Season 4 of Once Upon a Time was one of my personal favorites, and although it is a bit divisive, it is also all around excellent and one of the best. While the second half had some slow and muddled bits, there were some amazing episodes and one truly stellar ending. And while technically the Frozen arc consisted of potentially” too much” screen time for the guest stars, these characters were also so fantastic and the overall story so well paced and moving that even with the rushed ending, it was one of the overall best arcs of the series. I loved Season 4 to pieces. Here are the best of the bunch.
1. “Operation Mongoose” (Season 4, Episode 21/22)
Much like the season 3 finale, season 4 ended on an emotional high note, taking our characters to new places and giving each poignant and truly gripping material while allowing our actors to explore new territory. It was eerie seeing Storybrooke empty except for Henry while everyone was transported into Isaac’s alternate fairytale universe. Literally inside a book (how cool is that), I loved seeing Henry in hero mode working to make sure everything was set right in this topsy-turvy world. And how wonderful was it to see our characters in these reversed roles – Snow and Charming as the Evil Queen and Huntsman, Regina the bandit running for her life, Robin Hood about to marry Zelena, Rumple as the “Light One,” married to Belle and a great hero, Killian as a lowly and meek deckhand, with only Emma retaining her memories, but trapped in a tower, powerless and nearly going mad. What was moving was seeing their true hearts emerge in their interactions with Henry, especially Regina and Killian. The adventure Henry and Killian go on to rescue Emma resulted in some of the most fairytale moments ever as the two captain a ship together, while Emma and her Killian show not only the undeniable true love connection between them in their fourth “first meeting” with Emma looking at him with all the love and adoration in the world and Killian completely awestruck and speechless, but also their ability to always make quite the team as the two literally slay a dragon together. His shyness is endearing as she teaches him to sword fight, and the true courage that emerges from him truly moving as he sacrifices himself to save Emma and Henry. And despite barely knowing Henry, Regina also sacrifices herself for him, choosing to save his life rather than stop Robin’s wedding in a very powerful moment, of motherly love, and romantic connection when Robin holds her hand and promises she won’t die alone. These scenes of heroism were beautiful and matched by Henry taking Isaac’s pen and becoming the next author. In the end it was the truest believer who saved everyone and restored the characters back to normal. Of course, as is always the case, it was Emma’s journey for the season that also came to a beautiful conclusion, culminating in such a dramatic and gripping way that left us in tears. From Emma learning to truly understand and forgive her parents, to opening her heart without fear, and the threat of her turning dark, “Operation Mongoose” centered around all these aspects, especially her love for Killian and fear of telling him “I love you.” The pain of losing him in the alternate universe was potent, her joy in finding him alive beautiful, and heart ache when she finally tells him those words poignant and she sacrifices herself and becomes the new Dark One. This was one of the best endings of a season ever as she disappears and all that is left is the dagger with her name engraved upon it. That’s taking dramatica cliffhanger to a new level.
2. “Fall” (Season 4, Episode 9)
One of the best episodes in terms of giving every single character a moment of real emotional poignancy in an engaging and lovely story, “Fall” is the type of episode that demonstrates how special the series is. Fast-moving in a race against the clock, our heroes prepare for Ingrid’s spell of “Shattered Sight” which will turn them into their worst selves, while in Arendelle, Anna and Kristoff are captured by Blackbeard and thrown into the sea. Moments of villainy and true love were so effective and moving and had us gasping, crying and completely captivated. Blackbeard and Hans were so great at their dastardly villainy, while Rumple so despicable as he forces Killian, whose heart he controls, to trap the fairies in the Sorcerer’s hat and thwart the heroes’ their plants to stop the spell. And the love filled moments were nothing short of breathtaking and thoroughly heartwarming: 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, kissing her as he never has before and Emma proving how love can make you brave and change you for the better as she becomes a “tearful goodbye kiss person.” 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!
3. “Poor Unfortunate Soul” (Season 4, Episode 15)
Episodes with Killian back stories are always thoroughly profound and captivating, but what makes this episode so special was that in addition to intriguing flashbacks that complemented the present perfectly, the drama in Storybrooke was fast-paced, well-balanced, and featured some of the best character moments and expressions of profound themes of series. In the past we see how much Killian’s code of honor meant to him and that his soul could be soothed from heart ache, but that, unlike the present where he has true love in his life, in the past we see how tragically his quest for revenge and no one to inspire him leads him to go back on his word to Ursula, stealing her singing voice. But in the present he wants to make amends and help restore her happy ending which will also help and their fight against Gold and the other Queens of Darkness. The reappearance of characters like August and Ariel, which were lovely and revealed truths about the right way to get a happy ending and the power of believing in yourself, and gave us scenes of unexpected profundity and sweetness. Seeing Emma reunite with her friend August was so heartwarming as was the one where Killian brings Poseidon back to Ursula and her singing voice is restored. It was a beautiful expression of how bad choices can be rectified, forgiveness is always possible, as well as redemption, especially when you realize the error of your ways. But it was a moment of pure vulnerability and heart between Killian and Emma that provided not only the episode’s best moment, but one of the show’s finest ever. When Killian tells Emma she is his happy ending, both are so overcome with emotion over the brevity of his meaning, Killian letting out a small breath of emotion and a single tear falling from Emma’s cheek as they slowly kiss. It was a moment of beautiful perfection that is the epitome of true love.
4. “The Apprentice” (Season 4, Episode 4)
This episode was a beautiful gift. Not only were we treated to Emma and Killian finally going on their first date, but also heartwarming Charming Family moments, the fantastic dynamic between perpetual foils Killian and Rumplestilskin, and a fantastic flashback for Anna and Rumple that established a poignant theme that has continued ever since. Of all the wonderful Frozen characters, Anna was my personal favorite and she was given so much wonderful comedic and dramatic material. This episode showcased this in abundance in the significant flashback with Rumple and the Sorcerer’s apprentice which solidified that theme that “love is a weapon.” What was moving was seeing that even after Rumple used her love for Elsa against her, she was able to get the best of him. It was a striking parallel to present day Storybrooke where Rumple uses Killian’s love for Emma and desire to be good enough for her against him. Killian may have blackmailed Rumple to get his hand back but his motivations were heart-wrenching – if Emma wants him to, he would like to be able to hold her with both hands. So seeing his fear that his hand was cursed was actually heartbreaking not because he loses it once again, but that it stems from a place of insecurity. But for the happier parts of the episode – the parts where dreams were made a reality- there was nothing but beautiful sweetness and heart. It was so lovely seeing Snow and David’s dream of sending their daughter to a ball come true as they watch Emma prepare for her date, waiting up to hear all about it. Seeing Emma and Killian being able to enjoy time just for themselves on a date with flirtatious smiles, hand holding, jacket sharing, and a spine tingling romantic goodnight kiss that left them both breathless was a real gift. For Killian it was moving that his desire to be able to hold her the way he surely always wanted to came true, brief as it was, and for Emma it was so poignant to see her finally be able to have a night off without having to think of danger or villains, but also that she finally has found someone that she feel safe enough to be vulnerable with and express her softer and romantic side, seen in the beautiful pink dress she wears. When she’s back home and must compose herself for a moment, it was clear she had fallen completely in love – and everything changed.
5. “White Out” (Season 4, Episode 2)
The best centric for Prince Charming is the sweet-hearted and light (comparatively speaking) episode which showcases the importance of friendship, family, never giving up, and living a life with no regrets. As I have said, there’s something about David’s character that always brings forth important things for the series and lessons we can all learn from an aspire to in our own lives. Seeing that David was not always so confident and stalwart in his beliefs because of the loss of his father and the torturing of the warlord Bo Peep, and that he learned not only how to sword fight but also how to fight back in life from Anna was so moving and special and the perfect example of how to include a new character into the framework of the existing story, giving new layers to the characters we already love. Seeing David find his courage in the past was the perfect parallel to David and Killian working together to save Emma after Elsa accidentally traps them in an ice cave. We see the continued friendship between the two men, who despite the uniqueness of the relationship and David’s protectiveness over a “pirate “dating his daughter, work perfectly together – as well as brothers. The friendship formed for Anna and David helped him find the person that was in there all along, while Elsa and Emma formed an instant kindred bond over shared experiences, which was something Emma really needed in her life. It was an episode all about those bonds that change us and finding the inner strength we may not have to have believed we have. Snow was able to restore power to Storybrooke all on her own, and Elsa, who insisted she needed her sister to help control her magic, was able to free her new friend. And for Emma and Killian who had just begun their relationship they pass that first threshold of intimacy in beautiful ways as we see Killian’s desperation to break through the ice to her, their joint relief when they cling to each other after she is saved, and newfound closeness as they hold hands and seek comfort in each other’s arms. They were becoming everything to each other and as David says that their family never gives up and vows to find Elsa’s sister, we see that all of these characters have formed a beautiful new familial bond that has only grown stronger ever since.
6. “Smash the Mirror” (Season 4, Episode 8)
This exciting two-part episode was the centerpiece of the arc and moved the story and characters in intense dramatic directions not only for the story, but as individual characters. Perhaps the scenes were long, but the flashbacks in Arendelle were necessary and captivating as Elsa and Anna’s bond is shattered by Ingrid’s evil spell and we discover the missing pieces to how Elsa found herself trapped in the urn and in Rumple’s possession. The Storybrooke drama was a mixture of so much: hopeful romance as Robin and Regina bask in the afterglow of their first night together and discover an alternate page of the storybook that gives them a new found sense of hope for a happy ending together, family drama as Snow and Charming battle their consciences and wanting to make sure their daughter is happy while ultimately realizing, with a touching self-aware confession by Regina, that you should never let your children give up that what makes them special and who they are. There were also heart wrenching confessions and attempts at rescue as Killian leaves a tearful voicemail for Emma, admitting his mistakes with Rumple, hoping she never forgives and because it would mean she is safe, and villainy as Rumple stops him from coming to her rescue by taking his heart – a key ingredient he needs for ultimate power from the Sorcerer’s hat. But it was Emma’s journey of self acceptance that was the most significant and touching moment as she contemplates getting rid of her magic forever to protect her loved ones from getting hurt. And when she really needed a friend, Elsa was there, her hand outstretched without fear who helps Emma learn not to be afraid of herself, to accept her magic – a metaphor for us to accept ourselves as we truly are. When she saves herself from making a grave decision our tears were matched by Emma’s, and her joys were matched by the passionate kiss Killian gives her, and in the hugs and smiles on her family’s faces when they find her safe. Like her true love, she was on her way of being a fan of every part of herself and the look of pride and glee at her creating a magical display of fireworks was as beautiful an expression on her face as we have ever seen.
7. “Unforgiven” (Season 4, Episode 12)
It is always a treat to see more of Snow and Charming in their days as newlyweds paralleled with them dealing with something in Storybrooke, because it’s often displayed that no matter what they are doing, they are doing it together. Whether their decisions are good or misguided they always come around to the better path, standing side by side to give support. This half of the season began with the threat of Emma’s heart turning dark and the mystery of a great secret the Charming’s were keeping from their daughter. The fact that they went to extremes to keep Emma light, and that they were responsible for Maleficent losing her child was shocking as they are the epitome a virtue. But it gave them new depth as it showed that even the finest people can make a mistake. But “Unforgiven” is also filled with so many more golden moments: Ursula and Cruella chewing up the scenery with their comedic villainy, Regina sharing a true and moving moment of contrition with Marco, and after Killian is afraid to tell Emma the truth about his ugly past with Ursula, she tells him she believes in the man he is now, and two promise to always see the best in each other. As the show ends with the kind of evocative montage that Once does so exquisitely, we see how far our characters have gone, Snow’s voice over providing the poignancy of the scene as we see Henry hopeful, Rumple devastated, and Emma and Killian beaming and as happy as we’ve ever seen. This episode hit all the right emotional notes.
8. “Rocky Road” (Season 4, Episode 3)
New engaging characters, romantic confessions, and moments of intrigue and mystery surrounding Ingrid’s Snow Queen, this episode so wonderful. From seeing the perfect characterizations of Elsa and Kristoff becoming friends, to Elsa and Killian sharing a mutual concern for Emma and desire to find out exactly who the Snow Queen is, to Regina probably promising she’ll help unfreeze Marion but Robin confessing that he truly loves Regina, to Emma revealing to Killian she was pulling away for fear of losing him and him promising he is a survivor, all our characters were on a rocky road of love and discovery that was heartfelt and a joy to watch. With the introduction to one of the most chilling villains ever, the mystery of her identity was set up perfectly leaving the audience wondering what exactly were her motivations. This is an all-around terrific episode.
9. “Sympathy for the DeVil” (Season 4, Episode 18)
If an episode is going to focus heavily on a guest star then it must be interesting and compelling in order to keep our interest. Normally I find the episodes with the main cast focused on as the best. But there are certain episodes that stand out in dynamic ways. Such is the case with “Sympathy for the Devil.” I loved Cruella from the first moment she appeared on screen, and her backstory was fantastic in every way. Completely unique and unlike anything we’ve ever seen on the show, the 1920’s Gatsby-esque, Art Deco world she lives in was a glittering, champagne soaked, jazzy delight. And the way the episode was filmed was reminiscent of a noir film from the 1940s that would have starred Humphrey Bogart or Veronica Lake. This was not a fairytale but that’s what makes it all the more fascinating to watch as we see one of the best twists on the show ever – not only that she is just inherently evil and psychotic for no reason whatsoever, but also that she, thanks to Isaac’s quick thinking, was not able to kill anyone, making the moment Emma kills her to save Henry’s life all the more dramatic. The look on Emma’s face after that moment was chilling and the perfect ending to a deliciously dark episode.
10. “A Tale of Two Sisters” (Season 4, Episode 1)
An absolutely sweet and lovely introduction to what we now dub the “Frozen Arc,” the beginning of season 4 began with a well-balanced, light episode where all of the characters had moments of touching emotion. The backstory of Anna and Elsa in Arendelle could not have been more delightful as they seem to have leapt from the film and into the Once universe, and our hearts, with beautiful ease. Regina was heartbroken that Robin’s wife was back but it established her journey that would take the whole season of her discovering the right way to find her happy ending, as well as Emma being a good and forgiving person and sincerely offering her a sense of sisterly friendship. Even though in the end Rumple cannot resist the allure of power once again, the iconic Beauty and the Beast dance which were re-created in a truly beautiful way, surely made Rumbelle fans cry. And lastly, it was a delight to see, after sharing a moment of love and a passionate kiss, Emma and Killian try to discuss the relationship amidst snow monsters and long-lost wives of friends resurrected from the dead! When Emma kisses him, asking him to “be patient” you can see she is almost ready to take that next step, but a fear is holding her back, and that she is thankful to have someone who will not only wait but can recognize there is something else going on inside her heart. Of course this was also a humorous wink to the audience asking us to “be patient” with their relationship, which has always been developing slowly and steadily. But that is what makes it all the more special.