Two-Sentence Summary After the heroes help Hades rescue Zelena, they’re free to return home—except for Killian, who ventures with Emma into the depths of the Underworld to retrieve the ambrosia needed to come back to life. During this quest, Emma is reminded of the reasons she first donned her armor as she works to save the man who helped her shed it.
Favorite Line “If I helped take off that armor, don’t put it back on just because you’re gonna lose me.” (Killian, to Emma)
My Thoughts Love is strength. Those three words represent the very foundation upon which Once Upon a Time was built. And there is no love stronger in this show’s universe than True Love. “Firebird” was an episode that put the spotlight directly on the concept of True Love and the wonders it can work. However, even though this episode was about True Love, that doesn’t mean it was a happy hour of television. Because love is strength, but sometimes it’s the strength we need to let go.
“Firebird” was primarily focused on True Love as it exists between Emma and Killian. The way their story played out in this episode was the stuff of tragic, epic romance, worthy of its status as a truly original fairytale. However, the care taken to bring Emma and Killian’s love to the level it reached in this episode shed some real light on the flaws in the Zelena/Hades romance, which reached a new pinnacle as well.
Within the first few minutes of “Firebird,” Zelena and Hades shared True Love’s Kiss, which felt somewhat anticlimactic. In fact, I giggled a little bit when Killian spoke about True Love being something rare, because Emma had just witnessed a display of True Love that same day. And by the end of the episode, I was frustrated that their kiss worked to restart Hades’ heart. Can True Love really exist for someone like Hades? One could argue that Hades did every evil thing he did in this episode for Zelena, which means that he does truly love her. However, he wasn’t honest with her about his plans, which seems to go against everything we know about True Love. While I think it was interesting to show that True Love didn’t automatically make Hades a better man, it felt inconsistent with the rest of the show’s relationships.
Maybe I’m just bitter because I wanted to believe that Hades could grow into a better version of himself, and maybe I’m worried that Zelena’s character growth will disappear in the face of having to choose between him and her sister. (Although I actually think she’ll pick Regina if it comes down to that choice.) It felt good to know that my wariness about everything involving Hades except his feelings for Zelena was correct, but that didn’t mean I liked watching it all play out. I’m happy that Hades’ change of heart in this episode felt shallow for a reason and not just because it was rushed storytelling, but now all I want to do is get Zelena as far away from him as possible and tell Killian and Robin they were right to be skeptical.
The one thing I liked about Hades’ story in “Firebird” was the symbolism of True Love restarting a heart. So many characters on this show have had their hearts brought back to life by finding True Love. Regina learned to love again by loving Henry. Killian opened his heart to love instead of anger because of Emma. Charming brought love back into Snow’s heart after she took the potion to forget him. And in an episode that showed us who Emma was before Henry found her, it’s important to remember that this whole story started because a little boy’s love for his mother restarted the heart she willingly shut down after years of pain. True Love wakes people up; it starts hearts that have stopped. And that’s such a gorgeous metaphor for the way love can bring life back to hearts that have remained dormant for far too long.
Hearts were a central motif in this episode, with Emma’s taking center stage for most of “Firebird.” We saw it on display both literally and figuratively, and her desire to protect her heart played a prominent role in both the episode’s present-day story and its flashbacks.
I’ll get this out of the way first before I dive further into the best parts of a great episode: These weren’t my favorite Emma-centric flashbacks. I didn’t connect with Cleo on an emotional level, and I didn’t feel the kinship between her and Emma like I wanted to. I also found it strange that Henry was never brought up during the flashbacks. I understand why Emma wouldn’t be open about that part of her life, but when Cleo mentioned giving up her daughter, it seemed like a strange moment for this show to become subtle and understated by not directly addressing the fact that Emma also gave up a child. So much of the flashbacks focused on Emma looking for a link to her own past, and it felt like something was missing without an acknowledgment of the fact that Emma was also a missing link in her own child’s life at that time.
While there were certain parts of the flashbacks that didn’t resonate as strongly as I would have liked, I did appreciate this look into a pivotal time in Emma’s life: the bridge between the thief we saw in “Tallahassee” and the bail bondsperson we saw in the show’s pilot. It goes without saying at this point that Jennifer Morrison brought a unique energy to this part of Emma’s journey; the nuances she’s given to this character never cease to amaze me. This Emma was tired from being on the run for so much of her life. She was desperate for answers about who she is and where she came from. When she told Cleo that she was grasping at straws because straws were all she had, I believed it, and—more importantly—I felt it. In the heartbreaking delivery of that one line, Morrison showed us exactly who Emma was at this point in her life: a woman who just wanted to believe that someone at some point had cared about her.
The Emma in these flashbacks was an Emma who felt things strongly, but Morrison made it clear that what this Emma felt wasn’t the healthy range of emotions she’s been learning to express ever since finding her son, her parents, and Killian. This version of Emma had a heart consumed by loss and not love, so she was driven by negative emotions and not positive ones. Therefore, when Cleo told her to find her armor and protect her heart, it made sense. This younger Emma didn’t have anyone but herself to protect her heart, so she had to do it herself. She didn’t have anyone around her to help her turn vulnerability into a strength, so it was safer for her to not be vulnerable at all.
Cleo’s death could have pushed Emma deeper into the arms of the negative emotions that had been controlling her life since she was young. However, before she died, Cleo also taught Emma the importance of letting go. Holding on too tightly causes pain, and sometimes the bravest thing you can do is let go.
Although Emma let Cleo go, she didn’t forget her. She honored her by following in her footsteps, becoming something more than a runaway thief. I loved the little nods to the pilot Jane Espenson sprinkled into her writing of these flashbacks, allowing us to see that so many of Emma’s bail bondsperson moves (and wardrobe pieces) were inspired by Cleo. (I especially loved Cleo’s slow walk through traffic to Emma’s booted car.)
Emma also honored Cleo by finding her daughter and giving her photos of the mother she’d never know. And it seemed fitting that after such a Savior-like moment, Emma would find the jacket that’s come to symbolize her role as Storybrooke’s Savior. Watching her put it on was like the moment in a superhero origin story when the hero puts their iconic costume on for the first time.
The symbolism of Emma’s jacket has changed over time, and I appreciated the show acknowledging that at the end of this episode. When Emma first put it on, my giddiness was mixed with a little bit of melancholy because the jacket represented Emma’s armor—her way of keeping others out and protecting herself against the feelings that so often led to destruction in her life. But I loved hearing her tell her father later on that her jacket has now come to symbolize the armor she wears to protect those she loves. She’s not alone anymore, and that means she doesn’t have to wear the jacket for the same reasons she used to. In fact, this episode did a beautiful job of drawing a parallel between the moment Emma first donned her armor and the moment she promised never to put it back on.
Even now—after finding her family, experiencing True Love with her son, and traveling to the Underworld to save the man she loves—Emma’s first instinct is to still hide behind her armor until the last moment. It’s a tough habit to break after years of shutting down emotions because “not feeling anything’s an attractive option when what you feel sucks.” It’s hard to let go of the desire to protect your heart by keeping others out.
But in “Firebird,” Emma’s heart was in her hands for much of the episode—a visual way to represent the fact that she was more vulnerable in this hour than we’ve ever seen her before. It started even before her journey into the depth of the Underworld with Killian, when she had Regina take out her heart and was prepared to share it with the man she loves. However sad that failed attempt might have felt, a part of me was glad it didn’t work because the logistics of that plan never made sense to me. Snow put half her heart in Charming’s actual body. Shouldn’t Emma have just done the same? I was pleased that the show addressed that Killian’s body wasn’t in a state to be revived by a new heart, because that made perfect sense to me. Besides, it would have felt too easy, and where’s the fun in that?
I loved that the episode in which these two characters solidified their True Love was written by the same person who wrote their first journey together, which was also for an object that would bring them home. Espenson has always written Emma and Killian’s relationship with a confident voice; there was no better choice for this monumental episode in their story.
Other couples on Once Upon a Time have shared True Love’s Kiss. But Emma and Killian are a different kind of fairytale couple. So they didn’t share True Love’s Kiss. They shared “True Love’s Choice” (or “True Love’s Tackle”). And the way that choice reflected the most beautiful parts of Emma and Killian’s relationship was a bit of masterful storytelling.
First of all, I loved that Killian and Emma approached this moment as Killian and Emma. From Killian’s translation of the Greek writing and Emma’s very impressed reaction to the fact that they were both so sure of their love but so unsure of the idea of True Love, the dialogue was faithful to who we’ve always known these characters to be. These are two people who haven’t had a lot of experience with something like True Love, so it felt natural for them to be a little skeptical of it—no matter how deeply they believe in their love. But they encourage each other to take a leap of faith even when it seems crazy.
And then came the choice itself. It felt right that it would be Emma’s heart laid bare on that scale. This love story has always primarily been about Emma’s fears of laying her heart on the line and risking getting hurt. And because the metaphor had to be extended, of course Emma’s heart would be put through incredible pain after she put it in such a vulnerable position, and of course Killian would be shown suffering, too. Because both characters know that love can be painful. They knew that before choosing each other, and they know it even more acutely now.
But both characters also know that they would rather suffer themselves than see each other suffer. Killian would sacrifice himself to the fires of the Underworld if it means he can make sure Emma’s heart is safe. And Emma would leave her heart in a completely vulnerable, painful place if it means she can save him. Because True Love is about sacrifice. To Truly love someone is to love them with a bravery that places protecting them above protecting yourself. In that moment, Emma stopped protecting her heart and made the choice to risk feeling more pain in order to do the right thing for the man she loves. It was the physical manifestation of the emotional choice she’s made over and over again to let her heart be vulnerable in front of Killian because he’s worth that risk.
True Love is always a choice, but never has that concept been made more explicit. And it felt right that “True Love’s Choice” would be part of a love story that has so often been defined by Killian’s support of Emma’s agency. After Emma made her choice, the doorway that would only open for a heart filled with True Love opened, and I loved their reactions to finally seeing that they have the kind of True Love Emma’s parents have, the kind of romantic love neither thought would ever be in the cards for them. Morrison and Colin O’Donoghue played the moment with such awe and wonder that it gave me goose bumps.
Because this moment happened relatively early in the episode, I knew something was bound to go wrong, but even I couldn’t see how devastating it would be. Killian and Emma discovered that Hades had destroyed all the ambrosia—destroying Killian’s only way of coming back to life—and Emma discovered that Killian wasn’t even going to come back with her as far as he could. What followed those painful revelations was a transcendent scene that served as a kind of second confirmation of Emma and Killian’s True Love.
True Love is sacrificial. We saw that with Emma and her heart, but this moment hinged on Killian’s sacrifice. He knew that Emma would never leave if he let her stay in the Underworld with him, searching for a way to bring him back to life. The selfish choice would be to keep her with him, but Killian Jones is anything but selfish when it comes to Emma Swan. Instead, he knew her family needed her more than he did, and he knew she belonged with them in the land of living rather than with him among the dead. He was willing to give up his own happiness to do what was right for her, and love doesn’t get more True than that.
However, the beauty of the True Love on display in this moment was matched by the pain of witnessing another separation for these characters. Emma has lost too much, and it killed me to watch her come to terms with the fact that she was going to have to say goodbye to someone she loved again. It killed me to watch her believe she’d failed. And it killed me to see both her and Killian let go of the hope they finally found in each other.
There have been many painful moments in Once Upon a Time history, but there was something different about this one. Maybe it was the strange air of normalcy to it—there was no magic, no villain being defeated, no battle raging behind or around them. It was simply a man and a woman saying goodbye to each other with an intimacy that left me breathless from the moment Killian told Emma he wanted to say farewell in private. O’Donoghue and Morrison created something special in this scene by being brave enough to go to an intensely vulnerable place as actors and allowing us to feel as if we were in that chamber right next to them.
While watching this scene, I was struck by its contrast to their True Love confirmation. In the latter, Emma proved her love by saving Killian once again, which is something she’s been doing since the moment they met. But this time, she had to prove her love by letting him go. As Killian said, she should have done so in Camelot. This scene was her chance to finally right the wrong she committed by turning him into a Dark One, to finally honor his choice by letting him go instead of holding on so tightly that it hurt them both even more.
True Love is a selfless kind of love, and the things Emma and Killian asked of each other as they prepared to let each other go were the epitome of selflessness. Killian knows better than anyone what losing love can do to a person, and it was so painfully clear in that moment that he didn’t want to be another loss that left Emma afraid to live without her armor. So all he asked of Emma was that she honor his love for her by keeping her armor off, even when it would be so easy for her to put it back on after he’s gone. O’Donoghue’s delivery of that line was filled with the kind of sincerity only he possesses, the sincerity that made all of us fall in love with Killian Jones right along with Emma. It was the perfect dying wish for Killian; I couldn’t have imagined a more beautiful request or a more beautiful performance in that moment than what Espenson wrote and what O’Donoghue delivered.
And then there was Emma. Not only did she promise to honor the man she loved by continuing to live without her armor, she had a last request for him, too: She wanted him to move on. With that heartfelt wish expressed so earnestly by Morrison, Emma finally shed her last bit of armor. She went from being someone who selfishly denied Killian his dying wish in Camelot in order to keep him with her to someone who selflessly told him to move on and not wait for her to join him in the Underworld. Just as she did earlier in the episode, she put what was best for Killian above her own desire to protect her heart. And while there was no magical confirmation in that moment, there was no doubt in my mind that this was another act of True Love.
As I watched this goodbye scene unfold, it felt different from the other farewells we’ve watched Killian and Emma share. (Why do they have to say goodbye so often?) And that was because it was about the purity and the depth of the love between them as much as it was about the tragedy of their separation. It was so much more intimate and delicate than any other moment shared by these two characters, and it highlighted the fact that they weren’t wallowing in the sorrow of their parting but treasuring their last moments together. And that felt like a fitting way to honor the fact that their love has inspired both of them to become people who are no longer consumed by loss but are able to appreciate love when they have it.
I could spend days highlighting my favorite physical details of those last moments between them. It felt right that this was the most we’d ever seen Killian cry, and O’Donoghue made those tears feel so natural that it was hard to watch. Their last kiss was stunning, especially the final moments of it as Killian gently touched her hair and her jaw. That tiny gesture echoed the end of their kiss outside of Granny’s in “There’s No Place Like Home.” That was the first kiss that carried the promise of a future, while this was what they believe is their last kiss. Both kisses had an air of wanting to treasure the moment and treat the other with care, but for vastly different reasons.
Just when I thought the scene couldn’t get more painful, Killian continued to kiss Emma’s hand until he couldn’t anymore, which absolutely broke me. Following those kisses with the shot of their hands grasping for each other but no longer being able to hold on was almost too sad. They wanted to stay connected until the last possible moment, and he wanted to continue to make her feel loved until he physically couldn’t anymore. That’s their story in one series of moments: gentle love amid violent loss.
However, I can’t be the only one who’s certain this goodbye will not be their last. This is a show about hope and happy endings, and to deny Emma hers would go against everything it stands for. Killian always comes back for Emma—from turning his ship around at the end of Season Two to refusing to move on with Liam just a few episodes ago. They’ve found each other through curses and alternate universes, darkness and time travel. And I have no doubt that they will find each other once again, with their True Love proving to be stronger than Hades’ wrath and stronger than death itself.
• This episode also featured a failed attempt at True Love’s Kiss by Rumplestiltskin. I think even he knew it wouldn’t work, but it was still sad for Belle to see him try and fail.
• I didn’t want to say goodbye to Pan, but it was nice to see Rumplestiltskin finally outwit his father (and nice to know he didn’t actually use Robin’s heart). Also, as a shallow side note: Robbie Kay looked entirely too handsome in the coat he was wearing at the start of this episode.
• Who else wants to hug Robin forever? He had every right not to trust Zelena, and I wish Regina had been a little more sensitive of his feelings.
• This was a great episode for Henry, too. I loved that he wanted to use the rest of his time in the Underworld to help people move on. (His scene with Stealthy was really sweet.) And Jared Gilmore completely sold Henry’s reaction to learning that Killian couldn’t come back. It was subtle and realistic, which isn’t something you often see from teenage boys on television.
• Did anyone else clap at the reveal of the Blind Witch teaming up with Cruella? What an excellent twist using two character we’ve all come to enjoy so much during this Underworld arc.