That hot topic erupted 30 seconds into Season 5’s winter premiere, when Emma — having passed out on the boat ride to the Underworld — found her subconscious visited by her first love. The framework for dearly departed Neal’s appearance was that since he had no “unfinished business,” he was not in limbo in the Underworld and thus could not help Emma with her mission to find freshly deceased Hook and save him by splitting and sharing her heart. Rather, he popped up in the back of Emma’s car to advise her not to brave the Underworld, because, among other reasons, it’s not to easy a place to leave.
The burden assigned to the former couple’s two-minute conversation, nearly two years in the waiting, was considerable. Would it pay due respect to the romance they themselves once shared, while not discounting the value of Emma’s resolve to save her new love, Hook? And was Neal even appearing to the proper person from his past? Rewatch the scene here, then let’s break it down….
DID NEAL APPEAR TO THE RIGHT PERSON? | There of course has been some grumbling that Neal could/should have visited son Henry and or father Rumplestiltskin in addition to (or instead of) Emma. But working within the premise that he is not a resident of the Underworld who can simply “make the rounds,” Emma was the most logical choice of the three, primarily because she is the one driving this journey. (If you want to turn a car around, you speak to the driver not a passenger.) There also was the bittersweet irony of Neal selflessly acknowledging Emma’s want to keep her new love alive, despite his warnings. Plus, as I noted on Twitter (triggering more elegant “DELETE THIS” replies than I ever imagined): MRJ and Jennifer Morrison still have mad amounts of chemistry (and yes, an actress can have chemistry with multiple actors. Just ask Vanessa Marcil).
WAS THE SETTING RIGHT? | When I first heard that MRJ was post-taping a scene to get dropped into the winter premiere, I had some concerns about how Neal would be woven into the arc-opening narrative — and in a way that would “explain” the encore’s fleeting nature. Appearing in Emma’s subconscious, and in the car they used to tool around in back in the day, was simply perfect. (I also wondered how they’d work around the fresh bi-level haircut he was sporting at TCA just days before. Answer: knit cap!)
SHOULD ‘SWANFIRE’ FANS FEEL SATISFIED? | I would never (ever) speak on behalf of an entire, passionate fanbase, but as a person who always felt the Emma/Neal romance got short-changed — tell me again, how did the Neverland arc not feed into an epic, series-long triangle?! — I myself believe they made the best of the short reunion. There was the warm exchange about their son Henry, and just as importantly Emma was sure to note, “I would have come after you, too. I didn’t know I could do this.” Small comfort, many will say, but within the rules as established by Neal (“You couldn’t have; I’m not there”, it was an extremely important beat to cover. For fans of Neal, you had to admire his “I figured” moment, where he implicitly (and again, selflessly) acknowledged that Emma had moved on. Add in a sweet forehead kiss and the line that launched 1,000 GIFs — “I love you, Emma. I always have, and I always will” — and you get as satisfying a reunion as one could hope for, within the established storyline.
SHOULD ‘CAPTAINSWAN’ FANS FEEL AT ALL DISSED? | My Twitter mentions suggest that “some” did not appreciate the Underworld/Save Hook arc opening with a Neal/Emma moment. But those who are able to see the forest for the trees should focus on two tiny but huge words — Emma’s “I can’t” — after Neal for a final time advises her to abort her journey into so dangerous a realm.
ALL TOLD, WAS IT THE BEST TWO-MINUTE ENCORE POSSIBLE? | Involving Neal, somehow, some way, in the Underworld arc was imperative. In fact, they did so twice, including when Henry sought out the key to Room 8. And only having access to Raymond-James for a short window of time, this was a tough nut to crack, given the aforementioned heavy lifting those 120 seconds had to do. Yet amazingly, in that short scene Neal managed to 1) deliver Underworld exposition, 2) check in on Henry, 3) reaffirm his instant and undying love for Emma and 4) revisit the heroic quality he died with, by doing his best to safeguard her against imminent evils. Not bad for a couple of minutes’ work.