‘Once Upon A Time’ Winter Finale Review: The Ultimate Sacrifice Is Made In Emotional ‘Swan Song’

Recap and review of Once Upon A Time – Winter Finale – Swan Song:

With Disney owning Star Wars now, it was only a matter of time until we saw elements of that universe incorporated into Once Upon A Time. The winter finale incorporated a climax that was straight out of Return of the Jedi, and it was remarkably powerful in its application. But make no mistake: while “Swan Song” is an undoubtedly emotional hour of television, it’s also incredibly frustrating in how it restores the status quo. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Of course, that status quo I’m referencing is Gold/Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle) once again betraying the residents of Storybrooke by secretly allowing all the Dark Magic in the world to be transferred into himself, rather than allowing it to finally be destroyed, once and for all. Yes, Gold is The Dark One again, and…ugh, I really can’t take the yo-yo nonsense with Gold. It feels as though half of every season is spent either 1) redeeming him from acts though irredeemable, 2) turning him back to the dark side after his redemption, in order to once again turn him into a “shades of gray” villain. Honestly, I’m fine with whatever alignment the show wants to give him, but I just want consistency. Don’t have him assert his love for Belle (Emilie De Ravin), defend the town, and generally be a good guy if you’re just going to pull this “gotcha” trick at the end and tell us that he was really being selfish all along. Sure, some of the best stories are complicated tales with characters of questionable morality, but that story is only compelling once. Maybe twice. It’s not going to be compelling on the fourth or fifth time you’ve pulled that move with the same damn character. So I couldn’t help but groan when, after Hook (Colin O’Donoghue) made the brave sacrifice of allowing all the dark magic to be placed inside him to be destroyed, Gold reveals to Emma (Jennifer Morrison) that he restored the dagger, and that the only thing Hook’s death accomplished was the transfer of the darkness to himself. Once again, we’re back to Gold concealing his darker nature from Belle; we’re once again left with Gold as a potentially chaotic presence who can’t be trusted; and, once again, we’re left with an all-powerful Dark One who’s going to have to be dealt with, sooner or later. It wouldn’t be so frustrating if we hadn’t been through all this countless times before. I just can’t imagine there’s any new territory to explore with that story. Belle will discover how awful Gold truly is, and then leave him; Gold will repent of his evil ways through some big sacrifice; the dark magic will either live inside Gold as a necessary evil, or be transferred to someone else; and we start all this B.S. again next fall.

It’s borderline infuriating, particularly since it wasn’t necessary in the first place. With the conflict for the second half of the season centering on the trip to the Underworld to rescue Hook, there doesn’t need to be a Dark One. The Underworld — and the multitude of once-dead villains it contains — should be villain enough to drive the conflict as we move forward. I was really interested to see what shape the narratives would take in a world without dark magic, or without a Dark One, since it would mean the major threats would be of a more terrestrial nature. It’d come from the inherent darkness inside a villain, and not from the magic that villain possessed. It’s a story the show could easily still have told, since there doesn’t need to be a Dark One for the Underworld to be a place with sinister threats looming around every corner. But I suppose it wouldn’t be Once Upon A Time without dark magic, so even though he Underworld is likely to give us our share of dark magic, I guess showrunners Kitsis and Horowitz still feel the need to have a centralized figure of darkness in the story. It’s an approach I understand, even while I don’t agree with it. In fact, it’s the one disappointing decision I thought this winter finale made, because it shows an unwillingness to break from its own comfortable tropes. In a lot of ways, the Camelot/Dark Emma storyline served absolutely no other purpose but to catalyze the “search for Hook” storyline: no one really changes, and if they do, that change is undone by the end of the arc; Hook dies, but there’s virtually no way that isn’t getting reversed by May; and we didn’t really get any new, permanent characters out of the story either. So what was the point, really? I suppose the journey had its fun moments, so I can’t criticize the show there. And it was interesting to see Emma take a new direction in characterization, while also showing the return of the evil side of Hook. But in both instances, those changes were pretty abrupt, and the show never commits to either one, really. So I was left kind of conflicted about “Swan Song”. On the one hand, it’s a deeply emotional hour of television, as Emma and Hook’s relationship takes center stage. On the other hand, it leaves us with the question of what it all was even for, as the people Emma fought so hard to save end up going willingly with her to the Underworld, a place where some of them have no business being. Hopefully, this Underworld arc bears more fruit than the Camelot plot did.

'Once Upon A Time' Winter Finale Review 'Swan Song' Is Equal Parts Emotional and Frustrating

Credit: ABC

With all that having been said, I did still enjoy this finale. Quite a lot, actually. Centering the conflict around the dissolution of Hook and Emma’s relationship, and focusing on the question of just what type of man Hook wants to be, was a smart choice. In the episode, the core group members (David, Mary Margaret, Henry, Regina, Robin, Gold, the Dwarves) are all marked by the ghosts of Dark Ones past: once the moon reaches its highest point, the souls of the marked will be claimed by the reapers from the Underworld, which will in turn allow the former Dark Ones to take over their bodies and exist in our world. Gold’s speech about how horrifying and torturous the Underworld is actually ends up being a great, understated little moment from Carlyle, who plays Gold as someone who’s been there and seen it all, to his own miserable chagrin. And the proceeding story, which sees each of the core group saying goodbye to each other and to their lives, slowly resigning themselves to their horrible fate, is truly affecting. As are Emma’s efforts to save them all by sacrificing herself to destroy the darkness, since it’s a plan that is ultimately foiled by Emma’s weakness: she cares too much. When Hook transforms himself into Henry to trick her into giving him Excalibur, it seemed like an obvious ploy. But Emma can’t bring herself to see through it, because — for all the darkness that’s consumed her — the old Emma is still in there. The Savior still cares. By that same token, all of Hook’s darkness doesn’t stop him from turning back to the light in that aforementioned moment straight out of Return of the Jedi. As Emma is having her life force sucked away by Nimue, Hook realizes he can’t allow Emma to die for him, and so he turns against the Dark Ones, confining all of them to Excalibur. Then, in the episode’s most emotional moment, Hook convinces Emma to kill him with it to destroy the darkness once and for all, with the couple tearfully saying goodbye and exchanging “I love you”s before the end. It’s beautiful stuff, and wouldn’t work nearly as well without the chemistry that Morrison and O’Donoghue have built up with one another. Granted, Hook’s return to the light could have been even more emotional had he been evil for longer than an episode or two. But I thought his redemption still worked here, due in large part to how wonderfully Morrison plays Emma’s grief in the aftermath of Hook’s sacrifice (seriously, seeing ol’ Killian carted off by the coroners while Emma wails in her mother’s arms is devastating to watch). Similarly, the Hook-centric flashback story helps a great deal in showing that Hook is a complicated man in ways that are arguably far more interesting than Gold’s, precisely because Hook isn’t someone who jumps back and forth every season between being a good guy and a bad guy. Until recently, Hook was fairly consistent as a man of moral uncertainty, seeking revenge against Gold over the death of the woman he loved. But here, we see the inherent darkness inside that man, as Hook murders his own father for abandoning him as a child. It’s a powerful story that helps make Hook’s turn back towards the light feel less abrupt than it would have without that story. Hook has seen the full depth and breadth of human darkness, including his own, and he now sees that he doesn’t want any part of it. He wants to die a good man, and for that good man to be how he is remembered. It’s incredibly poignant, and it’s enough to save the episode for me. O’Donoghue really does a hell of a job here, and I’m glad that this won’t be the last we see of him.

As with any winter finale, certain plot threads are left dangling. When he thinks he’s going to be sucked down to the Underworld, Gold convinces Belle to leave Storybrooke by encouraging her to see the world. But once Hook sacrifices himself to stop the darkness, Belle learns all about what happened, and realizes Gold was selflessly trying to save her. She kisses him and states that she doesn’t need to travel the world to find what she wants, and it’d be a far sweeter moment if we didn’t get the later reveal that Gold was once again the Dark One. So now we have Belle once again in the dark about Gold’s true nature, and it’s a story thread that I imagine will be left hanging for some time, similar to the plot in which Regina (Lana Parrilla) transports Zelena (Rebecca Mader) away to Oz. Surely, we’ll see her again. But since she’s not dead, I doubt it’ll be in the Underworld. And if not in the Underworld, then it probably won’t be any time soon, considering this Underworld storyline is poised to take a significant chunk of time. Then again, that could just be a gross miscalculation on my part, and we’ll only be there for the midseason premiere. But I wouldn’t bet on the stay being that short. Ultimately, when Gold opens the portal to the Underworld, and Emma and her crew step onto the ferry to take them there, it feels like the beginning of a long journey ahead. Hopefully, that journey can make up for the suddenly underwhelming nature of this one, because while I mostly enjoyed for the first half of this season of Once Upon A Time, “Swan Song” left me feeling strangely conflicted about it at the end, even as I genuinely felt this to be one of the most emotionally engaging hours of Once Upon A Time this season.

But what did you think of the Once Upon A Time Season 5 Winter Finale, “Swan Song”? Sound off in the comments!

And for more Once Upon A Time analysis, read our review of the penultimate episode of this half of the season, “Broken Heart”!

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