Once Upon A Time S05E11 “Swan Song” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on Netflix, new episodes every Wednesday
Writers: Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz
Director: Gwyneth Horder-Payton
Essential Plot Points:
In The Fantasyland Flashbacks:
- Young Hook and his brother are sold into slavery by their dad, Brennan.
- Years later, with Hook now a seasoned pirate, Regina recruits him to kill her mum Cora. To test his suitability for the task she takes him to a tavern run by his father.
- She tells Hook he must kill Brennan.
- Brennan pleads with Hook that he is a changed man (love of a good woman, blah, blah, blah… wife died of plague… blah, blah, blah… did I mention you now have a cute step-brother?… blah, blah, blah…).
- Hook nearly has a change of heart but is incensed when he finds out his dad had called his step brother the same name as his real brother, Liam (and that Brennan is using he same trite fatherly wisdom spiel he used on Hook years before).
- Hook kills his dad.
- The Dark Ones give the various Storybrookers the Mark Of Charon. This means that when the moon reaches its peek, the Dark Ones will take over their bodies while the souls of the Storybrookers will be consigned to the Underworld.
- Emma decides that she must use Excalibur to draw all the Darkness into her and then kill herself. So she asks Gold to give her the sword and he seems unusually compliant.
- But by a ridiculously simple ruse Hook nicks Excalibur off Emma.
- When Charon arrives to transport the Storybrookers’ souls to the Underworld Regina appeals to Hook’s better nature (it seems that the Darkness, like Cybermen in New Who, isn’t immune to a sob story) and Hook lets Emma kill him using Excalibur, which then dissolves.
- But Gold has a plan of his own; he’s magically tampered with Excalibur so that now all the power of Darkness is in him.
- Emma realises what’s happened when she hears the Dagger calling for her. Threatening to tell Belle what Gold’s done, Emma blackmails Gold into helping her with a new plan – to travel to the Underworld to rescue Hook’s soul. The usual suspects join her in the quest otherwise a bunch of actors on contract wouldn’t have much to do for a few episodes next spring.
- Somewhere along the way, Regina finds time to banish Zelena back to Oz.
There’s little denying that “Swan Song” is an unashamed fan-pleaser. Hook sacrifices himself in a scene exquisitely crafted to have regular viewers welling up, killed by a sword stroke from the woman he loves. Then before their tears can dry and they grow angry enough to blast the show on internet forums for callously killing off one of their favourite characters, a now non-Dark Emma has worked out a plan to resurrect him. Next thing you know all the main cast members board a ferry for the Underworld and an almighty cliffhangers makes sure we’ll all be glued to the screen again next spring.
It is the stuff of fairytales, and after five years Once Upon A Time does it effortlessly. Okay, there’s still a slight sense of everything being a little rushed, which has an unfortunate impact on Gold’s storyline but it’s a credit to the writers that they pack so much in without the whole thing becoming a total mess. This is a show that’s no longer bothered with new fans, just keeping the ones it does have happy, which means it can rely on a well-honed dramatic shorthand. What might seem trite to the uninitiated is usually a clever piece of scripting sleight-of-hand to those in the know. After all, what the hell would any newcomer make of the flashbacks these, which simply cut into the main action with no pretence at any kind of establishing their context any more?
So, on the surface this is a key episode that delivers in terms of the grand gestures and big emotional set pieces. But that surface doesn’t take much scratching to see that there are cracks underneath.
What’s that noise? Oh just the sound of missed opportunities whizzing by. The revelation about Gold being the Dark One again initially feels like a cool move, but the show hardly makes the most of the twist. After Rumple was all “look how noble I am!” last episode, this sudden change of face (figuratively if not literally… yet) seems to be a betrayal of the character’s development. Then you start to wonder if we’re supposed to think that Belle dumping him last week was supposed to the trigger. Now that has great dramatic potential: he becomes the Dark One again in a hissyfit over getting dumped only for Belle to come to back to him because she believes he’s been selfless. Irony? In spades.
But absolutely none of that is explicit in the script. No big deal is made if it. In fact, new Dark Gold seems barely any different. No evil glints in the eye. No sardonic sneer. Is he actually sure he’s the Dark One? And what does he plan to do with all that power? Overcharge people for antiques?
It’s also a pity that more wasn’t made of Dark Hook. We had to endure Dark Swan sulking for half a season but when we finally get a Dark One who’s fun to watch he’s written out after two episodes. There was a lot more potential here from some sparks between Dark Hook and his old friends. Sadly the writers seemed to be in a hurry to send everybody to Hell.
There’s aren’t major problems; the episode hits the target at the crucial moment and is a great deal of fun. But you can’t help thinking that the show might occasionally benefit from a less hectic pace that would allow for some more gradual character development with rich multilayered dialogues rather than everything being delivered in the form of impassioned speeches.
- Emma’s finally not sulky Dark Emma with a Norman Bates’s mother haircut any more! Hurrah!
- Dark Hook was still a lot of fun, even if he’s gone way too soon.
- Hook’s self-sacrifice was very moving and a fitting conclusion.
- Although we haven’t always been kind to Zelena in the past, she gets two great scenes here. The idea that she wants to redecorate the mayor’s office in green is very amusing, especially when she realises that her three main choices of shade (“Kelly? Hunter? Pistachio?”) would all make great baby names. Allegedly.
- Later, the sequence when Regina forces Zelena to return to Oz boasts some great FX work.
- It was almost nostalgic to see Regina as the Evil Queen again, even if the mannered way she exited her coach made it look like she was going to slap her thigh at any moment.
- Gold’s reversion to Darkness has almost zero dramatic impact.
- Neither of the big emotional speeches – Brennan’s to Killian and Regina’s the Hook – are particularly powerful or convincing.
- Has Robin had a line in this half season that hadn’t included the words “daughter”, “child” or “baby”?
- The Hook flashback is a tad dull, and not a little contrived. Getting someone to kill their own dad is a long way from getting them to kill somebody else’s mum; there were were more relevant tests Regina could have concocted.
- It’s a shame the decision to resurrect Hook came so soon after his noble death; it lessened the impact and reinforces the idea that death is little more than a minor mishap on this show.
And The Random:
- The title card features the Dark Ones gathering in the forest.
- Merlin’s “withered, old knob”? Zelena, wash your mouth old.
- Hang on… so Dark Hook doesn’t use guyliner? That’s ironic. Or maybe just lighting.
Review by Dave Golder
• Read our other Once Upon A Time Season Five reviews
• Once Upon a Time panel with Victoria Smurfit and Merrin Dungey at MCM Birmingham Comic Con
• INTERVIEW Once Upon A Time’s Merrin Dungey and Victoria Smurfit MCM Birmingham