Once Upon A Time, a show about fairy-tales, love, revenge, and heartache. And at the epicenter of the story for six seasons is the original character, Emma Swan.
Portrayed by Jennifer Morrison, Emma Swan is a character beloved by many. This analysis will explore Emma’s development through her time on the show. We will be going through each season to see the change in her character.
When we met Emma Swan in season one, she immediately became known to viewers as being an iconic character. The daughter of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), Emma Swan is a character who is unique. She’s modern, strong and independent. Emma Swan is the definition of a badass woman.
But no character is unflawed. Emma is technically orphan, as she was given away by her parents immediately after birth. She grew up with a rough life, one that isn’t immediately obvious to viewers. She’s quoted when asked about love as “one-nighters are as far as I ever go,” showing that love hasn’t been an option for her in a very long time.
It isn’t until the very last episode of season one that Emma discovers that she isn’t an orphan after all. The curse is broken by True Loves Kiss between Emma and her son, Henry (Jared Gilmore) and Emma realizes that the family she has been searching for her entire life is in the town she is living in.
At the end of the first season, Emma has developed from a very independent and lonely figure to a woman who has friends, a family and is open to the idea of magic existing in the world.
In the second season, Emma is thrust headfirst into the world of magic, shortly after discovering that it exists. Tossed through a portal, Emma lands in the Enchanted Forest and has to adjust to the brand new world quickly. This season is where she meets Captain Hook (Colin O’Donoghue), another well-known character who looks just a little differently to the pop culture image of a perm and waxed mustache.
Over the course of season 2, it becomes evident that Emma is struggling to adjust to her new life with having a family. She connects well with her son, developing a strong bond with him. But adapting to the idea of having parents genuinely seems to be a task for Emma, mainly since the first time she openly acknowledges them sharing such a relationship is when they believe that they are about to die.
Season 2 also opens up some clues to Emma’s past, to why she is so guarded and has so many walls. When she was young, she fell in love with a thief, Neal Cassidy (Michael Raymond-James) but he broke her heart by making her take the fall and go to jail. So Emma Swan protected her heart, shutting out pain. But as Mary Margaret points out in season one, her walls also “keep out love.”
Some of the most important development for our beloved Emma Swan occurred in the third season. Not only does she finally accept the fact that she is “an orphan” and is coming to terms with learning her magic, but she finally starts to open up her heart.
In 3A, we see Emma struggle with the newfound pressure of her parents trying to help her, still refusing to acknowledge them as her mother and father. We also see her aggressive need to be a protective mother, fighting viciously to save her son. Not only that, but we see a few of her walls tumble as she lets herself give into the desire for the briefest moment in a tension-filled kiss with Hook.
3B is a whirlwind for Emma; she’s dragged from a normal but false life and back to Storybrooke, with a son who remembers none of their family. She’s struggling to comprehend the pirate who very obviously has feelings for her all the while wanting to return to New York after defeating a new villain.
But it takes an iconic trip back to the past with Hook for her to finally realize how much her family and her life mean to her. She finally accepts that she needs to stop running, accepting just exactly who she is. She also embraces the chance of loving again, breaking down her walls. And Hook’s confession of trading his ship for her allows her to open her heart again.
Season 4 shows a change in Emma. She not only accepts David and Snow as her parents by referring to them as “Mom” and “Dad,” but she also finds herself with a brand new pirate boyfriend. Emma opening her heart up to Killian shows how far she has come from the woman who struggled even to accept that she had feelings for another.
Emma’s backstory is explored more in season 4, showing her relationship with her first friend and the life with Ingrid (Elizabeth Mitchell). New friendships are made between Emma and Elsa (Georgina Haig), and we see a much more confident and happy person. But as always, it isn’t all fun and games for the Saviour. Not only does Emma work on developing her magic, but she suffers when she discovers how her parents had lied to her.
It takes Emma a while to adjust to trusting her parents again, and it’s with the help of Killian that makes her forgive them. Not after she goes to extraordinary lengths to try to save Henry by killing Cruella De Vil (Victoria Smurfit), an attempt made by Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle) to darken her heart to save himself.
In season 4, Emma accepts who she is, embraces her magic and well and truly settles into the life she has found for herself. She opens her heart, sees the best in other people and admits that she has fallen in love with Killian. Even though she can only tell him she loves him when she thinks she will never see him again, for her to accept within herself that she can love again is a huge step for Emma Swan.
At the end of the season, we see Emma suffer, loss, solitude, and heartache. But after reuniting with her family and love in Storybrooke, the pain doesn’t end. To save the town, Emma takes on the darkness, tethering it to herself and becomes the new Dark One.
Season 5 is tough for Emma. In 5A, she battles the darkness within herself, fighting the impulse to wreak havoc and terror. She faces large and dangerous fights, trying to stop the darkness from taking over. She tries desperately to protect her family, keeping herself isolated in to stop them being hurt by the darkness.
But darkness is difficult to snuff out and to save Hook’s life, Emma tethers him to the darkness also. Hook becomes another Dark One, and we see Emma backtrack after losing people who helped break her walls. But eventually, they defeat the darkness, even though it means Emma having to kill Hook to save the town.
Another key part of Emma’s development in season 5 is Emma journeying to the Underworld to save Hook. This shows that she believes strongly in their love that she will risk everything to get him back. Season 5B is filled with Emma trying to inspire similar hope in others. It ends with her not only getting her (confirmed) true love back; but, finally admitting that she loves him. Even when they aren’t “in the middle of a big battle” or one of them is “facing death.”
Emma’s final season showed the largest development in her character. She hides that she’s seen a vision of her death from her family, but doesn’t stop living her life. Also, she asks Hook to move in, the two of them creating a life together. And, she trusts in her family, staying optimistic despite knowing her future. Her relationships strengthen and in season 6B we see her excitedly running over to Hook when she finds a ring.
Emma Swan in season 6 is full of hope, full of love, full of life. She fights for her family, fights for the life she wishes to live. She doesn’t let the impending doom of her future stop her from living through the happy moments. Emma Swan truly lives her life as she deserves.
In 6×20, Emma Swan learns that the love of her family has been with her for her whole life. The song of the people who love her existed in her heart until she needed it the most; when she needed to fight the Black Fairy. And Emma also gets married, showing a change from when she wouldn’t accept having feelings in season 1.
By the end of Emma’s story on Once Upon A Time, her development from 1×01 to 7×02 is almost unbelievable. From a guarded orphan to a loving wife, Emma Swan had one of the most beautifully built-up arcs in TV history.
Her change across the seasons of the show was truly a joy to witness. To see her story end so happily and perfectly was truly satisfying. Even though Jennifer is no longer on the show, Emma Swan will forever remain the heart of Once Upon A Time.