Title The Brothers Jones
Two-Sentence Summary When Killian reunites with his brother Liam in the Underworld, he discovers the truth about how they came to survive a shipwreck and join the navy in the past. Meanwhile, Henry’s quest to find the Author’s pen proves to be a potential key to defeating Hades.
Favorite Line “You can come home. You just have to forgive yourself. The thing is, no matter how many times I tell you—or anybody else does—you have to do it yourself.” (Emma, to Killian)
My Thoughts Heroes inspire others. Stories of their brave, selfless deeds are meant to fill us with a desire to follow in their footsteps. However, sometimes those stories hurt more than they help. When all we know about a person is their best—their highlights—then it can sometimes feel depressing rather than inspiring to hear their stories, because we know both our best and our worst—our errors as well as our highlights. If we never see someone struggle, then we sometimes come to believe that our normal, human struggles shouldn’t happen and that we should beat ourselves up over not being perfect—when, in truth, no one is.
That’s why the most inspiring stories are those of people who overcame struggles, who fought to be the best version of themselves. The stories we most often need are not stories of heroes who are never shown to do anything wrong but of people who make mistakes, have flaws, and are honest about every stumble and failure they have along the way as they grow.
Once Upon a Time is telling stories of those kinds of heroes. Even its characters who’ve seemed like paragons of good choices have made mistakes. None of them are perfect, and that’s what makes them interesting and inspiring. And that’s a lesson multiple characters learned in “The Brothers Jones”: Being a hero isn’t about being perfect; it’s about doing the best you can and being honest about those times when you struggle with doing the best you can. That’s how you inspire hope in others—by helping them see that everyone has flaws and makes mistakes, so they’re not beyond hope if they’re imperfect.
“The Brothers Jones” was a thematically rich episode of Once Upon a Time. Its most obvious theme was that of forgiving yourself, but there was another theme that came up in nearly every storyline this week that tied directly into the idea of forgiving yourself—and that was the danger of comparison. The only way to forgive yourself for being imperfect and for making mistakes is to stop comparing yourself to others, because we don’t often know anyone’s true story but our own.
I saw some very interesting parallels between Liam’s story and the truths we found out about Snow and Charming last season. Liam made a deal with the devil (literally) to sacrifice others for his brother’s future, much like Snow and Charming sacrificed the soul of Maleficent’s child to ensure that their daughter would have a good future. And just like Snow and Charming, Liam hid what he did because he feared telling his loved one; he was a hero in his brother’s eyes, and he didn’t want to destroy Killian with the truth. But the guilt never went away. He was trapped in the Underworld for centuries because his unfinished business was allowing Killian to see him and love him for who he really was, which allowed him to finally accept his own imperfections.
The characters on Once Upon a Time—even guest characters like Liam—aren’t two-dimensional fairytale archetypes. They’re messy, they screw up, and they all have blood on their hands for different reasons. None of them are perfect, but most of them aren’t beyond hope, either. However, some characters still struggle with self-loathing no matter what good things they’ve done, and no character embodies that struggle better than Killian Jones.
In the flashbacks, we saw that Killian wasn’t always the prim and proper young man we met in Season Three’s “Good Form.” His father’s abandonment and years of slavery made him a realistic mess, while Liam seemed to be the one who held it together for both of their sakes. Even from a young age, it seemed Killian felt he was beneath Liam in terms of inherent goodness; he seemed to feel he was the one who inherited more of his father’s demons. That became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: Liam was the hero; Killian was the screw-up.
While that wasn’t healthy for Killian, it also wasn’t healthy for Liam. It’s frightening to feel like you’re on a pedestal. You’d do anything to keep from falling off of it because you don’t want to hurt the person who put you up there by showing them you’re not as good as they think you are. Both Jones boys were broken by their father. While Killian lashed out and drowned his sorrows in rum, Liam wore his damage differently. He was tasked with protecting his brother when he was too young to be given such a responsibility. But instead of growing up to shirk that responsibility, he grew up holding too tightly to it.
So when Hades offered Liam the chance to kill the man who owned him and his brother, possess a stone that would secure his and Killian’s future, and ensure Killian would live and have a better life than what they grew up having, I wasn’t shocked at all that he took it—no matter the cost in terms of the lives of the rest of the crew. The Brothers Jones are both single-minded when it comes to those they love, and the love between those brothers came through in every scene they shared. And I also wasn’t shocked that Liam never told Killian what he did to secure their lives and their future. It’s hard to admit dark moments in your past to anyone, but it’s especially hard to admit them to someone who admires you and sees you as a hero. And it would be even harder for Liam, who was probably afraid of pushing his brother closer to his demons if he found out his hero did something less than honorable. Everything he did was done to protect Killian, which doesn’t make it right, but it makes it understandable.
Liam’s secret died with him, turning him into more than just a beloved brother in Killian’s eyes; he became the standard by which Killian judged himself even more than when Liam was alive. And because Liam was never open and honest about the times he was less than perfect, Killian could never meet that standard. He would always be the screw-up, and Liam would always be the hero. Instead of helping Killian move beyond his demons and into a brighter future, Liam’s legacy made it harder for Killian to believe he deserved anything good.
This episode showed that Liam wasn’t the only person Killian felt he couldn’t measure up against. He compares himself to others to fuel his self-loathing, and that’s true for his relationships with both Liam and Emma. It broke my heart to see him physically turn away from Emma’s affection because he felt undeserving of it—even after he sacrificed himself to save her and her family. Killian is the kind of person who punishes himself for being human. Instead of seeing the strength it took to push back against the darkness, he just saw the fact that he didn’t do it as “good” as Emma did. He didn’t think about the circumstances—the fact that she turned him into a Dark One against his will, the fact that she was the Savior in addition to the Dark One, etc.—he just blamed himself for not being the kind of hero he thought Emma was. And instead of trying to forgive himself, he chose to believe he didn’t deserve saving, that he deserved to stay in the Underworld and have his fate decided for him instead of fighting for himself.
Colin O’Donoghue broke my heart in that moment because he made me believe every word Killian was saying about himself. This wasn’t just someone being dramatic and looking for validation. This was a man who genuinely believed he wasn’t worth saving. But what Killian didn’t think about is that punishing yourself often punishes those who love you, too. And Jennifer Morrison continued the heartbreak with her work in the aftermath of that moment. Not only was Emma wrestling with Killian’s inability to forgive himself, she was wrestling with Liam’s inability to forgive her. I could feel the weight of Liam’s words pressing down on Emma through Morrison’s anxious, exhausted performance, because Liam touched on something she’s still working through the process of forgiving herself for—turning Killian into a Dark One.
Throughout the first half of this season, Emma’s inability to forgive herself and her fears of Killian finding out what she did to protect their future made her keep a horrible secret from him. And it turns out Liam wasn’t so different. So when Emma confronted Liam about his lies (I’m so happy her superpower is working!), it was from a place of experience. She knows the danger of keeping a secret from the man they both love, but she also knows the capacity Killian has to forgive the people he loves, even as he struggles to forgive himself.
There are some things you have to do on your own, and forgiving yourself is one of them. No matter how much Emma loves Killian and believes in his goodness, she can’t save him from his own demons. She can’t make him believe he deserves happiness. She can’t make him stop punishing himself for his moments of weakness. Love doesn’t magically heal what’s broken inside a person the way Emma’s magic healed Killian’s cuts and bruises on the outside. All love can do is help a person find the strength to fight for themselves against their darkest impulses. And Killian’s darkest impulse is his desire to give up on himself because he doesn’t think he’s worth fighting for.
That’s such a powerful lesson: Love can’t help someone who doesn’t believe they should be helped. And it came from the queen of telling it like it is: Regina. I love the way Lana Parrilla is playing Regina in this arc. She’s not as harsh as she once was, and that worked well in this scene. I liked her telling Emma that Killian’s not good enough for her, because that’s such a realistic thing for one friend to say to another. The whole point of this episode was to prove that Killian is more than enough to be worthy of his relationship with Emma, but Regina’s line is something I know I’ve said to my hurting friends before whether or not it was actually true. I also loved that Regina opened up to Emma about the difficulty someone who’s embraced darkness has accepting that they should be forgiven. Regina spent a long time believing she would always be a villain, and then she finally began to accept that she could have a happy ending—not by changing the story so villains would get one, but by believing she was deserving of one as she was. And it’s clear she still has trouble forgiving herself, as we saw when she questioned how her father could forgive her for what she did to him. By using that openness to help Emma—and, in turn, help Killian—Regina showed how important it is for people to be honest about the times they’ve struggled.
With Regina’s words echoing in her mind, Emma made it clear to Killian that she’s willing to fight for his happiness, but she knows that it’s a choice he has to make. She can’t make it for him. She can’t drag him kicking and screaming into their future if he’s not going to fight for it because he still wants to punish himself for not living up to his idea of heroism. It has to be his choice; she knows that now. Morrison put so much pain into that moment of the Savior realizing she can’t save someone who doesn’t believe he should be saved—no matter how true their love is.
Ultimately, only Killian could make the choice to forgive himself. But in order to do that, he needed to stop comparing himself to his unrealistic ideal. By seeing Liam’s faults and the dark choices he made, Killian came to understand that, if he can forgive his brother and Emma for the things they did, then he can start to forgive himself. If he believes they’re worthy of happiness, then he can believe he deserves it, too. And he can also inspire others to do heroic things—like forgiving themselves.
Liam was able to move on because he finally stopped trying to be perfect and instead allowed his brother to love him for all he was. He could sail into the light as a man brave enough to be himself—imperfections and all—instead of a man who lived in constant fear of his little brother finding out he wasn’t perfect. And Liam and Killian were able to part as equals, rather than one standing on a pedestal. Liam saw the true heroism in his brother, a kind of heroism born of honesty. Killian never hid his mistakes, flaws, and struggles from his loved ones. He allowed everyone to see that it’s not easy being a hero; it takes work. As such, Killian is the kind of hero who gives all of us imperfect people hope. If he can be more than the demons he’s so openly fought, then we can be more than our demons, too.
All Liam wanted was to give his brother a better life, and he was able to move on knowing Killian had found that life with Emma. Killian knew his unfinished business wasn’t going to be resolved by moving on. His unfinished business was his future with Emma, and he could only resolve it by allowing himself to believe in it as surely as he’d helped her believe in it back in Camelot. For a long time, Killian fought for their future not because he thought he deserved it but because he thought Emma did. He saw himself as less of a hero than she was, which made him feel less deserving of happiness. But when he returned to her in this episode, it was finally with the belief that he wasn’t less of hero; he was just a different kind of hero. No two heroes are the same, and to try to compare them doesn’t work. What matters is both Emma and Killian want to fight not just for each other’s happiness but for their own happiness; they both believe they deserve a future together.
So with a new sense of equal partnership, Killian promised Emma that he “damn well” intended to have a future with her. The kiss that followed was one of my favorites of their many kisses over the years. It was a kiss between two people who spent much of their lives believing they were unworthy of love, but have now finally accepted that they’re worthy of the kind of true love you can build a future on. Neither of them held anything back in that kiss, because there’s nothing holding them back anymore. They both faced their fears of the future, and both of them chose to believe that future was worth fighting for. And by choosing to fight for a life with Emma, Killian chose to finally stop punishing himself for what he did in the past and to start believing he could be happy in the future.
Killian learned to forgive himself because he stopped comparing himself to those around him. Liam learned to forgive himself because he stopped comparing himself to the image Killian had of him. And they weren’t the only ones who discovered that true growth can only come when we stop comparing ourselves to others. That seems like it’s going to be the root of the building tension between Charming and James. What began as some fun moments with James kissing Snow and Charming pretending to be James with Cruella turned into something much deeper. Like the Jones Brothers, Charming and his brother were damaged by choices adults made about their future when they were young. But James bore the brunt of it because he’s still haunted by the fact that he was the one his mother gave away (much like Zelena and Regina). He gave in to his demons and resentment because he believed he could never compare to his brother, and it’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out when they eventually meet.
Charming shared his emotional struggles about his brother with a character who needed to hear them: Henry. (Once again, Grandpa Charming scenes continue to be some of this show’s best scenes. Josh Dallas knocks them out of the park every time.) Henry wasn’t just being an “emo teenager” in this episode; he was trying so hard to compare himself to the heroes around him that he was ready to do anything to feel like an active hero instead of a child who just has things happen to him. Jared Gilmore is doing great work already in this arc, and I was genuinely moved by his admission that he wasn’t really trying to find the pen for Cruella; he was trying to find it because he was tired of helplessly watching bad things happen to people he loves.
But unlike the adults around him, Henry didn’t end up keeping a secret in his quest to be a hero and help the people he loves. He came clean (thanks to some prodding from his grandpa), and he learned a lesson all heroes find out eventually: It’s easier to be a hero when you have help. And Henry already is a hero. He’s just his own kind of hero. And his particular brand of heroism is exactly what the heroes are going to need to write Hades’ story and figure out how to defeat him. Because every character has secrets, and Hades seems to be keeping a big one (with Zelena?!).
In the end, “The Brothers Jones” was one of the most relatable episodes of Once Upon a Time in recent memory. It’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others, beating yourself up when you don’t measure up to who they appear to be. It’s easy to punish yourself for making mistakes and having flaws. And it’s easy to hide behind a façade of perfection instead of showing people your true self. It’s harder to accept that all people—including you—are imperfect and that’s okay. But it’s only through that kind of honest self-acceptance that we can move on to a happier place and a brighter future.