Swan Song Review | Once Upon a Time Season 5 Episode 11

What kind of man do you want to be?


Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jennifer Morrison, Lana Parrilla, Josh Dallas, Emilie de Ravin, Colin O’Donoghue, Jared S. Gilmore, Rebecca Mader, Sean Maguire, and Robert Carlyle.

Season 5
Episode 11: Swan Song

Going into the final episode of the Dark Swan arc, you would be forgiven for imagining that a climactic showdown was about to happen on the streets of Storybrooke, each of our heroes fighting tooth and nail against the dark forces that have returned to plague the earth from the Underworld.

It’s a fair expectation. If that was indeed what you wanted, then you might find yourself disappointed, as the plan of the Dark Ones is a little more devious, and less cinematic, than that.

Yet, that’s where the episode also succeeds. The foreboding sense of impending doom allows us more character driven drama than if it were action-packed, and when you’ve spent five seasons with characters, that can often be just as powerful of a draw. As the Storybrooke characters give up their mortal existence and come together, it’s quite touching.

Really, it’s Killian and Emma’s relationship where this episode properly comes alive. This episode dedicates itself to exploring the question “what kind of man do you want to be?”, and it’s Killian’s turn for a flashback story. His revenge on Team Charming after turning him to darkness marries well with the flashbacks to him murdering his own father. The most heartbreaking part of this story is that Killian was actually going to spare his dad, until he learned that he’d named his son Liam, as if he were replacing the family that he’d already abandoned. It’s quite a dark route for Killian to go down, and really shows the depths of his villainy.

While in the past Killian answered the question of “what kind of man do you want to be?” as the sort who was single minded in his quest for revenge against Rumplestiltskin, who acts out of vengeance and anger, in the present Killian sacrifices himself to save the rest of Storybrooke and destroy the darkness in all of the Dark Ones. It’s interesting, however, that it’s Regina who gets into Killian’s head about what sort of person he wants to be, in the name of an overly convenient flashback event that we’ve never heard about before, and not Emma. I suppose this is true to life. Even those not especially close to us can unravel home truths in a way that your close loved ones cannot, and Regina was privy to an area of Killian’s past that Emma was not. Regina knew Killian at his darkest, which is a place Emma has never experienced.

Ultimately, Killian sacrificing himself was a satisfying conclusion to the Dark Swan story arc. It’s a way of finally ridding the darkness from Emma without it seeming overly convenient or like the show has rewritten too many rules for it to happen. If there’d been a last minute fake out in the sacrifice then it would have felt false. For Killian to actually die in order to destroy the Dark Ones, it gives the decision and the plot overall a real sense of weight and consequence.

Or at least it would, if it weren’t for the terrible turn that Rumple’s character takes here. When asked the question “what kind of man do you want to be?”, which he wouldn’t be, because I don’t think he actually qualifies as a man seeing as he’s literally human sewage, Rumple consistently decides to screw everybody else over.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Rumple in the Enchanted Forest really works as a character. He is a trickster, and he’s mischievous, and he does get his way and it’s more of a cautionary tale. That’s how fairytales work, and in the fairy story he is bested. In including Rumple within a larger narrative, it’s tricky to know what to do with him. Such a self serving character doesn’t exactly scream hero potential, but by merging his story with Beauty and the Beast, it’s sort of painted Rumple as this damaged being who, deep, deep, deep down supposedly has a redeemable core.

Yet he just doesn’t. He proves time and time again that he cannot be trusted, regardless of how often the show taunts us constantly with the idea that he could change. He could change. He won’t change, and that’s why I cannot entertain any more stories in this vein. Despite being a villain, and then trying to be a hero, and then sacrificing himself, and then being brought back to life, and then lying to Belle to kill Zelena, and then scheming behind her back to get as much power as possible, and then trying to get the Author to rewrite all of the happy endings, to then being stripped of the Dark One and suddenly being a true hero worthy of Excalibur, apparently now Rumple is the Dark One again, having tricked Emma into siphoning off the Dark One energy to give it back to him.

This is where we have to draw the line. The first part of this season tried to put it that Rumple might have just been influenced by the Dark One inside him, and that at his core he is different. This conscious choice and this deception is the proof that Rumple is a villain through and through.

The worst part of this, of course – other than the fact that Killian’s sacrifice genuinely means nothing, as they could have found some other way to siphon the magical energy into Rumple if they’d known the plan – is what this means for Rumple’s relationship with Belle. Despite deciding in just the previous episode that she wanted to guard her heart and not be with Rumple, Belle has had an abrupt change of heart and committed herself to being with Rumple again. Which means that their relationship is now, once again, built upon a lie.

What’s more is the fact that I don’t even think that the show views this as a problem. I don’t think they actually view Belle as a proper character at all, but just somebody who they can write any way they want to and ignore any sort of basic human emotion at all. For every punch the air moment she gets of declaring her independence, she then goes back to him, and it’s genuinely a toxic relationship. She needs better, and she is more than intelligent enough to be able to break free of this cycle. I sincerely hope that Emma left some sort of message for Belle to tell her of Rumple’s latest lies, and that it genuinely calls an end to their relationship once and for all, because he needs to pay for this last one.

I feel like I could rant about this all day, because I could, and because it is galling that we have to continue to swallow this ridiculous narrative of a poor, clueless woman being deceived by a wholly irredeemable man time and time again. A woman who is literally known for being one of the most independent and intelligent Disney princesses in existence. It’s like How to Fuck Up a Characterisation in 5 Seasons. Congrats, Once Upon a Time, you nailed it.

Another interesting step in this episode is Zelena being banished to Oz. Firstly, this is a huge loss. Zelena is hilarious. The way that she greeted Regina and Robin in the mayor’s office with paint swatches and calling them “Gina! Robbie!” still has me chuckling. Rebecca Mader’s delivery is spot on, and I can’t imagine how wonderful it must be for Americans to hear that delightful accent. I’m entirely immune by this point, but it must add an extra level of amusement. Zelena deserves so much more screen time, and I hope that she gets it once she works her way free of Oz, but I hope that she isn’t pigeon holed into a villainous role for too long.

Alternatively, I can’t wait for the episode while the rest of the team are in the Underworld and Zelena takes on Storybrooke with only Merida and Belle to defend them. I joke about this, but there always seems to be one episode where we see whatever Belle is up to as an excuse for never seeing Emilie de Ravin do anything else.

So by the end of the episode, most of Team Charming are headed to the Underworld to retrieve Killian and bring him back to life. I’m not entirely sure why there wasn’t this tremendous fanfare when Neal died, but hopefully this is addressed. As an additional note, Belle is once again deemed surplus to requirements. Not only was she thought as not important enough by the Dark Ones to actually mark her for the Underworld, but now apparently she doesn’t get to come along for a ride, nor know the latest misdemeanour of her spouse. Oh, happy days.

Personally, I’m not entirely eager to head to the Underworld for what is, presumably, the latter half of the season. Firstly, I’m imagining that it’s going to be dark, and I just can’t deal with that sort of aesthetic for that long and secondly, the last time that our entire coterie headed off on a quest was Neverland, and the lack of Storybrooke was really felt throughout the storytelling. It also just prevents everybody getting on with the mundanity of ordinary life. It robs us of the simple character moments that really make the series soar, so it might have been nicer if a few fewer characters had been going on the journey, just so that we could have had more storytelling variety. Regardless, brace yourselves.

You can watch Once Upon a Time Seasons 1 – 7 on Netflix. It is also available on home media and other digital platforms for purchase or rent.

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