“But listen, I don’t own Emma, and she doesn’t owe me anything.” –Michael Raymond-James on Neal’s relationship with Emma in season 3.
What I love about this that it sets up Neal’s mindset and approach going forward with Emma– it clearly defines where he’s acknowledged where he’s messed up in that past, what he needs to do differently this time, and, most importantly imo, that this doesn’t entitle him to anything.
Neal is told by Emma in SSttR how much it hurt that he didn’t look for her. He tells Mulan that this is the greatest regret of his life, and that it happened because he was too scared of rejection. So going forward, he resolves to get back to her, to let her know that he loves her. to get to neverland and save their son and get his family out and support them the way he hasn’t gotten to do before. this is the moment that leads to “i’m going to get my family and go home” and “i’ll never stop fighting for you” and asking her to talk once they’re all safely home.
But it's also the moment we see him acknowledge that recognizing his mistakes and acting accordingly doesn’t entitle him to anything. “I need you, I love you” doesn’t mean we’re going to be together and live happily ever after. Neal knows he’s going to try to do right by her this time, but that it doesn’t mean she’s ready to try again– it doesn’t mean she ever will be.
And to me, that’s a massive point in Neal’s development as a character and in terms of Emma romantically. The idea that she’d never forgive him is one of his biggest fears. And the thing that fear does to him is fucked up, and it wasn’t fair to Emma, and he’s not going to let it dictate his actions. He’s not going into this expecting it to work out– he knows that he has to step up and be there, in whatever capacity she and their son need, because they all deserve better this time. Emma deserves to know that she is loved, and she deserves the right to say that’s not enough, and the right thing for Neal to do is to give her both those things.
What’s so important to me about how he’s portrayed as Emma’s “love interest” is this: He acknowledges his mistakes. He listens to what hurt her. He acts differently not to be something she wants or to entitle him to her love, but because he knows he fucked up and he knows he loves her and he can do better by that love. He knows that her loving him doesn’t mean shit until she says it does/if she ever says it does. It’s respectful and layered and character growth and portrayed in a deeply human way and idk where I’m going with this sentence, but I love it.
Graham, to whom the entire Chramings clan owe their lives and who Emma obviously cares about, dies an innocent victim and his death is final cause no magic can bring back the dead. And everyone accepts it.
Neal dies a hero to save everyone and his death is also final af, cause once again no magic can bring back the dead.
And all heroes who owe him their lives (and even name their baby after him) accept it..
Emma Swan accepts it even though she “never stopped loving him”, loves him still “and probably always will”…
His father accepts it TWICE right on the spot. His father! Rumple-fucking-stiltskin. The Dark One, King of Loopholes. The one who spent 300+ years trying to find him…
Neal’s son accepts it without even attempting to find a way around it. Henry Mills. The one who figured stuff out in S1 and found his birth mom at the age of 10. The one with the heart of the truest believer. The one who never gives up on those he loves…
A vile pirate scum, who literally has just opened a portal to hell and tried to kill everyone, dies after having a momentary change of heart and Emma Swan is ready to literally go to hell to bring him back…?
AND on top of that, to do so she is willing to risk the lives of her entire family, including her child, by bringing them along…?
And everyone is totes on board with it…?
Even Regina? The one who was supposed to tell Emma when she’s being stupid af…?
On the show that has repeatedly stated that nothing can bring back the dead…?