There is a lot that could be said about these two episodes, seeing as they conclude the Underworld arc and touch on life, love, death, sacrifice, and acceptance. The writers manage to stifle some plot threads while opening up new ones. Our supporting characters largely get dealt with in order to maximize focus on the lead characters.
What struck me as most compelling were the three romantic relationships most explored. Hook and Emma make a daring attempt to both return to the land of the living. Robin and Regina try to hold onto their family and each other. Hades and Zelena each have a separate dream of peace and security together. A happy marriage such as the Charmings is reliable but not exciting; a failed marriage such as Rumplestiltskin and Belle is no longer worth watching. Like Belle’s father, we just want it to be over.
But Hook & Emma, Robin & Regina, and Hades & Zelena are dynamic and each have great potential. Except for those who insist that their own ideas for who should end up with whom are better than the writers’, the audience would like to see these characters happy and their relationships flourish. We have been conditioned to believe that a happy ending is a happy romantic relationship.
It is thus with a lot of anguish that we watch these relationships die. Or, at least, appear to.
By the end of Last Rites, all three of those romantic relationships are over with finality, only one of which having survived only with extreme divine intervention. As in any war, very few survive, and those who are lucky enough to have their loved one survive feel both joyous and guilty at once.
Emma and Hook spent Firebird on a futile quest inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (minus the Can-Can music) while time was running short for the main characters not actually dead to return to the land of the living. While we knew already that Emma was willing to do whatever it took to save Hook, this was the first indication that she (and us) got that he would also do the same. Considering that Hook is centuries old – ancient, compared to real-time-aging Emma – and that he has spent most of that time a selfish, grumpy pirate, it is refreshing to see that he really has decided to move on to think of Emma first. Emma did not spend that long perfecting her armour, so it is hardly surprising that she dropped it more easily. Hook selflessly made the decision to save Emma over himself and do whatever it would take to help her. While there are many viewers who dislike his character, his change of motivation is truly worthy of redemption.
Meanwhile, it is unsurprising that Hades and Zelena do not ride off into the sunset together! Hades is just a season-long villain who did not seem fully capable of redemption, albeit not for lack of trying on Zelena’s part. Their relationship demonstrates well that love is not often enough, particularly when it is only one-sided. Hades may have had some noble intentions, but like Rumplestiltskin, his desire for power, control, and security overwhelmed any hope at love and redemption he had. He really only cared about how Zelena fit into his image and could serve him. He wanted to make her happy because then she would love him and make him happy. He needed someone who would believe in him and defend him. While it was undoubtedly heartwrenching, Zelena had no choice but to destroy Hades. Romantic love is not the be-all and end-all. And true love is not what Hades could offer her.
True love is what Robin and Hook both had – irrational as it may be. Hook had more time to consider the ramifications of his sacrificial actions than Robin did, but both men ultimately chose their loved ones over themselves. Robin did not even hesitate to save Regina (and his daughter, for that matter), despite having been told the dire consequences of the weapon Hades wielded. Yes, his children are orphaned, but they are at least alive. Regina may have lost another true love, but she realises now that she is worth being saved. (How she deals with that is one of the main drives of the season finale.) And both Zelena and Regina have been brought closer together.Time and again, Once Upon A Time has taken the concepts of true love, romance, and soulmates and turned them upside down. The real happy ending is not simply finding a romantic love. It isn’t even always romance. It isn’t about becoming one half of a pair. Some couples, like the Charmings, have that, but they still work for their so-called happy ending every day. However, being part of a family – blood-related or not – and having strong friendships are ultimately more intrinsic to earning a happy ending. Real love is more than romance.