Once Upon a Time: Firebird Review


By: Marianne Paluso (@Marianne_P81)

Once Upon a Time has always been a show that can elicit strong emotions – feelings of joy and heartbreak, but always a sense of hope. This season has been the darkest one yet, and yet still so beautiful in its epic storytelling. After 5A, I couldn’t imagine more devastating episodes than “Swan Song” or “Birth,” both of which were brilliant in their ability to be both compelling and heart wrenching. But “Firebird” was definitely the most heartbreaking episode the series has ever had, ending on such a devastating note and resulting in an ugly-sobbing, just-rip-my-heart-out, why-was-I-given-emotions type of reaction. All hope seems lost. But this is the “darkest before the dawn” chapter. And while this certainly is the saddest and most hopeless episode we’ve ever seen, there is still a light at the end of this arduous road. In this episode’s flashbacks, we see Emma in her life after prison, struggling both personally and emotionally, having robbed a convenience store and jumped bail, but determined to find out who her family is. She has a run in with Cleo Fox, a bail bondswoman who has a profound effect on the woman Emma becomes. And after Cleo tragically dies, Emma is changed irrevocably.

In the present-day Underworld, Hades asks the heroes for help in rescuing Zelena; in exchange, he will take their names off the tombstones. After he and Zelena share a True Love’s Kiss, restarting his heart, the Underworld journey finally seems as if it will succeed. A portal back home to Storybrooke will open. But when the plan to split Emma’s heart doesn’t work because Killian has been down there too long, their only hope is to venture into the darkest depths of the Underworld and find the fruit of the ambrosia tree, following in the footsteps of Orpheus and Eurydice, the only ones who ever left the Underworld after death. While Emma and Killian embark on their journey, Henry continues with his author duties, helping souls find out what their unfinished business is. Regina urges a confused and upset Robin to give the baby to Zelena, and she and Hades wait in the graveyard for the portal to open. In this moment, despite how much I love seeing Regina and Zelena reconcile, I could not help but empathize with Robin who has only been hurt and deceived by the witch. His moment to compose himself left me worried when Rumple appeared and took his heart, a moment that luckily turned out to be a trick. Pan, needing a living heart to leave, agreed to give Rumple Pandora’s Box to help keep Belle safe on their journey home in exchange for one. But Rumple deceives his father, actually giving him a vessel filled with water from the River of Lost Souls, condemning him forever. It was the only thing Rumple has done this arc that truly felt justified. Though it felt like unnecessary drama, I cannot help but feel a sense of foreboding for Robin. And that uncertainty and despair was not singular to him, for when the heroes realize that Hades has tricked them, trapping them in the library, we see he and Zelena leave through the portal. And while Emma and Killian pass a test of True Love, they also discover the ambrosia tree has been cut and died, forcing them to say goodbye to each other for what they believe will be forever. Our heroes managed to escape through the portal, but Emma had to leave her True Love behind, her mission incomplete and our souls completely broken.

There were so many things that tugged at my heartstrings in this episode: David’s so steadfast and resolute in his belief and Emma and Killian’s love, believing Emma’s heart should have revived him, and letting her know that they’ll be right there waiting for them when they return. And when Emma takes one last look before departing the Underworld, he gives her the comfort she needs in that moment. He can’t end her pain but he can reiterate how bravely she fought for him. Can we give David a father of the year award? My heart also ached for Henry when he realized Killian could not come back with them. Jared Gilmore has grown so much during the series and the expression he gave here demonstrated the deep sadness that the man he had grown to care for, the man he knows makes his mother happy, and the man he surely was happy would be his future stepdad, cannot come home. Henry had told the Apprentice the awful, powerless feeling of watching Killian die and in this moment, Gilmore displayed so much heartache in a single pained expression. Bravo, young sir! And the look on Killian’s face, a mixture of both heartbreak and acceptance when Emma’s heart cannot revive him, was enough to make me weep, even before the real emotional intensity that was to come. Of course the real heart (literally) of this episode was Emma and Killian’s journeys – ones that have been developing since their first adventure climbing a beanstalk together. With many parallels that harkened back to “Tallahassee,” we see in “Firebird” (by no coincidence also written by Jane Espenson) the transformative power of love and how the truest love inspires selflessness, demonstrated by beautiful writing and stunningly real performances.

We have long since wondered what Emma’s life after prison was like and how she became a bail bondswoman. Her journey is the centerpiece of the series so it’s only fitting that both the past and the present would be connected in such heartrending ways. And learning about the origin of Emma’s red leather jacket was an exquisite way of demonstrating the woman she is and how she has transformed over and over again. This jacket has always represented her armor, something that will protect her most especially from being hurt by those she loves. But the truth about armor is that while it can protect you from harm, it can also give you the illusion that you are impenetrable. But it’s just that – an illusion. We are all made of flesh, not steel. We bleed. Our hearts can still break no matter how guarded or closed off we may be. And if we never take off that armor and never open ourselves up to vulnerability, then we are denying ourselves one of the greatest parts of the human condition. Cleo taught Emma many things that were good – to work hard, rise up, be tough and fierce, and let go when needed. But there were also things, influenced by others as well, that Emma has risen above, growing into an amazing and strong person. In learning to be vulnerable and opening her heart, she has learned to take off that armor, and when she needs it, she has transformed it into no longer something to protect herself but instead something to remind her to protect those she loves. And with that we see the transformative power of love, something that is all too common in fairy tales and in Once Upon a Time. Emma has transformed from an ugly duckling to a beautiful swan not in her physical appearance but her emotional being. From lost girl to Savior, to a woman with a completely open heart, Emma now arms herself with love – love that gives her strength to face anything; not believing she is impenetrable, but that what she is fighting for is worth the risk. This is the type of strength that can only come from the purest form of vulnerability. As Jennifer Morrison herself asserts, “Do you know how strong you have to be to be vulnerable? I think you have to be even stronger to be vulnerable than to be defensive. And so I see it as an evolution of her strength for her to feel that she has it in her to be this vulnerable, to be this open, to risk getting hurt. I think that takes an incredible amount of strength.” Emma has transformed through love for her son and her parents and has overcome so much. But romantic love is the most vulnerable of all. It’s truly terrifying. But Killian was able to inspire strength in her the way she has inspired strength in him. Like Emma, Killian has transformed from lost boy, to pirate, to true hero, thanks to the strength that True Love inspired within him. They both rose from the ashes of despair. And they will continue to do so because they both embody the most precious aspect of that true love – selflessness. It’s a quality they have shown before but in “Firebird,” it was exhibited in ways that were remarkably moving.

The cast of Once Upon a Time is filled with talented actors, most especially Jennifer Morrison and Colin O’Donoghue. They bring so much to their individual characters. But it is their shared scenes that are such an incredible gift to viewers. It is a thing of rare beauty when actors become the kind of scene partners that breathe such raw and real brevity and gravitas into their shared moments together. And I truly believe that Morrison and O’Donoghue are following in the illustrious footsteps of such renowned and remarkable pairs as Hepburn and Tracy, Bogart and Bacall, and Hanks and Ryan. The writing of their scenes in “Firebird” was beautiful alone, but Morrison and O’Donoghue elevated the words to a level of such unprecedented potency that it literally took my breath away.

It is said that True Love is the rarest magic of all. But I also believe that the truest of True Love is even more rare because it is based on more than just intense affection but also in an unwavering ability to always put the needs of your love above your own. And in every single one of Emma and Killian’s scenes in “Firebird,” that is the kind of love they displayed. What I’ve always loved about their relationship is that they represent both authentic realism and exquisite fantasy and fairy tale romance. They have battled dragons and giants, overcome dark curses, and found each other across different times and realms. And yet at the same time, they are so grounded in a relatable sense of realism – fighting and making up, overcoming personal insecurities, and inspiring each other’s best selves. That is one of the reasons the moment they prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that what they share is True Love is so meaningful. I love that they both were not sure, not because they doubted how much they love each other, but because of the reality in which they are so used to living. Their world may have magic but their experiences have been much more grounded and harsh. When Emma places her heart on the scale and they think they have failed, their expressions are truly heartbreaking. But what was so significant and meaningful was that the moment they think they have failed was the moment they truly triumphed. Emma crumbles in anguish, needing her heart back in her chest, while Killian is engulfed in flames in agonizing pain. But he still tells her to reach for her heart. And she does – by choosing to save Killian over her living, beating vessel. His only thought was of her and she of him. She chose her heart by choosing Killian. Much like when their kiss ignited the Promethean flame, they passed a test of True Love created by the Gods and demonstrated that this truest love is born out of selflessness. That is the rarest magic of all indeed. And the look on their faces when they realize that the depth of what they feel is as they hoped for was as beautiful as we’ve ever seen. O’Donoghue and Morrison’s eyes expressed that overwhelming joy and perhaps even the feeling of surprise. They knew they were loved and now see a physical representation of just how much. They did not need a magical test to feel it, but giving them proof of such is an exquisite gift to two people who never believed they would find anyone so special and anything so rare. It so special and fitting that Emma and Killian proved their love in this way. True Love’s Kiss is beautiful but what I found so meaningful about this moment is that they proved their love not by a gesture of affection but by an act of sacrifice. While they are both suffering, they only thought of relieving the other’s pain, and through it came one of the most joyous moments of their lives.

Moments of love are marked by joy but they can also be marked by heartbreak. And the moment Emma and Killian must part from each other, knowing they cannot bring him back to life, was the most heartbreaking moment of the series and one of the most devastating I’ve ever witnessed in my life, not only because it’s heart-wrenching to see them forced to say goodbye but also from the raw yet gentle intimacy Morrison and O’Donoghue brought to the scene. Continuing to display that true form of selfless love, their farewells were not fraught with apologies, regrets, or laments of the lives they could have lived together. Instead their farewells are promises they request for each other, thinking only of what’s best for them. Killian wants her to promise not to put her armor back on even though she’s losing him, and Emma wants him to move on and find peace in the afterlife, not letting her be his unfinished business. Tears streamed from their eyes as they softly held each other and Killian tenderly cupped her face, but he waits to kiss her and say “I love you” until she is in the elevator that will separate them forever. Morrison has always had the ability to move me deeply with her performance, and this moment was no different. And O’Donoghue equally moved me in an immeasurable way. We’ve never truly seen Killian cry on screen so the fact that the first time he does is when he must bid farewell to his True Love was almost too much to bear. I was already openly weeping but truly lost it when Killian takes Emma’s hand and kisses it, holding on until the last possible moment until his fingers are desperately grasping for hers. It’s such a simple gesture but one filled with such tremendous meaning. Two hearts and hands that have always been entwined were letting go of each other but still holding onto their love. When they first climbed the beanstalk together, Killian bandaged Emma’s wounded hand, and feelings that were long buried were awakened between them. And now Killian is kissing the same hand he had once soothed – a kiss that says loving her was his life’s most precious gift. As Emma and Killian part, their eyes never leaving each other, I am reminded of a line from Nicholas Sparks: “The best love is the kind that awakens the soul and makes us reach for more; that plants a fire in our hearts and brings peace to our minds. And that’s what you’ve given me. That’s what I hope to give you forever.” Is that not the most perfect representation of their relationship? And it is their selfless sacrifices and love that I truly believe will allow them to prevail in the end. Emma and Killian may believe that all hope was gone, and Emma may not have succeeded in her mission to save him. But in truth they did succeed because they proved to have the truest and most rare forms of love – one born of selflessness. Emma was able to do what Orpheus could not – to let go and not look back. And that is what I believe will save him. The image of Killian standing alone, surrounded by darkness but bathed in a golden stream of light, shows that hope remains. The light of his life may have left with Emma, but it still is shining brightly on him. Their love can still be the light that guides him home.

Can a story affect someone in a truly profound way? The answer is undeniably yes. Emma and Killian’s story has become my favorite fairy tale and one that will stay with me forever. And in this heartbreaking chapter, to quote Persuasion‘s Captain Wentworth, “[They] pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope.” As devastating as this episode was, there is still hope they will prevail. Engulfed in flames, I believe Killian is the Firebird; the phoenix who will rise from the ashes, his life beautifully restored. And it’s because he and Emma proved their love to be unquestionably selfless. Love transformed their souls and can transcend even death. Emma letting go of Killian will allow him to come back to her. Just like he always has. Just like he always will.

Favorite Moments: One moment was joyous and the other completely heartbreaking, but both were the epitome of the truest love imaginable – one that is completely selfless. Seeing Emma and Killian prove that what they shared was undeniably True Love was so special and a perfect depiction of the nature of the relationship. But it was the moment they had to let each other go that had me sobbing, their performances brilliant, and the meaning so utterly beautiful. This scene broke me, most especially when Killian takes Emma’s hand and kisses it. This shall stay with me always.

Favorite Lines:
Emma: I just – I don’t know how to say goodbye.
Killian: Well, then don’t. Just promise me one thing. If I helped take off that armor, don’t put it back on just because you’re going to lose me.
Emma: Promise. But then you have to promise me something, too. Don’t let me be your unfinished business. Move on from here. Don’t wait for me to show up.

Killian: It’s true love. Emma, you chose me. That was the test.

Killian: Why can you only admit how you feel when one of us is facing certain death?
Emma: I don’t know. I guess my armor’s been on for such a long time that I sometimes forget I don’t need it with you.

Regina: You forced my hand, kid eater!

    One Comment

  1. JoanMay 5th, 2016 at 1:47 pm

    brilliant review! This was such a good episode, and I definitely think Hook and Emma will be reunited again (hopefully this Sunday)!

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