All the pieces came together this week for Once Upon a Time’s winter finale, “Swan Song”. The episode included everything you could want from a finale: not just one enemy but a whole host of enemies — all the dark ones who have ever lived; a double-ending surprise; the tragic death of a major character; a captivating cliff-hanger; and stellar performances from everyone in the cast. All in all, Once Upon a Time gave us an engaging plot with all the thematic depth we’ve come to expect from the show at its best.
Once Upon a Time has been uneven this season in part because its stars haven’t always been allowed to shine. Some of that has to do with particular plot misfires related to Camelot and Brave’s Scotland (Arthur [Liam Garrigan] and Merida [Amy Manson] were noticeably absent this week). Part of that unevenness, though, has to do with the way the characters have been spread out over a variety of subplots: Emma (Jennifer Morrison) off with Merlin (Elliot Knight) looking for man’s first flame, David (Josh Dallas) on a quest with Arthur for a red-capped mushroom, Henry (Jared Gilmore) exploring his first romantic relationship. In short, the “fellowship” has been broken for most of this season.
The reference to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, a work that draws deeply on the archetype of the heroic quest, is apropos here. Of late, television in general has been mining archetypes more and more, especially with the development of season- and series-long plot arcs. The quest narrative works especially well with such arcs, allowing for fully developed journeys through complex “kingdoms”, from Rick and company’s search for safety in The Walking Dead, to Will Graham’s quest for revenge in Hannibal.
One of the key elements of the quest archetype, though, is that at some mid-point in the story the hero and his allies must break into smaller, separate groups and explore the world on their own. These are the The Empire Strikes Back, The Two Towers, The Matrix Reloaded segments; they’ve shown up in recent seasons of both The Walking Dead and Hannibal. As readers or viewers, this part of the plot can be frustrating, but it’s supposed to be. Like the characters themselves, we miss having everyone together; if nothing else, there’s safety in numbers. These parts of the story usually place the characters in greater danger, and so play an essential role in developing suspense. But just because we feel this anxiety, we also feel a sense of renewed energy and purpose when the characters find each other again, ready after their individual struggles to face off together against the final challenge.
Part of that relief has been driving the last two episodes of Once Upon a Time. Important secrets have finally been revealed, and we’ve gotten the gang back together. It feels as though the disparate threads are being woven into a complete picture again (although, of course, not for long).
But “Swan Song” also offered a return to another of Once Upon a Time’s abiding motifs, one not disconnected from the hero’s quest: the relationship of parents to children. The archetypal hero is always, from the beginning of his story, disconnected from his parents, a fact that plays a large role in setting the quest in motion. From the very beginning, Once Upon a Time has made this an important touchstone, particularly in the figure of Emma, the savior, who grew up as an orphan and whose original quest led her to uncover her own identity as a child of a magical world.
The parent-child relationship can also go very wrong, though, ultimately leading to darkness and villainy. Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle) has served throughout most of the series to embody this possibility, his difficult relationship with his own father, followed by a difficult relationship with his son, eventually leading him to become the Dark One.
This episode explores both possibilities through the character of Killian (Colin O’Donoghue). In the opening scenes, set in Killian’s childhood, we learn that his father not only abandoned him, but sold him into servitude. Ultimately, this shapes Killian into the bitter Hook. In fact, in an important twist, the Dark One becomes a kind of replacement for his father, Rumplestiltskin, the focus for Killian’s anger and thirst for revenge. The show makes this relationship absolutely clear when, in order to pursue his revenge on Rumple, Killian must face his own father. His betrayal and murder of his actual father puts him in line with the Dark One’s story, solidifying their connection as surrogate father and son. It’s to this side of his nature that Killian returns when Swan makes him the new Dark One (in yet one more way, the Dark One’s son).
Yet Killian’s story follows the hero’s path as well. In the past two episodes, he has faced off against his “father”, an important moment in the hero’s journey. Like Luke Skywalker, he must do battle with his father if balance is to be restored to the universe (though in this case the roles seem reversed, with Gold the father having taken on the role of hero while Killian embraces his dark nature, we eventually discover the roles aren’t what we might think). His relationship to Swan has affected him as well. When faced with Swan’s willingness to sacrifice herself for her own son, Henry, he makes the decision to sacrifice himself instead, ultimately choosing the hero’s path rather than the villain’s.
Finally, however, in the setup for the spring half of the season, the episode offered a glimpse of a new world for Once Upon a Time to explore, this one deeper and more archetypal than any we have yet seen: the underworld. Emma, the hero again and once again surrounded by her allies, is now set to journey to death itself to rescue Killian. Will we finally meet the devil himself, and perhaps be treated to a “game of souls?” Only time will tell, but in this age of “Jon Snow sightings”, not to mention “Glen resurrections”, I’d be willing to bet Killian may be “dead”, but he’s not gone.