A New Hope: Emma Swan, Captain Hook, and a Different Kind of Fairytale

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Happy endings aren’t always what we think they will be…

From the fairytales of old to today’s most popular Young Adult novels, there’s a recurring theme when it comes to the idea of happy endings: The happiest ending imaginable is one you share with your first love. No other kind of relationship is romanticized the way first love is romanticized. We’re taught over and over again that there’s no love as great as first love; you’ll never love again like you did the first time, when you were innocent and open and full of hope.

Once Upon a Time is a television show that revolves around the idea of happy endings—what they are, who they’re meant for, and if they’re even possible. Throughout the course of the show’s first three seasons, it’s challenged many basic fairytale tropes—the damsel in distress, the irredeemable villain, etc.—but for a long time it still relied on a very basic piece of classic fairytale mythology: First love is the love all the stories get written about.

For as far as we know (and it would be shocking to find out this isn’t the case), Snow White and Prince Charming are both each other’s first loves and true loves. Their love has grown and matured as they have; it’s been (quite literally) tested by fire and strengthened by shared experiences of joy and loss. Snow and Charming represent the kind of first love that lasts because it didn’t begin with rose-colored glasses or idealized notions of who the other was. But the fact still remains that they—to the best of everyone’s knowledge—have never loved anyone else. And while that’s beautiful, it’s not always relatable.

If there’s one character who grounds Once Upon a Time in the real and relatable, it’s Emma Swan. In Season Three’s “The Heart of the Truest Believer,” Emma told her parents, “My experiences are different.” And one of the biggest differences is how Emma and her parents experienced first love. For Snow and Charming, their first love is their only love, and that’s all they know. But Emma’s first love didn’t end in happily ever after; it didn’t survive every test it faced like her parents’ love has. Emma looked at her parents and saw the kind of love she believed wasn’t meant for her—because she was the savior, because she wasn’t born in a fairytale world, and because her first experience with love left her afraid to let someone get too close again.

Season Two’s “Tallahassee” featured a young Emma who was genuinely happy, unguarded, and as hopeful as a girl who grew up the way she did could be. Emma and Neal’s relationship throughout most of that episode showed the way first love can light up a young person’s life like nothing they’ve ever experienced before and like nothing they’ll ever experience again. However, it also showed that first love can go wrong. Sometimes it doesn’t lead to the happy ending it feels like it’s heading towards.

Learning to open your heart again after it’s been broken is an important theme of Once Upon a Time, and it’s been at the crux of Emma’s character development from the start. Emma has learned to open her heart to her son after it broke her heart to give him up. She’s learned to open her heart to her parents after it broke her heart to feel like an orphan for most of her life. She’s learned to open her heart to a home after it broke her heart to never have a real home growing up. And she’s also learned to open her heart to romantic love after it broke her heart to feel abandoned by her first love.

Once Upon a Time is a story of second chances. For some characters, that theme is shown through second chances at becoming better people. For others, it’s having a second chance at being a parent. And for others, it’s having a second chance at romantic love.

If love—especially first love—ends for whatever reason it may end, that shouldn’t mean you lose your chance at ever finding something as good or even better again. That lesson is at the heart of a story that developed steadily throughout the course of Once Upon a Time’s third season: the relationship between Emma and Hook.

Emma and Hook are kindred spirits, two people who have been broken by the loss of love in their lives, and they recognized that in each other early on. They both know how painful love can be when it doesn’t work out. And instead of lessening the power of their love story, the fact that both have loved and lost before is represented as something that makes their ultimate choice to open their hearts to each other even more powerful.

Emma and Hook don’t view each other’s past heartbreaks with pity; they view them with understanding. When Emma told Hook that she had her heart broken by Walsh, he told her something essential to both of their individual character arcs and the arc their relationship has taken:

If it can be broken, it means it still works.

A broken heart—like Hook experienced after losing Milah and Emma experienced after losing Neal, Graham, and Walsh—isn’t the end of a person’s journey to finding lasting love. Instead, it’s a reminder of the fact that you have a heart that’s still capable of loving even after everything it’s been put through. It didn’t make Hook happy to know Emma experienced a broken heart again, but it did make him happy to know she was able to love again—even if it was with someone other than him. Because a broken heart doesn’t mean you’re irreparably broken as a person; it means there’s still hope, because you’re letting yourself feel—even if what you’re feeling sucks (to paraphrase Emma).

A common downfall of stories about loving again after a broken heart is the erasure of the past—saying things like “I never really loved someone before you.” That turns a second chance at love into its own kind of first love—because we’re so conditioned to believe the best kind of love is first love. But neither Hook nor Emma ever tried to downplay what they felt for Milah and Neal, respectively, and they never asked the other to do that, either. Hook may have told Emma in the Echo Caves that she showed him he could move on from the pain loving Milah had caused him, but he still very affectionately referred to her as “my first love, my Milah.”

And Emma’s relationship with Neal was treated as the formative, important love that first loves often are. In the Echo Caves, Emma also reflected on her first love when she told Neal, “I love you. I probably always will.” You never forget your first love, and that’s okay. But that doesn’t mean you have to always be with them. There’s a balance that needs to be found between respecting the love you once had and will always have and respecting yourself enough to know when there’s just too much pain between you to go back to someone who hurt you.

In Season Three’s “Quiet Minds,” Emma and Neal both seemed to have found that balance. Neal accepted that he and Emma might not be able to love each other the way they once did. And Emma accepted that, although there was heartbreak in their love story, there was some happiness, too:

Neal: I just want you to be happy—even if it’s not with me.
Emma: We were happy—once.

That respect for young, first, formative love while admitting that it might not be the only path to lasting happiness is a very real and refreshing change from most love stories, which either try to negate happiness in the past in favor of the future or romanticize the idea of never being truly happy with anyone but your first love.

First love is something often depicted as a force of nature; something we don’t choose; something we fall into without looking. It’s a kind of love given without hesitation because it’s often propelled by the invincibility of youth. However, in Emma and Hook, we’re given romantic leads who aren’t wide-eyed kids or adults who’ve never really loved before. Instead, we’re given a man who was driven to darkness and self-loathing because he lost his first love and a woman who was unable to believe anyone could love her after her first love left. We were shown all of that—not just told about it in passing. And by seeing just how damaged losing their first loves made Emma and Hook, we’re able to better appreciate just how monumental it is for them to decide to open their heart to the possibility of loving and being loved again.

In Season Three’s “Going Home,” that’s what made Emma’s “Good” after Hook promised that he wouldn’t go a day without thinking about her so important. It was a decision—a choice—Emma made to accept the possibility that someone could love her enough to think about her every day. And it was also a decision to let Hook know that those thoughts were welcomed and wanted. That one word was all Emma could give, but it was enough to see her even able to give that one word—that one moment of acceptance—after believing herself unworthy of love for so long. It was one word, but it was a huge moment for Emma. And Hook smiled in response because he understood what that one word meant—both to her and to him. It meant hope. And we all know that “happy endings always start with hope.”

That same hope was present when Emma and Hook kissed in the Season Three finale. It was a much slower, softer kiss than the one they shared in Neverland, but it made sense for who these characters are and what their arc was about this season. These characters know to be careful with one another; they understand that what’s happening between them is something to be treated gently, because they know how fragile love can be. Emma and Hook aren’t falling in love blindly; they chose to open their hearts to each other with full knowledge of both the pleasure and the pain of love. They know how much love can hurt if it goes wrong, but they’ve helped each other begin to hope that it doesn’t always have to go wrong.

For Emma and Hook, this second chance at love means knowing that you’re giving another person the power to hurt you but completely trusting that they won’t. And that’s what makes this love story so different from what either has experienced before and so relatable for many watching it unfold—it’s a story about two adults who’ve experienced the pain of love as well as the good. And yet they’re still choosing to take that leap of faith with each other. That’s the bravest kind of love there is.

The relationship between Emma and Hook shows that there’s still life after first loves. It’s a relationship that says we can become more than our pasts without erasing those pasts completely. And it’s a relationship that offers hope for people who have loved and lost and are hesitant to open their heart again—hope that you will find love that makes you happy and gives you strength even when you fear it’s not in the cards for you anymore.

And that hope is the kind of stuff happy endings are made of.

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53 thoughts on “A New Hope: Emma Swan, Captain Hook, and a Different Kind of Fairytale

  1. Katie, you have really outdone yourself this time.

    Its so easy to get caught up in routing for ships, and who deserves who, and endgame and all the other stuff that comes with relationships between attractive leads on popular TV shows. But as the saying goes, its the journey, not the destination. And it is truly amazing and inspiring that after all these characters have been through, they choose to take this leap of faith again with each other. The fact that these two are embarking on a new relationship does not at all negate or trivialize the relationships that came before, or even the possibility of others coming after.

    Thank you as always for sharing your thoughts. Your posts are great reminders that this show has much more to say than just being mindless entertainment for the masses, and there are those of us out there that take real inspiration from the stories the writers create. And while others may not see it, I do, and you do, and others do, and thats what matters. Even if it just matters to 1% of the viewing population, it matters to someone, and the haters can go find something else that inspires them, and let us enjoy our world where ideas of hope and being vulnerable are celebrated and encouraged.

    • And, to add, my favorite paragraph is the one on ‘Going Home’. I still think that “good” moment is one of my all time favorite of the show. It was so simple, and so powerful, and so perfectly acted. Its perfection. “That one word was all Emma could give, but it was enough to see her even able to give that one word—that one moment of acceptance—after believing herself unworthy of love for so long…And Hook smiled in response because he understood what that one word meant—both to her and to him. It meant hope.”

      • It is one of the truly great moments from one of my favorite episodes of the series and I love what you wrote about ‘shipping’. We all do it and it’s fun. What makes things so fun here is that it isn’t a battle of ships but a conversation of what lies beyond them. Is it the 28th yet?

    • Thank you so much, Shauna, for these incredibly kind words. I’ve never been one to get caught up in the idea of “endgame” because, as you said, what matters isn’t who ends up with who but how they get there and what that journey says about both characters. And, as I’m sure these almost 2000 words prove, Emma and Hook’s journey says very inspiring things for me personally and as a writer.

      I love that all of us here seem to share a common belief in the power of OUAT to inspire. If people want to hate it or demean it or belittle it, that’s their prerogative, but I love that there are so many of us who want to celebrate the beauty and depth of this show in the face of the negativity that sometimes surrounds it. I’m honored to be a part of that kind of positivity.

  2. “Because a broken heart doesn’t mean you’re irreparably broken as a person; it means there’s still hope, because you’re letting yourself feel.”

    So I was going to write that this might be my favorite sentence I’ve ever read of yours until I got further down this post and discovered this gem.

    “There’s a balance that needs to be found between respecting the love you once had and will always have and respecting yourself enough to know when there’s just too much pain…”

    Drop. Mike.

    Seriously, though these words and frankly the entirety of this essay speaks so well to the depth of your keen analysis and the wonderful storytelling and societal commentary that Once Upon a Time achieves. As you know, what draws me to the show are the recurring themes of redemption, parent/child relationships and yes the capacity to debunk what’s expected. That there are multitudes of paths to take with these characters is what makes this such a wonderful testament to the show.

    Your take on Snow and Charming is so astute. As the child of a set of parents who are each other’s first love 56 years later. It is about understanding who the other person is and growing together. I was discussing this with a friend recently. We talked about how there is a large number of our friends who met in High School that have remained married. It’s because they grew together. Not because they live in some rose colored reality. The strength that comes from loving someone for who they are not what you perceive them to be is rare air. But it isn’t once in a lifetime air.

    It is why your critical look at the basis of first love and the undermining of our capacity to love through the journey of these characters is nothing short of spectacular. I thought in particular your points about how we dismiss first/young love as a mistake to open a pathway instead of understanding that our capacity to love and find happiness within romantic love isn’t about putting it up on a pedestal to be revered but in fact it is about our own fortitude to allow ourselves to be vulnerable with the knowledge that pain is a possibility.

    Two of my favorite quotes talk about the power of love exists in willingness to do it. In Shadowlands at the end of the film when Jack says: “Why love, if losing hurts so much? I have no answers anymore: only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I’ve been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.” That was the beauty of the arc we watched with Emma, from the moment she says Good to Hook. She has made the choice to open up the possibility that love comes even to those who have been wounded. That hurt doesn’t mean you don’t deserve, it just means you are capable of loving differently.

    The other that speaks to that is from the novel The Human Stain. When the protagonist is questioned about the appropriateness and seriousness of a relationship he has with an uneducated woman who is young enough to be his daughter and his response to the judgement is: “Granted, she’s not my first love. Granted, she’s not my great love. But she is sure as hell my last love. Doesn’t that count for something?” He’s a character who is struggling at the end of his life, a life lived in the shadows denying who he truly is who comes to grips with his self identity. Validating the real emotions he finds in this last love gives credence to the fact that first loves, true loves, great loves, last loves all require the ability to open your heart to the possibility of being moved by another person in a way that evokes joy and happiness. You’ve captured that so well here and after a very long week. This fills my soul with joy to read.

    • This comment filled my soul with joy, so consider all of the happiness mutual. I cannot thank you enough for your kind words and your thoughtful response to the discussion I started with this essay—although I expect nothing less than this kind of astute comment from you. 😉

      I am also a member of the “child of parents who are first loves” club, and I think that’s always informed how I see Snow and Charming and first love in general. My parents are living proof that sometimes first love lasts forever—but only if you allow yourselves to grow together. And looking at them as a young woman who didn’t marry her first love has always helped me relate to Emma on that level. And it was a huge part of my inspiration for writing this.

      “it is about our own fortitude to allow ourselves to be vulnerable with the knowledge that pain is a possibility.” – This is gorgeously stated. Love is strength, and to open yourself up to love after knowing how much it can hurt you is such a brave, strong thing to do. But it’s a kind of strength and courage people don’t talk about enough, in my opinion. That’s something I love so much about OUAT; it treats loving as the incredibly courageous act that I feel it is.

  3. The same can be said about Regina and Robin Hood though too. After losing her first love Regina was driven to darkness and self-loathing AND was sure no one would/could ever love her again. We don’t know much about Robin yet, but I’m sure Marian’s death was hard on him.

    But as always, no one cares about Regina, or her storyline.

    • There are plenty of people who care about Regina and her storyline, but no one has taken the time to write something so beautiful like this, and I hope one day someone will 🙂

    • Maybe you could write something like this for Regina then, Katya? Or find someone interested enough to write one too. But please don’t come onto an essay and a thread written about Emma and Hook and complain about it – go and do something about it instead. And have the decency to leave a nice comment about how beautifully this was reasoned and written because even if you’re not a fan of this particular couple, you can at least appreciate a piece of well drafted work when you have (obviously) taken the time to sit and read it!

    • Katya might I suggest you scroll back through the recaps of OUAT on this site. Quite the contrary is true. Especially given her story arc in Season 3 much has been written about Regina, her vulnerabilities and capacity for great love on this site. Not just by Nerdy Girl but by myself and others in the comments sections. It’s led to robust discussion and respectful reflection on what draws us as individuals to this show which in turns offers varied perspectives about the characters and the layers of meaning the storyline provides. The great thing about this site is there is room for all perspectives. The ideas here are about how this show bucks the trope of first love being the only real love that fairy tales would have us believe. NGN chose to prove that hypothesis through Emma and Hooks storyline. Doesn’t mean there aren’t several storylines embedded in the show that would also make this point. Sincerely, if you haven’t done so take a look because you won’t find a better discussion of this show anywhere on the internet.

      • I second this. We had some great Regina discussion this year!

        There are many characters on this show, and what’s great is that every viewer can find the ones that speak to them. My life experiences make me identify most strongly with Emma, but someone else might identify with Regina, or Snow, or Belle. And me loving Emma doesn’t mean the other characters are any less important, you just won’t find me writing at length about them. And that’s why I love when fans of those characters write their thoughts and comments about the other characters, because it gets me thinking about things my own brain doesn’t naturally think about.

    • Thank you for taking the time to read this and for drawing such strong comparisons between Emma/Hook and Regina/Robin. I do agree that Regina’s story, especially in 3B, was about learning to love again after losing her first love. However, with so much of that relationship with Robin in flux right now, I was unsure how any conclusions I made about them if I’d chosen to write about them too would hold up with the new season.

      Though if you think I or most others don’t care about Regina, I do strongly encourage you to look back on some of my other OUAT posts, especially the reviews I wrote of the episodes in 3B. I love writing about Regina, as do many of my regular commenters, so we’ve had some great discussions about her over here. If you come back here this season, I’m sure you’ll see plenty of Regina analysis.

  4. Beautifully written. Emma and Hook are so beautifully written as individuals and together and their development and the kind of love that this show displays with the core couples and the journey for them and coming together.
    Deep Connection and Understanding has been the key to Emma and Hook.
    One of the best scenes is the “There wont be the day I wont think of you” – Hook’s love and devotion comes across so clearly…. and Emma’s reply ” Good” the acceptance and understanding as well and wanting him to do that and the soft smile and eyes flickering to his life… silence that always speaks volumes with them
    I love them!!!!
    Also I love Hook’s “I’d go to the end of the world for her” and just before he had said

    • Sorry cut off on my phone… will continue 🙂
      Hook said those similar words to his big brother and I adored that we got to hear them again for Emma…. because we have seen that he would do and always will. As he said before “When you meet the right person… everything changes” and for them esp Hook it did.

      • Sorry spelling mistake… and grammer.. I blame my mobile phone lol. 😦
        There wont be a day that goes by I wont think of you.
        Her eyes flickers to his lips.
        🙂

  5. I really love this and not even specifically for Hook and Emma. I love what it says about your own views of love (both first loves and all following loves). I found my Charming weirdly early and think everything you said about those two growing together and succeeding because they lack that rosy-eyed view of of each other that fairy tales and other love stories would have you believe are necessary was perfect. It’s just such a great view of love and how it changes, grows and lasts over time.

    I also love everything you had to say about Emma and Hook’s choice to be vulnerable and love again. Both of these characters have been hurt and broken by love in the past and it largely isolated them from the world. I love that Emma’s journey has been about opening herself up to love in all its forms and it’s been truly great to watch her slowly reveal more and more of herself to Hook. She didn’t jump in to this relationship blindly. She’s too used to the pain of betrayal for that. Her “Good” reply was the moment I went all-in on Emma and Hook together because that was a choice and a big moment for her. She wasn’t ready to return his feelings but she was ready to accept that he had them without running away.

    Being hurt makes you vulnerable, no matter who it is that hurts you. It’s easy to stay in that place of hurt and make it a piece of your identity like Hook did. At least it was for me. It’s harder to get to the place where these characters currently are take the risk of first losing the identity that comes with being hurt and damaged but also risk being hurt again for a chance at some happiness. It’s a powerful story and a powerful message and you wrote about it so beautifully.

    • Thank you so much, Heather—not just for this comment but for all of the encouragement while I struggled with how vulnerable this writing process was making me.

      Your last paragraph made me all teary-eyed because I think we’ve all been there. It’s something I’ve related to in both Hook and Emma—letting the fact that you were hurt in the past become a part of your identity. I let it shape the way I looked at the world for such a long time, and it took a lot of courage to decide to stop defining myself by my past and to start defining myself by who I wanted to be in the future. That’s also something I also saw in Regina this season. When she met Tinker Bell again in Neverland and told her she was scared to let go of her anger because she didn’t know who she was without it, I saw something so relatable in her. It takes strength to believe in love again while still admitting you were hurt by it in the past, and I find it so beautiful that this lesson is a part of so many storylines on OUAT.

  6. Really loved your take on Hook and Emma’s love story. And it makes me even more excited for what is to come in season four.

    “There’s a balance that needs to be found between respecting the love you once had and will always have and respecting yourself enough to know when there’s just too much pain…”

    I love this line as it not only sums up Emma’s entire story with Neal during season 3A, but it is also summarizes what both Emma and Hook did in the Echo Caves – they acknowledged the love they had for Milah and Neal and then let them go.

    And as much as I loved “If it can be broken, it means it still works.” when I first heard it. I loved it even more after the Jolly Roger episode when Hook admitted Emma broke his heart.

    One of my favorite things about Hook and Emma is that they are essentially flying without a net. Snowing and Rumbelle have history, including a true love kiss, between them to solidify their feelings. Outlaw Queen, while only together a relatively short time, have pixie dust proclaiming them soulmates. Hook and Emma don’t have anything beyond their own guarded feelings to navigate their relationship with – which for two people as broken as they are – and not just by the loss of first love but by everything life had thrown at them – I think it is incredibly romantic that they find something in one another that makes them want to try – when a lot of people would run.

    Thanks for all the Hook and Emma feels;) And if you are ever in the mood I’d love to read a top ten of your favorite CS moments and your take on them.

    • Thank you for the kind words and the thoughtful comment. I’m always happy to supply the feels. 😉

      You’re 100% right when you say Emma and Hook are choosing to try even without the assurance of a “true love’s kiss” or pixie dust saying they’re soul mates. It makes what they’re doing even more courageous—and even more relatable.

      I’ll keep that top ten list suggestion in my back pocket for another hiatus project. It would be fun!

  7. Once again Katie you have out done yourself – that was a great essay on Emma & Hook and you have totally captured everything that I love about their story! I am so excited to see where their story will go in S4 – & I don’t need no fairy dust to tell me that they will be together!

  8. Fantastic read as always, and you know I’m not a fan of the Emma/Hook pairing so that says a lot!
    Your view on first loves and second chances, and most of what you wrote, made me think of my own experiences and remind myself that I did get over heartbreak, and that regardless of how insurmountable and dark a situation can seem, a new, happy place can be reached if you let yourself go there.
    I also thought you made very interesting points about Emma and Hook, even though I don’t share many of your views. My problem with the pairing, as I’ve stated in other comments, is that I think Hook is not developed enough as an individual character, but mostly as a love interest for one of the leading ladies; if you take Emma out of the equation, Hook has no real purpose in the series.
    I’m sure we’ll discuss at length about this when OUaT comes back, though. Can’t wait for your reviews! =)

    • Thanks so much, Red! It means a lot to me that you found this essay to be a good read even though you’re not an Emma/Hook “shipper.” I’m happy that you could also find hope in the idea of allowing yourself to believe you can move on from heartbreak to find happiness because writing this essay reminded me of that, too.

      Your concern about Hook and his purpose beyond Emma is one I totally understand, even if I don’t share it (mainly because I spend way too much time analyzing every little moment of his). I actually think (and certain interviews and spoilers have led to me to believe I’m not far off in my thoughts) that Hook’s identity apart from being Emma’s love interest is going to be an important arc in at least the first parts of Season Four. So I think you’re right in wondering who Hook is beyond his relationship with Emma—because I think, at this point, Hook is still trying to figure all of that out, too.

      Once Upon a Time is a show with so many deep themes, but one I really enjoy analyzing is the theme of self-definition. These characters are defined by others (the savior, the Evil Queen, etc.), but throughout the course of the first three seasons, we’ve seen them (I’m talking mainly about Emma and Regina) choose to define themselves on their own terms after a lot of soul-searching and struggle. Now, I think it’s Hook’s turn to figure out who he is and how he fits into this place that he’s chosen to call home. He knows he loves Emma, and that’s a huge part of his identity—but it’s not all of it. Is he still a pirate? Does he think he can ever be a hero? Has he really put his dark past with Rumple behind him? I’m hopeful that we’ll get to see more of his development through these questions this season.

      Sorry for the tangent—apparently I’ve been thinking about this a lot without even realizing it. So thanks for giving me the opportunity to write it all down! 😉

      • I live for tangents! ;-P
        You are right though, and I do really hope Hook gets more development this season. I am not by any means “anti-CS”, I just don’t feel like they’ve reached a believable point so far in the development of the relationship and of Hook as a character. It’s always felt rushed to me, like it wasn’t planned but turned out amazingly fine because of Colin O’Donoghue’s talent and his and Jennifer Morrison’s chemistry, so they decided to just go with it. The tale of their ‘love’ though… I’m not conviced. I think that there are other options that make more sense and would be better suited for Emma at this point in OUaT.
        I’m open to change my mind though, if the writing is solid. And articulate, well-thought essays like yours help a lot in coming to accept the possibility of this pairing.

  9. I just want to say I’m so glad you wrote and posted this. I know it must have been difficult to be so vulnerable with your writing, but it always pays off in the end. I think you and everyone else here captured why we love Hook and Emma so much, both as a couple, and as individuals. I’m looking forward to the start of the new season and to your posts!

    • Thank you so much for saying such kind things. This essay definitely made me feel more vulnerable than anything else I’d ever written before, but I cannot even begin to express how much joy it’s brought me to see others responding to it with such open hearts and wonderful insights.

      I can’t wait for this season to start and to be able to discuss each episode with all of you!

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