Once Upon a Time: “A Pirate’s Life” and “A Garden of Forking Paths” Reviews

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By: Marianne Paluso (@Marianne_P81)

If there were one word to summarize the Once Upon a Time episode “A Pirate’s Life,” it would be bittersweet. And much like the premiere, it elicited a wide range of emotions as we said goodbye our beloved Emma Swan, as well as, unexpectedly, the Killian Jones we’ve known. Emma and Killian are ready for another chapter in life, expecting their first child together, and the Wish Realm version of Killian, along with Regina, decided to join in his search for Cinderella, each on their own paths. This was definitely bittersweet as “A Pirate’s Life” was a commentary of the beauty and greatness of the past six seasons and the uncertainty of what’s ahead. In “A Garden of Forking Paths,” the one word to summarize the episode would be underwhelming. Only one episode after Emma’s departure and her absence, as well as those who have barely been mentioned (i.e. Snow and Charming) are acutely felt as the characters dynamics, while nice, lack the spark that we once saw, while the plots feel far too repetitive. Once Upon a Time has always utilized parallels a great deal, so I might venture that is the intent. All in all, both episodes resulted in conflicting emotions, which should prove interesting for the way in which the show moves forwards.

Dancing, Doubles, and Dilemmas

Before delving into the main aspects of the episodes, I wanted to note this review mainly covers episode two, “A Pirate’s Life.” There are a few things that bear discussing, as they are examples of issues that myself, and I my guess other viewers as well, may be having with the show. As stated in the premiere episode review, the setting of Hyperion Heights lacks a great deal of the mystery, charm, and magic that Storybrooke had. Things feel ordinary, but it’s also reflected in the plots and disconnect from certain characters. Granted, in the Enchanted Forest 2, things seem more dire, if still underwhelming and repetitive. But in Hyperion Heights, plots involving real estate, bribery, gentrification, and petitions to save community gardens are just not as gripping as they should be. When Jacinda is upset that she can’t see Lucy at her ballet recital because it’s turned into a charity event for $550, making it just over her paycheck of $500, are we supposed to believe that a mother struggling to make ends meet and maintain custody would have spent her entire paycheck to attend her child’s ballet recital? Moreover, while it may be unkind and underhanded, this villainy from Victoria Belfry seems kind of tame. Yes, it’s early on in the story, but Regina literally framed Mary Margaret for murder. It just doesn’t quite compare. This disconnect toward Cinderella combats the issues as after three episodes, the chemistry between her and Henry has not improved, and her acting is subpar. It pains me to say, but especially compared to the caliber we’re used to and how wonderful Andrew J. West already is as Henry, it is what it is.

In all honesty, it’s not just the performance, but the character who comes across harsh and brash, with a chip on her shoulder. Once Upon a Time has always been a show with strong female characters who demonstrated that strength in a myriad of ways. They did not have to say they weren’t “damsels in distress,” nor did they get angry with someone if they offered help. They could save themselves but did not look down upon offers of support. And no explanation was needed. It just was. It was a classic case of showing not telling. Now it seems to be the opposite and it makes me miss Emma and Snow even more. It’s off-putting to hear how she hates that her daughter sees her as Cinderella, seeming to equate that with weakness or needing to be saved. It’s as if the writers don’t remember the greatness of the their own show’s female characters. Jacinda may have come around in the end, but it never even had to be the case, and in an episode where we are saying goodbye to Emma, it makes the pang of losing her even more profound. In both “A Pirate’s Life” and “A Garden of Forking Paths” I will say Jacinda’s character shines the most in the mother daughter scenes between her and Lucy, and her scenes with her friend Tiana/Sabine. The affection and connection is felt more and the scenes are sweet and pleasant. It’s when the moments that are meant to feel dramatic or inspiring, such as the speech about saving the garden in “A Garden of Forking Paths,” that something falls short and presents a dilemma for the viewer.

Moreover, in “A Pirate’s Life,” I found myself too often waiting for Emma to appear on screen. Granted there was a limited shooting schedule, but I find it hard to believe a bit more could not have been done, while scenes in Hyperion Heights with characters that we will see all season – such as moments from said ballet recital – could have been trimmed for the character who has been its lead and its heart and soul for six seasons. What we did see was beautiful, poignant, and a culmination of a truly remarkable journey. I just wish we’d seen a little bit more, such as a montage of Emma and Killian’s life together. If nothing else, I wish we’d seen the two of them with their baby. Something as important as the child of the main character and one of the show’s most beloved couples should not be left up to the imagination of the viewer. And if we never see or at least find out what the baby’s name or gender is, it will be very disappointing. And that is saying something coming from someone who was ever rarely expressed such sentiments. Witnessing a scene like that would have made all the difference in the world.

I come back to the word bittersweet for as beautiful and happy as I was with what we saw in regards to Emma’s character, the sting of losing her is intensified because of other aspects of “A Pirate’s Life.” Not seeing certain things hurts regardless, but when it’s contrasted with what we will see, that’s when the dilemmas arise for the audience. All summer long, the creators said that fans need not worry about Emma and Killian’s happy ending and that the three returning characters in Hyperion Heights were the ones we know and love, so there were many theories and hopes for the season. Well, only the former turned out to be the case and as happy as I am about that, there are many issues that arise with the way they have kept “Killian Jones” on the show as this is not the man we watched evolve for the past five seasons. That man went through the portal with Emma back to Storybrooke. This version of Killian is the one created by the Evil Queen’s wish to punish and trap Emma in a world where she was never the Savior. When that episode aired, I, for one, had very mixed feelings about it, and the realness of the characters was murky and up for debate. One moment they are not real, so we shouldn’t feel bad that Regina murdered that realm’s Snow and Charming, and that they left Henry by himself. But Robin was real and returned with them to Storybrooke. Honestly, I had thought it was because of David’s wish for the Evil Queen to get what she deserved. And I thought that meant a second chance. And I was okay with it because it gave a version of Robin and Regina a happy ending and it was an episode I could file away and not have to revisit its confusing nature. But now they’ve decided to base an entire arc on a character who was created by a wish, but somehow has a whole backstory of a long lost daughter who was locked in a prison and a search to find true love to cure his poisoned heart. Objectively this can be a lovely story because O’Donoghue is always so wonderful and the writers do have a knack for writing touching familial moments. But it’s also a farfetched and convoluted way of keeping the character present without requiring Emma on screen. On a show with time travel, curses, freezing time, magic, etc., I can’t believe this was the only possible route to have taken.

The nature of this character results in hopes many had for the season now being gone. It’s very much a push and pull as he is Killian, but at the same time he’s not. He’s a separate entity but shares the same backstory up to a point, has the same DNA, the same soul. There is a connection but it’s not the same, and now all the scenes I had hoped to see, such as flashes of memories when he would see things that would remind him of Emma, won’t happen, and scenes between Rogers and Henry have lost a great deal of their poignancy. It’s no longer stepfather and son, but new friends and allies. Can it still be enjoyable? Yes. But the heart is not the same. Moreover, another hope I had going into the season was to see Emma and Killian’s child. Instead, we will see this alternate Killian’s child with goodness knows who. Are audiences expected to be happy about seeing a daughter of a wished-into-existence clone and a random character instead of the child of the couple who went on a beautiful five-year-long journey? Again, it doesn’t mean what we see won’t be lovely, but that doesn’t mean it can’t feel disappointing by comparison.

One of the main dilemmas once again is this conflicted feeling moving forward with this version of Killian, and where they could potentially go with his character. I have no doubt there are many conflicting opinions about this story, but I think the writers are treading on very thin ice that already has a crack in it. I deeply hope the story remains solely on finding his daughter and that just because he’s technically a separate character, they don’t try to pair him romantically with someone else – not Tiana as some already fear seeing their interactions in “A Garden of Forking Paths;” not anyone. I saw nothing truly of note between the two, so I hope the writers are not foolish enough to attempt such a thing. Separate or not, he’s still fundamentally the same person, which means that his True Love and soulmate should always be Emma. Why would you even try another love story when we just witnessed one of the most beautiful ones to ever grace the screen? Anything else would feel jarring and asking a lot for the general audience to see someone with the same face with someone that isn’t her. It’s not like Cinderella, who is an entirely different character. He’s the same in essentials and Captain Hook’s love story has already been told. Also, and more importantly, it would go against not only what the character said in this episode but the way True Love has always been presented on the show. Wish Hook told Killian that he’d been searching the realms seeking true love, but it proved futile. It was because he couldn’t find Emma. When she heals him, you could see the affection between them, even if it’s different, and the look of love and gratitude in his eyes is profound. She is his Savior as always. It’s why the memory remains such a crucial part of him as Rogers, even if it was altered. On Once Upon a Time, True Love is the rarest and most powerful magic of all. It can transcend realms and death and break any curse. All of these characters are unique and important as individuals but also are written as matches for others. Can you imagine an alternate Charming paired with someone other than Snow? The same should be true for Killian. So if they insist on showing romance – which isn’t necessary as it underestimates O’Donoghue’s abilities as an actor and the audience’s abilities to see him as something other than a romantic lead – can there somehow be another version of Emma that he simply hasn’t found yet or can be wished into existence the same way he was? We don’t even have to see her on-screen, just know she’s out there. This would help maintain the integrity of the character and the way True Love has been emblematic on the show as something rare, irreplaceable, and something that can always be found when it’s meant to be. Any version of Snow should be the Charming, Robin with Regina, Rumple with Belle, and Emma with Killian. Seeing a version of Killian with anyone but another version of Emma would feel fundamentally wrong. And if you think having another version of Emma sounds convoluted, well, it isn’t any more so than the plot of the character in question.

Worthy of Praise

Without a doubt one of the greatest aspects of “A Pirate’s Life” were, unsurprisingly, the performances by Colin O’Donoghue and Jennifer Morrison. These two remarkable actors have always brought such depths, vitality, nuance, and poignancy to their characters on individual levels and in their shared scenes. In this episode, O’Donoghue successfully and brilliantly showcased five different personas, all with distinction, as well as moments of humor, tenderness, and emotion. Despite everything surrounding the character, older Wish Hook is very funny and it’s clear O’Donoghue had a lot of fun bringing him to life again. But he was also our Killian, Wish Hook pretending to be him, and then Young Wish Hook as himself, as well as cursed Officer Rogers. And you can spot all the differences and similarities and it was a real tour de force as you end up feeling for all of them.

In Morrison’s final episode as the incomparable Emma Swan, she, as always, moved me to tears in her scenes with her True Loves, as she is both letting go and allowing her son to find his own story and embarking on a new and beautiful chapter in her life with her husband. In the show’s opening flashbacks with her, Killian, and Henry on the Jolly Roger and Storybrooke, Morrison expressed the sadness and trepidation about her son leaving home and wondering if she and Killian will be able to have a child of their own. The hope he gives to her makes her expression when, years later, she’s really reunited with her son and reveals that she’s pregnant even more beautiful. And her realization and hope is so touching. Equally lovely and moving is the scene when she heals Wish Hook. In a brief but powerful moment, we were reminded of the indelible connection between their souls and the magnificent chemistry between the two actors. Even without the same shared history, you can see the love and adoration. It’s another reminder of how there should never be any other pairing on Once Upon a Time with these actors then with each other. Nothing else would ever compare.

The most moving moments of performance were, without a doubt, the scenes where Emma says goodbye (for now) to Henry and she and Killian go through the portal back to Storybrooke. It takes a wonderful actor to showcase the same kind of heart, connection, and emotion towards a character being played by a new actor. So seeing the way Morrison and West showcase the Henry/Emma relationship with the same amount of warmth was a thing of beauty. Morrison expressed that ever-relatable theme of giving your child their best chance with a sense of gravity and reality. And when she and Killian give the three remaining a final look and depart home for Storybrooke, many tears were shed.

Happy Beginnings

At the end of the day, I could not be happier for the happy ending (beginning) we saw not only for Emma, but also the Killian we’ve loved. Both characters have gone through beautifully epic journeys together and individually that were always grounded in real and relatable poignancy. I absolutely love that we saw the relationship between Henry and Emma come full circle. He found her and brought her to her family, changing her life and leading her towards a path of hope and love. And now, although it hurts to be apart, she wants to give him the same thing: a chance to find his own story of love. This isn’t goodbye forever. This is a very natural progression of a child and parent relationship and one that will always remain pure, true, hopeful, and one of the loveliest of the series.

For the lonely lost girl who didn’t think she’d ever matter, and for the orphaned boy who lost everyone he ever loved, the paths they went down may have been fraught with pain, loneliness, and even danger, but it also let them to each other. As Emma happily said, it took them a long time to find each other and once they did, their journey was not an easy one. True love never is. But as Killian said, they fought for their love and they won. The culmination of that journey was definitely felt when they wed last season, but it’s once again brought to an even more profound level in one of the most beautiful happy beginnings I could imagine, especially for Emma. They will be living a peaceful life in Storybrooke as husband and wife, the two of them true equals who share a deep love and respect for each other that will endure for all eternity and has created a new life from that love. As they lovingly gaze each other before departing for home, his hand on her stomach as she holds both his hand and his hook, it’s such a perfect and exquisite representation of everything they are to each other and to the series: the belief that no matter what, you can become all that you want to be and find someone who loves you as you are and also inspires you to be the best version of yourself. It’s the belief that True Love will always find each other and forever endure. It’s love. It’s family. It’s hope. Once Upon a Time will not be the same without our Emma Swan and Killian Jones, but we are all the more blessed to have witnessed this new story which is truly one of the greatest fairy tales of all time.

Moving Forward

However you move forward with Once Upon a Time will again most likely depend on your perspective. But from mine, and I’d venture many others, saying goodbye to Emma and the Killian from the past five seasons is not only bittersweet, but also feels like a commentary on the departure of what made the show so magical. There are some issues that aren’t easily dismissed. One episode after Emma’s departure, “A Garden of Forking Paths” was underwhelming and even boring with repetitive storylines. The most interesting thing is that we now know that Victoria Belfry is awake from the curse and has what is most likely Rapunzel’s witch locked up in her high rise. Something tells me there is a connection between them and Wish Hook’s story as well and I admit to be intrigued. However, the story surrounding Lady Tremaine’s hatred for Cinderella involves Tremaine’s daughter Anastasia dying as teenager and Ella being somehow responsible. She blames her, preserved her daughter’s body, and needs a pure heart to restore her life. Her reign of terror is all because of this. This is so much like the original plot involving Regina blaming Snow for her love Daniel’s death. Is it exactly the same? No. But it’s also far too similar at the same time.

For the three returning actors that remain there, I will say that they, along with West’s Henry, are the most enjoyable part of the season. Though as much as I love them, there seems to be a spark missing. Perhaps it’s because their characters are different. Perhaps it’s the storyline. But something doesn’t quite fit. It’s like trying to force puzzle pieces together, or put a square peg into a round hole. There also seems to be no distinct difference between the characters in the Enchanted Forest 2 and their cursed selves in Hyperion Heights with the exception of Henry, and the timeline and ages are remains confusing. And while I really enjoy Henry, there is an issue with placing him in the same position as Emma as his lack of belief is not from living a horrible life, but rather from a curse. This takes away a great deal of the power of that moment the belief returns in comparison to when Emma found hers. Moreover, I think the biggest issue is that continuing on in many ways fundamentally changes the original concept of the show. This concept was that there was a land filled with all the characters we know – or thought we knew. All the stories we know are not the real stories and these were what really happened. Having multiple versions of the same characters may be reflective of how many fairy tales have different versions, but in the Once Upon a Time universe, it contradicts the original concept and makes it feel like an attempt to continue no matter if it makes sense with the universe they created or not. Sure, things can change, but if they have to, it should be with the characters and stories that are just as captivating. And it is possible. As someone who watched and loved Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, those were all new characters and stories and they were absolutely fantastic. Unfortunately, so far in Season 7, that isn’t quite the case. It’s honestly heartbreaking and unpleasant to say such things because I know the show is capable of greatness. There may be some fine moments and stories upcoming but overall the quality is not the same.

At some point, there’s something to be said for knowing when a show should end, especially a show about stories. No show can last forever. But the love and impact of it can. In the end, I hope they soon find a way to wrap up these storylines with grace and we once again see the characters we lost – most especially Snow and Charming, and Emma and Killian with their child. This may be a pipe dream, but I always imagined that one of the last scenes of the series would be Emma celebrating her birthday surrounded by her loved ones to parallel the pilot where she was all alone. This may be Henry’s story now, but in the end, it should involve his mother and all his family. And this would be a moving and appropriate way of ending a journey that began as a birthday wish on a cupcake and became a life filled with love and an amazing extended family. And I hope that when they reach that final chapter for all the characters, and finally close the book, the screen once again reads “And they all lived happily ever after. THE END.”

Favorite Lines

Emma: It took a long time to find each other and ourselves, and now we both made mistakes, but we both can learn from them, and both can do something good from the start.

Emma (to Wish Hook): Hey Killian, you don’t know me, but I know you. The man I fell in love with – until we met, he was you. Which means there’s hope. All you need to do is believe. Just look at me and believe.

Emma (to Henry): I’m your mom. I’m never going to be okay with being apart. But all those years ago when you were a kid and you found me and brought me to Storybrooke and brought me to my family…I’m going to keep missing the hell out of you. But I’ve got to give you what you gave me.

Killian: [Henry’s] grown into a fine young lad and he’s lucky to have a mother like you.
Emma: He’s lucky to have a pirate like you.


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