OK, so I hope I can get this out coherently, because I have a lot of complicated feelings when it comes to Regina and the way in which the show tries to portray her. I’d warn any Regina fans to stop reading right now. Alright, here goes.
As the initial villain of the show, Regina had the potential to be one of two characters - the fierce, unapologetic villainous bitch, out to destroy Snow White, who makes no excuses for who she is and doesn’t ask for sympathy, only subservience (reminiscent of Cora). The other option was to be a neglectful and self-centered Queen, obsessed with revenge on Snow, who ignores her Kingdom in favour of her personal vendetta - but who is not actually evil and ends up showing true remorse for her neglect (such as Anastasia in OUATIW). The first option would allow for an amazing villain who we could love to hate and the latter would allow for a convincing redemption arc and would prevent Regina from crossing the Moral Event Horizon. Instead, the show tries to attempt both, but in a ridiculously rushed and clumsy way, which has resulted in an attempt to redeem and excuse a murderer and rapist.
In Season 1, Regina is actually a terrific villain - fierce, cruel, self-centered and completely focused on destroying the person she perceives to be her enemy (Snow). I loved to hate her in Season 1. Her actions are ridiculously cruel in the first season. She murders her husband in cold blood, separates children from their parents on multiple occasions, sends children to their deaths, attempts to murder Snow numerous times, repeatedly rapes an innocent man, orders the murder of her supposed friend Kathryn, frames Mary Margaret for murder, emotionally abuses her son and attempts to hurt Emma numerous times, not to mention cursing an entire land into a new world where they lost their sense of selves. She is beyond reproachable in Season 1 but the show treats her as such. Even her backstory is not treated as an excuse, rather it simply shows us the root of her hatred. The end of the season suggests that she will be punished the following season, and made to face her crimes.
That, unfortunately, never happens. Season 2 starts the messy and clumsy “redemption” of Regina by attempting to woobify her in the most ridiculous ways. Instead of having Regina face jail time or showing her facing the people she has hurt and understanding their pain, the show tries to show us the vulnerable side of Regina using the worst possible framing. We are supposed to feel proud of her when she allows Henry to go with David, despite the fact that hours before she had used a tree to physically restrain him. We are supposed to feel sorry for Regina as she sits alone in Granny’s diner at MM’s and Emma’s welcome back party with no one to talk to, yet she’s sitting in a room full of people whom she cursed for no reason and who have no reason to forgive her. We’re supposed to empathise with Regina’s loss as she watches, through a barricade, a young boy whom she just separated from his father. Almost every attempt at making Regina sympathetic in Season 2 falls flat, because it comes on the tail-end of her hurting someone or attempting to exact harm on them.
Season 3 takes the mess made in Season 2 and, if possible, makes it worse. I had hoped that maybe the Neverland arc would show Regina learning to work with others and maybe start to mend some bridges, and while she was certainly more toned-down and restrained, any progress made was undone the minute she revealed she felt no regret for her crimes. A character who feels no regret cannot be redeemed, because redemption requires the acknowledgment of one’s crimes and genuine remorse at the pain and harm caused. By stating she had no regrets (a statement somewhat echoed later in the season when Regina talks with an incarcerated Zelena) the show strips Regina of the chance at genuine redemption, at least for the moment.
Now, while Regina does take a big step forward in the mid-season finale, once again the writing becomes clumsy and rushed. Regina’s ultimate “price” for reversing the curse - losing Henry - is laughable, given that she loses him for all of a year (compare with the Charmings losing Emma for twenty-eight years). With the return of Season 3, the show suddenly decides that Regina is, for all intents and purposes, redeemed. She is allowed to claim that the “Evil Queen” title was merely a name used to inflict fear (she says this to Robin) rather than a well-earned moniker referencing her heinous crimes. She produces True Love’s Kiss with Henry (I actually don’t mind this too much, but it’s still somewhat unsettling). And Snow - a woman whom Regina abused for years - is forced to apologise for a murder which happened due to a literal life-and-death situation. Apparently Regina’s actions in the mid-season finale where enough to wipe away years of murder, torture and sexual assault and she can now be viewed as a victim and a good person. The fact that the show allows her to produce good, white magic is utterly ridiculous.
What is absolutely frustrating and annoying about Regina’s character and her arc, is that, thanks to Lana’s excellent portrayal (and the writers occasionally hitting the mark) Regina does, at numerous times, come across as genuinely sympathetic. Even the most staunch Regina-hater cannot deny that this woman has had some extremely hard knocks. The problem arises when the show asks the audience to view Regina’s trauma as an excuse for her behaviour, rather than a reason. So many of Regina’s crimes have gone unacknowledged and unresolved (murdering children, raping Graham, emotionally abusing her son) and so it is very hard to take her redemption seriously or feel that she genuinely deserves it. Regina has crossed the Moral Event Horizon so many times and yet the show refuses to acknowledge her wrongdoings, choosing instead to change her character and pretend that everything has been erased - and that is what truly frustrates me about Regina Mills.