The first half of Season 5 of Once Upon a Time was one of the most extraordinary the series has ever seen. Compelling and truly moving storytelling at its finest, the choice to turn your heroine into the “villain” was brave and bold. But of course, things are not always what they seemed and Emma’s journey, though fraught with darkness and mistakes, was really about love, and the ways in which the story unfolded with the unexpected twist that Killian was also a Dark One was amazing. Her love story was finally brought into focus after her other relationships had been established firmly and it was glorious. But that is not to say, the season solely rested on their shoulders. With so many overarching themes and moments for every character, Season 5A was rich with romance, heartbreak, wonderful new and returning characters, and exquisite new real in Camelot, and remarkable performances. With half of the season now concluded let us revisit the best moments so far.
1. “Birth” (Season 5, Episode 8)
Absolutely heart wrenching, fast-paced, intense, and filled with outstanding performances, “Birth” is the type of remarkable episode that makes you believe in television’s ability to move you deeply. The pinnacle episode of the “Dark Swan” arc, the truth behind Emma’s motivations was finally revealed – but this truth was even more devastating than we could have possibly imagined. Between the flashbacks in Camelot and the present day in Storybrooke, things were intense and the stakes were never higher. Of course what Once Upon a Time does so well is parallel the past and present and when it does it spectacularly we are left in awe, especially when each twist is more shocking than the next. “Birth” seemed to be a reference to Zelena giving birth, but it was also an allusion to the birth of a second Dark One in Killian, finding out the captain had been cursed the entire time, and by Emma in order to save his life. It was something I did not see coming at all. This episode had everything that makes this show so wonderful: levity in the form of Dr. Whale’s return, excitement and inspiration in the scene where Merlin and Emma face off in an unwitting duel of the greatest magic ever, heartwarming moments in Henry revealing a plan he and Killian had devised called “Operation Light Swan,” a house in Storybrooke that represented the promise of a future together, romantic scenes of Emma and Killian most especially their kiss igniting the Promethean flame as Emma was ready to begin that future and give up the darkness, and lastly family drama as all our heroes surround Killian as he laid dying, telling Emma not to be hasty in her actions, and Emma angry and desperate refusing to let the man she loves die. The scene where Emma transports her and Killian into the field of Middlemist flowers was as powerful a moment as we’ve ever seen. This episode proves the lengths we go to for love in a way so gripping and heart-wrenching that it is destined to stay with many viewers for years to come.
2. “Swan Song” (Season 5, Episode 11)
Rivaling the most emotional and heartbreaking episodes of the series, what makes “Swan Song” so special is the power in its emotion. It stems from deep inside of us and taps into issues of abandonment, betrayal, forgiveness, and true love. Our hearts were broken right along with Emma’s seeing Killian completely overtaken by the darkness, and when her entire family is marked for death to go to the Underworld they’re forced to make difficult decisions. Her family doesn’t want to give up but also doesn’t want to spend their final moments fraught with worry pouring over books, but rather sharing a meal together at Granny’s enjoying a happy moment together, while Emma, being the noble and brave woman she is, decides to channel all of the darkness into herself and make the ultimate sacrifice for her loved ones. Once upon a Time is built on the idea that love is often self sacrificial and that redemption and forgiveness is always possible. “Swan Song” beautifully exemplifies this in the contrast between Killian’s flashbacks and his present struggles as the Dark One. Little by little we’ve learned about Killian’s past and not only do we see another piece of the puzzle, but this also brought the “Dark Swan” arc to it’s stunning and gripping conclusion. Abandoned by a father he adored, and sold into servitude, only to find his father alive centuries later, he was willing to forgive him until he learns that he’d had another son and named him Liam as if he was replacing his older brother. The fact that he kills his father was tragic but every circumstance of his past explained his actions in the present especially when he remembers the wise advice from his father – it’s never too late to change. And Killian becomes the man he wants to be – a good, heroic man, making up for his weakness by being strong, and fighting back against the greatest evil by channeling all the darkness into Excalibur asking Emma to kill him. Neither want to lose the other but they must let go – they must sacrifice their happy ending in order to save everyone else and it was the most heartbreaking moment of the series, but also one of the most beautiful as the couple proves that True Love is indeed stronger than darkness. Killian loses his life but Emma, who learns that Gold has betrayed them again by becoming the Dark One once more, finds hope once again, proving to be more determined and stronger than she’s ever been, vowing to march into the Underworld to share her heart with Killian and bring him back home. As we hear those final words of Emma’s, “Hook I will find you. I will always find you,” we are brought back to the heart of the series and the moving theme that we’ve witnessed since day one: no matter the distance or obstacle you will always find your true love. And Emma embracing her family’s steadfast motto is as beautiful moment as we’ve ever seen.
3. “The Broken Kingdom” (Season 5, Episode 4)
An episode filled with fairy tale romance, intrigue, subterfuge, and one of the most beautiful visuals in television history, this episode was key in establishing the truth in the heart of Camelot characters, as well as Snow and Charming and Emma and Killian. The timeless theme that power can corrupt someone was potently expressed in the flashbacks to Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot. The most famous of triangle history was wonderful as this was a new depiction of a woman who loves her husband but seeing his obsession to make Excalibur whole turn him into a madman, led her heart elsewhere. It was what made the sincere connection she makes was Lancelot so lovely, and the moment that Arthur betrays her trust by taking away her agency with the Sands of Avalon even more tragic. Seeing that all of Camelot is a complete illusion – that in truth it’s still a broken kingdom that at any moment can be shattered was not only unexpected and intriguing storytelling but a moving parallel to what our characters were experiencing in Camelot’s present. Snow and Charming working together, while in a very real argument with each other, proved that no fancy title could come between them, break the trust that exists, nor break their resolve to do anything to save their daughter. Emma and Killian also proved that the darkness that is plaguing Emma could not break their bond, nor Killian’s resolve to fight for their future of a “white picket fence life” in Storybrooke. After a horse ride that got her heart racing, Killian leads her into a field of pink blossoms and when she realizes the dark voice in her head had disappeared the two share a kiss as the camera pans about them in the most breathtakingly beautiful scene ever. It was a symbolic and exquisite moment of idyllic fairy tale beauty that demonstrated what Once epitomizes. Through trust and vulnerability, true love can slowly blossom, and through hope and belief in each other, even the greatest darkness can be vanquished.
4. “Nimue” (Season 5, Episode 7)
Extraordinary in its meaning, significant in its mythology, and filled with staggering performances “Nimue” told the backstory of Merlin and his true love, which portrayed the origins of the Middlemist flowers which had become a symbol of love for the season, as well as the full story of how the first Dark One came to be. Itt was born from the Holy Grail and became a weapon of evil when vengeance and an evil act by Nimue destroyed what Merlin hoped Excalibur would do – cut his immortal ties so he could live a single life with the woman he loves. Their relationship and their characters were meant to showcase the exquisite themes that Once has always showcased and ones that we could all learn from, as well as contrast how their failures would not be repeated in the present. Although eventually some mistakes were indeed repeated, in “Nimue” we see just how far Emma has come not only in her journey as the Dark Swan but indeed her journey since day one. We see her happier than ever in the scene where Killian gives her his brother’s ring as a sign of his love, asking her to promise to return home to him, made beautiful because it was the first time he told her he loved her. And we also see Emma as strong as we’ve ever seen when she fights back against Nimue who tries to make her give into the darkness and not go back to being nothing. In an extraordinary moment Emma exclaims “I am not nothing! I was never nothing! “which for a woman who lived a life feeling unloved and insignificant is an astounding revelation that anyone who has had moments of despair could find help from. Most especially, this wonderful episode shows us that life is made of precious moments all of which should be cherished and that one lifetime of moments is far grander than an endless sea of a everlasting ones. As our heroes break into Camelot to obtain Excalibur only to be captured and for the very worst to happen, the story is perpetuated to an exciting, intense conclusion leaving us wanting the next chapter with even more anticipation.
5. “The Price” (Season 5, Episode 2)
After a brilliant introduction (“The Dark Swan” would’ve been next on the list), the second episode of the season was a gem of beautiful romantic grandeur, moments of family and romantic love, and melancholy and moving sadness with a tinge of hope and anticipation for the rest of the arc. The ball at Camelot with an exquisite gift wrapped in golden brocade, wistful dances, and radiant smiles from Snow and Charming beaming at Henry experiencing his first crush, to Robin in Regina so happy and lost in each other that they forget their next steps, and Emma and Killian looking as if they were attending their own wedding. The ball was a lovely and light part of the episode. It was a perfect balance to the pathos of the episode which included Regina’s desperation to save Robin in the past, to her doubting her ability to inspire anyone’s belief, and then her brave offering of her own life in place of his when a fury from the Underworld comes to claim him. This moment was a big step for her character and when the others join alongside her, they demonstrated the strength of familial bonds even if it’s not by blood, and belief that we can succeed with the power of teamwork. It was the perfect way of foreshadowing the way the characters would come together at the end of the season for Emma and Killian. Speaking of the couple, they provided the melancholy of episode from the concern, to the devastation of failed true love kisses. to the feeling of isolation, while in the end we are still left with the hope that he won’t give up on her because True Love never gives up on each other.
Hands and Hearts Entwined continued:
Before season 5 began I wrote an article that discussed the emphasis that Emma and Killian’s story has had with hands and hearts entwined. I expected it to continue because it had been there since the beginning. But little did I imagine how much emphasis we would see in 5A. The emphasis was seemingly in overdrive from the first episode from the amount of close-ups of their hands entwined, to how much we saw them holding hands, to the number of heart references and plot points, it was not even close to being subtle. Wondering early on if perhaps Emma and Killian were sharing a heart thinking that was how the curse was cast, these predictions were not accurate, but simply premature. For in the final episode we see Emma’s plan to share her heart with Killian to bring back him to life and save him in the underworld. What is beautiful is that this is far more exquisite and poignant than what we originally predicted. Instead of sharing a heart to cast a dark curse, with dark magic, we could see them sharing a heart with light magic – with true love. And whether they end up sharing a heart, the fact that Emma wants to and believes it will work shows just how far she has come. From someone who had completely closed off her heart to a woman now who believes in the love she and Killian have so deeply that she believes he can come overcome everything, even death. No matter what their hearts truly beat as one.
Paralleled Love Stories:
Before the season began I loved what Josh Dallas said in the season 5 special about the ways Snow and David have paralleled Emma and Killian They are similar but different.
Of course we did not know we’d see the ultimate parallel – a heartbreaking one where one had to kill the other. In season 3 we saw Snow crush Charming’s heart to cast the curse and it was heart wrenching. But I would say seeing Emma stab Killian was perhaps even more heartbreaking and painful. Of Course we knew that Charming was okay because he was alive in Storybrooke. But also, taking that out of account, just examining their feelings in this situation, Snow losing David was devastating for her, but they had lived a life together (short but still substantial), but also Snow was pregnant and a symbol of their love would live on in another person. As Charming said she would be able to see him live on every time she looks into their child’s eyes. But Emma and Killian had no such things. They were together but a joint future was still just an unlived dream. And that is why it’s more heartbreaking – an unlived life, and the things they never got to do would forever haunt Emma. Luckily, she will find a way to save their future together.
In a remarkable season perhaps the only flaws were with the inclusion or lack thereof of certain characters. I really hope there is more Robin Hood soon because I adore his character. And while the characters and storylines were objectively on their own enjoyable, Merida and by extension Ruby and Mulan, were inserted with no real connection to the overall story, so I hope however they are brought back is more inclusive and connected. I will say, while Merida was good in her scenes in “The Dark Swan” and in Storybrooke, having two episodes of her backstory felt wasteful and it would have been better to have seen a bit more of Merlin or Lancelot who had more bearing into the main storyline. And I will be sad if Ruby never returns to Storybrooke because I found it sad and hard to believe that she would really leave Granny and all her friends forever. But these were just minor flaws in a spectacular arc.
A New Kind of Expression:
There was something about Jennifer Morrison’s performance in the scene in “Swan Song ” when she finds out about Gold’s betrayal. The expression on Emma’s face – the anger, disdain, and strength- was amazing! There was just something about that look in her eyes and tone in her voice that Morrison expressed so brilliantly. We’ve never seen her like this. But she has never been in this position before. It just further shows how our characters continue to display new layers and evolve. It’s fantastic!
A Look of Encouragement:
The look Snow and David give Emma before she steps onto the lake at the end of “Swan Song” was so meaningful. That little nod of encouragement shows the support for their daughter and it is exactly what she needed at that moment. It was a sign of hope that they truly believe they will succeed.
Finding Each Other:
Since the “Pilot” the beautiful theme we’ve seen more than any other is that no matter the insurmountable obstacles, love can always be found. Having become synonymous with the series and all for which it stands for, Once Upon a Time’s most iconic quote “I will always find you” was spoken within the first few moments of the show when Prince Charming awoke Snow White from a sleeping curse with True Love’s Kiss, while Snow White’s first-line spoken on-screen was “You found me.” This lovely motif was established instantly within the story and while some may attribute it to simply being associated with Snow and Charming, it is actually the belief of the Charming family, and indeed is the heart of the series. We saw that not even a dark curse or memory loss could erase this belief. It is still residing within Mary Margaret’s heart as she implores this to her students in the very first episode.
That belief in love both romantic and familial is what drives our story and gives it its beauty and pathos. It is what motivates our characters when faced with the darkest of times and moments of hopelessness or despair. The “Pilot” made this pristinely clear. When Henry was feeling isolated he found Emma in Boston. When Snow was under an evil spell, Charming found and awakened her. And when the dark curse was nearly upon them, Charming kissed his newborn daughter Emma and placed her inside the magical wardrobe and said “Find Us.” And that is what she did with the help of her son Henry. It’s why Snow’s first line after the curse is broken “You found us” is so moving and meaningful. They will always find each other and when they do it awakens their hearts, their souls, and their true selves. Henry finding Emma in Boston awakened her from her lonely life where she was an orphan without a family or belief in happy endings. When Emma broke Storybooke’s curse with True Love’s Kiss, she awakened the town from its 28 year sleep, memories of their true selves being restored. For Emma, her heart was truly awakening, first opening up to her son and then to her parents. And when she meets Captain Hook her heart truly awakens to romantic love for the first time in over 10 years. She is the one who finds him laying amongst Cora’s victims and they’ve continued to find each other again and again, no matter the place and no matter the time. Much like Henry finding her in Boston, when Killian finds Emma in New York City he awakens her from her sleep of a false life, restoring her memories and bringing her back home. He found her despite the odds proving that love will always do so. And so we’ve arrived at the middle of season five, which ends with Emma speaking those iconic words for her beloved, ready to march into the Underworld to find and save him. This is so incredibly special, moving and tremendously beautiful as it solidifies that steadfast belief of her family. She has now come to embody this unfailing faith that her parents, her son and indeed the man she loves have shown her countless times. She learned how to be a hero and how to hope even in times of despair. It’s why she smiles and cries saying “I knew you’d find me” when Henry finds her in the alternate universe. She believes her family will always find her and now she’s demonstrating that faith in the darkest time imaginable. Her vow to find Killian not only solidifies him as part of her family and her truelove, but also beautifully showcases that next step in Emma Swan’s and indeed Once Upon a Time’s exquisite journey, bringing her character and the show full circle with tremendous meaning. And her strength and resolve in this moment is unparalleled. Her family has found her, she has found her family. Her heart awakened from its long sleep when she fell in love with Killian and now she is going to find him, share the heart that he was able to bring back to life, awaken his soul from its sleeping death, and prove once again that true love will always find you.