Once Upon a Time: Swan Song Review


By: Marianne Paluso (@Marianne_P81)

In one of the most heartbreaking and yet beautiful episodes of the series ever, the first half of season five of Once Upon a Time concluded with tragedy and yet a renewed sense of hope. Penned by series creators Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, “Swan Song” brought this arc to a poignant end and brought the show full circle in a breathtaking way, reminding us of what makes Once Upon a Time such a brilliant and rare gem. It is not often that a show in its fifth season can still surprise, delight, and deeply move, but season five has done all that and more. By definition a “swan song” is said to be a final act or performance just before dying, deriving from the legend that swans sing a beautiful and mournful song before their final breath. It was a safe assumption that this would apply to the death of the “Dark Swan” but this rang true in so many ways and for so many characters, seen not only in flashbacks but the present day drama. We finally see Killian Jones as a boy, as well as meet his father Brennan. After a sweet and wise speech about how we are all braver than we think, we learn that Brennan abandoned his boys and traded them into servitude to escape the law. Years later, Regina recruits Hook to kill her mother, making him pass a test to see if he has the nerve. This test is whether he can kill his own father. Killian learns Brennan has found a way to cheat death as well, having fallen under a sleeping curse and awoken by True Love’s Kiss by his nurse, and later wife and mother to his new son. That’s right – Killian has a half-brother. Having already lost so much, he plans to spare his father and secure him with letters of transit. It is only when he hears the same speech given to him as a boy and that Brennan has named his new son Liam that Hook snaps feeling betrayed and like he – and more importantly, his older brother Liam – had been replaced. Hook stabs him with pain in his eyes while his father tells him it’s never too late to change and be a better man. Brennan’s swan song was his advice to his son and it informed everything in the present, where Killian has succumbed to darkness, saying that this is the man he is, willing to do anything to get his revenge, and allowing Nimue and all the other Dark Ones to take control of him. The Dark Ones mark everyone in town so they can remain alive while the heroes will be sent to the Underworld. Rumple says to enjoy their time together because there is no hope left. So our characters each plan their own Swan Songs – a final act before their inevitable fate. Rumple displays genuine selflessness (for now) by sending Belle out of town to live her dreams; Robin and Regina choose to protect the baby from Zelena, who already made their hopes for her unfounded, and send Zelena back to Oz in a cyclone; while Snow, David, and Henry decide to enjoy a happy moment together at Granny’s. But Emma doesn’t want to give up and plans to use Excalibur to absorb all the darkness and sacrifice herself. But Killian steals back the sword and it seemed as if the darkness would truly win, until Nimue makes the mistake of choking Emma to stop her from interfering. Seeing his true love in pain, Killian pushes back and absorbs all the evil into the sword, telling Emma to kill him and let her and her family live. They sacrifice their happiness as she stabs him, returning Emma to her Savior-self and Killian dying in her arms. Heartbreakingly, his sacrifice seemed in vain when Emma learns the darkness wasn’t destroyed but rather channeled back into Rumple who is now the Dark One again. Furious, she demands he open the portal to the Underworld so she can save Killian by splitting and sharing her heart with him. With her family and friends behind her, Emma sets out to save her true love saying, “Hook, I will find you, I will always find you.”

There was so much to love about “Swan Song” from the epic and powerful moments, to the quiet ones, from the unexpected twists, to the powerful themes of choice and true love. Small moments such as Zelena quipping about baby names, to Regina deservedly sending her sister over the rainbow, and Robin asking the obvious question of how one gets to the Underworld, all these moments made me smile. Regina also had some significant scenes with Killian that were quite powerful as the two reformed villains both share an understanding of going to extremes in the name of revenge. After tension and sarcasm between them all season, she finally called him by his name and implored sincerity and believing that he, like her, is not a villain anymore and that he must ask himself what kind of man he wants to be. This was not only welcome and refreshing, but presented a unique and surprisingly poignant dynamic. The moments for the Charming family were the kind that remind us how precious our loved ones are and that we should spend our time with them in joy and not despair. When Snow kisses and hugs her daughter goodbye, asking her to meet them at Granny’s, it was very touching as was when Emma watched them enjoy a meal together before leaving her family a goodbye note. The pain on Emma’s face was so sad as you could see how much she simply wanted to join them, smile, and laugh, but instead was choosing to fight with all she had to save them. Her choice was self-sacrifice and in the end, while she remained alive, she still had to sacrifice her own happiness. This loss of Emma’s was felt by all, most especially her parents who did all they could to comfort their grieving daughter. When they had to pull her away from Killian and hold her up, Snow cupping Emma’s face saying, “I’m sorry baby,” I lost it. Emma has suffered so much pain and loss her entire life, all without a mother or father to comfort her and wipe away her tears. But now in the face of her most devastating loss ever, she was no longer alone. She had her parents’ arms to fall into. And although they cannot take her pain away, it was beautiful to see that she did not have to shoulder her grief alone. Losing the one person who had been Emma’s steadfast form of solace and comfort, her parents were there for her when she needed them the most and that is extremely moving. The power of choice was also at play with Rumple and Killian, two men who have always been adversaries and foils, and the differences between them were made ever apparent. Rumple is such a trickster; you never know whether to trust him, and once again I found myself fooled into believing that he had changed for the better. And while you know he is capable of being genuine and selfless (he proves that when he sent Belle to safety), his fatal flaw is that at his first opportunity, he could not resist the allure of having power and immortality again. It doesn’t matter if he thought he would never see Belle again; the mark of true heroism and of what makes a person honorable is that they makes choices to be good expecting nothing in return. Belle came back and decided to be with them and you could understand why. He had done the right thing. But now we know he betrayed that trust of Belle’s, and betrayed Emma, standing by and letting Killian sacrifice himself. How can Belle or anyone else trust him again? And his choice of power and self-preservation solidifies Rumple as the one main villain of the series once and for all. The choices that Killian makes in the past and present further illuminated the reasons behind all of his choices and behavior and ultimately why he is the man he is in very gripping ways. We’ve been waiting 3 seasons to see Killian as a child and meet his father and it was well worth the wait. Oliver Bell as Young Killian was sweet and earnest and you could believe he would grow into Lieutenant Jones who wanted nothing more than to be a hero. Adam Croasdell was brilliant as Brennan Jones, able to elicit contradictory emotions about his character. We feel as conflicted as Killian, with Croasdell making Brennan feel sincere and warm despite his awful behavior and doubtful stories. What was wonderful was that this flashback breathed new life into the heart of Killian’s character revealing why he has taken the paths he has. In some ways, Killian’s descent into darkness seemed too fast. But now it becomes so clear why being controlled, not feeling trusted, and being betrayed wounded him so deeply. We know how much it hurt to have a king who was meant to be noble and trustworthy be the reason his brother died. Now learning that his own father not only abandoned them but also sold them into servitude makes Killian’s behavior pristinely clear. Despite his father’s wrongdoings, there was truth and wisdom he bestowed to his son and it stayed with him in the most crucial moment possible. What kind of man do you want to be? If you make a choice that is wrong, it’s never too late to change. And when Emma stands before him in pain, with all of her loved ones at risk, you can see the moment he breaks free from the hold the darkness has over him. It is an astounding piece of acting on O’Donoghue’s part as you can literally see him wake up and overcome his demons, all through an expression of other realization and tremendous strength.

The climatic, sacrificial moment for Killian and Emma solidifies the measurable beauty of their story, the visceral strength of their performances, and the power of choice. Morrison and O’Donoghue have been spectacular all season and in “Swan Song” they proved once again to be able to be deeply affecting and utterly brilliant with their potency and ability to showcase raw emotions that leave you breathless. True love proved to be stronger than darkness as Killian made the choice to choose love over revenge so Emma and her family could be saved. And Emma made the choice she was not able to do in Camelot and let him go – to let him die a hero, happy knowing she will have a future free from the darkness. In the most heartbreaking moment in perhaps series history, Emma and Killian make the ultimate sacrifice and Morrison and O’Donoghue created a moment of exquisite and immeasurable heartbreak. It is tragic and yet truly beautiful. From the tears streaming down Emma’s face as they say they don’t want to lose each other, to their beautiful kiss and exchange of “I love yous,” to the way he whispers, “It’s okay,” and then caresses her face to show her comfort while he was dying, these tragic moments were infused with complete vulnerability and realism. The moment Emma is freed from the darkness, we see the culmination of every single heartbeat of their story together. The darkness may not have been destroyed completely as they believed it was, but something even more significant occurred – the darkness was destroyed within each other. Killian sacrifices himself and his redemption comes full circle as he was able to overcome not only his demons, but also the greatest evil of all. As he cradles Emma’s face, their foreheads resting against each other, Emma glows and magically transforms back into the Savior, a glorious symbol of how light truly prevailed over the darkness. And the last thing Killian sees is Emma, his beautiful, brave Emma, back to her true self. As they cling to each other before he falls, collapsing into her arms, we see that just for an instant, they were able to have one exquisite moment where there is nothing but the two of them in each other’s arms, cherishing their love for one another as their true selves. It was only an instant but incomparably beautiful. 
As Emma sobbed over Killian’s lifeless body and could not bear to let go of his hand, Morrison made you feel Emma’s heartbreak and it was deeply touching. But it is said that hope shines brightest in the darkest moments, and the final minutes of “Swan Song” were some of the most hopeful I’ve ever seen. When Emma says she will find Killian, that she is not giving into darkness but giving into love, wanting to share her heart to save his life, we see that Emma is truly no longer the lost little girl who didn’t have belief and hope, but that she is the brave, heroic Savior with a love so strong she is willing to go to Hell and back with an unfailing faith that their love can overcome anything. In The Princess Bride, Westley says, “Death cannot stop true love. All I can do is delay it for a while.” And on Once Upon a Time, that is certain to prove to be beautifully the truth. 

As Emma steps onto the lake, she vows, “Hook, I will find you. I will always find you,” echoing her family’s motto and indeed the show’s most iconic quote and the true heart of Once Upon a Time. This moment is so incredibly meaningful and moving because it not only brings the show full circle but also the journey of Emma Swan. The road to happiness may be filled with darkness and obstacles but you have to look for your life. And along the way you can find light amongst the darkness, love when you’ve lost it, and indeed you can find yourself and what kind of person you truly want to be. Emma is stronger than she has ever been. Determined, hopeful, and letting go of fear, embracing love, and willingly ready to face anything to find the man she loves and fight for their happy ending. Just like her parents had faith that no matter what, they would always find each other, now Emma has found that same strength and hope that she will always find Killian. And hearing Emma say those words moved me in an immeasurable way. It is going to be one Hell of a ride but as we know, with belief and hope, true love will always be found, always hopes, and will always endure.

Favorite Moments: Emma echoing her family’s steadfast line, “I will always find you,” as she sets out to save her true love Killian was one of the most exquisitely beautiful and hopeful moments of the entire series. To see Emma come so far and no longer be afraid to open her heart but fight for her happy ending is deeply moving. And seeing her parents give her a little nod approval before they set out was so wonderful as it showed a belief in their daughter and that she will succeed. And, although it was heartbreaking, seeing Killian overcome his demons and sacrifice himself, with Emma and him sharing a moment of true love, will stay with me as one of the most affecting and powerful moments in television history.

Favorite Lines:
Emma: Hook, I will find you. I will always find you.

Killian: I was weak. So let me make up for it now by being strong.
Emma: I don’t want to lose you.
Killian: And I don’t want to lose you. But you have to let me go. Let me die a hero. That’s the man I want you to remember.

Snow: You can’t give into the darkness again.
Emma: I won’t. I’m giving into love. I’m doing this right. I learned my lesson. I’m taking a page out of your book. You two share a heart. So will we.


  1. MimiDecember 11th, 2015 at 1:02 pm

    LOVELY review. I love your perspective of the episode and how it really brings back the true meaning of the episode. Thank you for your analysis. This helps deepen my perspective of what this show means, hope and love. What an incredible love story they are writing.

  2. TammyDecember 11th, 2015 at 7:34 pm

    Amazing review!! Marianne has a way of truly capturing the essence and heart of an episode and character. This moved me to tears all over again. Can’t wait to see what true love can overcome in the Underworld. Bravo!!

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