Things remain complex on this week’s episode Once Upon a Time, “The Brothers Jones”, particularly in terms of the definitions of good and evil. As might be expected, given the title, the episode concerns Killian (Colin O’Donoghue) and his brother Liam (Bernard Curry). Liam, who’s always seemed the “good” one, remains in the Underworld, which can only mean he has committed some secret sin. At the same time, Killian, recently returned from Hades’ (Greg Gurmann) dungeon, can’t seem to forgive himself for embracing darkness when he was the Dark One.
Unsurprisingly, the brothers’ roles cross over the course of the episode, as we discover Liam’s transgressions in the past; this discovery helps remind Killian that he has positive value. Yet the working out of this crossing is no easy matter. For one thing, it involves an “evil” captain in the past, who tricks the brothers into keeping them in servitude by playing on Killian’s weakness for drink. When Liam’s mutiny sends the entire crew to the bottom of the ocean, however, Captain Silver (Costas Mandylor) suddenly seems more the wronged than the evildoer, reversing the roles of good and evil. At least until he too shows up in the underworld, determined to make both brothers pay for their earlier escape.
Cannily, the show maintains one “ultimate” villain in the character of Hades, the one figure this season whom everyone else can be measured against. As long as he remains consistent, the show can play as much as it likes with both the good and the evil that lie within all other characters. Thus, he’s shown to be the true source of Liam’s past actions and of Liam’s current betrayal. When Liam becomes determined to stand up to Hades and protect his brother, Liam’s action, facing down the root of the evil deed, allows him to go free (our freed soul of the week).
Killian’s trouble, meanwhile, is his lack of faith in himself, and his own belief that he cannot overcome his own evil. Liam’s sacrifice in the end saves Killian’s life, but it’s his betrayal of Killian, and Killian’s recognition of it, that saves Killian’s soul, convincing him that, if his “good” brother could do evil, Killian himself must have good within him. Thus, in some ways, the evil here actually produces good.
The notion that good and evil coexist — one we’ve seen over and over throughout the series (see Regina’s [Lana Parrilla] transformation, or Swann’s [Jennifer Morrison] ability to be both the Dark One and the Savior at once) — shows up in other forms in this episode. First, two other brothers are brought into relief by Cruella De Vil (Victoria Smurfit). David (Josh Dallas), after helping Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin) steal the key to the Sorcerer’s house, poses as James, only to find himself involved in a flirtation with Cruella. Cruella, it turns out, knows all along that David is David, but before he leaves, she confronts him with a truth he had never considered: that David might be the cause of James’ “evil”.
As Cruella points out, it was the fact James was sent to become the prince, while David remained with his mother, that ultimately led to James’ mistakes. In this sense, David bears some responsibility for his brother’s behaviors, although he himself insists he didn’t make that choice. All of which raises the question, is the good we find in David built on the bad we find in James? Is there, in other words, a balance that must be maintained?
In the same vein, we find Henry (Jared Gilmore) in this episode still in league with Cruella, searching for both the lost book, and the pen and ink with which to change stories. For most of the episode, he hides his motives and his discovery from his mothers and grandparents, but does come clean in the end. Here again, his justification for his behavior complicates the nature of good and bad. For while he was driven to work with a villain and to deceive the heroes, when he breaks down and reveals the truth, he pleads that he was motivated by a desire to free Emma from the guilt of having killed Cruella. Where Killian’s goodness springs from Liam’s badness, Henry’s badness springs from his good intentions.
All of this is predicated on the move the series producers made to center the action this half-season in Hades. Once Upon a Time has made redemption one of its chief themes over the years, but now that theme becomes the centerpiece of the entire second half of the season. The place itself is a kind of evil, and we’re faced with a darker Dark One than we have ever encountered in the form of Hades. Just as Storybrooke itself in this world represents a place tainted through and through with darkness, every action and reaction done in this world must in some respects relate back to evil, no matter how well intended.
At the same time, this is a land full of characters who made mistakes in life, characters who need to atone for their transgressions. By definition, this means the stories will focus on one case of redemption after another, story after story in which the nature of good and evil is complicated, but in which evil ultimately turns to the good. As seems to be suggested in the first handful of episodes, that fact has some effect on many of the characters whom we once saw as pure villains. Where Emma’s turn to the Dark One in the first half of the season gave us one kind of good/evil doubling, shifting the setting to the underworld has given us another kind.
In the end, all darkness must be turned on its head here, as we come to see little by little that all the villains we’ve faced before are not evil in and of themselves, but simply souls in need of redemption.