Neal’s reactions are always about camouflaging his pain, pretending that what he feels isn’t actually what he feels. When he’s mad, he laughs. When he’s upset, he pretends he doesn’t care and can walk away. When he’s happy or hopeful, he shuts down, afraid to let anyone see how much he wants this, how much he’s hoping in case it’s taken away from him (except with Emma, who can actually manage to pull a real, tiny smile from him at times, as if he can’t quite help himself; and Henry, who gets full open grins from him because there’s no painful past there to trip him up, nothing but hope). And knowing that, seeing his entire reaction to Rumplestiltskin’s death just kills me.
He’s trying so hard to pretend, to keep going, to take the sacrifice and move on so it can accomplish what Rumplestiltskin died to do, and he can’t hold it. He can’t keep the neutral expression or the defensive smile or t he mirthless laughs. It all folds and crumbles up and he’s left exposed and vulnerable. And when Emma touches him, when she says she’s sorry, it makes it too real. He has to move on, has to keep pretending, because he’s been wearing his persona so long, he doesn’t know how to go without it. He’s standing there, looking toward where his papa died, and all he can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other. It’s what he did when he came to our world as a kid and lived on the streets, what he did in Neverland as first a kid on a pirate ship and then a lost boy, and what he did when he came to our world again and faced being on the streets and alone — and what he did after leaving Emma, living his life, going to a job and his apartment and through life, just putting one foot in front of the other even when it rained through the window and his phone/ipod (so not good at technological terms, but ignore that) falls to the ground. Just keep moving. Keep going.
But he can’t. Because he was just learning that it was okay to be happy again, that he could have a son and a father and a woman his father loved and maybe even Emma if she’ll have him. And now it’s all crumbling beneath his touch, just like always. So he stands there, and he tries to pretend, and it doesn’t work. he tries to move on, and he just can’t hold it.
So he’s quiet. Still. Lost. A lost boy again, and he should never have had to be that, not after his papa came for him.
And I love how all of that is conveyed so perfectly though his stiltedness and his starts and stops through this scene and the next, until he finally finds something to hold onto in his promise to Emma and Henry that he will see them again. Maybe he can’t pretend well enough to hide this pain, but he can follow his papa’s example. He can refuse to give up and promise to find them again. He can set himself against worlds and fate and time in order to see his son again. He can, because his papa did, and for the first time in centuries, his father is someone he can look up to and aspire to be like again.
It’s not enough, but it’s something, and for the first time, Neal is ready to hold on and not let go. For the first time, he knows that he can have a happy ending, because his papa promised him.
His papa loved him.
This. All the characters on this show have walls and these are his walls. Pretending not to care. Smiling when he wants to cry. Deflecting.