I make no apology for my obsession, since if ever there was a series designed to entrap villain-lovers like myself, it's this one. I could go on and on about it, but will limit myself for now to one theme - one relevant for the subject of villains and happy endings, namely redemption and how it's handled. At a later date, I will come back to my hopes and wishes for season seven. There's no space to go into the complicated premise of the series: my reflections on the first one-and-a-half seasons here will give you a general idea.
In the case of Once Upon A Time, the common complaint of series viewers is actually true: the first season really was the best. Season two was almost equally good, though, and although season three had its longueurs, it also had some satisfying emotional pay-offs, plus the first three seasons as a whole form a near-perfect story arc, not least for the original villain duo. Regina Mills (Lana Parrilla), aka the Evil Queen from Snow White, was the main antagonist in season one: she had her own weighty reasons for hating Snow White that had nothing to do with which of them was fairest of them all, and her warfare against Snow, her prince David aka Charming (initially an ironic nickname given to him by his later loved one) and their daughter Emma was relentless. It was hard not to be impressed by all that passion, not to mention the cutting one-liners. Then there's my reigning villain crush (and not just mine, happily): Mr Gold, aka Rumplestiltskin - Rumple to his friends (if he had any), to his lovers, occasionally - confusingly - to his enemies, and to online commentators everywhere. If IMDB is to be believed, the part was expressly created for the Scottish actor Robert Carlyle, and boy does he make the most of it. Initially I preferred the more understated Gold to the outré fairy-tale version of Rumplestiltskin, but as I got used to the mannerisms of the latter I got to appreciate them equally. The trademark flippant callousness of fairy-tale Rumple can be just the tonic when Gold is having a hard time in the Storybrooke part of the plot, and besides he's such fun. So, to borrow an old tag line from a trailer of Dempsey and Makepeace: "He's mean, she's moody, together they're magnificent", and without this strong villain pairing (more than occasionally working against each other) I doubt the series would have been such a hit.
All of which meant that a "despair and die" ending for these two characters would hardly have satisfied the fans. Neither of them showed much inclination for reforming in season one - we gathered from their powerful back-stories that they hadn't always been bad, but also that if they were nicer in pre-dark magic days they were also completely miserable. In season two, however, both Regina and Gold came under pressure from their loved ones to mend their ways, and tried to do so - interestingly, though, they found it a hard slog and far from instantly rewarding, so progress was shaky to say the least. Season three nearly got them there, as redemption started to look as something worth striving for for its own sake, not just to please demanding sons/love interests. With a little tweaking - the removal of an unnecessary complication in Regina's love life, the inclusion of Gold's moving speech at his son's graveside from the first episode of season four - the perfect end point would have been reached in the season three finale.
But the show had to go on, and there's little you can do dramatically with a reformed villain. Cue Problematic Season Four, where Gold fell spectacularly off the redemption bandwagon and saw his happy ending unravel as a consequence, simply because the plot demanded it. There were great Gold/Rumple scenes in this season, but this villain magic certainly came with a price. As for Regina, she stayed on the road to reform - more or less - but it didn't do her much good plot-wise, and it took away some of her glamour from the days when she was wicked. This was even more apparent in the less harrowing but decidedly muddled season five, when she became almost dull.
I had hoped that season six would manage to answer some of the questions thrown up by the previous five seasons on the subject of redemption in a convincing way. Like "change": it's not possible to have a personality transplant, so if you're a villain and happy to be one, how is reform even possible? Can someone who makes "change" a condition of their love be said to truly love you, or do they simply love the idea of what their wonderful rehabilitative powers could mould you into? And what's the point of redemption anyway, besides being the only way those bastard script-writers will give you a happy ending? The series makes many a compelling case for going dark, but it's less convincing when arguing for doing good: even (for the moment) reformed villains aren't much good at this. "Don't make the same mistakes I made" is the brunt of their argument. Why not? You had a blast, didn't you?
One concept touched upon in season two but never developed is to become "the best version" of oneself - which would mean that villains wouldn't have to change their personalities in order to better themselves, merely to give good qualities that they've always possessed a chance while toning down their crush-your-enemy's-heart-into-dust side. I'd have liked to have seen this reasoned out in season six, but I'll have to be content with the fact that they managed to get the redemption part of the story right in practice, even if there weren't many explanations attached to it. The villains are still recognisably themselves: Regina is still a sharp-tongued boss lady, and Gold still doesn't really care a button for anyone but his nearest and dearest. Elsewhere, Captain Hook (Emma's love interest) is still a hothead with a piratish swagger, and one senses that buried hatchets could in certain circumstances be unburied at a moment's notice. Regina's half-sister Zelena aka the Wicked Witch of the West won't be putting herself up for charity work anytime soon either. In different ways, though, they have distanced themselves from their villainous pasts and acknowledged that the way forward lies in another direction. And if that isn't enough to earn you a happy ending - along with keeping the show entertainingly on the road for six seasons - I don't know what is.