Once Upon a Time was a magical, heartfelt and engaging drama series that aired on ABC from 2011 to 2018, and its impact on myself and countless others is immeasurable. It brought together groups of people who became friends, it inspired artists and writers alike, and it gave audiences a weekly dose of fun new twists on classic fairy tale characters and stories, many inspired by Disney films, as well as lovely affirmations about hope, family and true love. Sometimes corny, never perfect, but always well intended, this series was and will always be incredibly special to me for so many reasons. Over time I learned to just embrace it all and focus on all the positives that this series provided. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Pilot episode, which feels very surreal. Watching this series from the very first night I still remember the feeling I got from the moment I heard the first notes of Mark Isham’s gorgeous score and saw Prince Charming riding his regal steed in search of the fair Snow White. I was instantly captivated. Looking back on the 7 seasons and 156 episodes, there were some highs and lows, but when it comes to any series we hold dear to our hearts, remembering the very best is what brings a smile to our faces. Let’s look back at the 20 greatest episodes of Once Upon a Time.
20. The Crocodile (Season 2, Episode 4)
The first appearance of Killian Jones and the origin story of Captain Hook also reveals another side to the character of Rumplestilskin. Not only is he the Beast to Belle, he is the Crocodile to Hook. In a dark and complicated story, Hook runs away with Rumplestlskin’s wife Milah, and when he becomes the Dark One seeks revenge and a magic bean, as he kills Milah in anger for abandoning him and their son Baelfire and cuts off Hooks hand, who vows to find a way to kills the demon who murdered his love. And thus a great rivalry is formed between two dynamic characters. Meanwhile in the present day Mr. Gold is dealing with his newfound relationship with Belle in Storybrooke who wants him to find courage and learn to trust her as the pair find themselves a in new form of their relationship that is precarious but hopeful.
19. Tallahassee (Season 2, Episode 6)
In the first true backstory for Emma Swan, we see how her past misadventures and life of crime with her partner and father to Henry, Neal Cassidy, contrasts with her present day adventure with Captain Hook climbing up a beanstalk to steal a magical compass from a giant. A past love and possible future love, we learn more about what makes these characters tick, their motivations, and their trust issues all in one engaging and poignant story. “Tallahassee” represented what could have been Emma, and is the reason she has closed herself off to love. Combine that with Snow and Aurora bonding over the painful dreams that come from being under a sleeping curse, something the end of the episode reveals is plaguing Henry as well, we are treated to one amazing episode.
18. Smash the Mirror (Season 4, Episodes 8 and 9)
One of the most important moments of development for main character Emma came in this two part episode from the “Frozen” arc of season 4, which also showcased the seamless blending and beauty of the Frozen story into the Once Upon a Time narrative most especially with the character of Elsa. Meanwhile, Killian’s deal with Rumplestilskin turns dark as his heart is taken, Henry learns that being special comes from his truest believer heart, and we see the bonding of Snow and Regina which leads to a lovely moment of hope between Regina and Robin as a storybook page of another possibility magically appears to them. Most importantly however was the story of Emma’s, so fearful that she cannot control her magic and may hurt the ones she loves that she’s willing to sacrifice it. But in a moment of self acceptance and love, much like her good friend Elsa, Emma gains control of her magic, showcasing the importance of facing your fears and accepting yourself just as you are. It’s a beautiful message in a wonderful episode.
17. Swan Song (Season 5, Episode 11)
Dark, emotional and devastating, this mid season finale of season five brought the Dark Swan arc to its conclusion, leading right into a new story that takes our characters to the Underworld. With the strength of all the Dark Ones wreaking havoc on Storybrooke, we see the true strength of Killian and Emma, and the true darkness of Rumplestilskin. Killian fights back against the darkness he let consume him, willing to sacrifice himself to save Emma and his friends, with Emma being the only one strong enough to do the devastating thing and stab him with Excalibur. Meanwhile, the sacrifice was all for naught as the darkness the couple believe they were destroying forever was merely channeled back into power addicted Rumplestilskin who becomes the Dark One once more. Killian and Emma’s swan song as the Dark Ones was utterly heartbreaking but the episode’s final moments were beautiful in its declaration of steadfast hope as Emma proclaims her family’s motto “I will always find you” to her love Killian.
16. Hat Trick (Season 1, Episode 17)
The character of the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland has never been quite so dynamic and charismatic as Jefferson, who is equal parts mad and twisted, tender and loving. In his backstory we see he is a loving but struggling single father, who is tricked into using her portal jumping magical hat one last time by Regina, trapping him in Wonderland and separating him from his daughter Grace. While in present day Storybrooke, it’s revealed that he not only is awake and aware of the curse but driven so mad that he kidnaps both Mary Margaret and Emma desperate to get his hat to work again. Darker and different than many other episodes, there are aspects that a bit horror-esque in style, making it not only one of the most unique episodes but also one of the most chilling. And yet the moments of clarity and warmth give us that Once Upon a Time charm we love with the everlasting theme of family and faith seen in the moments between Emma and Mary Margaret and Jefferson and Grace.
15. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Season 1, Episode 7)
Part of the mystery and suspense of the earliest episodes of Season 1 was who the residents of Storybrooke were back in the Enchanted Forest, and with the presence of Emma the question of will the curse finally weaken and their true personas begin to shine through. In this episode it’s revealed that Sheriff Graham is none other than The Huntsman, a brutal and yet sensitive man who is hired by the Evil Queen to kill Snow White, but is so touched by her compassion that he lets her go free, an act that leads to his heart being taken by Regina, making him at the mercy of her control. In the present day, Graham enlists the help of Emma as he is slowly discovering his truth. And as the two grow close and a kiss awakens him from the curse, it’s a brief flicker of hope of the possibility of love for Emma, but sadly the final moments for Graham as Regina crushes his heart. Intense and sorrowful with eerie atmosphere and unexpected moments, this episode showcased the strength of Emma and the threat of Regina with both the awakening and the loss of a main character.
14. Good Form (Season 3, Episode 5)
The character of Captain Hook has never been so captivating and in this Season 3 episode we finally are treated to the origin of how this dashing rapscallion went from a naive and earnest sailor Killian Jones in the King’s Royal Navy to the pirate captain of the Jolly Roger. From the wonderful, emotional flashbacks to Killian and his older brother Liam, to “Team Mom” working together to get a message to Henry, to the unlikely friendship formed between David and Killian, this episode was thoroughly engaging. And of course who could forget the passionate first kiss between the Savior and the dashing pirate that left both breathless! It was an intense moment filled with passion and promise, and one that propelled the narrative in an amazing way.
13. Lady of the Lake (Season 2, Episode 3)
A beautiful and poignant episode, one of season two’s finest episodes was about love in all its forms – romantic love, familial love, and all its joys and sorrows. There were so many moving moments that warmed our hearts and made us cry, from David bonding with Henry, determined to find their loved ones and partaking in a play sword fight that one cannot help but smile at, to Jefferson reuniting with his daughter Grace after finding the courage to find her, to David’s mother Ruth willingly letting Snow be cured rather than herself, sacrificing her life for her son’s happiness, and Snow and Emma finding what was to be her nursery and Emma breaking down confessing she’s not used to people putting her first. All of these heartfelt moments showcase the strength of that familial bond in truly touching ways. Seeing that Snow and David were married by Lancelot, the man who along with Ruth, is the reason Emma was able to be born was so sweet and moving. But most especially, it was that journey and discovering of that last drop of mystical healing water of Lake Nostos, a drop that made Emma’s existence possible, that was such a beautiful symbol of love and its ability to heal, to restore, and to give strength even when all hope seemed lost.
12. Skin Deep (Season 1, Episode 12)
The character of Rumplstiltskin is one of the most dynamic and complicated characters of the series, and in this episode they explore a new aspect to the impish Dark One- his romantic past. And this past is with none other than Belle, making him this show’s version of the Beast. With moments of sweetness, nuance and tragedy the exploration of this love story brings forth new depths to the already interesting character in a poignant way. Combined with modern day Valentine’s Day woes for Mary Margaret and David and happiness as Ashley and Sean (Cinderella and Prince Thomas) get engaged, this episode proves that love is only true when deep.
11. Sympathy for the DeVil (Season 4, Episode 19)
One of the most unique, decadent and simultaneously deliciously dark and glittering golden episodes of the series, Sympathy for the Devil definitely has the traditional Once Upon a Time format with a dynamic flashback that informs the present day threats. In this case we see why Cruella DeVil’s name is so apropos. She is a gin soaked, sultry villain, who refreshingly has no morally redeemable qualities. She is evil for evil’s sake, and in the flashbacks we are treated to a story of a 1920s neo noir world of champagne and jazz, with a manipulative villain who steals an author’s heart and his magical quill for her own evil and murderous desires. These flashback moments are absolutely brilliant in their uniqueness and drama, while the reveal that in the present that Cruella cannot harm anyone as Emma is slowly descending into to darkness will give you chills. This episode is fabulous, darling!
10. Fall (Season 4, Episode 10)
Fasted paced, emotive and engaging, “Fall” is brilliant in its ability to move and give each character their time to shine with moments of villainy and true love that left us crying and completely captivated. Sometimes it’s the build up to something that is more intriguing and such is the case as our heroes prepare for Ingrid’s spell of “Shattered Sight” which will turn them into their worst selves. And the love filled moments were nothing short of breathtaking. Regina and Robin sharing a lovely goodbye wanting to remember this moment as true, real, and filled with looks of love, Elsa and Anna’s strong sisterly bond with Elsa’s wish to find her sister being so pure it miraculously reunites them, Anna and Kristoff swearing their love, hands clasped believing they’re about to drown, Emma and Killian saying goodbye in a heart wrenching moment with Killian believing it to be for the last time, and finally Snow and David not only demonstrating unfailing faith in their love for each other, but also in Emma’s ability to always succeed. The episode flies by and the ending montage with the emotional musical score was the perfect example of how Once Upon a Time can be so beautiful aesthetically and dramatically. And the final shot of Snow and David as their expressions change from love to utter disdain was absolutely chilling!
9. New York City Serenade (Season 3, Episode 12)
In an episode that feels both like a fresh new start and a parallel to the Pilot, we are treated to a mix of mystery, exciting new characters and relationships, tender and poignant familial moments, a little humor, and the cusp of romance, as the episode shows both present day New York City with Killian trying to convince Emma that she must help save her family that is in danger, as well as flashbacks to the people of Storybrooke newly returned to their original home in the Enchanted Forest. There is just about everything in there to satisfy the audience as the show resets with another curse that’s brought everyone back to Storybrooke in the end, with no memory of the missing year, while Emma, who trusted her gut, and a devilishly handsome pirate and drinks a potion that restores hers, bringing her back in to action, ready to be the Savior once more, complete with red leather jacket. And just like the Pilot which had her familial True Love- her son Henry- bring her to the sleepy little town, this time it’s her eventual romantic True Love who does. And just like the title suggests, every little moment like the one just mentioned, and others like Snow and Regina bonding over letting go of their children, or Robin Hood aiding the queen, Killian, trying to humorously navigate the modern world, or the reveal of the Wicked Witch Zelena, it feels like a divine serenade.
8. A Land Without Magic (Season 1, Episode 22)
The season 1 finale of Once Upon a Time was a fantastic example of what the series did in spades. It gave us an exciting back and forth dichotomy of flashback and present day each mirroring each other in significant ways, in this case mirroring Charming’s heroic efforts battling the dragon Maleficent in order to find Snow White and awaken her from a sleeping curse, with his equally heroic daughter Emma, now embracing and believing in magic, battling Maleficent to find a way to save her son Henry who too had fallen into a sleeping curse. But what Once Upon a Time did so well and so often was subvert expectations. For as much as this show was about what we come to expect about love about fairy tales with romantic stories of true love defeating evil, seen here as Charming awakens Snow, Once Upon a Time, was perhaps even more so about the power of familial love. And when Emma kisses her son, not only waking him up but breaking the curse of Storybrooke, we see that the love between a parent and child is just as strong and powerful, with the curse being broken a poignant metaphor for the magic and awakening of one’s true self and spirit that comes from opening your heart.
7. Snow Falls (Season 1, Episode 3)
One of the first truly romantic episodes of the series gives us the backstory of how Snow White and Prince Charming first fell in love, contrasted against modern day Storybrooke where Charming, or David Nolan, wakes up from his coma, after Snow reads to him and he wanders off not remembering who he is. The concept that their true identifies are still glimmering beneath the surface in Storybrooke is showcased here wonderfully, while we are treated to a rousing and fresh new take on a classic story, where Snow White is not a damsel, but rather a thief on the run, who doesn’t swoon at first sight of the prince but hits him over the head with a rock. This established the show’s brilliant portrayal of heroines in a different light without sacrificing any romance these tales are known for. On the contrary, we see two well defined characters who a strong willed and find not only an attraction but mutual respect for each other, fall in love in the fairy tale world in a realistic and lovely new way, showcasing how Once Upon a Time is both traditional and modern, and above all hopeful.
6. The Song in Your Heart (Season 6, Episode 20)
This sweet, fun filled but also very emotional and poignant episode of Once Upon a Time tackles something that many a series has done to varying degrees of success, but one that seems prime for a show about fairy tales, primarily Disney inspired ones: the musical episode. And Once Upon a Time succeeded beautifully. With songs that are melodically and lyrically fantastic, giving each character their moment to shine in the spot light, we see the idea that characters suddenly burst into song blend perfectly and seamlessly into the already established narrative for the season. With the Black Fairy threatening Storybrooke and the approaching wedding of Emma and Killian, we flashback to a wish Snow made for her unborn daughter, culminating in the realization that Emma, and those who love her, have had a song in their heart all along, giving her the strength she needed. And when Emma and Killian are wed surrounded by their family and friends, them all bursting one of the most glorious moments, ever, we see what this show embodies: That “There’s no storm they can’t outrun and they will always find the sun.” In other words, that no matter what darkness may come, love will always prevail.
5. Operation Mongoose (Season 4, Episodes 22 and 23)
With a story that literally has our charatcers trapped inside a book that is a topsy tuvry world where they each are embodying different personas, the two part finale of season 4 gave us fun adventure, romantic drama, emotional moments of sacrifice, the ever apparent theme of family and love, and gripping final moments that leave the viewers breathless. In this alternate world, Rumplestiltskin is a grand hero, Emma is no longer the Savior, Snow White is an Evil Queen, Regina is wanted bandit, Killian is a meek deckhand and Robin Hood wants to marry Zelena, giving the actors and characters new territory to portray, and the audience a dramatic alternate universe to witness, with beautiful moments where truth breaks free. Regina chooses to save Henry instead of stopping Robin’s wedding, while he holds a wounded Regina afterwards, while Killian sacrifices himself so Emma and Henry can escape. In the end we get a mix of a happy ending when Henry becomes the new author and saves the day, and a dark new potential as Emma’s sacrifices herself and becomes the new Dark One, with the final image of her name on the dagger taking the term dramatic cliffhanger to a whole new level.
4. Birth (Season 5, Episode 8)
Dramatic, fast-paced, intense, romantic and filled with visceral performances, “Birth” is the type of episode that makes you believe in television’s remarkable ability to move you deeply. Up until this moment is Season 5, the origins of Emma’s descent into darkness, was a great mystery. But in this episode the drama comes to a head as the dark truth is revealed showing that Emma’s saving Killian’s life in Camelot simultaneously gives birth to another Dark One. The blend of sweetness, exquisite melodrama, a haunting musical score, truly moving performances, and one of the most remarkable twists the show had ever done, “Birth” was an episode that stays with the audience in very affecting ways.
3. Pilot (Season 1, Episode 1)
One of the greatest Pilot episodes ever produced, the concept that is a mix of fairy tales and modern sensibilities with fresh new takes on classic characters, which are so well defined from the beginning, the first episode of this series is brilliant and beautiful. The episode that started it all is one of the best of the series, establishing the tone of the series perfectly as we see that mystery, magic, family drama, epic love, hope and belief are abundant and showcased exquisitely with each character in different ways. The approaching of the dark curse was intense, evocative and dramatic. And the beginning of Emma’s story was sad but hopeful as we see a woman who is strong but deeply wounded. She may be cynical but still buys a cupcake on her birthday and makes a wish. And then her life irrevocably changes. That belief that love and happiness are possible and that things can get better is the theme of the show and is demonstrated touchingly by Emma’s wish as well as the final image of Henry as he sees the Storybrooke clock tower move for the first time in his life. These images epitomize that beautiful and timeless theme of hope.
2. Going Home (Season 3, Episode 11)
A game changing episode if there ever was one, the midseason finale of Season 3, gave the audience things that were completely unexpected while still giving us the drama and twists the show is known for. While trying to stop Peter Pan from enacting the dark curse, we see both Rumplestilskin and Regina make grave sacrifices in order to save everyone from once again losing their memories, and being cursed into ageless, clueless monotony. Rumple gives up his life as he kills his father, while Regina says goodbye to Henry, and brings everyone back to the Enchanted Forest while Storybrooke disappears, seeing Emma and Henry drive away to a new life, blissful with new memories of having always been together. The tears that came at every new revelation in the episode were only matched by the excitement when Killian knocks on Emma’s door in New York one year later, with a warning and True Love’s kiss attempt, and the anticipation of so much to come. The greatest episodes bring forth the gambit of emotions and “Going Home” does this extraordinarily.
1. Snow Drifts/There’s No Place Like Home (Season 3, Episodes 21 and 22)
The pinnacle of Once Upon a Time magic was this two part finale of Season 3 that embodied everything the show exemplified beautifully. In a clear homage to Back to the Future, Emma and Hook accidentally fall through a portal to the past and interrupt her parents first meeting, so like Marty and Doc must race against the clock and help get Snow White and Prince Charming back on the road to True Love while having to deal with the Evil Queen’s villainy and Rumplestilskin’s unpredictability. With time travel, sword fights, romantic waltzes, intrigues, a wedding, magic, the beauty of seeing these stories both rewrite themselves, while still arriving at the same place, this episode showcases that lovely dichotomy of both free will and destiny, how our choices truly define us, and that home is not just a place but the people you love. Emma accepting Storybrooke as her own is a special moment in her character’s journey as it shows an acceptance of her parents, of the magic that lives in her, and the love she is finding with Killian Jones, the man who gave up his home- his ship the Jolly Roger- to bring her back to hers. That moment and the subsequent montage includes seeing all the couples radiating happiness: Emma and Killian sharing their first love filled kiss, Belle and Rumplestilskin’s wedding, Regina and Robin Hood on a happy and romantic stroll, and Snow and Charming basking in the joy of their new son. And this moment and truly the entire episode is what Once Upon a Time exemplifies, the power of Hope and True Love.
The Dark Swan, Manhattan, Kansas, The Jolly Roger, Dark Hollow, Red Handed, Last Rites, Ariel, The Queen of Hearts, White Out, Broken, Firebird, The Apprentice, Think Lovely Thoughts, Poor Unfortunate Soul , The Final Battle, The Broken Kingdom, The Other Shoe, The Stable Boy, Leaving Storybrooke,The Snow Queen, And Straight on ‘Til Morning, It’s Not Easy Being Green, Is This Henry Mills, In the Name of the Brother, Heart of Darkness, Lost Girl, Shattered Sight, Awake, The Tower, A Tale of Two Sisters.
Gif Sources: Ashley (captainswan.ouat.tumlr.com), Emily3153.tumblr.com, something-new-darling.tumblr.com, killianwhump.tumlr.com, lost-shoe.tumlr.com, onceuponasnarkyrecap, hook-and-hope.tumblr.com, burningblake.tumblr.com, cherylblossom.tumblr.com.