‘Once Upon A Time’: The Neal Problem

I thought this topic was done and over with. And I was glad, really. I understand some people really like Neal (and I mean that in the I understand everyone can like whatever they want way, not in the I get why they like him way), and despite my contrary nature, I don’t set out to write stuff that alienates a part of the fan base. I try, and I think I mostly succeed, in being respectful and kind to everyone in this fandom. I have my preferences, just as everyone else, but I will never, ever insult your or belittle you for them. You should like what you like, and you should never, ever change your opinion to suit someone else.

But I …I don’t like Neal. I didn’t like him before, I don’t like him now. That doesn’t mean I don’t understand why he was around – he was a narrative device with supposedly emotional connections – it’s just that, for me, it didn’t work.

This isn’t a new thing. I have never been Team Neal, ever since his introduction. It has nothing to do with shipping, or Hook. Instead, it has everything to do with Emma, my favorite character.

Emma Swan was, by her own admission, a lost girl. Abandoned by her parents, she grew up thinking people leave you, happiness was temporary and joy was not in the cards for her. And then she met Neal. She met Neal, and she let herself fall into a world where all the things she’d ever dreamed of were possible.

And then she crashed back into Earth. Neal not only left her, which would have been bad enough, he framed her for a crime she didn’t commit. He didn’t know it at the time, but Emma was pregnant, and as a lonely teenager with a record, she chose to give up her kid. She made the ultimate sacrifice for Henry – his welfare over the possibility of finally having a family, someone that belonged to her.

That’s not an easy decision. That changes you. And yes, Neal had a reason. August told him that Emma had a destiny, and that destiny didn’t include him. As ridiculous as it sounds to us, in the real world, I’m not even going to discount his reasoning off-hand, because, we have to remember, Neal grew up in a world with magic. This meant something to him – perhaps, it meant everything. He took the easy way out, yes, but at least, this first time, there was reasoning behind it.

My problems with Neal, however, don’t end there. Not really. That’s just the prologue that justifies the decision you’ll end up making later – my problems begin in the exact instant when the curse broke and he did NOT come back.

Look, I get it. He’d moved on with his life. Sure, he loved Emma once upon a time, but he’d easily integrated into the world, he had a life, a girlfriend, and he did not want to give that up for a girl he might have loved ten years back. And, of course, there was also the matter of his father, who he did not want to face. So, what did Neal do? Once again, he was a coward. He behaved exactly like the father he always hoped would be better.

Before, I said I got it. And I do. Or, I might have, if Neal hasn’t reappeared later in the year, all high and mighty and mad because Emma kept Henry from him. Even if she only did that for like, a few hours, since there’s no way she could have told him before running into him in NY.

It would have been easier to feel bad for him if he weren’t responsible for a) Her having to give up Henry in the first place and, b) The time he missed with Henry since the curse was first broken.

The rest of his time in the show, the Tamara mess and him not believing in Emma, the Neverland arc and his supposedly rediscovered feelings, all of that I could have forgiven – I think. I’m not sure, of course, because I come about it with the perspective of someone who can never forgive him for the first wrong.

Neal was Emma’s first love. He promised her the happy ending she’d so desperately craved, and then, he left her in the cruelest way. It took her many years to pick herself back up and put herself together again – and later, many more years to open up to love, and even her family again. Fact is, Neal broke Emma, and because of that, I do not like him.

His reappearance also struck a weird chord for me – what was the point? He needed no closure with Emma, if anything; he’d achieved closure with her before his death. The scene would have been twenty times more powerful if the one he’d gotten to see was Henry – because Henry does need to know that his father loved him and is in a better place. Emma loved him, mourned him and let him go a long time ago. She’s moved on, not only romantically (and she didn’t really need to, Neal and her were over ages ago), but emotionally.

So, basically, Neal was just there to deliver a warning that Emma wasn’t going to listen to, and basically couldn’t listen to anyway, since she was already on the boat and he was only a hallucination. And that’s the problem with Neal, the main problem; he’s never been there for anything important, not by himself. He’s been other people’s motivation, and a nice possibility while he remained hidden, but he’s never been just Neal, the guy who does this, likes that or is friends with so and so.

And maybe, that’s why I don’t miss him. Well, that and the shitty way he treated Emma, yes. Let’s never forget about that.

Once Upon A Time airs Sundays at 8/7c on ABC.

Lawyer. Dreamer. Geek. Eternal optimist. Fangirl since the dawn of time. Hates the color yellow, olives and cigarettes. Has a recurring nightmare where she’s forced to choose between sports and books. Falls in love with fictional characters.