Every Season of Once Upon a Time, Ranked (2023)

By Richard Fink

Once Upon a Time was a popular series with fairy tale casts that ran for seven seasons on ABC. Let's see how each season stacks up against the other.

Every Season of Once Upon a Time, Ranked (1)

Once Upon a Time was a series that aired for seven seasons on ABC from 2011 to 2018. The series focused on a small town in Storybrook, Maine that was inhabited by classic fairytale characters who had no memory of who they were until a young boy named Henry Mills goes to seek out his birth mother, Emma Swan. Swan is the long-lost daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming who was sent to the real world from the Enchanted Forest before a dark curse was cast. The series was a hit when it premiered and inspired a loyal legion of fans.

Airing on ABC meant the series could use not just fairy tale characters but specific versions from classic Disney movies, since Disney owns the channel. Once Upon A Time crafted a complex mythology that united franchises like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Frozen, Beauty and the Beast, and many more into a unique world all its own where the writers could reimage these characters. Like all long-running series, it went through its ups and downs, and here is a look at every season of Once Upon a Time ranked.

7 Season 6

Every Season of Once Upon a Time, Ranked (2)

Season six of Once Upon a Time is an interesting one. Breaking from the franchise's tradition of highlighting a classic Disney story as the main storyline, the season begins with the town of Storybrook under attack from the Citizens of Lost Stories. This includes characters like Mr. Hyde, before the ultimate villain is revealed to be the Black Fairy, a character hinted at in season three and now revealed to be the mother of Rumpelstiltskin.

Related: Once Upon a Time: Each Curse, Ranked by Devastation

The marketing for season six did push Aladdin being added to the series, but the season feels less interested in him and his supporting cast as more than cameos. Combine that with this being used to wrap up the main storyline for many of the main characters before the revamped seventh season, and the whole thing felt very rushed and like the formula was running out of fuel.

6 Season 7

Every Season of Once Upon a Time, Ranked (3)

Most of the main cast departed Once Upon a Time at the end of season six, with only Rumpelstiltskin, Regina, and Captain Hook returning. The season begins with a clever twist, featuring an older Harry Mills as a revamped take on the plot for season one. Mills' kid comes to him looking to break a magical curse, with everyone now stuck in a neighborhood of Hyperion Heights, which was a nice contrast to the small town of Storybrook.

The season uses the idea that different cultures have different takes on various fairy tales to allow the show to do a soft reboot of some characters the series already adapted, particularly Cinderella and her Wicked Step Sister. It also heavily incorporated Tangled and Alice in Wonderland characters. While a strong effort to relaunch the series, it was a bit too different from what audiences had come to love about Once Upon a Time, and it marked the end for the franchise.

5 Season 5

Every Season of Once Upon a Time, Ranked (4)

Season five of Once Upon a Time is one of its most ambitious, which leaves it a little uneven in parts. The series shows Emma Swan turning into the Dark One and her journey from a savior to a potential villain, which makes for some interesting dynamics. The first half of the season builds off Arthurian legends, particularly Disney's The Sword in the Stone as well as Brave and The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and that stuff is all great.

It is the second half of the season that drops the ball, as the characters go into the Underworld. The series finally introduced Hades, the main villain of Hercules, which is something fans wanted to see. Yet much of that film's main cast including Hercules himself and Meg are wasted in a one-off episode appearance. While not an overall bad season, the second half is not as engaging as the first half.

4 Season 2

Every Season of Once Upon a Time, Ranked (5)

Season one of Once Upon a Time had established a strong formula, flashing back between the characters' lives in the Enchanted Forest and the present-day reality where they had no memory. Season two had the difficult task of trying to figure out how to adjust the series, particularly with the characters all having their memories in the real world and losing much of the contrast between the two timelines.

The season first tries to work around this by separating Emma and Snow White from the rest of the cast, sending them to the Enchanted Forest, and finding their way home. The second half is about exploring the new reality of the characters having their memories back and hidden secrets being revealed, particularly in how Henry's father is in fact Rumpelstiltskin's long-lost son Baelfire.

The season brings in many classic Disney characters like The Queen of Hearts, Mulan, and Sleeping Beauty, but the biggest is Captain Hook, who goes on to become a main character for the rest of the series. Once Upon a Time season two struggles sometimes to work its new status quo, but still crafts plenty of engaging episodes to make it a worthwhile season.

3 Season 4

Every Season of Once Upon a Time, Ranked (6)

Season four of Once Upon a Time, like many of its predecessors, is split into two halves. The first half is heavily focused on Frozen and the second half sees Rumpelstiltskin unite with Ursula from The Little Mermaid, Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians, and Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. Sprinkled throughout was a subplot connected to The Sorcerer's Apprentice and the idea of these stories being written by somebody, shaping these narratives.

While the inclusion of Frozen could be seen as cashing in on the film's popularity as it premiered just a year after the film but the series does work the story organically into the main Once Upon a Time world and also acts as a fun alternative sequel years before Frozen 2 was released.

Meanwhile, uniting three of Disney's most popular villains in a team titled "The Queens of Darkness" not only made for some fun villain pairings, but each got an episode centered on them that highlighted their backgrounds. It showed a contrast that while Ursula could be redeemed, others like Cruella were eviler and more awful characters than anyone could imagine. This season did what some of the best Once Upon a Time stories did, reimagining these Disney icons in bold new ways.

2 Season 3

Every Season of Once Upon a Time, Ranked (7)

After season two, Once Upon a Time decided to settle on a creative decision where the season would be split into two major story arcs, using the winter hiatus as a way to separate the two storylines, and season three is arguably the strongest showing of the pack. First up is where the main cast goes to Neverland to rescue Henry in the series' evil reimagining of Peter Pan, which is one of the best live-action takes on the character. The second half is a Wizard of Oz-centered story with the Wicked Witch of the West acting as the major villain before becoming a recurring character for the rest of the series.

Related: 10 Disney Movies That Will Never Appear In Kingdom Hearts And Why

Once Upon a Time would certainly go on to overdo the trope of villains being revealed as a family member to the main cast. However, the revelation of Peter Pan as Rumpelstiltskin's father or the Wicked Witch of the West as Regina's half-sister did feel like game-changing moments for the series that drastically changed the landscape of what audiences thought they knew.

1 Season 1

Every Season of Once Upon a Time, Ranked (8)

While sometimes claiming that season one is the best can be nostalgic, as it's obviously the season that launches series, there is no denying that Once Upon a Time's first season was the show at its most engaging and original. Drawing heavily from Lost to use two distinct timelines to tell its story, Once Upon a Time managed to tell a compelling story with complex heroes and villains. Emma Swan, Snow White, Prince Charming, Harry Mills, Regina, and Rumpelstiltskin are all great characters and this first season established what would make them the pillars of the series moving forward.

It is also worth noting that when Once Upon a Time premiered, it seemed to be tapping into a cultural zeitgeist on the rise. It arrived one year after Disney remade Alice in Wonderland and just two months before two non-Disney studios would release Snow White movies: Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. The market would be flooded with Disney fairy tale reimaginings. Yet with their massive budgets, they were failing to capture the level of character and clever writing that Once Upon a Time was doing on an ABC budget.

The series also premiered seven months before Disney would release The Avengers, and Once Upon a Time tapped into that shared universe excitement Marvel had been building up over years not only uniting fairy tale characters together but specifically the iconic Disney versions that were known all over the world. The first season of Once Upon a Time was lightning in a bottle, and one of the greatest first seasons of a show.

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