When I try to think when the problems of OUAT began, I think abput two options: the second half of season 2 (“2B”) and season 3B. In season 2B, they decided to kill Cora early in order to get into the Peter Pan storyline, which made the end of season 2 feel anticlimactic in comparison to season 1. However, I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt because their main focus was still the characters, we got to see Emma dealing with her ex, someone she loved very much, her kid’s father and their relationship, their past and learning that he is connected to Storybrooke and her fate as the savior; we got to see Rumple dealing with finally finding his son, the fact that his son didn’t want anything to do with him; we got to see Snow trying to deal with the murder she committed; we got to see Regina dealing with her inner darkness (when it wasn’t so repetitive). My major issue was with 220, if you want to make Regina sympathetic, it is best not to show her ordering the massacre of an entire village (something that later becomes a major problem because the writers THINK the audience doesn’t care about the smallfolks, thus the writers don’t care about them, translated into the characters not caring about them so why exactly are they considered heroes? Because they care about Hook?). Then came season 3A and I was willing to forgive them about the problems of season 2B. I see that this season is not among the favorable seasons and it’s a shame, it really is underated. What is so great about 3A is that it had a strong theme of family and parenthood that held the plot and characters really tight, we saw it in Emma and Snow’s conversations and how Emma feels that she’s a lost girl, we saw it in Emma’s drive to save her son (“I choose Henry”), we saw it in Regina in “Save Henry” (“All I have is him”), we saw it in Neal and Henry, and the parallels to Rumple and Baelfire and of course Pan and Rumple. This season was great on its own and in how it connects to the overall thems of the entire series (1-3A) which ultimately gave the most satisfying and the best conclusion of all the seasons. Then came 3B and it went downhill ever since. My biggest problem is the way they handled Neal. In the beginning of the season we had Regina teasing Emma about Hook being her “boyfriend” and Snow said “she just lost Neal”, Emma’s reaction was “how can you be so insensitive after I lost someone I love and care about”, but when Neal actually died, approximately 3-4 days after according to the shows timeline she got together with Hook, how is this consistent in anyway?! You want them to be together? Fine, but do it organically, otherwise ot doesn’t make sense. Keep them apart long enough for Emma to grieve and for Hook to make amends with the people he hurt like Archie and Belle, and perhaps even Rumple. But that’s not the only thing, it seemed like they didn’t want to pay attention to details in order for things to make sense in the larger scope of the series so we get weird stuff like Cora being betrothed to Leopold even when it didn’t make sense with 118, we get splitting heart “twist” even if it doesn’t align with what we know about magical hearts and it contradicts the dead is dead rule, we get scenes like the heroes starting shooting flying monkeys, which we learned (in the same episode) that those are innocent people who got turned into flying monkeys by Zelena, and then no reaction by them after learning that they killed innocent people (these peasants nobody cares about). But the worst thing is how they turned Emma into a huge mcguffin that never had any significant role in the arc, except her becoming Hook’s girlfriend. They never needed to cast the DC again, all they needed to do was give Regina a pep talk and then she’s good to defeat Zelena (that’s what actually happened). Emma got shoved aside in order to focus on the fan favorites Regina and Hook. By the end of season the forcibly got the characters to where they wanted them to be and now they go through a recycled character arc that gets resetted each season, they ignore past events, they ignore what the characters used to be and what motivated them like Rumple who was turned into a different character entirely, or Snow and Charming who suddenly have no reaction towards Ingrid, a woman who raised their long lost daughter for a time, which not being able to raise their child was a key element in their characterization and arc. The showrunners gave into fanservice and their decision making is based on that, the fans want CS -kill Neal and pretend like he never existed, the fans want SQ – lots and lots of queerbaiting, the fans like Disney – Frozen and Brave fanfics with ridiculous blue hair for Hades. Robin is boring (because they didn’t make the effort to develope him properly) – Kill him off, fans are angry that Robin was killed – bring him back. In conclusion, they don’t try to tell a compelling story with compelling characters. They try to have the series as long as they can by doing fanservice time after time in the hopes it would give them high enough ratings to get renewed. That is really the problem with OUAT.
I completely agree with everything you have said. The season 3A finale for me was amazing, and so bittersweet. I had memories of not liking the Peter Pan arc but having gone back and watched from the beginning, I too feel that 3B is where the show started to go down hill. I couldn’t believe how much like old school Once the show felt when Emma, Snow, Hook, Charming and Neal were in the cave having real conversations about how they felt and the events that have shaped their lives. I really miss that. I feel like the show is trying to get back to that but I really don’t think that they will ever fully succeed, which is really sad. I also never bought Emma and Hook, and as much as they keep throwing that in the fore, I don’t think I ever will. Her chemistry with Neal just leaps off the screen and doesn’t feel forced or theatrical, I unfortunately don’t feel that at all with her and Hook. I want to, because then I would enjoy the show more, but as it has been pointed out – it doesn’t feel organic. I really enjoyed a lot about the Frozen arc, but I do wonder if actually they should have just gone the snow queen route and left out the stunt of using Frozen to promote the show.