On Once Upon a Time, True Love and romance is as prevalent as magic and curses. And while every love story as its own kind of special beauty, such as the iconic characters of Snow White and Prince Charming, the show’s most exquisite and remarkable love story is that of their daughter, Emma Swan, and the dashing pirate Killian Jones, better known as Captain Hook. There are an abundance of reasons as to why their story is so extraordinary: the way it has slowly developed, the fact that they are true kindred spirits that understand, support and build each other up, and the way these two lonely souls have begun to heal the wounds in their guarded hearts. There is also the unique quality of being a story completely of the show’s creation. Emma Swan is a brand new and exceptional character, and while Captain Hook is an iconic character, this depiction is one that has no resemblance to any version of this character we have ever seen on screen. One of the most beautiful aspects of this relationship is the symbolism and motifs employed as we have seen their relationship blossom. Their story is one of hands and hearts entwined, from the what they say to one another, to the emphasized visual cues and close-, ups, the connection between Emma and Killian is meant to be felt and seen.
That is not to say that other characters and stories do not share these symbolic aspects. Hearts have been a staple on the show since its beginning and each couple has seen hearts removed, saved, returned, and even shared. The same can be said on an emphasis on entwined hands, seen mostly in Season 4, where you could see a significant difference between the times when hands are joined and when an outstretched hand is denied that union. But when it comes to Emma and Killian, the frequency and emphasis of these entities within the framework of the story is significant and have always been there on a consistent basis since the beginning of their journey. And not only are their hearts and hands entwined, there is a beautiful showcase of the importance of affection and connection through touch, to demonstrate the bond they undeniably share. All of these aspects combined are meant to not only give the Captain Swan story an added layer of beauty to their relationship, but also reveal to the audience how Emma and Killian are specifically meant to be entwined forever.
“Holding hands is a promise to one another that, just for a moment, the two of you don’t have to face the world alone.”
Since Emma and Killian’s first adventure together we have seen both an emphasis on their hands and touch, and it has grown and developed consistently along with their relationship. The closer they have grown, the more touch becomes a part of how they show affection and significantly, and the more emphasis has been placed on their hands joined together. This has been there since the beginning. When they climb the beanstalk (2×6 “Tallahassee”) they make their first real connection and discover a mutual understanding and attraction. And how do they first show this, you may ask? With a scene where Killian bandages Emma’s injured hand. What was also significant was this was that in tending to her wound, it established that these two would begin to heal the internal wounds both of them possesses. Moreover, in the following scenes we also see established Emma’s fears of trusting others juxtaposed against the symbolic difference between hands united and hands pulled apart. When Emma obtains the magical compass they needed, Killian is impressed. Ready to join her on the next step of their journey, he offers her his hand saying, “Come, let’s go.” He’s offering her a sign of trust and camaraderie, and when she takes his hand he looks at her with hope and sincerity. She wants to trust him, but is afraid, and can’t take the chance that her instincts are wrong, so she handcuffs him and leaves him there, breaking (for the time being) the bond they had just formed. It is a perfect example of the symbolic difference between hands joined (trust and connection) versus hands pulled apart (division and pain).
Importantly, the bond they formed was not completely severed. It was simply frayed, and soon it not only is reestablished but steadily grew as their relationship did and the trust blossomed again. So it is no coincidence that the next step in that developing trust once again featured an emphasis put on their hands. When Killian turns his ship around and gives the magic bean back, Killian makes a great change in his life and Emma slowly begins to trust him again. Back on his ship they make a point to show Emma placing the bean in his hand- an object that they had also learned of while atop the beanstalk, and the one that allowed Killian to get to Storybrooke in the first place. Everything is connected.
Another clear demonstration of the connection between Emma and Killian and that this love story was a journey they were meant to be on together was that Killian was written as the one who finds Emma in New York City, with the help of once again, a magic bean. (3×11 “Going Home). So it should be no surprise to see a parallel to their moment in “Tallahassee.” Another close up is shown of his hand offering and asking once again for a sign of trust- he is handing her a potion that can restore her memories. And just like before, she refuses and handcuffs him. The difference between this episode, “New York City Serenade,” and the previous is that this time Emma changes her mind. She decided to trust him and takes a leap of faith.
That sign of belief and emphasis on how they are meant to be united is seen right before their next adventure and turning point in their relationship. When they are being pulled into Zelena’s time portal (3×21 “Snow Drifts), they desperately grasp hands, and we again see a close up of this union. When Emma is pulled away that connection is severed mirroring what happened in “Tallahassee.” Emma leaves him, but this time much has changed. Not only did she not want to, but this time, he was able to follow and make sure their connection would not remain broken.
And it is also no coincidence that on this adventure to the past, there was more emphasis put on physical contact between the two characters. Not that they had never had any before- and much is significant because it involved two things that will consistently be seen as their love grows: touching each other’s hair and cradling their heads when they are kissing or hugging. On their trip to the past though, gentle touches were abound: taking Emma’s hand to lead her on the dance floor, holding her when they watch Snow “die,” softly wiping away her tears. These moments were Killian’s way of showing Emma he cared and would be there for her, something that has only deepened since. In fact, that gentleness and support has not only grown, but is now reciprocated.
After they return home, the prominence of Emma and Killian’s hands entwined increased incredibly so, paralleling not only that they trust each other but that they are falling deeply in love, establishing that this connection has become one that can no longer be severed. That final turning point came when Emma nearly froze to death (4×2 “White Out”). When Elsa blasts a hole through the cave so they can escape, we see an image of Killian reaching his hand out towards Emma. He is there for her, and when she departs she falls into his arms, embracing him tightly and cradling his head. And when they are back home, Emma safe in his arms, we see the first close up of Emma truly entwining her fingers with Killian’s- a gesture Emma does to show him and herself comfort. She is happy to be safe and that he is there with her.
“I can conquer the world with one hand as long as you are holding the other.”- (x)
When Emma asks Killian out on a date (4×4 “The Apprentice”), the first thing he does is seek out Gold to have his hand reattached. His reason is quite romantic: “Should things go well and she wants me to hold her, I want to use both hands.” True as this is, another motivation is so he can be “good enough” for Emma and the kind of man she deserves. He is both confident and insecure. What is beautiful in its way is that he did not have to think this way. She wants to be with him. Though she clearly enjoyed Killian having both hands, taking every opportunity to take his hand. Where he was the one to reach out, now Emma is reciprocating that gesture, entwining their fingers, and in moments to show him comfort when he was worried he may have ruined their evening. But his fears are needless. The close ups of their hands joined and of his wrapped around her as they kiss goodnight are meant to demonstrate their newfound closeness.
One should also note that Killian having both hands is not important to Emma. She surely enjoyed it, but does not find it necessary, nor does it alter her feelings. We see this at the beginning and end of the episode when it takes a moment for her to even notice when he does and does not have his hand. She is too busy smiling and looking into his eyes.
The beautiful idea that we can conquer the world with one hand as long as the one we love is holding the other, feels like a perfect representation of Killian and Emma’s feelings, especially because Killian only has one. When Emma shares a box of childhood mementos (4×5 “Breaking Glass”), she finds a video of her and her childhood friend Lily, and once again we see a close up of their hands. This time Killian entwines their fingers together saying “I’d love to know more about your beginnings.” He is showing the same support and comfort that she had been showing him, and even when he puts his arms around her, their hands remain together. It is only when they see Ingrid on the tape that they are scared and shocked into letting go.
This is just another example of what hands united means, and that they are two characters that are connected physically and metaphysically. Together they are strong, safe and loved. Apart they are scared, insecure and isolated. Emma and Killian mirror each other in this sense both fearing their hands- Killian believing his hand was cursed, Emma that her magic was going awry. (4×4 “The Apprentice, 4×8 “Smash the Mirror”). Both were frightened of hurting someone, and both were isolated, two specific shots of them looking down at their hands in fright, solidifying their connection to each other.
When Killian finds Emma’s hand print in Gold’s shop his fear is potent that he might lose her, and then his relief is overwhelming when he finds her safe and hugs her tightly. It is no surprise that after that moment, Emma’s touch becomes a beautiful and often repeated gesture. She begins to show her affection for him in this way, more so than ever- touching and stroking his face, cradling his head, holding onto his arm, and resting her head onto or pressing their foreheads together. She feared expressing the words verbally, so their bond is symbolized in every affectionate gesture that she shows him.
Importantly, after that moment in “Smash the Mirror” there are few times when they are not holding hands. Even if it’s not always visible, it is clear that their hands are joined.
One important scene is when the fairies are released from the Sorcerer’s Hat (4×12 “Darkness on the Edge of Town”). Their hands never part and in one significant instant, their joined hands are in the foreground, Emma bathed in golden light, Killian in the shadows. Emma refuses to let go and their hands in the center of the shot symbolizes that this union combines both light and dark and that together they balance each other. Another scene that demonstrates this unwillingness to let go is when Emma promises to see the best in Killian. She takes his hand and sits them down for a honest heart to heart. They did not need to keep their hands entwined, but they did, showcasing how their bond keeps them strong.
Holding hands is a lovely sign of love and for Emma and Killian is unquestionable. But also undeniable is the emphasis on their hands that displays how these two characters are written specifically as meant to be joined together.
“I carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart)
I am never without it (anywhere
I go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
I fear no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet)
I want no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you.”
– E.E. Cummings
If the emphasis on Emma and Killian’s hands entwined was meant to show the connection they have in a physical way that is an emblematic sign of love, the way their hearts are entwined solidifies that their story is not only one of remarkable beauty, but also one that was always meant to be felt and seen by the characters and the audience. When the two make their connection atop the beanstalk (2×4 “Tallahassee”), Emma notices Killian’s tattoo. It is a heart, with the Dark One dagger going through it, and Milah’s name written across it. It was representation of the way his first love died, though considering the current storyline with Emma, it was also a clear foreshadow.
In fact the way Killian’s character was introduced on the show only further validates Emma and Killian’s connection as one of perfect balance, compatibility, and poetic beauty. He loses his hand and sees the heart of the woman he loves crushed, both at the hands of The Dark One. This sent him on his path of revenge that eventually led him to Emma and back to the light. He fell in love with her only for the Dark One to take his love away again. But before we reach that conclusion, we must first examine how much their hands and hearts are made the focus. Their hearts are entwined in more than one way as we see parallels to their stories and a blossoming love between them.
When Killian was still villainous, he takes Aurora’s heart for Cora, but during a showdown at Lake Nostos, he saves it from falling into the portal saying “I bristle at the thought of a woman losing her heart, unless it’s over me.” Emma sees him save a heart, and a glimpse of the heart of the man he truly is. Despite the fact that Emma knocked him out after this, we know that he awoke to witness the next pivotal moment. Just as Emma saw him save a heart, he sees her save one too. When Cora tries to take Snow’s heart, Emma pushes her out of the way, and when Cora can’t take Emma’s heart she is blasted back with magic. Love is strength and we see Emma and Killian’s hearts become entwined. This parallel continues in Season 4 in much the same way a fear of their hands was paralleled. Their hearts were entwined in their shared experiences. Killian has his heart taken by Gold and made to do dark things so Gold can gain everything he wants. When he does not succeed he plans to darken Emma’s heart for very much the same goal. Again he doesn’t succeed, at least indirectly, but in the end her heart is darkened.
The emphasis on their hearts entwined is also seen in the many things Killian says to Emma. How he feels is framed within discussion of her heart, showcasing that how he feels relates to what she wants. It is about her choices, feelings, and ability to open up. In Neverland he says, “When I win your heart Emma- and I will win it- it will not be because of any trickery. It will be because you want me.” (3×7 “Dark Hollow). He makes her a promise but it is based on what she wants. The choice is hers which is important for a character who has had crucial choices made for her. But who she gives her heart to is completely up to her. In Storybrooke, after having revealed her life with Walsh was a sham, having had her heart broken, he says “If it can be broken, it means it still works.” (3×14 “The Tower”). He is glad she is still open to love because that would mean she still could choose him. It gives him hope. And he is willing to wait.
This what makes what he says so beautiful when they are together: “Emma, I can tell your heart is uneasy. And it’s my job, at least I hope, it’s my job to protect your heart. Even when nobody is physically trying to steal it.” (4×20 “Mother”). Now that he has won her heart, he wants to make sure it is safe, not only physically but emotionally. He only wants her to be happy. Their hearts are entwined in love so her pain is his pain. He will protect her in any way he can much in the same way she will protect him. This is seen subtlety with Emma but it is undeniably there. After she returns his heart to his chest, Emma often places her hand over his heart, a symbolic gesture of both love and protection. She is guarding his heart.
“And my heart’s at home when my hand is holding yours.”
The symbolic gesture of Emma placing her hand over Killian’s heart is echoed in the Season 4 finale “Operation Mongoose Part 2,” in a moment that was a exquisite culmination of their journey of hand and hearts entwined and how these were always meant to be so. He lost his first love and his hand to the Dark One within moments of each other. But then he found Emma, a woman whose heart cannot be taken and will hold his hand when she is ready to open that guarded heart. He vows to win her heart and when he does he promises to protect it. And in the final few moments, the same evil is about to take the one he loves away again. But this moment is not the same. True Love is stronger than darkness and this moment is filled with love and hope and makes their entwined hands and hearts a solid and enduring emblem of their love story. As she tells him “I Love You,” Emma places Killian’s hand over her heart, much in the same way she has been placing her hand over his. It is a sign of protection and love but ever more significant because their hands are also entwined; it is a symbol of the strength of their bond. As long as they remember their love and that strength, darkness will not prevail. They can conquer the world together. Their hands are joined, their hearts beat as one, and both were always meant to belong together.
“Find my hand in the darkness and if we cannot find the light, we will always make our own.”
– Tyler Knott Gregson