Title Swan Song
Two-Sentence Summary When the arrival of all the past Dark Ones in Storybrooke threatens to send our heroes to the Underworld, Emma believes the only way to save her family is to sacrifice herself. However, as we learn through flashbacks about the impact Killian’s father had on the man he became, we learn in the present that the man Killian wants to be might be different from who the Dark Ones thought they were dealing with.
Killian: That’s enough!
Nimue: What do you think you’re doing?
Killian: Being the man I want to be.
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.’
Once Upon a Time is a show about many things. It’s a show about hope. It’s a show about love. It’s a show about family. And it’s also a show about self-definition. From the moment Emma Swan uttered that line about saying “No, this is who I am,” back in the early days of Season One, this became a show about so much more than just believing in fairytales. It became a show about believing in your ability to define yourself on your own terms.
We’ve seen it over and over again: A crucial theme on Once Upon a Time is that our choices determine who we are. Labels of “villains” and “heroes” mean nothing without actions to back them up. And it’s never too late to change how others see us—and, more importantly, how we see ourselves. What it comes down to is recognizing when you have a choice to—as Emma said—punch back, and being brave and strong enough to make that choice. To believe you can be more than your weaknesses, your darkness, and your demons. To believe you can be your best self.
“Swan Song” distilled that theme of choosing how you want the world to see you into a series of incredibly powerful, moving moments for many characters. Some were tragic, some were shocking, and some were more hopeful than even I expected—and I’m the queen of reminding people that Once Upon a Time is a show with hope in its DNA.
Was it a perfect hour of television? Of course not. This show is always going to have some plot holes and loose ends that don’t get tied up. Yes, I’m still confused about why Merlin had a Dark Curse ready to go in Camelot. Yes, it felt weird to have no closure with the Camelot characters or Merida. (Maybe we’ll still be seeing them in 5B. Even if we don’t, I was happy we focused more on the regular cast for this hour. You can only do so much with 45-ish minutes of storytelling time.) And yes, sometimes the magical deus ex machina stuff gets a little old. (“I had some magic nearby…” Of course you did, Rumplestiltskin.) But, ultimately, I don’t watch this show for perfectly tight plotting. I don’t watch it for the guest characters, either—no matter how fun they might be. I don’t watch it with the idea that everything has to make perfect sense. I watch it because it makes me feel more deeply than any other television show I’ve ever seen. I watch it because I care about the core characters with an intensity that led me to start a website where I could write as much as I wanted to about them. And I watch it because its themes speak to my heart and soul in a way that matters so much more than any piece of plotting ever could. And the theme that has always spoken to me the most is that of choosing who you want to be, so you can imagine how much “Swan Song” resonated with me—since the most important line was “What kind of man are you going to be?”
The first time that line was uttered was in the episode’s opening flashback, with the cutest little Killian Jones imaginable being asked that question by his father. But after waking up to find that his father had abandoned both him and his older brother, Killian also discovered that they’d been sold into slavery (or indentured servitude or whatever term that realm used). And suddenly, so many things about Killian Jones made so much more sense.
I love when Once Upon a Time flashbacks give you information that suddenly illuminates a character in a whole new light. And that’s what happened upon learning that Killian Jones spent his childhood under the control of a master. In that moment, the pieces all fell into place. Choice has always been such a huge part of this character. And it’s been a central element of his relationship with Emma from the very start. Now we know why he’s always been so adamant about her making her own choices; it’s because he knows what it’s like to have your freedom taken from you. This piece of information about his past also sheds important light on why Emma trying to control him with Excalibur was what pushed him over the edge into the darkness. Having control over his own life is essential for Killian, and when that was threatened—by the woman whose own sense of control and agency he worked so hard to protect—he lashed out like a wounded animal, the scars from his past reopening to let the darkness back in.
And when the darkness came in, it came in the most dramatic way possible. (Did we expect anything less from Captain Hook, though?) It was chilling to see the hooded Dark Ones walking through the streets of Storybrooke. And it was even more chilling to see characters we’ve always associated with hope (Snow and Henry) genuinely afraid and resigned to their fate in the Underworld. If ever there’s a time to feel hopeless, it’s when Snow White starts talking about spending time with her loved ones before they all literally go to hell.
But if tying this arc to the story of Brave was meant to do anything, it was meant to teach us that you can change your fate, even if that fate is to spend eternity in the Underworld. Emma’s fate seemed to be that she would stay alive while all her loved ones were taken to the Underworld, but she knew she could change that fate—not by being the Dark One but by being the Savior. She tried to save Killian from death with darkness, but she knew that, in order to save her family, she would have to destroy the darkness instead of multiplying it.
It broke my heart to see Emma lose hope that she could save Killian from his dark fate (That’s what the darkness does—it tears apart love with doubt and disbelief.) but vow to change everyone else’s fate by sealing her own. Emma has learned that all actions have consequences—even actions taken with good intentions. That’s what her showdown with Killian in her house was all about: facing the consequences of her actions and her choices. When she told him that he was becoming the thing he’d spent centuries trying to destroy, his reply was perfect: “If you didn’t want me to change, you should have let me die.” Dark Hook is a reminder to Emma that her choice to deny him his dying wish and instead turn him into the thing he’s hated for centuries was selfish. And she believed the only way she could atone for what she’d done was to die trying to right the wrong she committed.
But whether he was going to admit the real reason for it or not, Dark Hook didn’t want her to die. Somewhere underneath the darkness was someone who still cared about her—even if he hid it under the guise of owing her for unleashing his dark side once again. But that didn’t mean he still didn’t want her to suffer. There was a kind of twisted poetry behind the idea that her penance for turning him dark because she was unable to let him go was to have to let everyone else she loves go. The Dark One knows how to target a person’s deepest fears and weaknesses, and Dark Hook knew exactly what would hurt Emma the most: turning her into an orphan again, just as she turned him into a villain again.
There was no doubt that Dark Hook was a villain. And he was another character who seemed to resign himself to a pessimistic fate. He became a Dark One believing he was destined to be consumed by it, because he never fully believed in himself as a hero. So every action he committed as Dark Hook felt like a self-fulfilling prophecy, a reminder that it’s easy to be defined by who we were and it’s easy to convince ourselves that we’ve always wanted to be what we are now—even if that’s not true. Killian Jones felt he had to be Dark Hook because he wasn’t strong enough to be more than his darkness, so he let it consume his identity.
That fit in perfectly with what we saw in the flashbacks to Hook and Regina’s past adventure. What I’ve always loved in Hook-era flashbacks is the way they all show the same thing: Killian Jones still existed under the Captain Hook exterior, but he always chose to let himself be controlled by his demons and darkness in the end. It was that way with Bae and with Ursula. And now we learned it was also the same way with his father.
I cannot say enough good things about Colin O’Donoghue in the scene where Hook finally confronted his father. He managed to make so many complex emotions come through which such startling clarity. His work in that scene reminded me of when Killian told Emma in Season Two’s “Tallahassee” that all lost boys have the same look in their eyes: “the look you get when you’ve been left alone.” That was the look O’Donoghue let shine through in his eyes as that scene progressed, and suddenly we weren’t watching Captain Hook; we were watching Killian Jones, a lost boy. The unshed tears in his eyes as he realized he couldn’t kill his father were a beautiful reminder of the humanity that this character has always carried with him.
But that humanity would once again become lost under the darkness, as Hook turned his back on his plan to help his father (and his half-brother) escape instead of killing him. That act of patricide showed how dark Hook really was at his worst. And it was all because he kept choosing to define himself as a villain obsessed with vengeance. He kept choosing to let his pain control him, to let himself be owned by his darkness just as he was owned by his master as a child. Because of his obsession with hurting those who hurt him, he left a trail of collateral damage behind him, and that now included a half-brother who grew up alone.
That obsession with hurting people who wronged him was at the center of Dark Hook’s plans in this episode. And the one person to call him out for that and to connect his present actions to his past choices was Regina. I absolutely loved her interactions with Hook in “Swan Song.” In the flashbacks, it was fun to see her shamelessly trying to flirt with him and to watch them develop the snarky relationship we’ve come to see in the present—because it’s always fun to see Lana Parrilla in all her Evil Queen glory. But in the present, I loved seeing Regina use her own experience of choosing to define herself as more than her past darkness to try to get through to Dark Hook. Regina knows what it is to be dark and to commit dark acts against those who caused you pain. But she also knows what it is to turn away from that life and that identity. And she knows that Killian was on that path with her before becoming the Dark One. It was a powerful thing to see her strike a nerve with him by bringing up his father. The first time she mentioned it, it resulted in the Once Upon a Time version of a Force choke. But the second time, it changed everything.
Family is the center of Once Upon a Time. And Regina appealed to Dark Hook to really think about whether or not he wanted to destroy another family to get his revenge. Because that’s what would happen if the Dark Ones succeeded; Emma’s family, which had become Killian’s family, would be destroyed. And this episode took great pains to remind us of what a beautiful family it is—from that lovely moment of Snow kissing Emma’s forehead and telling her she loved her to those sweet moments between Henry, baby Neal, Snow, and Charming at Granny’s. There is no greater symbol of light on this show than the Charming Family, and I loved seeing Regina stand up to a Dark One and fight for the goodness she once worked just as hard to downplay and destroy.
In the end, it all came down to one question: What kind of man did Killian Jones want to be? Did he want to continue being Hook, a villain lost to his own demons and at the mercy of the darkness? Or did he want to be more? And the answer came with two words that brought me to tears and are still making me emotional today:
With those two words, Killian Jones chose to finally fight back against the darkness. He chose to define himself by who he wanted to be and not who he thought he had to be. And he believed that he could be strong enough to beat the darkness that had controlled his life for too long.
And what gave him that strength? The root of all strength on Once Upon a Time: love. There was such raw power in the moment in which Dark Hook watched Nimue choke Emma. Even though Emma couldn’t die, it was a symbol of all the pain she would go through if Dark Hook let the rest of the Dark Ones succeed, and that was enough to finally break through the darkness and bring Killian Jones back to the surface. O’Donoghue was incredible in that moment; you could see the light returning to his eyes as it dawned on him that he had the power to not just save Emma from Nimue, but also save her family from going to the Underworld and save himself from his own darkness. His love for Emma made him strong enough to break free of the hold the darkness had on him, just as his love for her helped her find the strength to fight the darkness in Camelot.
Killian Jones was often at the mercy of forces he felt were beyond his control, including his own penchant for darkness. But with those two words, he finally chose his own destiny. He chose how he wanted the world to see him. He chose how his story would end. And it was going to end with him finally telling the darkness that he’d had enough of it controlling his life. He changed his fate: He would be remembered as a hero. So much of Killian Jones’s character arc has been about his reluctance to call himself a hero because he was so afraid of his own ability to slip back into the darkness. But the minute he turned Excalibur on Nimue, he accepted that he could finally be a hero—and not just for Emma and not just for his new family, but also for himself.
Although it was such a triumphant moment when Killian finally punched back and said, “No, this is who I am” to the darkness, that triumph was short-lived, because we all knew the pain that was coming. And I’m not sure there are enough words in the English language to describe how hard it was to watch Emma and Killian work through his choice to sacrifice himself. Once Upon a Time has had many heartbreaking scenes, but this was its most viscerally painful. And so much of that came from the stark realism O’Donoghue and especially Jennifer Morrison brought to their performances.
Once again, it all came down to choice. And Emma had to choose to be better than who she was in Camelot; she had to use his strength to fuel her own, even though that meant being strong enough to let him die. I loved that the writing made it clear that Killian didn’t want to lose her just as she didn’t want to lose him. But this was his chance to die as a hero—a fate he never would have let himself believe in without her. And unlike the last time, she needed to fight her own darkness and make the selfless choice to finally give Killian the agency he’d always given her.
I loved the shot of the two of them holding Excalibur together, believing they were defeating the darkness together—just as they’d both promised each other at different points this season. And I cried when Emma told him she loved him and kissed him as he told her he loved her, too. It was such a tender moment: two people who never imagined they’d have this kind of love in their lives taking one last second to savor it before losing it forever. It was a moment of beauty amid the heartbreak, and isn’t that why we all love this show?
And then Killian Jones proved once again why he’s a romantic hero to rival Prince Charming. He was about to die—Emma had the sword ready to strike—and what did he choose to do with his final words? He tried to smile, and he told Emma it’s okay. His last words were words of love and reassurance, caring more about her pain than his own. But what made that moment resonate were the subtle hints of fear in O’Donoghue’s expression. To see that Killian was afraid to die made his sacrifice all the more heroic. And it was matched by the brutally vulnerable pain written all over Morrison’s face. Those two actors have done such great work this season, allowing each other to go to incredibly deep and honest places in their performances, and this scene was the epitome of what they can accomplish together.
Once Emma ran the blade through Killian, I was stunned by the poignancy of the moment in which both of them changed from their Dark One appearance to their true selves, especially seeing Emma in her red leather jacket again. They weren’t Dark Hook and Dark Swan anymore; they were Killian and Emma again. They saved each other. But they were also about to lose each other again, so you could see them trying to hold on to that moment with everything they had. It was especially bittersweet to think that Killian died being held by Emma—not Dark Swan. He died knowing he saved her.
But once again, Emma couldn’t save him. It was so hard to watch her lose another person she loved, especially knowing this was the third time she’s had to watch Killian die. What made it even harder was the intensity of Emma’s grief that Morrison allowed us to see. Morrison has always played Emma in a way that grounds this show about fairytales in very real emotions, and this time, she showed the harsh reality of grief. It’s not pretty or nice; it’s mascara running down your face and sobbing until you have no voice left and your legs threatening to give out with every step. And that entire montage of Emma reacting to Killian being taken away in a body bag was so powerful because it was done with complete devotion to playing that moment as truthfully as possible. There’s never been another moment like that on this show; it was absolutely devastating. And it was all because of Morrison.
But even through the devastation, there was love. It moved me to tears to see Snow hold her daughter and tell her, “I’m sorry, baby” after they took Killian’s body away. In life’s darkest moments, sometimes you just need your mom. And for so long, Emma didn’t have that. But now she has a mother who wants to hold her when she cries, and she’s finally reached a place where she’ll let her mom take care of her. It was one of the most beautiful moments between those two characters I’ve seen in years.
While Killian’s death was shocking, there was still another twist around the corner, and it came from the master of deceit: Rumplestiltskin. Throughout the episode, I loved watching him give Belle the chance to explore the world, because I have always wanted that for Belle. I loved watching Robert Carlyle show Rumplestiltskin break down as soon as Belle left, because Carlyle is entirely too good at breaking my heart. And I even loved Belle coming back once she found out the truth.
But nothing compared to how much I loved the twist of Rumplestiltskin turning into the ultimate villain by denying Killian the chance to destroy the darkness, because he absorbed it all. I clapped on my couch when it was revealed, because I love that this show can still surprise me. And I’ll be honest: I love Rumplestiltskin as a villain. I think it’s the best use of Carlyle’s talent.
Now I see why Rumplestiltskin’s “hero” arc felt rushed; it was supposed to. It was never about him being a hero; it was about him having a clean slate and still choosing power. It was about him being an addict and not being able to stay clean, even after his addiction almost killed him. It was about him choosing to define himself as a power-hungry villain even when he had the chance to be a hero. And it was about the pull of the darkness making him manipulate Killian’s sacrifice into something that fed his lust for power.
However, just because Killian didn’t accomplish his ultimate goal of destroying the darkness, that doesn’t mean his sacrifice was completely in vain. He still saved himself and saved Emma from being the one to sacrifice herself. They still proved that love was stronger than darkness. And he still chose to define himself as a hero and not as a man fated to be lost to the darkness forever. Nothing Rumplestiltskin did can take that away.
But Killian thought he’d died finally destroying the darkness he’d been hunting for hundreds of years, only to have it put back into his mortal enemy. And Emma couldn’t stand for that. I loved her conviction in that scene in Gold’s shop, and it reminded me that Savior Emma and Dark One Rumplestiltskin is one of my favorite dynamics on Once Upon a Time.
In the end, Emma knew what needed to be done. She wasn’t going to sit back and let Killian stay dead when his reason for sacrificing himself turned out to be a lie. So she made the choice to literally go to the depths of hell to bring him back. This was Emma choosing to define herself on her own terms again: She wasn’t going to be the person who lost everyone; if she’s the Savior, then she’s going to save the man she loves—but as a hero this time.
It was so powerful to see Emma have such faith that she can save Killian. It was especially beautiful to see her draw upon her parents’ love story and their shared heart as proof that it can be done. Emma believes the love she and Killian share isn’t just strong enough to break through the darkness; it’s stronger than all the powers of hell. She finally believes she can have the kind of love her parents have—the kind of love she thought wasn’t in the cards for her because of who she was. Emma has finally chosen to believe her identity as the Savior and her identity as a woman who can have real, lasting romantic love don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Her parents have shown her how to hope, how to believe, and how to make choices from a place of true love. And now she’s acting on what they’ve shown her through her own quest to find the man she believes is her romantic true love.
She’ll find him. She’ll always find him. That’s Emma Swan’s identity: The daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, the mother of the Truest Believer, and a woman who will never give up on the man she loves. And with that in mind, I’m filled with so much hope, excitement, and enthusiasm for what’s to come.
“Swan Song” featured everything I loved about Once Upon a Time: beautiful Charming Family moments, epic romance, shocking twists, character development in spades, themes of self-definition and choice, “I will always find you,” and a whole lot of hope to balance the heartbreak. It was a great ending to a great half-season arc, and it made me want to start counting down the days until the show returns in March.
• I loved that the theme of believing in yourself extended to Regina using the wand to get rid of Zelena. And while I’m sad to see Rebecca Mader go (for now), it’s the right time for a break from Zelena.
• If you want to cry again, watch Henry and Regina’s reactions to Killian’s death. The pain on Jared Gilmore’s face is palpable. And I love that Regina—a woman who once took pleasure in causing suffering—has to turn away because she can’t watch Killian and Emma in such pain.
• Although it was a much quieter moment of grief, I was also struck by the scene with Emma laying on the couch in the home Killian had chosen for them, holding his ring. It showed the exhaustion of grief so well. And it also made me think about that ring again and how much I want Emma to propose to Killian with it.
• I’m pretty sure Killian was trying to point to Rumplestiltkin while he was dying. Does this mean he knew what was happening?
• It’s been a true pleasure writing about this half-season and discussing it with all of you. I’m panning lots of Once Upon a Time content to help us get through the hiatus, and this time would also be perfect for you to get started on letters for my book (especially if you’re planning letters to Emma, Regina, Snow, etc.)!