This season of Once Upon A Time started so promisingly. Unfortunately, Straight On Til Morning captured not what the show had the potential to be, but what it has become: inconsistent, sloppy, and kind of confusing.
It's a shame that "consistent character arcs" have been thrown aside for flip-flopping redemption vs evil stories. It's a shame that Belle has become nothing, in personality or plot, without her beast. It all had so much potential. And it all pretty much fell apart.
I'm optimistic that the show will get back on track next season. There's a clear goal, a new big bad, and what will hopefully be a narrower focus... if they can keep "adventures in Neverland while Neal is in the Enchanted Forest" going for 22 episodes. But at least we seemingly have Aurora and Mulan back.
The big problem is that this season started so well, but faded into a big old mess of nothing. It feels like a lot happened, and it did! There were quality episodes and great character moments and big changes, but none of it added up to one big story arc, and the character arcs were inconsistent to say the least.
Regina is one such problem. Even last week, she was plotting to kill absolutely everyone so that she can be alone with Henry, but this week, she's willing to die so that Henry doesn't lose these exact same people? The entire season has been about her swinging between redemption and not-redemption, but in the end, it all counts for nothing. She has no consistency, and changed her stance entirely seemingly without any big moment of realization or discovery. Yes, it was exciting to see Regina and Emma working together to save Storybrooke, and once more the episode put its focus on unconventional family, as Henry's two moms work together to make sure that he doesn't lose anyone else after the death of his long-estranged dad. But it didn't feel worthwhile, because there was no sustained character growth leading up to it.
Of course, it's not just the female characters that suffer from this. Hook went from "sexy potentially interesting villain" to "completely undeveloped fail of a character" quite quickly, and only became more well-rounded and interesting again with the season finale. But the biggest problem, in this episode and in the season as a whole, was Belle.
Perhaps I'm extra sensitive to it because Belle is one of my favorite Disney characters, but it seemed like she had so much potential at the start of the season. Yet her plot was, in the end, completely pointless. She became sidelined to develop Mr Gold's own angst, and even that was poorly constructed. She loses her memories, through no fault of her own, because someone wants to punish Rumplestiltskin. She has a couple of episodes of confusion over who she is that looks like it might go somewhere, but it never does. She simply stays in the hospital. Then she's given fake memories and a fake personality, because someone wants to punish Rumplestiltskin. This new character does nothing, until her true memories and personality are returned to her in a deus ex machine that makes no sense except that Mr Gold really needed her.
Throughout all of it, she is completely passive. She does nothing. She is completely passive. And even this passivity is useless, because it doesn't lead to any change for anybody whatsoever. Even after her true personality returns, she isn't at all concerned that Gold had returned to his terrifying, vicious ways. It isn't even addressed. She just kisses him and everything is romantic and happy. So why did that plotline exist at all?
And now Belle is being sidelined again. All of the major characters are sailing off into Neverland, but she's left behind in Storybrooke. She wants to go, but she is told that she must stay and protect Storyrbrooke and wait patiently for them to return. It's possible that we'll see her, and Storybrooke, more next season. But as all of the major characters are now on Hook's ship, I can't imagine the show spending much time with her. And to be honest, it shouldn't spend much time in Storybrooke if the main players are elsewhere. The series currently suffers from a lack of focus. If it tries to have Neverland AND the Enchanted Forest AND Storybrooke AND flashback fairy tale retellings, it's all going to fall apart (even more than it already has).
All in all, it's really disappointing, considering how amazing Once Upon A Time has been about its female characters in the past. But... new season, new plotlines, return to respect for its characters? Fingers crossed.