upon a Time. Emma learned that her death is “inevitable,” she continued to lie to her true love Hook and Rumple suffered yet another devastating break-up from Belle. Even one of the happiest developments of season 5, the rekindling of the sisterly bond between Zelena and Regina, suffered a huge and maybe irreparable blow. Once Upon a Time‘s unofficial tagline has pretty much been the season 1 Henry quote that “good always wins” but lately the show feels too dark for its own good.
Stuck in a Depressing Rut
It’s not as if Once Upon a Time should have never gotten a little bit dark. Stories only work if there is some conflict and in a fairy tale (like Once Upon a Time) the conflict comes in the battle of good vs. evil. For Once Upon a Time to work there has to be some darkness. It’s no coincidence that the best character on the show, Regina, has been struggling with her inner darkness since season 1. It would be boring if Once Upon a Time were a show where the heroes were never challenged and the happily ever after’s stayed eternally happy. In trying to spice up the classic fairy tale formula, Once Upon a Time has gone too far in the opposite direction.
Once Upon a Time‘s problems with tone, especially the season 6 premiere, are best exemplified by Emma. The problem with the latest twist, that Emma is facing her imminent death, isn’t so much that the show is teasing Emma’s death. (It does feel a bit weird after Emma went through so much personal tragedy in season 5 to plunge her back into it again but it’s at least an interesting idea.) The problem is how Emma is dealing with the news and it’s a disappointing reaction that suggests the character has learned nothing.
Emma is a difficult character to root for at times, which is what makes her a compelling unconventional hero. Yet Emma should still be growing. Emma frequently cuts herself off and makes emotional/reductive decisions. This is perfectly displayed in her response to learning that she is going to die. Rather than allow Hook to help her or tell Hook of her fate, Emma internalizes all of her pain and worry. Emma tells no one of her impending doom. It’s not just a dark story decision for a show that is supposed to be finding its way out of a depressing season, it makes Emma appear foolish. It reverses all of Emma’s growth and struggle to open up as it reverts her back to her season 1 roots.
Emma is the most egregious example but almost all the depressing plot points in the season 6 are variations on the same theme. Nearly all of the big moments — Zelena and Regina’s fight, Rumple and Belle’s break-up — have happened before on the show. Once Upon a Time just took time out of the season premiere to remind everyone that everything is still awful. The most hopeful moment of the premiere was Regina resolving to move on from Robin’s death, but that was still tinged with tragedy since Robin is dead.
Nowhere to Go But Up
Of course it is certainly possible that Kitis and Horowitz are still going to live up to their promise. Only one episode of season 6 has aired. The darkness of the season 6 premiere could be very much intentional. Even though there was very little recapping done in the premiere, the depressing new developments could exist to remind the audience of the overall dour attitude of season 5. Once Upon a Time might be starting things off on a bad note because that is where season 5 ended and a turnaround hasn’t been earned yet.
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For the first time in a long time on Once Upon a Time, the show will be changing up its structure. Rather than having two storylines in two half seasons, the show will tell one long narrative over the whole season. Once Upon a Time isn’t a sprint (in relative network TV terms) anymore, it’s a marathon. The show might feel the need to start things off with a bad beginning to build up to a much more optimistic ending.
To revisit Emma, I don’t think there is anyone who seriously thinks that Emma will die in season 6. There is obviously going to be some way that Emma avoids her fate and manages to survive. It will likely come from her banding together with her family and friends and opening back up. The premiere is a disappointing start to Emma’s story but a lot can change by the end of the season.
Even if we look at one of the “sadder” moments of the premiere, Belle and Rumple’s break-up, it is really only depressing for Rumple. While Once Upon a Time has firmly established that Rumple and Belle love one another, the show has also made it clear that it’s a highly unhealthy relationship. Rumple might love Belle but he doesn’t respect her or her wishes. It’s a dysfunctional relationship at the best and it’s abusive at the worst.
Belle has broken up with Rumple several times but there was a feeling of finality to the one that occurred in the season 6 premiere. It was presented from Rumple’s point of view as tragedy but Belle breaking up with her abusive husband should be viewed as a moment of triumph and optimism for her character. Hopefully most of the developments of season 6 will shake out in a similar way to Belle’s new venture as a single mother.
But what do you think? Was the premiere too dark? Is the show getting too depressing? Do you think there is still hope for things to turn around? Were you disappointed in Emma’s choices?
Once Upon a Time season 6 airs Sundays at 8/7c on ABC. Want more news? Like our Facebook page.
(Images courtesy of ABC)