I didn’t ask for that! I don’t want it!
When Emma Swan spoke those words in Once Upon a Time’s Season-One episode “The Stranger,” she was talking about her role as the savior of all of the cursed inhabitants of Storybrooke. However, she could have been talking about most of the events in her life up through—and even following—that point. Emma is a character who has been defined by things that have happened to her; she is an active woman whose real curse is the way others have so often rendered her passive, stripping her of any ability to choose her own path. But if Emma’s tragedy is the lack of agency she has been afforded in the first 28 years of her life, her journey to her own happy ending is a journey to finally getting to choose what she wants that happy ending to be.
Even before she was born, Emma was a victim of circumstance. She was destined to be the savior because she was the product of Snow White and Prince Charming’s true love. And once she was born, her parents had to make a choice no parent should ever after to make: keep their daughter, knowing she would be cursed along with them, or send her into an unknown world without them because it gave her the best chance to become the savior she would one day need to be. It was an impossible choice, and Snow and Charming cannot be faulted for choosing the way they did. However, their good and loving intentions still meant that Emma grew up alone because of someone else’s choice. Rumplestiltskin chose to create the curse, Regina chose to cast it, and Snow and Charming chose to save Emma from it by sending her through the portal. The only one with no real choice in the matter was the one person who would be most affected by it—baby Emma.
Little did Snow and Charming know, though, that Emma didn’t have to grow up alone. Pinocchio was also sent through the portal, but he was tasked with a job too difficult for a small boy to handle: taking care of the savior. Like Snow and Charming, Pinocchio (who we later come to know as August) was faced with choices no person in his situation should have to face: struggle to take care of a baby when he himself was just a child or strike out on his own. It should come as no surprise to anyone that he chose the latter.
The story of Emma Swan’s formative years is a story of people choosing to leave her, including her first set of foster parents, who decided to send her back into the system when they started their own family. Emma grew up believing that she was abandoned by her parents and subsequently by anyone who ever came close to caring for her. She was powerless to stop people from leaving her behind, completely devoid of control over her own life. She was—in so many ways—a lost girl.
And then she met a lost boy.
In Season Two’s “Tallahassee,” we see Emma choose to open her heart to Neal, a kindred spirit and the first person since that original foster family who Emma appeared to have found a semblance of home with. Unbeknownst to either of them at the time, Neal had more in common with her than just being a young thief without a family. Both were from the Enchanted Forest, both were abandoned by their parents, and both were children deeply damaged by the price of magic. The difference between Neal and Emma was that Neal’s story—Baelfire’s story—was one of action, one of choice. Baelfire chose to go to a land without magic, and he chose to go to Neverland in place of the Darlings. They may not have been easy choices, but he was still able to make them.
In the end, Neal got to choose again, and Emma was left powerless. When faced with August’s truth about Emma’s identity and her role as the savior, Neal chose to believe August, who said there was no other way for Emma to break the curse than to be sent to jail. In Emma’s own words from Season Two’s “Manhattan”:
You left me and let me go to prison because Pinocchio told you to?
And just like that, Emma ended up in jail because two men couldn’t think of a better way to get her to live out the destiny she had no say in choosing. Without any warning or discussion, she was left to believe that the man who loved her didn’t love her at all and let her take the fall for his crimes. Emma saw her fate as punishment for choosing to open her heart to someone, when it was actually a reaction to something she never chose—her true identity and role as the savior. Neal even told Emma in “Manhattan” that, had he known who she was from the beginning, “I wouldn’t have gone near you.” Emma’s true identity—an identity she wouldn’t know for more than another decade—was supposed to reflect her power to restore happy endings. However, it was the reason her happy ending was taken from her without her say. Her future power as the savior was the very thing that frightened a man who really loved her into leaving her powerless again, stuck in a jail cell.
Making the choice to send Emma to jail didn’t just alter her life without her say, it altered the life no one knew she was carrying. Like her parents before her, Emma had the choice to keep Henry with her but didn’t really have a choice at the same time. She knew she couldn’t be a mother given her current circumstances, so she gave Henry up without even holding him. Like loving Neal, giving Henry up was a choice Emma made that didn’t lead to joy; it led to heartbreak. It was another building block in the wall Emma built around her heart to keep her from choosing love ever again.
That wall began to crumble when Henry showed up at her door in the show’s pilot episode. By choosing to let Henry into her apartment, Emma took the first tentative step toward choosing to let someone into her heart for the first time since Neal left her. Little by little, Emma began to choose to open herself up to others—to Henry, to Mary Margaret, and, then, to Graham. Graham didn’t give her a choice when he first kissed her, but he certainly gave her a choice the second time—and Emma ran with it. But that choice once again led to tragedy, as moments later Graham lay dead in her arms. It appeared to be a rule of Emma’s life: Deciding to open yourself up to love brings only pain.
Even Henry kept Emma from making her own choices in order to have her fulfill her destiny. Henry ate the apple turnover that he knew would put him under a sleeping curse because he wanted to make Emma believe. Emma had to endure the pain of watching her son die because someone once again chose to act for her—even if it was in her best interest, even if it was out of love.
Ultimately, it was Emma choosing to love Henry that broke the dark curse. True love’s kiss only works if both parties actively choose to love one another, and Emma chose to love her son with enough strength to break both his curse and the curse on Storybrooke.
Emma chose to love Henry, but she still never chose to be the savior. She still saw herself as a lost girl; she was still a woman whose life was determined by forces beyond her control. Throughout Seasons Two and Three, Emma was hardly ever able to choose happiness for herself—choices needed to be made for the greater good instead. She also lost Henry for a time because he chose to give his heart to Peter Pan, and she almost lost her mother and father because Snow chose to stay in Neverland with Charming before a cure for his poisoning was found.
That’s why Emma’s declaration, “I’m a mother,” in the Season Three premiere was so important—it represented an active choice she made to define herself by something she had control over. It was her way of choosing to live out the advice she gave Ashley in Season One’s “The Price of Gold”:
People are going to tell you who you are your whole life. You just gotta punch back and say, ‘No, this is who I am.’ You want people to look at you differently? Make them. You want to change things? You’re gonna have to go out there and change them yourself because there are no fairy godmothers in this world.
Although her family may still see her as the savior, Emma was finally given a chance to define herself. In Neverland, Emma began to move beyond seeing herself as a lost girl; she began to choose to forge her own path instead of relying on the one laid out before her since the day the dark curse was cast. She chose to lead not because she’s the savior but because she wanted to find her son. It wasn’t about obligation or feeling powerless in the face of her destined role; it was her way of claiming her own power on her own terms.
Emma also began to claim her own power in her romantic life in Neverland. So many of Emma’s relationships with men left her feeling powerless, but in Neverland, she started to see that there was one man who was giving her as much power as she wanted to take—and that was Hook. Their first kiss came about because Emma chose not to walk away from his flirtations and instead chose to seize a moment where she felt truly powerful. Hook may have made it clear that he wanted to kiss Emma, but she was the one who kissed him. She also chose to walk away, and he respected that choice.
Hook’s relationship with Emma is different from any other we’ve seen her engaged in up to this point. He gives her all the power, making his feelings clear but giving her the space she needs to choose for herself whether or not she wants to respond to those feelings. When Emma kissed Hook, she chose something not because it was for the greater good, but because she simply “was feeling good.” She chose happiness for herself in that moment; she chose to be a woman of action.
As the first half of Season Three drew to a close, Emma was making great strides towards choosing her own path and choosing to accept love even after so many years of being hurt every time she chose to open her heart. Neal and Hook gave her the space she needed to work through her feelings about both of them. Even her father helped her discover the importance of choosing to focus on good moments instead of bad ones.
But it wouldn’t be Once Upon a Time without a plot twist, right?
Just when it seemed that Emma was finally allowed to choose her own path to happiness and fulfillment, another curse was enacted that took away her agency yet again. Emma and Henry were forced to leave Storybrooke with only each other, despite their desire to stay with those they loved. Even their memories of Storybrooke would be gone. Every choice Emma had made on the path to leaving the lost girl behind wouldn’t even be remembered. Instead, both she and Henry would be given false memories—happy, but false. In these memories, Emma chose to keep Henry as a baby. But in reality, Emma never made that choice. It might have led to a happier life with her son, but that life wasn’t real. And, if given the choice, Emma is a woman who would want something real.
At the conclusion of Season Three’s midseason finale, “Going Home,” Emma and Henry’s happy life is interrupted by Hook. Unlike she did with Henry in the pilot, Emma didn’t choose to let him into her apartment (and her heart). She chose to knee him in a very sensitive area instead. But Hook knows Emma is the kind of woman who would rather have all her options presented to her—as crazy as they may sound—than live a life she didn’t actually choose for herself.
Emma yearned for a day off from being the savior, and she was given a year away from her destiny. Hook’s arrival presents a decision Emma must make for herself: believe him and accept her role as the savior once again or continue living her life with only Henry. Hook was someone connected to Emma’s growing sense of agency, someone who saw her as powerful not because she was the savior but because she was Emma. Therefore, it made sense for him to be the one to present her with this choice. From a storytelling perspective, it had to be Hook.
Hook may be relentless and determined to get her to remember, but it’s ultimately Emma’s choice to believe him or to even consider believing him. However, I think we all know what Emma is going to choose. She’s going to believe Hook and return to help her family, but the important thing is that it’s her choice this time.
That’s Emma’s true happy ending—no longer being a lost girl because she chose her own path. It doesn’t matter if Emma ends up with Neal, with Hook, with a character we’ve never met (or a surprising one we have), or without any love interest. What matters is that Emma gets to make that choice. And if she chooses anyone, what matters is that they respect her right to make her own decisions about her life and their life together.
For a woman whose life was so often defined by the choices made for her, the happiest ending imaginable is one she chooses for herself.