Title The Jolly Roger
Two-Sentence Summary In Storybrooke, Hook is enlisted to help Ariel reunite with Prince Eric, but the captain is carrying a dark secret about the prince’s fate and his own quest to return to a pirate’s life during the lost year in the Enchanted Forest. When Ariel is revealed to be a shape-shifted Zelena, Hook is cursed to remove Emma’s magic if he ever kisses her.
Favorite Line “Killian, whatever happened this past year—whatever it is you’re not telling me—I don’t care. I’m tired of living in the past.” (Emma)
My Thoughts “True love isn’t easy,” Prince Charming once said (in Season One’s “What Happened to Frederick,” which was coincidentally written by David H. Goodman, who also penned “The Jolly Roger”). The same can be said of becoming a better person, embracing your true self, and learning to let go of your past. But when has anything easy ever been worthwhile to watch when it comes to character arcs?
Let’s not bury the lead here: This episode hurt. I’m still sad about it more than twelve hours later. But I love that I’m this broken-up about it because it means the writers and the actors did their jobs. If it’s done correctly, I love angst. And by “correctly,” I mean, “brought about with believable choices made by characters acting consistently to what we know about their pasts and their current motivations.” And “The Jolly Roger” was nothing if not consistent in terms of its characterization. I understood every choice made in this episode by its featured players, and that’s all I ask for.
The central theme of this episode tied into what is appearing to be the overarching theme of this half of Season Three: You can’t go back. Zelena wants to literally change the past. Charming wanted to go back to being the “cool grandpa” he was when he taught Henry to swordfight and ride horses. Emma wants to return to the life she and Henry led in New York City. And Hook learned the hard way that you can’t run from the pain of the present by desperately trying to rekindle the past.
Why don’t we start with Charming’s misguided attempt to re-create the bond with Henry that drove both of their stories in the first half of Season Two. It made so much sense that it was Charming who would be the most upset by Emma confiding in him that Henry prefers to spend time with Hook. Snow loves her grandson, but Charming developed a much closer bond with Henry. Yes, Charming has his daughter (Anybody else adore the scene with them trying to put together the crib?), but something is missing without his grandson, and he’ll do anything to fix it—including teaching Henry to drive his truck. Was it an incredibly stupid move? Yes. Was it potentially dangerous? Yes. But was it unbelievable? No. It left me shaking my head like Snow (Ginnifer Goodwin was the queen of reaction shots in this episode), but I understood Charming’s motivations. And it gave us Regina’s perfect mother/mayor moment of trying to cover up her concern. I’ll say it a million times because it can never be said enough: Lana Parrilla is doing brilliant work—even more brilliant than usual—in this half of Season Three.
Parrilla was characteristically excellent in her scenes with Jennifer Morrison as well. In an episode that was all about attempts to re-create the past, I loved that Emma’s magic lessons were about the present. When Regina and Emma get together, they mean business. Regina talked about Rumplestiltskin not suffering fools, and it’s clear that the student has become the teacher in that regard. Her no-nonsense dismantling of Emma’s attempts to deflect the conversation about Hook was perfect. Regina knows what it is to be a woman who runs away from love, and I liked that she was trying to get Emma to accept that she’s doing the same thing. And the way she forced Emma’s hand with the bridge lesson was an interesting way to show us that Regina knows Emma’s magic is different from her own; it’s protective instead of destructive. After an excellent Did I just kill the savior? reaction shot from Parrilla, Emma saved herself, and, in doing so, she seemed to have become more comfortable with embracing her true self—her magic.
Emma was the one who wanted to learn how to work the mirror’s magic in the apartment, and Regina admitted that Emma could do it even though she couldn’t. Emma’s magic—magic that came from true love and is motivated by protection—is different than any other we’ve seen on the show. I’m excited to see light and dark magic working together as Regina continues to help Emma access her magical abilities because it’s such a great symbol for these women who have always been foils for each other—two sides of the same coin.
My favorite small moment of Regina’s was when she told Snow that Zelena wouldn’t be able to harm her unborn baby after she cast the protection spell. There was no sense of Regina wanting credit for doing something so different from what she had done 28 years before; there was just a subtle acceptance between these two women that Regina has changed. Regina isn’t going to deny who she was, but her actions in the present prove that she has grown—and she’s grown into a character I really enjoy rooting for.
Speaking of character growth, I think it’s time we started talking about this episode’s hook (horrible pun intended): What has our dear Killian Jones been hiding? I was convinced that it was something completely innocuous, something he was hiding from Emma to keep her from feeling indebted to him or to keep a few of his cards still close to the vest until she shows her hand in terms of her feelings. I thought his lines about going back to a pirate’s life were a big cover-up for looking for Emma as soon as he could. I thought these flashbacks would reveal him to be a hero.
I have never been so happy to be wrong.
Perfect characters are profoundly boring to me because they are profoundly unrealistic. Give me characters who make mistakes and bad choices because we can see them learn and grow. And that’s who Hook is—he’s imperfect; he’s human. And humans screw up. I’m not saying I enjoyed watching Hook slide back into old habits, but I did feel like it came from a believable place. Everything he did in this episode was consistent with who we know him to be as a character; I understood all of his motivations, and so much of that came from what I think was Colin O’Donoghue’s best work on the show to date.
From the beginning, we know this isn’t the same Captain Hook from his former pirate days. I loved the scene with Hook and his “gift” because it showed that there are parts of a pirate’s life that he knows from the start he can never go back to. He’ll keep up the appearance of womanizing, but no amount of pirate bravado can change the fact that he promised Emma he would never stop thinking about her. That promise drove him to a kind of fidelity we always knew was a part of his personality (this is a man who stayed faithful to one woman’s memory for 300 years), but it also drove him to a darkness that we always knew was a part of his personality, too.
Once Upon a Time is very clear about what happens to people when they lose love: It turns them into people who try to forget their best self—the parts of them that flourished when they were around the one they loved—because it’s too painful. Hook doesn’t help Ariel because he wants to be a hero; he helps Ariel because he wants to prove himself as a pirate again because he feels lost without Emma. O’Donoghue perfectly captured Hook’s desperation to return to the ship—and the life—he held before Emma. He was helpless in the face of losing her, but he can take action to get his ship back. His ship had been the one constant in his life for 300 years; it’s the only love he’s been able to hold onto.
I thought Hook’s fight with Blackbeard was pure, swashbuckling fun. I especially enjoyed the shadows against the sail, which was a nice nod to Disney’s Peter Pan. Hook’s pirate side may not be his best side, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching it reappear in this episode. (What can I say? From Han Solo to Jack Sparrow, I’ve always had a thing for pirates.)
The fun was soon interrupted, however, by a choice Hook could never take back. He chose to kill Blackbeard and resume his place as captain of the Jolly Roger, believing that this would lead to Prince Eric’s death and the loss of Ariel’s true love. (Fear not: We later learn they’re alive and well—and living happily ever after.) I think we can all agree that this wasn’t the hero’s choice, but it was a realistic choice for a man who has been through all that Hook has been through.
When Ariel appealed to Hook’s understanding of true love, I wanted to scream at her that this wasn’t the right negotiating path; Hook just lost the woman he’d hoped could be his true love, and he sees no value in that concept anymore. Being a hero—believing in love—has never led to anything good for him. Being a pirate is a well-worn path for him; it’s how he deals with the emptiness that has always come from losing love (Liam, Milah, and now Emma). The Jolly Roger is his, and he has nothing else. Emma was his light after 300 years of darkness, and without her, the darkness took hold again. Everybody lost the day Emma and Henry were separated from them—heroes, villains, and pirates alike. So for Hook, the hero’s path wasn’t one of value anymore. He chose the only path he still thought he understood: the pirate’s path.
It was the wrong choice, but I’m happy he made it in terms of his character arc. The path to becoming a better person isn’t a straight line. Nobody has a perfect journey towards becoming their best self; we all falter, struggle, and even fail. Hook’s journey felt real because his struggle felt real. O’Donoghue made me believe Hook’s sense of emptiness, and his desperate need to fill that emptiness with something tangible—his ship and the life it represented. But he also made me believe that he deeply regretted that choice, which is a huge stepping stone on the path to becoming a better man.
As soon as Ariel leapt into the sea to find Eric, Hook knew he’d made a mistake; he knew he couldn’t be that same pirate he once was. He’d learned there was still good inside of him during his time with Emma and her family, and he’d learned he still knew what honor was. The fact that he acted so dishonorably with Ariel was a secret he carried with crushing guilt from that moment on.
I feel like all of Hook’s cagey behavior concerning his missing year makes so much sense when you think of it coming from a place of extreme self-loathing and guilt. O’Donoghue was so good at showing in the tense way he carried himself throughout all of his interactions with Storybrooke Ariel that he was horribly guilt-ridden by what had happened to Eric. And when he ran back to her, pleading for a way to right what he saw as one of his most egregious wrongs, I wanted to cheer for this character and how far he had come. Hook has always been one of the show’s most self-aware characters, and he knew that what he’d done deserved no less than the painfully honest confession he made to Ariel. Hook didn’t try to make amends with Ariel for Emma. He wanted to make things right with her because he knew he’d done a terrible thing and couldn’t live with the guilt anymore. It was a moment of genuine character growth, perhaps Hook’s finest moment on the show so far. He wasn’t trying to be a hero; he was just trying to be a better man—not for Emma but for himself. Being a pirate left him as empty as his quest for revenge, but he still knew one thing about himself—one good thing in a sea of self-loathing—he still believed in love.
When Hook bowed his head and admitted he loves Emma, you could feel the weight of all of his 300 years in that moment. He spent the flashback trying to do anything in his power to return to the man he was before loving Emma, but that one, pained “Yes,” showed that what he told Emma at the beginning of the episode is true: You can’t go back to who you were; you can’t pretend things never happened just because those things caused you pain. Hook can’t deny loving Emma because it’s the one part of his identity he knows—he’s not a pirate anymore, he’s not a hero, but he is a man who can love.
But that ability to love turned out to be yet another path to pain for Hook. It wasn’t until Joanna Garcia Swisher (who was brilliant in this episode) smiled an evil little smile when talking about Hook’s broken heart that I knew the twist was coming, and I loved that this show can still manage to surprise me. Zelena preyed on Hook’s remorse and love—two of his best traits. And by corrupting Hook’s love for Emma and her family, Zelena finally became a villain I could hate. She was a campy witch with a relatively boring backstory before, but now she made it personal with my favorite characters.
I have a lot of questions that I hope will be answered about the plot-related reasons for Hook’s cursed state (especially in terms of what exactly Zelena wants—not just with Emma but with everyone). But my moments of frustration over having so few answers about Zelena’s actions were balanced by the weight of the emotional ramifications of this curse.
Hook has always been the one character to embrace all that Emma is. In the beginning of the episode, we saw him beaming with pride over her magical abilities. When he watched Emma perform the mirror spell, Hook knew he couldn’t do anything to jeopardize this beautiful part of her that she was finally starting to embrace. I’m convinced that he wanted to tell Charming right away—it’s why he went straight to the apartment—and I think he’ll tell him in the next episode. But I think we’ll be seeing the angst with Emma go on a little longer.
From a character perspective, this curse is the key to Emma finally moving out of her state of denial about how deeply she cares about Hook. The end of this episode made it abundantly clear that she wants him by her side. By calling him Killian out of Henry’s earshot, she acknowledged that she sees him as more than just a pirate. And by telling him that she was tired of living in the past, she wanted to give him hope. By accepting her magic, Emma is starting to accept that she is more than a woman who is haunted by her past, and she wants to choose her own future. Emma is ready to begin to move on, and she is trying to tell him in her own guarded way that she thinks she could do so with him. So when Hook walked away from her, leaving her alone with the yearning look she swore to Regina she’d never wear, it hurt because I felt the pain of both characters. Emma is a woman who fears abandonment, and Hook is leaving her behind just as she started to open up her heart to him. And Hook knows how much walking away would hurt her, but he thinks it’s what he has to do.
Hook standing alone outside of Granny’s was such a poignant image. Hook didn’t belong back in a world of piracy; he belonged with these people—with this woman. But he’s convinced that he isn’t meant to have happiness; he is now a man whose love is literally cursed. I hope he tells someone his secret soon, and I hope Emma finds out before too long. It’s one thing to keep things dramatic for a little while, but not telling Emma takes away her agency again. However, I think Zelena underestimates Emma—not in terms of her magic but in terms of her ability to love. True love’s kiss can break any curse, so I have a feeling Emma will be choosing to kiss Hook before the season is done, breaking his curse and solidifying them as another Once Upon a Time power couple.