Poor Emma Swan hasn’t had an easy life. She was saddled with a special destiny before she was born, and then immediately after her birth she was transported to a non-magical world with only a little boy as a protector–and he too would leave her before long. The cold hard truth of her life so far is that she always ends up alone.
But one person broke through her tough girl exterior, and that person happened to be a sweet con man by the name of Neal Cassady. Well, he said his name was Neal Cassady, but since that moniker belongs to a rather famous member of the Beat Generation, it was most likely fake. That hardly matters though because in Neal, a seventeen-year-old Emma found a kindred spirit.
As an episode, “Tallahassee” wasn’t flawless. The CGI work during the giant scenes was distractingly bad and at times the plot felt like a lost Kate episode from Lost, but if we ignore those things and focus instead on the emotional significance of Emma’s relationship with Neal, the episode bordered on excellent. In “Tallahassee,” we not only properly met a pivotal new character, we got a solid reason for how Emma became the woman she is today.
The Emma we know is jaded, harboring major abandonment issues and has a penchant for running when people get too close. We already had most of the pieces to the puzzle that is Emma Swan, but one very important piece was missing, and that piece was Neal. She met him when she was just a kid herself, and she recognized in him the same sense of loneliness she’s been carrying around her whole life. Make no mistake, it’s not the fact that they both have excellent taste in cars that kept them together, it was a need for family. For a brief time, they provided each other with a sense of home, even if home in their case was a yellow Volkswagen and a string of stolen afternoons in cheap motel rooms. It’s a classic tale really, they were the archetypical young Americans roaming around the country living on love and really bad gas station food.
There was an easiness to their interactions that rose above any triteness in the storyline itself, which made their inevitable separation sting even though we knew it was coming. Yes, we knew Emma had her heart broken and that somehow she ended up in jail when she was pregnant with Henry, but I never expected August would play a role in any of that. He did though, a pretty major one, since whatever was in his box convinced Neal that he had to leave Emma without any explanation.
The moment we saw Emma clutching that pregnancy test in a jail cell was the moment Emma Swan lost her ability to trust anyone other than herself…or at least that’s what she likes people to think. Despite everything, she’s still driving that yellow Bug and that’s significant. The car either represents the happiest period of her life, and even having Neal leave her couldn’t sour the experience enough to convince her to give it up, or she kept it around as a reminder of where relying on other people leads.
Whether or not Emma is still waiting for Neal, he’s been waiting for her, and now that August has proven himself to be a man of his word, Neal is on his way to Storybrooke to find her. Perhaps he’ll find something else too though. (And no, I’m not just talking about Henry.)
As I stated above, Neal and Emma recognized each other as kindred spirits and I, like most Once Upon A Time fans, am fairly certain there was more to it than their “two drifters off to see the world”-style bonding. Everyone on this show is connected. Thus far, no outsiders have been introduced, and whatever Neal saw in that box he accepted without question. Which must mean he was already familiar with the magic world, otherwise he would have had a stronger reaction to the fairy tales are real reveal. Add in the alias and his eagerness to form a found family with Emma, and it reasons that Emma and Neal are far more star-crossed than they ever could have realized when they attempted to steal the same car.
Neal’s most likely fairy tale identity: he’s Baelfire, Rumpelstiltskin’s missing son. He knows August, which means he could have divulged enough information to allow August to briefly trick Rumpelstiltskin into believing he was his son in season one. Someone had to be helping August, and Neal would certainly have motivation to do it, but more importantly it works from a narrative standpoint: Bael and Emma both have abandonment issues, they were both thrust into a strange world, and both paid dearly for choices their parents made. The idea that they found each other somehow is…you’re going to groan if I say magical, aren’t you? Let’s go with beautiful instead.
What did you think of Neal and Emma? Do you think he’s Bael, or do you have your own theory? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
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