Recycling plot lines is nothing new for Once Upon a Time. But with season 7, the series failed to take advantage of a fresh start.

Refresh, reboot, recycle? There are so many “re” prefixes attached to Once Upon a Time season 7 that their meanings start to meld together. Since season 4, Once Upon a Time has consistently fallen into the trap of ushering in new characters and giving them vague motivations that ultimately cycle the main cast through the same story arc season after season.

When season 7 announced that they would remove all but three of the main cast over to a reinvented story, a promising future appeared. A new Hook, a new Regina, a new Rumple, and a fresh face for Henry. New locals, new adventures, new battles, and reimagined characters all awaited our attention.

And for a little bit of season 7, it worked. But the small bits that piqued my interest did little to make up for the biggest let downs of Once’s seventh adventure.

My relationship with Once Upon a Time has always been conflicted. But with season 7, I felt pressure to hold the series up to a higher standard. Am I going to spend an hour per week watching something that cannot grow? Have I given this series enough of my time?

As the mid-season finale aired, I realized the series is never going to fully break out of its own vicious cycle. And after seven successful seasons, could I really expect it to? One more realization — I’m always going to want more.

The sandbox that Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis built is one I can’t seem to leave. The box may have moved from one playground to another, but we’re still playing by their rules.

Looking back on the first half of season, very few things feel different. Perhaps that is a success for a show starting over with a new cast. But, for me, the show needs to find its breakout moment or forever sit in its own shadow.

’Once Upon a Time’ season 7 highlights

While we said goodbye to Emma, young Henry, and the original Storybrooke gang (including the original incarnation of Captain Hook), Hyperion Heights’ ensemble is nothing to snuff at.

First, the new Henry (Andrew J. West) built beautifully on the work put down by Jared Gilmore. West captures the heart of the truest believer in Enchanted Forest form, while maintaining that same persona underneath a cursed form. He somehow finds a way to channel both Regina and Emma in the cursed, Hyperion Heights version of Henry, a choice that is noteworthy.

Once Upon a Time season 7

Additionally, the new characters including Diana Ramirez’s Cinderella, Adelaide Kane’s Drizella, Rose Reynold’s Alice, and Emma Booth’s Gothel, brought the right combination of mystery, familiarity, and new take on characters we already saw on the series.

Some interesting new plot points arose from the series as well. Beyond reintroducing Captain Hook as his alternate-reality self, the show gave this character an entirely care-worthy backstory — the search for his lost daughter.

One aspect the original incarnation of Once lacks is follow through on backstory. The Neverland arc gave us a lot of reasons to jump onboard with Hook’s continued presence in the series. But it also left the door cracked for stories that were left unexplored. In season 7, Hook finally gets to explore a background and a new relationship with hope.

In terms of new twists on classic tales, this Enchanted Forest does a great job of adding the complex family trees of . So many identities, so little time. Each of them proving more ridiculous, yet clever, than the last.

The Rapunzel and Lady Tremaine storyline was one I did not anticipate. After witnessing every possible combination, it’s nice to still be shocked by a bloodline every now and then.

That brings us to the one of the more promising features of Once’s season 7 – the introduction of the Coven of Eight. It’s new territory for the show. It makes the now, uncursed Regina character have more room in the spotlight. And, finally, it introduces the reason for Zelena to return.

But the broad strokes of the series do not cover up the details that got us here.

’Once Upon a Time’ flounders mid-season

There is no denying that Once Upon a Time excels at mid-season and season finales. It’s why two-hour finales are standard. Why plot lines get wrapped up sloppily or explained away with magical doors. And why, after seven seasons, we are still watching this show.

The first four episodes of season 7 had a lot of leg work to do. The series needed to wrap up Emma’s storyline, introduce a new world, get audiences to care about said new world, and wave farewell to Rumbelle.

If you’ve read or have listened to my views on Onceable, you know that Rumbelle getting a happy ending was not on my list of successful moments for season 7. To each their own. There are bigger issues than my long-standing grudge.

Once Upon a Time 7x04 rumbelle

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times — Once Upon a Time has too much time on their hands. In my opinion, the series would benefit immensely from a shorter season. The writing needs more focus, the character arcs need better definition, and the show would benefit from having half as many characters.

For as many characters as Once does kill off, it suffers from an inability to kill its darlings.

Regardless, of what the show didn’t do, what it choses to do with its extra time results in yet another round of storytelling tangents. And the stories, while not bad, are told for the sole purpose of misdirection.

The Rapunzel and Ivy’s backstories felt rushed, disjointed, and followed similar story beats to earlier seasons. Hearts tainted by jealousy, ill-suited for service to a crueler higher power.

Then, the worst of the storylines arrives. With Rapunzel managing to trap Gothel in the tower, the Witch must wait until someone from her bloodline can take her place.

Enter Hook. Gothel disguises herself as Rapunzel and seduces him in order to bear a child. I’m sorry, but using a false identity to trick someone into bed to bear a child is something I couldn’t tolerate with Zelena. And it is something I will not tolerate with Rapunzel and Hook.

Once Upon a Time is ripe with powerful, clever women. Is the series trying to make a statement about them using their power in deceitful and despicable ways? If so, stop making them out to be characters we should have empathy for. In terms of repeating storylines, this is the worst offender.

Keeping Robert Carlyle around is also proving difficult for the series. As Weaver, the grumpy detective seems to only appear as a lackey. Instead of moving forward, we are witnessing a version of Rumpelstiltskin who casually tosses lines about Baelfire and his lost life to remind us of his relevance to the current story. He is not growing, or changing.

Once Upon a Time season 7 rumpel

Tragically, one of the better, and love-to-hate characters of the show is only showing up as a prop. His reinvention apart from Belle is still something I hope occurs before the series ends.

Which brings us to Lucy. With so many adult narratives happening, the child of the show is once again cast aside. Her belief in the fairytale world is still central to the season 7 narrative, but it is only useful if she is in danger.

Lucy is suffering from Henry-syndrome. Lucy is only useful when she can be taken advantage of — either for her heart, or innocence. She, like Henry, will never go through a full-on angsty teenager phase.

Why there is still hope for season 7

There is one thing about Once Upon a Time that rings true through all seven seasons — fans can always hope for a better tomorrow. The show is rich with world-building and endless stories. There is always the chance that something new will capture the magic of the first few seasons.

Missteps are all too common for the Once Upon a Time. And it is frustrating when the writers mistake those missteps for guideposts. See above: please stop faking identities to instigate pregnancies!

Once Upon a Time season 7 alice

But when something works – the Camelot mystery and Dark Swan, the reimagining of the Ice Queen’s story, Neverland and Hook’s past – it fuels the imagination. My hope for 2018 is that when Rebecca Mader returns to the story, she and Regina will not rehash their relationship woes. That Mader will be utilized not just for her quippy remarks, but for a deeper, more meaningful story.

In 2018, the newest relationship on the show will unfold. Alice (Tilly) and Robin, the daughter of Zelena and Robin Hood, present an opportunity for Once Upon a Time to give an LGBTQ story the room it needs to be told. And told well. Hopefully, these two will see more than Dorothy and Mulan’s rushed plot line of 2016.

I’m not quite ready to give up on Once Upon a Time yet. But I am curious to see if the show can pick up on its own rebranding message and try something new!

Once Upon a Time returns March 2, 2018.

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