10. Mr. Gold / Rumpelstiltskin -What redemption!? Rumple was an out-and-out villain in S1, and he didn’t truly change at all in S2 no matter how often he publicly restrained himself to appease Belle. S3 was the only time he made an honest effort at redemption, but it was fraught with failures, temptation, doubt and relapses into asshole behavior. The only thing that made it succeed was that it occurred in a very specific set of ideal circumstances…and that Rumple died at the end of it all. After being resurrected and losing his son, Rumple quickly regressed into the villainy he’s comfortable with, becoming the Big Bad of S4. In S5, we had that brief “hero Gold” arc that was not only morally insulting and nonsensical, but also pointless since he ends up choosing to become the Dark One again by the end of it…the Darkest Dark One, in fact, who is thoroughly unpleasant up until the very end of S6, where - after being faced with the consequences of his own evil actions, consequences that include the potential destruction of the entire multiverse - he does the right thing once, which leads to Belle taking him back, allowing him to help raise their son, and him getting accepted at the big family dinner by all of his victims. What the actual fuck!? That’s not a redemption - Rumple hasn’t repented of his evil ways, he hasn’t given up his dark powers, he hasn’t sacrificed one damn thing, and he only did something good after his own evildoing backfired on him. He is literally responsible for the crisis he helped resolve. And yet he gets rewarded with his own “happy beginning” with his abused wife and helpless infant son? Fuck off, A&E.
9. Regina Mills / The Evil Queen - I technically consider Regina to have the worst redemption on the show since I refuse to accept Rumple as even having a redemption. Regina’s first attempt at redemption happened quickly into S2, some may argue too quickly. While it seemed to be going well at first, it soon became apparent that she was only doing it in order to regain custody over Henry rather than out of any true remorse or desire to change. The moment something goes wrong for her, she turns evil again, and ends up being even more heinous a bitch than she was before. If the show had been operating under any logic, Regina should have been considered irredeemable at this point. But instead, she is given another chance, and for most of S3 she does a surprisingly good job…until the last five episodes, where her redemption is suddenly fasts-forwarded so that she receives all the rewards she has not yet done anything to deserve: a new boyfriend, easy reconciliation with Snow and with Henry, a True Love’s Kiss with Henry that breaks the Dark Curse, light magic out of nowhere that defeats her previously more powerful sister, and the complete trust and forgiveness of the entire town despite her past victimization of them. But then one thing goes wrong for her, and while she resists falling back into full-on villainy, she still returns to being a whiny, spiteful, self-pitying woman-child who is always looking for the easy way to get what she wants and occasionally does do evil things to achieve this, yet is paradoxically treated by the rest of the cast as a messianic saint, someone who has come so far and worked so hard and deserves her happy ending, with the narrative frequently giving her all of the big hero moments at Emma’s expense. In fact, much of her development comes at Emma’s expense, since A&E clearly see her as the true star of the show. And that show just isn’t any fun to me.
8. Cora Mills / The Queen of Hearts - This one is just bizarre. Cora was a villain of the highest order all the way up to her death, where she had a dying epiphany as to where she went wrong in regards to her daughter. But for some reason, her death is treated as such a tragedy and as such a source of guilt for Snow (not how she killed Cora, no, just that she killed Cora at all) that one would think Cora redeemed herself before her death, which just isn’t so. Things got iffier when Cora showed up in the Underworld during 5B, and after doing one good deed in reconciling with her daughters and getting them to reconcile with each other, she is allowed to go to Heaven. While I personally find this acceptable since Cora actually did repent of her villainy and fully acknowledge that she would deserve to go to Hell if that was her fate, I can see why many would be bugged about one of the most evil villains in the show’s history being shown going to Heaven while other characters higher above her on the moral scale - Milah, Gaston, Auntie Em, and even Prince James in the same episode - are condemned to the River of Lost Souls. When put into that context, it seems less like a good lesson on divine mercy and more a case of creator favoritism toward the character. Cora probably should have just remained in the Underworld to continue her redemption.
7. Maleficent & Ursula - Two thirds of the Queens of Darkness (the other one, Cruella, was an irredeemable sociopath in life and in death), both of them have things that work about their redemption and things that don’t work. For Ursula, her redemption comes when, after Hook brings her father Poseidon to town who restores her singing voice, she realizes that her true happy ending wasn’t recovering that but reconciling with her father, who is now repentant of his past patriarchal abuse of her. This is all well and good, but Ursula really didn’t do all that much evil for the redemption to be powerful. She always came off as lost and confused and hanging out with the wrong crowd, not truly villainous. And then there’s Maleficent, who has the opposite problem. Her happy ending is also reuniting with a family member, her long-lost daughter Lily. It’s sweet and touching, but it also glosses over all of Maleficent’s established villainy. Maleficent cursed people, burned people alive, destroyed a village, was deemed as having the greatest potential for darkness by a Chernabog, but none of it matters in the end. Even her sworn vendetta against Snow and Charming (whom were made to look like villains and Maleficent their victim) is abruptly dropped and she’s suddenly getting along with them. It’s pretty much Regina’s bullshit redemption but on a mercifully smaller scale. Since Maleficent did not actually repent of her evildoing, the show should have treated her character accordingly - as still a villain and a potential threat, but also a loving mother. At the end, she’d be the gray-shading which is complimented by Ursula’s white and Cruella’s black.
6. Tinkerbell - Aside from the villain-to-hero journeys of Regina, Rumple and Hook in 3A, we also got Tinkerbell, who was an ex-fairy turned trusted partner of Peter Pan. The Nevengers persuade her to help them, but only if there’s something in it for her (namely, leaving Neverland and being able to confront the Blue Fairy about getting her wings back). In the end, inspired by Regina and Hook’s progress, Tink learns to believe in herself and earns her fairy status back. It’s a nice little arc, but it’s missing one crucial detail - the nature of her villainy. We never see her and Pan interact, we never learn exactly what kind of work she did for him to make him trust her so much. We see that she’s a scavenger who is prone to violence, but that’s it. Wendy, Pan’s longtime prisoner, is friends with her, so she couldn’t have been all that bad. This lack of clarity undermines what is otherwise a good redemption.
5. Zelena Mills / The Wicked Witch - For the most part, Zelena’s redemption in S5 and S6 really works. She was never as bad as Regina, so already her changing is more believable. When she realizes that her wicked lifestyle is actually harmful to her baby daughter, she allows Regina and Robin to take her in order to keep her safe. She doesn’t join Hades despite him professing his love for her until she thinks she can use her own love for him to redeem him. And when it becomes apparent that it won’t and never will, Zelena kills him in order to protect her sister and everyone else in Storybrooke. When Regina is an ungrateful bitch and blames her for Robin’s death, Zelena is ostracized from everyone else. But even when the Evil Queen comes along and tempts her to return to her wicked roots, Zelena keeps firmly out of the conflict, preferring to remain a neutral party for her baby’s sake until her hand is forced and she joins the side of good despite it not really getting her anything and no hero save for Belle caring much for her. This commitment to doing the right thing comes to a head when she actually sacrifices her magic, the thing she’d defined herself by for so long, to help stop the Black Fairy, a sacrifice Regina should have made long ago but never did. After this, the other heroes fully embrace her as one of their own. It’s a great redemption, but there is one snag - Robin, both the man and the baby named after him. The baby Zelena conceived through deceiving Robin into thinking she was Marian. By - let’s not mince words here - raping him. It’s not quite as bad as Regina with Graham, especially since Zelena didn’t kill Robin and Robin was willing to give her a second chance of his own volition prior to his death, but it’s still rape all the same, and to have the rape victim die while the rapist keeps the baby is extremely squicky, no matter how surprisingly good a mother Zelena may be. This one aspect casts a shadow over Zelena’s redemption and it never should have happened.
4. King Arthur - Arthur was a villain in 5A, a corrupt monarch obsessed with fulfilling his destiny and ruling over Camelot at all costs. While despicable, Arthur was also somewhat sympathetic too, as he became more evidently pathetic as the arc went on and Merlin really did screw him up by filling his head with visions of a future he felt the need to achieve. In the climax of 5B, Arthur escapes prison only to be promptly murdered by Hades. Down in the Underworld, Hook confronts Arthur with the truth: he was a terrible king and will probably go to Hell if he doesn’t do something to atone. Note that at first this is the reason why Arthur helps Hook in his quest for the book: he just wants to avoid the consequences of his villainy. But as the episode goes on, a clear change in Arthur can be seen as he sees the depth of Hook’s feelings for Emma, his bravery and his nobility…in this lowly pirate, Arthur sees the man he had wanted to be and failed to become, making him feel true remorse. Arthur then becomes invested in the quest to the point where he is willing to sacrifice himself to the River of Lost Souls so that Hook can get to the book. And at the end, when a doorway to Heaven is open and Arthur has the chance to go through it, which was the whole reason he joined Hook on this quest at the start, he declines and opts to stay in the Underworld, to rule it as a benevolent king and make it a better place, which a short on the S5 DVD shows that he did indeed do. In just one episode, Arthur had one of the best redemptions on the show, from a selfish cad to a noble hero. While like Zelena, he also has a rape-like situation with Guinevere that remains untouched upon (he used magic dust on her to keep her from leaving him and turn her into his compliant wife), there was no confirmation of actual rape and even some proof against it (he was too consumed by his obsession with Exaclibur to do anything romantic for Guinevere, let alone sexual), so it’s not quite as harmful to his redemption.
3. Ingrid / The Snow Queen - Ingrid is an even better example of a great redemption being accomplished in just one episode. Despite being terrifying, prejudiced and insane, Ingrid was also one of the most tragic and sympathetic villains to ever be on the show, with an absolutely heartbreaking backstory and her sole motivation being to have a family who loves her. She cast the Shattered Sight spell in order to make everyone in Storybrooke kill each other save for Emma and Elsa, who would become her new sisters, but when Anna shows her a letter from her sister Gerta expressing remorse for imprisoning her and confirming that she still loved her, Ingrid realizes the error of her ways. In one of the best redemptive villain lines in the series, she says “I am a monster. Not because of my powers, but because of what I let them turn me into!” She then reverses the spell at the cost of her own life, telling Emma, Elsa and Anna that they are all amazing people and that she is proud of them, then saying that her happy ending will be to join her sisters in death. The whole scene is acted and scored beautifully, and I can’t help but cry anytime I see it. By acknowledging what she did wrong and accepting responsibility for it, Ingrid is one of the show’s best redeemed villains.
2. Anastasia / The Red Queen - One of the two main villains of Once Upon in Wonderland, Anastasia quickly began to look more appealing, sympathetic and redeemable in contrast to the monstrous villainy of Jafar. Her main crimes, apart from aiding him, were giving up love for power and being a neglectful ruler to her people…and she was helping Jafar in the hopes of getting to change the past so that she never did any of that. When this failed and it became clear that she wasn’t going to be able to take the easy way out, Anastasia gave up on her aspirations and finally took full responsibility for being a terrible queen, vowing to make it up to the people of Wonderland by fighting to save them from Jafar, a fight that she stuck through even when it got her tortured by the Jabberwocky and then murdered by Jafar. In the end, her redemption earned her life, being revived by the water from the Well of Wonders, and won her back the love of Will Scarlet. Years later, she is still ruling Wonderland but now as the White Queen, who actively works to bring love, hope and joy to her people. Anastasia’s redemption is everything that Regina’s is not, with her being fully self-aware of her villainy, truly remorseful of her actions once she starts her redemption, and with purely altruistic motives - doing the right thing just because it’s the right thing and she wants to help make amends for her past mistakes. Add in Emma Rigby’s performance and it’s nigh-perfect.
1. Killian Jones / Captain Hook - Hook’s redemption starts at the very end of S2, inspired by his regrets for failing Baelfire long ago and not wanting to do the same with his son Henry, putting aside his desire for revenge in favor of doing the right thing. He had everything to gain by not making this decision, but he does so anyway. Throughout 3A, he does an admirable job helping the heroes through Neverland and returning to being the honorable man he was long ago, although his motives aren’t entirely pure as he hopes to woo Emma. When he is separated from Emma and gives up hope of reuniting with her, he tries to go back to his villainous pirate ways, but is overcome with remorse after doing so, realizing that his time with Emma changed him to the point where it’s not just for her that he wants to reform for, but for himself too. When he learns that Emma’s family is in danger and that he must find her and get her to go help them, he trades the Jolly Roger - and his home, crew, livelihood and reputation along with it - in order to do so. He continues to do good not to “get into Emma’s pants” but to ensure her happiness regardless of whether she ever returns his feelings, and to be the hero he now sincerely wants to be. His redemption comes to a climax in S5, where he becomes evil again after Emma forces the Darkness upon him to save his life, and is once again put into a position where he’d gain everything he wants by following through on his villainy, but remembering that this is not the man he wants to be, he once again does the heroic thing instead, at the cost of his own life. In the Underworld, Hook learns the value of self-forgiveness and accepts the possibility of a second chance at life, but when it looks like this is impossible, he promises Emma to move on to Heaven when she asks him too. Unable to do so until his unfinished business of helping Emma defeat Hades is resolved, Hook has a heroic quest alongside Arthur where he proves just how far he’s come, and when he goes into the light to fulfill his pledge to Emma at the end of it, he is instead resurrected by Zeus, deeming him a True Hero worthy of being reunited with his True Love.
Hook’s redemption is superb not just because of the events that transpire and his growth throughout it, but because of his overall attitude toward the whole thing. He knows full well that he was a villain, is remorseful for every crime he committed and takes full responsibility for them, and whenever the chance to make things right with someone he wronged comes up, he takes it. It takes a long time for him to fully get past his self-loathing for his past sins, as he doesn’t feel entitled to happiness just because he’s changed and is doing heroic deeds now, as opposed to Regina, Rumple and initially Zelena who all believed themselves entitled to a happy ending, their crimes and victims be damned. And lastly, also unlike them, every privilege that Hook has by the end of the series he has earned through his own hard work at redeeming himself. He has no leftovers from anything he gained as a result of his villainy, even the rings on his fingers have changed from ones that belonged to dead victims to new ones he presumably fairly bought. His new wife and family, his friendships with others, his house, his ship, his job as deputy sheriff, his very life…all thanks to his heroism and the good karma it rewarded him with. All of this is why Hook’s redemption is truly the series’ finest.