Title Dark Hollow
Two-Sentence Summary Ariel meets up with Belle in Storybrooke to search for an item in Gold’s shop that could be the key to defeating Peter Pan, who we discover has been keeping Wendy Darling prisoner and forcing her brothers to do his bidding in order to keep her alive. Pan is using Wendy to manipulate Henry into believing in him and his games, but the Operation Henry team gets one step closer to their goal when Emma, Hook, and Neal retrieve Pan’s shadow from the dangerous Dark Hollow.
Emma: The only thing I have to choose is the best way to get my son back.
Hook: And you will.
Emma: You think so?
Hook: I’ve yet to see you fail…When you do succeed, that’s when the fun begins.
My Thoughts “Dark Hollow” was a great example of what Once Upon a Time can be when it’s firing on all cylinders: surprising, inspiring, romantic, funny, sincere, smart, and even a little bit unsettling. The recurring theme for this season so far has been belief, and this episode wove that theme through all of its various storylines and character interactions with a sure hand and an open heart. In doing so, what could have been a disjointed episode became one that both moved the plot along in a very real way and hit every emotional beat that needed to be hit on the journey.
I liked that, after a few episodes without any real progress on the Operation Henry front, we got two very important steps forward and each one came from a different part of the Neverland rescue team. The Storybrooke plot was a great way to keep the plot moving along while bringing back all of the characters we’ve been missing so far this season. It was great to see Grumpy, Archie, and especially Granny.
The real star of the Storybrooke plot, though, was Belle, and this episode was a great way to highlight what’s so unique and beautiful about her as a character. She may not shoot arrows or use a sword, but she’s incredibly resourceful. And she can read people and their true natures in the same way she reads the books she loves so much. I loved seeing the return of the chipped cup and all it represents for the relationships between Belle and Rumplestiltskin—what can I say, I’m a sucker for symbolism. I found Rumplestiltskin’s hologram message an obvious Star Wars shout-out (“Help me, Belle, you’re my only hope…”), but that actually made me enjoy it even more. However, the Belle-centric relationship I found myself caring about the most in this episode was the bond she formed with Ariel.
Once Upon a Time has done a good job of creating some very strong relationships between women—both as friends and enemies—that aren’t focused on talking about their love lives. Belle and Ariel made quite the dynamic detective duo, and I really enjoyed the playful, sisterly chemistry that developed between JoAnna Garcia Swisher and Emilie de Ravin. Garcia Swisher was especially strong in this episode—even better than she was in her introductory episode last week. I loved her wide-eyed curiosity in Gold’s shop (Anybody else start singing when she said “Look at this stuff?”), I loved her slightly sarcastic remark about Rumplestiltskin being overly cryptic, and, more than anything else, I loved seeing how her strength complemented Belle’s. Neither woman is a warrior, but they’re heroes in their own right. They used their brains (and tails, in Ariel’s case) to save the day, even though you could feel their fear of the two outsiders. The most real and admirable kind of bravery is when someone pushes on even though they’re terrified, and that’s something I’ve always admired about Belle (and now Ariel)—their fear feels real, but then so does their bravery and heroism.
What ultimately saved the day, though, was Belle and Ariel coming to understand the outsiders’ motivations and getting them to believe that they could get their sister back using the power of good rather than evil. I called the Darling brothers twist early on in the episode (I’ll admit it wasn’t 100% serious—more like a “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” scenario), but that didn’t make the reveal any less impactful. Once again, this show highlighted that all kinds of love can be motivating factors and sources of both incredible goodness and incredible darkness when that love is threatened or destroyed. There haven’t been many examples of the love between siblings so far on this show (besides this season’s exploration of Killian and Liam Jones), so it was nice to see that bond put on display as another example of true love that can exist outside of a romantic relationship.
Trapping Wendy in Neverland made the stakes for this story arc even higher, and it made Peter Pan even more of a villain. To see this young girl caged like an animal and only released to do Pan’s bidding was horribly disturbing but so true to the unnerving, manipulative character the writers and Robbie Kay have created. I wanted to see the relationship between Pan and Wendy explored in depth on the show, but I never imagined it would be like this. And when I think of the fact that young Bae’s sacrifice was all for naught, it absolutely breaks my heart.
Pan’s use of Wendy to play to Henry’s desire to be a hero was perfect. Kay plays Pan’s manipulations so well and with so much controlled malice that I get chills every time he appears onscreen, but I find myself smiling as well at the sheer glee he brings to being a horrible person (or mythical creature or whatever he is). It’s like watching Regina and Rumplestiltskin at their best—and that’s not something I would ever say lightly.
Speaking of Regina—just when I started to think there wasn’t going to be any of her delicious sass in this episode, she showed up with that perfect line about Ariel using her legs, tail, or whatever Eric is into. Lana Parrilla is eating up her character’s great dialogue this season, and I hope it never stops.
Another thing I hope never stops is the way this Neverland arc is giving Josh Dallas something to do besides saying “I will always find you” and looking dashing while doing so. The tension between Snow and Charming throughout this episode was perfect. (Also, I have to take a moment to celebrate the fact that he FINALLY called her Snow!) And when it all came to a head, Dallas and Ginnifer Goodwin made me believe every single emotion playing out for these characters. I could understand both sides of their argument, and I never doubted that both of them were coming from a place of the deepest kind of love. These two characters work because they believe in each other and in the stability of their marriage—and we as an audience believe that, too. With Goodwin and Dallas at the helm, this relationship has always served as a solid foundation for this show, and they proved that once again with the emotional honesty, genuine chemistry, and simple intimacy on display in their big moment.
If the love story between Snow and Charming is one of the foundational elements of Once Upon a Time, then the other is the growth of their daughter from a young woman who believes she’s better off alone and was robbed of all agency in her life to a young woman who is learning to love in a healthy way and making her own decisions about her life. “Dark Hollow” could have been a clichéd “love triangle” episode, reducing Emma to a prize to be won or a woman struggling to choose between two lovers. Instead, it played on that cliché, exposing it for how ridiculous it really is and reminding us that Emma is above any and all “Team Neal” versus “Team Hook” shenanigans.
I’m still hoping for more of an exploration into Hook and Neal’s relationship, but I know this episode was just the start of their interactions. The first scene between them in the cave was filled with a lot of great subtext—both men sharing things with Emma that the other won’t ever have (Hook’s kiss representing a present attraction that Neal can’t force with Emma, and Neal’s “our son” comment designed to remind Hook that he and Emma have a past and a child that Hook will never be able to fully understand). But then things got stupid. Neal got bitter, Hook got competitive, and both 300-year-old men were reduced to acting like children fighting over a lighter and the woman it represented. It looked ridiculous, and it was supposed to. We were supposed to be embarrassed for both of them; we were supposed to applaud Emma for hating their antics. In some love triangles, we’re supposed to enjoy seeing the men fight over a woman, but in this love triangle, we’re supposed to look at them fighting and think “Emma has more important things on her plate than you two idiots!” Once Upon a Time isn’t a story about Emma Swan’s love life; it’s a story about Emma Swan’s journey towards believing in herself—and from the pilot that has meant believing in herself as a mother above anything else.
I really liked what Neal had to say to Emma at the end of the episode. The two of them will always be bound by their love for Henry, and that little boy will always serve as their reminder that even two broken people could come together and create something good. But he has to admit that there might be too much pain in their past to allow anything to grow between them other than a co-parenting relationship built on a love that will always exist but isn’t right for either of their futures. I thought Michael Raymond-James delivered those lines perfectly; Neal is opening his eyes to the fact that fighting for Emma may not be enough. The damage may already be too great to overcome, and that’s what makes this relationship so interesting. There is still so much love there, but there is still so much loss, too. It’s a fascinating, all-too-human dynamic, and I think Raymond-James and Jennifer Morrison have always played it wonderfully.
If we’re looking at the facts of this episode, Neal’s chances are looking slimmer by the minute. Hook is the one Emma continually looks to for guidance about Neverland, and he’s the one she pulled aside to ask about Neal’s attitude. He’s also the only one she called out for when the shadows attacked. Don’t get me wrong; like I said, I think Emma and Neal have a fascinating dynamic, but it’s fascinating because it’s so complex and broken. And what do I want for Emma right now as a character? I want hope, happiness, and support for this character who has lived without those things for so long.
And coincidentally, those are all the things Hooks gave to her in their moment alone in the jungle (along with plenty of sincerity and sexual tension—a very winning combination in my book). I love that Hook is nothing but honest with Emma throughout this scene—from telling her why Pan told him about Neal to telling her he’s not giving up on his quest to win her heart. Hook’s honesty and selflessness mean more to Emma than any kiss because she’s never really had either of those things in her life for any extended period of time, and I’m sure she’s had plenty of kisses.
I’m sure Emma has also had plenty of empty promises thrown her way in life, so it’s a big deal that she didn’t shut down Hook’s assertion that he will win her heart. In fact, Emma looked—dare I say it?—incredibly turned on by his earnest profession of his intentions. And, honestly, who wouldn’t be with words like this coming from a pirate with a sense of honor who looks like Colin O’Donoghue:
When I win your heart, Emma — and I will win it— it will not be because of any trickery. It will be because you want me.
I’m sorry, I’m still swooning over that almost a day later. What got me the most was the incredible sincerity O’Donoghue gave to each line. Hook isn’t acting out of sheer bravado; it’s been established that he and Emma understand each other, and he knows that if he continues to be the honorable man that loving her has helped him become once again, he will win her heart. He doesn’t want her as a prize; he wants to earn her heart. He wants her to choose him not just over Neal but over her own walls. And he knows that the only Emma worth having is the Emma who kissed him—the Emma who wants him, the Emma who chooses him.
Morrison did such a phenomenal job of physically showing just how affected Emma was by Hook’s words. The way her body angles towards him rather than away from him, the way she looks at his lips, her soft smile, and the breathless way she tells him that it’s not a competition all show us just how attracted Emma is to this combination of Killian Jones (sincere and vulnerable) and Captain Hook (“A man unwilling to fight for what he wants deserves what he gets.”). But Henry is still her top priority—and Hook understands that. Emma saving Henry isn’t anything but a certainty in his mind, and the matter-of-fact way O’Donoghue said that line just about killed me.
Emma is afraid she’ll fail; she still doubts herself. And Hook is the only one she let her guard down in front of, the only one she let see her doubts about being a leader and saving her son. The way Morrison showed Emma latching onto Hook’s belief in her was beautiful. He believes in her with a totality that is only matched by Henry’s belief in her, and that’s a huge thing for this lost girl who grew up without anyone believing in her. And that matters to her, you can see it all over her face. Not only can she be vulnerable with Hook, she can look to him for strength in her moments of self-doubt and know he’s not lying when he says she will succeed. Once Upon a Time is a show about hope and belief, and that one moment showed how Hook gives Emma both of those things. Good form, indeed, Captain.
However strongly Emma feels drawn to Hook and however deeply entangled she feels her past is with Neal’s, at the end of the day, we all know her true love is her son. Emma defined herself at the start of the season as a mother, and that is all she has time to be right now. One of the things that drew me to this show right off the bat was that the central love story of Season One was about the love between a mother and her son. Once Upon a Time celebrates love in all its forms, and Emma’s choice at the end of this episode reinforced that. All the characters on this show are driven by love and, right now, Emma is driven by love for her son. That scene was a great way to remind viewers that Emma Swan is better than a clichéd point of a love triangle; she’s a three-dimensional character whose life is defined by so much more than which man she’ll choose.
If Once Upon a Time is a show about belief, then it seems fitting to say that I believe the reason this season is so good is because Emma has been its central figure. She’s a character worthy of immense love—from whomever she may choose romantically, from the fans, and from the writers of the show.