And one of the reasons for that, I think, is the development of Regina Mills. Although I'm rolling my eyes over the repeat of Willow Rosenberg's "magic is like an addiction" storyline, I love that the show is giving Regina both depth and struggle.
Because Evil Queens have feelings too.
After rewatching Snow White last week, I've come to fully appreciate just how shallow the female villains in Disney (and in fairy tales in general) really are. They hate the younger woman because they consider them more beautiful, or because they are afraid of their own ageing and mortality. They have no relationships with others, no background, and no chance for redemption. They just exist as "witches," one-note evil obstacles for the good and pure.
Even in much of the first season of Once Upon a Time, this remained true. While Snow White got more depth and strength of character, Regina continued to display endless "evil queen" qualities, including framing Snow White's alter-ego for murder, locking up Belle to get revenge on Rumplestiltskin, having a rivalry with the fan-favorite villain, and (according to Emma's lie detector power) not loving her adopted son. Even when "all was revealed" about why she hates Snow White and turned evil, it all felt a little flimsy: her mother murdered her fiance, and she blames Snow White instead? That's not something that's going to get me to forgive or understanding the way she destroyed an entire world to punish her.
But since last year's season finale, the show seems to be going the extra mile to give Regina character depth, and even make her deeply sympathetic. In fairy tale land, we are seeing her slow descent into evil, as she struggles to gain power so that she is not helpless again, but struggles against the possibility of becoming like her mother. In Storybrook, meanwhile, we're seeing her struggle to escape out of evil. She truly loves her son, and will do anything -- even fight to give up magic -- to win back his trust. And she is still emotionally scarred by the loss of her fiance, which in turn led to the loss of the life she actually wanted to live.
A woman who wields power because she wants to, and because she is jealous of the youth and beauty of the young, is not such a compelling story. A woman who wields power because she was made to feel powerless when younger, and as protection from the past she cannot leave behind, is far more interesting. I only hope it continues.