Show: ABC’s Once Upon A Time
Featured Characters: Emma Swan and Killian Jones
Once Upon A Time was a show about classic fairy tales with updated twists. It gave us classic stories and tropes but would also subvert expectations. It became beloved by many, especially Disney and fairy tale fans and those who loved stories of love, family, and hope. While no show is perfect, its purpose was always a positive one.
One of the things I loved about the show was the blending of the traditional with the modern, giving the audience the best of both worlds in a sense. The love story between Emma Swan and Killian Jones, aka Captain Hook, was an ideal representation of that concept. Of course, an idea is only as good as its execution, and thankfully the story of Emma and Hook was one of the greatest of the series, with solid writing and exceptional performers in Jennifer Morrison and Colin O’Donoghue, who breathed captivating life into their characters.
Although there will be great debates as to which couple was the most popular, there is no denying that the pair that became known as Captain Swan was, and remains, one of the most prevalent aspects of the series. And their appeal is evergreen, with the couple still chosen in “Best of” lists and new fans discovering the show and falling in love with these characters just as much as fans who watched when the show originally aired. One need only watch a YouTube reaction video to see just how loved Captain Swan remains.
And Captain Swan, as a couple, is one of the most unique aspects of the series. While the other couples featured new twists on classic duos like Snow and Charming and Aurora and Philip, and familiar characters like The Evil Queen, Robin Hood, Rumplestiltskin, and Belle (albeit in new depictions), Captain Swan was different. As the daughter of Snow and Charming, Emma Swan is a new series creation. And while Captain Hook is a classic character, no version of the character has ever quite been like the Once Upon A Time version, with his name Killian Jones being another new creation.
They are also the only couple whose love story played out entirely in present time and developed over the course of many seasons. They met in Season 2, had their first kiss in Season 3, officially became a couple in Season 4, became the central story in Season 5, got married in Season 6, and had a baby at the end of the series, Season 7. Most of the other couples would fall in love in a single or handful of episodes. It is also interesting to note that Emma and Killian’s former love interests, Neal and Milah, were regulated to singular episodes as well, where we see little of how they fell in love.
Because Emma was the main character, her love story eventually became a natural focus. It was not the only one, but it surely was essential, and the creators and writers knew it deserved to be played out properly. It may have been a rocky road in the beginning, even with their ship name. Who else remembers them referred to as Hemma? Yikes, thank goodness Captain Swan caught on. In the end, it was a gift for the fans who loved their characters to see their relationship develop.
The Savior and The Pirate
Captain Swan represents a classic romantic trope of the light and the dark, the hero and the villain who finds redemption and virtue by falling in love. Emma Swan is the Savior and the Product of True Love. She was destined to break the Dark Curse and fight the Final Battle. Residing in her is the greatest light magic there is. Her destiny was tied to the light. Killian, on the other hand, has no such lineage. Still, they share so much common history.
They both grew up as orphans and lived lives that made them tough and resourceful survivors. Emma became a thief, and Killian became a pirate. Although Emma’s path was not nearly as dark, they still shared an understanding between them. It is this shared understanding that made them such kindred spirits. Despite Emma being the hero and Killian the villain, there was always a light that remained in Killian. Circumstances and loss created his villainy and vengeance, but meeting Emma reminded him of what truly resided in his heart. There was heroism in them both.
Seconds Chances, A Touch of Destiny, and Fighting for Love
One of the greatest things about the Captain Swan relationship was that it was a love story about second chances. Unlike her parents, whose love story was about first and True Love, Emma Swan and Killian Jones both had found love in the past. But with each other, they found True Love. The rarest and most powerful magic of all, it is clear the writers had an unmistakable intent when the character of Captain Hook was first introduced. There was a touch of destiny in the Captain Swan love story, and it is something that was reaffirmed as the series progressed.
The clearest indicator that Emma Swan and Killian Jones’ story has a touch of destiny is that the characters were born centuries apart. Residing in Neverland kept Killian youthful, while Cora’s magical bubble froze them in time. (And they were frozen until Emma broke the Dark Curse.) When Emma broke the curse, she awakened everyone’s actual memories. But it was also the moment Killian’s heart started beating again.
When Pan’s Dark Curse forced everyone to return to the Enchanted Forest and Emma and Henry to New York without their real memories, Killian was the one who found her one year later. It was not until two seasons after that we discovered that Killian found them right after Henry made a wish in a fountain for his mother’s loneliness to be gone and for their family to be complete.
When all of the characters are forced into a book where everything is the opposite of the truth, Killian (and Henry) still find Emma, resulting in a moment where it’s as if he’d seen the sun for the first time after reuniting with her. Despite being a meek deckhand in this world, his true courage, along with his undeniable feelings for Emma, shone through. He knew her for mere hours, yet he believed her implicitly and made the ultimate sacrifice. Killian’s willingness to sacrifice himself was not a singular moment either.
Season 5’s “Camelot” and “Underworld” storylines were rife with these emotionally sacrificial moments. And in the end, we see that these two souls were destined to be together. When Killian believes he is moving onto Heaven, Zeus tells him it is time for him to go where he belongs. And where he belonged was with Emma. His life was restored, and the couple reunited in a moment of pure and profound love.
And in the Season 6 musical episode, as Emma prepares for the Final Battle, we see a flashback of Snow wishing for Emma to have a chance at a happy ending. This resulted in songs from those who would eventually care for her, including Killian. These songs remained in her heart for the moment she needed them the most. In “Emma’s Song,” she sings, “All the years of running, no not anymore. I know what I’m living for. I’m no longer searching. Turns out all along, the answer was inside me with a song.” Although the writers had their faults, they also had their moments of brilliance. And the way they weaved their story together is a pristine example of that brilliance.
But make no mistake, as much as Emma and Hook’s story has a touch of destiny, what he says at the end of Season 6 is also true. No one is guaranteed a happy ending. They had to fight for their love, and they won.
To The End of the World or Time
That beautiful sense of both destiny and fighting for their love was also seen in the ways their relationship mirrored the show’s core themes. These themes were established with Snow and Charming, and they beautifully continued with their daughter. Snowing, as they were referred to, showcased this theme from the very beginning with a quote that would become one of the show’s benchmarks: “I Will Always Find You.” This propensity and ability to find people was passed onto their daughter. It began as a career but was spurned by her desire to find her parents. And she did after her son Henry found her. This multi-generational ability to find those we truly love was something that Once Upon A Time demonstrated often.
From the very beginning, Emma Swan and Killian Jones’ was a story of them finding each other just like Snow and Charming before them. Emma was the one who saw Killian for the first time. Even if his story was a ruse, it was her character, not anyone else’s, who found him. Killian was the one who found Emma in New York when she had no memories of him and in an alternate reality when he had no memories of her.
In Season 3, when Captain Swan fall through a time portal into the Enchanted Forest, he tells her father that he would “go to the end of the world for her or time.” But it was not just Killian who would go to the ends of the earth. They became a couple of immense fortitude and faith. When Emma proclaims her family’s motto, “I will always find you,” as they embark on a journey to the Underworld, it is a profound and significant moment for her character. She was no longer running from love. She was running towards it, no matter the distance.
It is said that those who share True Love have an unbreakable bond, as if an invisible string connects their two hearts. And guided by her love for him, Emma found Killian in the depths of the Underworld. And when they parted and were in different realms, they found a way to communicate with each other, proving just how strong their love can be.
Metaphors, Symbolism, and Little Details
Another brilliant aspect of Emma Swan and Killian Jones’ characters and their love story was the ways in which the writers employed symbolism and metaphors and included small and intricate details, some often unnoticed, as a way of demonstrating how much these characters were meant for each other. We see this in costumes, colors, settings, and many other things, both abstract and tangible. One of the most visually striking uses of symbolism was often seen in their costumes. Red may be a signature color for Emma in leather jackets, but in the Season 3 finale, her red jacket is traded for a red ball gown. For the first time, Emma felt like a princess and part of her parent’s world. She was falling in love.
When the couple goes on their first date, Killian trades his traditional pirate garb for a more modern ensemble, while Emma wears a soft pink dress, both showcasing tremendous growth. For Killian, it showed that he was willing to become a part of Emma’s world. And for Emma, it showed that her walls were down, and she could show Killian a softer side to her that had been guarded for so long.
Speaking of walls, both Emma Swan and Killian Jones had walls that they built high around their hearts, constructed from the pains of their past. Moreover, one could say these two had closed themselves off to love so strongly that their hearts were asleep, needing only True Love to awaken them. This type of symbolism and metaphor was part of their story from their first adventure together.
As they ascend a beanstalk to find a magical compass that will guide them home, they climb the walls surrounding each of their hearts. Almost instantly, they find a connection with each other and sense the losses they both experienced. This climb was toward a future together. The fact that they were seeking a compass makes it all the more metaphorically powerful. It took time, but slowly those walls came down, and they found a home.
Home is a steadfast theme in the series, so it is no surprise that the symbolic and physical nature of what home means comes into play as well, and in one of their most significant and cherished moments. For Killian, home meant his ship, the Jolly Roger, for many years. But when the time came, he was willing to give up his home to bring Emma back to hers. When he traded his ship for a magic bean to find Emma, he was telling her something deeply profound: the love he has for her is the only home he needs.
There are so many other instances of symbolism that were employed: Middlemist flowers became a symbol of light overcoming darkness, rings were symbols of strength and devotion, the storybook became a symbol of happy endings, and a scale literally weighed a heart to see if love was true. The latter two of those proved to be two of the most significant moments for the couple.
As they tried to find the author, Killian feared that being a former villain meant he would lose his happy ending. For the girl who had felt so alone and unloved, Emma was moved to tears and astonishment to hear that she was his. And when Emma places her heart on a scale of True Love, she begins to grasp for breath, and Killian is engulfed in flames. He tells her to get her heart and save herself, while she chooses to save him. This was the true test. This scale becomes like The Gift of the Magi, with each of them willing to sacrifice for the other. It is a moving metaphor for what love encompasses.
Lastly, there was an abundance of little details that were obvious clues as to the longevity and destiny of this couple. Some may doubt it, but these details were there from the start and continued throughout their story. Sometimes they were quick little Easter eggs, and other times, they were very apparent.
In their first adventure together in Season 2, Episode 6, “Tallahassee,” we see the original license plate number on Emma’s yellow bug. It reads E83 KAE. Emma was born in 1983, and KAE so obviously stands for Killian and Emma. In that same episode, when we see Neal steal a swan keychain from a rack, we can see a Pirate skull and crossbones over a heart keychain too.
One of the longest-running of these details involves the dresses seen in the Modern Fashions store on the streets of Storybrooke. A wedding dress is seen in many moments throughout Season 4, almost always in moments with either Emma or Killian. In “Rocky Road,” this storefront is seen behind a bench with Emma’s birth year, 1983. It can also be seen behind Emma in that same episode when Emma admits to Killian that she is afraid of losing him.
Seen throughout this season, what is striking is that in Season 5, this dress is replaced by a black dress, mirroring the fact that Emma had become the Dark One. But when the season concludes, and all is right with the Savior again, the wedding dress returns. And for the first time, centered directly behind them, the dress is visible at the moment Emma tells Killian she loves him, with no dangers lurking behind them. I will die on this hill that all of these details were absolutely intentional.
For the couple who doubted they would ever find a happy ending, it was beautiful to witness them truly find one with each other. But what was lovely was that they actually found something different. Traditional fairy tales are about finding that happily ever after. Instead, their love story was about “A Happy Beginning.” This was the song that they sang on their wedding day, and what was so moving was that it also became an emblem for the entirety of the series. They can outrun any storm, leave their scars behind, and find the stars past all the dark clouds. Because with each other, they have everything.
It was also a joy to witness these characters find that happy beginning with each other, not only with their wedding but in the series finale with their baby daughter. And what is especially lovely was that Captain Swan’s love story gave this show’s final page such profundity. Once Upon A Time’s everlasting theme was one of hope. So it is both natural and genuinely touching that Emma and Killian named their daughter Hope. And the final character close-up of the series is that of Emma Swan and Killian Jones, smiling down at their baby daughter with complete and utter happiness. It is a beautiful depiction of what the series always strived to showcase. It was also ever appropriate that the character that began this journey alone is the one who ends the series. No longer alone, Emma is surrounded by the ones she loves the most, with her husband by her side, and Hope in her arms.