Monday, March 28, 2016

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (5x15)

Oh, brother. Let's start with some upfront honesty; I was never going to like this week's episode "The Brothers Jones." As someone with as much vitriol as I have toward Captain Hook (and CaptainSwan), any episode that centers on the pirate and his main relationship wasn't going to appeal to me on any sort of level. But, I find that what I'm most unhappy about this week isn't Hook in general but the way the writers are whitewashing his past sins (which are numerous) for the sake of romance, and in turn, how it turned Emma Swan from a tough, justice seeker, to a woman who thinks heroism is one semi-good deed after several years (numbering in the hundreds) of misdeeds. The creators and writers, in other words, have a very messed up idea of what redemption and atonement is. It's Easter. Maybe we should explore what redemption, atonement and salvation mean and how the show is, in my opinion, presenting a very wishy-washy idea of something that is far more complex than the writers seem to believe. Can you have true redemption, achieve true salvation, move on to the land of shiny clouds (or Olympus or a boat at sea) without actually paying for your crimes? Grab a really shiny gem that has no bearing on your life whatsoever and let's go!

Saints and Sinners

The flashbacks for this week's episode were totally pointless so let's not even bother wasting valuable time and space on them, agreed? Instead, let's talk about redemption and salvation. In my opinion, before there can be honest redemption and before one can be absolved and made clean in front of god, society, peers, family, friends, or whatever social construct you care about, you first have to admit that you are a sinner. Everyone is. There's no getting around this, I'm sorry. You, my reader, at some point in your life have sinned. It might be a big sin; it might be a little one. Nobody's perfect, so don't feel too bad about it. There are two beautiful things about humanity that warrant being part of this analysis. The first is that as self-aware, thinking and contemplative beings, we have the ability to recognize our sins and faults. We have, to quote OUAT in a meaningful way for the first time in a long time, that still small voice inside us that whispers when we have done wrong to another person (Cruella, I imagine, is the exception here. Her still small voice probably screams at her to burn things). Our conscience dictates what is good and what is wrong; it guides us along in life, trying to avoid pitfalls, though tripping is inevitable. Knowing when we have done wrong leads us to the second beautiful thing about humanity: we have the capacity to seek forgiveness. Please note the word seek; it's important. This is likely the trickier aspect. Forgiveness is not up to the sinner; it's up the person they have angered or hurt. You can only ask for forgiveness, but it is not expected upon request. Life would be too easy if it were given without pause, thought, and most importantly, recompense. There is a long standing tradition in some aspects of theology that you cannot have forgiveness without suffering. In other words, you must actually pay for your crimes. You say some Hail Marys, you sleep on a couch for a few nights and, in extreme cases, maybe you flog yourself or go without food, water or other necessities in life. The latter is, again, in the extreme cases, but the idea of being granted forgiveness and being absolved without having to pay some sort of price seems counter-intuitive.

I suppose I should pause here and point out that I am not a theologian. I have no traditional religious background and, if I am anywhere on the spectrum, it's more as someone who deeply questions certain beliefs across all manner of religions. However, I do have a basic understanding of modern theology and, moreover, a fair amount of knowledge about interpersonal relationships between heroes and those in their circle. The hero always suffers; they have to undergo trials and hardships in order to be brought into and achieve their divine status (divine being used rather loosely here). While that is something that happens "without," it is also something that happens "within" where they must find a way to forgive those who have injured or done them wrong in the past (it's usually the father or other parental figure) after the figure has seen the errors of their ways and come seeking redemption after due suffering. What's my point here? My point revolves around one idea: you have to be willing to suffer for forgiveness. You don't get to decide when you're forgiven or even if you're ever forgiven. And this is the problem I have with this week's episode. On the one hand, Hook is doing something very good in acknowledging that he's a villain who did terrible things and maybe he doesn't deserve to go back to Storybrooke. I know I'm breaking a few of my cardinal rules by even talking about Hook but here goes: whether you like him or not, I hope we can all agree on the fact that he's done some truly appalling things. He has murdered for reasons ranging from the petty to "the darkness made me do it." Just yesterday (or maybe two days before? Who can tell!), in the timeline of the show, he was ready to send everyone who loved his girlfriend, including her 13 year old son, to the Underworld, trapped for all of time, while the spirits of the Dark Ones took over the Land Without Magic. These are troubling deeds, deeply troubling in fact, but Hook openly saying that he should be left behind to pay for those multitude of crimes is in line with redemption theology or the mark of a hero or whatever you want to call it. For the first time in ever, I actually agreed with Hook and thought he spoke sense. Too bad Emma got in the way.

Emma is the Savior. That's been her archetype since day one. In the western culture we live in that does have certain connotations. Whether you're a believer or not, the word Savior does bring to mind one figure in particular, one who is definitely concerned with redemption: Jesus. Likening those two, while tricky, serves us well here. As the Savior, Emma can grant redemption and salvation. It's what she has been doing since she rolled into Storybrooke in her little yellow bug. However, early versions of Emma also have her as a justice seeker. In season one her enemy, on the surface, was Regina who stood for chaos and an unjust world, keeping happy endings from happening and making sure the heroes suffered for imagined crimes. Emma took up the law in the mundane world as a way to bring justice to the unjust world of Storybrooke. That means that people who committed crimes, like Regina, were supposed to pay for what they did. They did not get forgiveness or redemption from Emma just because they apologized or even acknowledged their crimes. That's not how the archetype of justice works, even when tempered with mercy. What bothers me so much about this week's episode is Emma's insistence that Hook is a hero who doesn't need to do any sort of leg work to pay for those multitude of sins. How is that fair to the victims, the people the "earlier version" of Emma used to be so concerned with? How is that fair to her family, those people that were almost ripped away from their homes to spend a lifetime (and longer) in the Underworld? Emma isn't the only one Hook needs to atone to. And, yes, "the darkness made him do it" is a ready made excuse for this latest crime, but we need to acknowledge that the Dark Swan and Rumple never tried anything like this. Hook is a plethora of red flags and while those red flags could be mitigated, it can't be done without the necessary work. Hook fell headlong into the darkness and all its dark delights, something he even admits when he tells Emma "I don't deserve saving." Yeah, you probably don't! There has been very little suffering on Hook's part for what he did; at least not in equal measure to the severity of his crimes. Two episodes ago, Hook didn't seem to know what Cerberus was so I doubt that he was actually the dog's chew toy. He's been beat up a bit, but for the crime of murder (and I'll not list the other litany of bad deeds he's done since season two) it's not really enough for Emma to declare him a hero because of a last second turn around at the end of S5A, reversing the problems he caused in the first place! And the worst part? Hook, who kept admitting that he was a villain, buys into Emma's doe-eyed heroizing at the end and declares that he does deserve saving after all, and with Liam's blessing he's more a hero than his older brother ever was. It deeply troubles me that we are calling Hook a hero. Sociopathic murder? Yes. Grey anti-hero who could work toward full redemption and salvation if the show would stop white washing his crimes? I'll even give him that. But to have the Savior state that Hook is absolved and free to join the living, in her arms, for a life with her? So morally troubling as to make me recoil in horror. But hey, we all knew I wouldn't like this episode!

Miscellaneous Notes on The Brothers Jones

--I would really like to have Cruella's boots, please. She also has handcuffs to spice up her sex life with James. You go, girl.

--"Even for the Underworld, it's dead in here." Hades is a gem. And no, we're not going to speculate on him and Zelena cause gross.

--Heaven is not Olympus. It's individualized. Thank goodness.

--Loved the Henry and Grandpa David moment. Those tender family connections are the only good thing about this plot driven show, so it's a shame that they rarely crop up.

--The eye of the storm is an actual tangible thing. In fact, it's our MacGuffin of the week!

--Henry writing Hades's story to defeat him is sort of poignant and not a way I thought this show would go. Should be mildly interesting.

--"He kissed you?" "Thought he was you...." This family deserves its own Jerry Springer episode.


  1. You know, for an episode called "The Brothers Jones", you didn't actually take about the Brothers, at all. This weird redemption/atonement diatribe and case against Captain Swan is interesting and worth posting, but I would expect it to be PART of the review, not the entirety of it.

    For the record, I'm neutral on the ship (I like Emma and I like Hook, but I've never been big on their romance), but I can't say I'm entirely in agreement with you when you dismiss the value of self-forgiveness and seem to support the questionable notion that you need to suffer in order to achieve atonement. And even if suffering is required, you're selling Hook short here...he wasn't "beat up a bit", he appeared to have been flogged and even burned...repeatedly. Also, isn't him refusing to write any of Emma's family's names on the graves condemning them to the Underworld a good first step in atoning for...well, trying to condemn them to the Underworld?

    1. First, thanks for reading!

      Second, I'm not sure if you're a regular reader or if you just stumbled into my blog but I don't tend to focus on all the parts of an episode in a review. I like to pick one or two themes (the biggest ones I feel are being expressed) and focus on those. Chances are, if you're reading my blog, you've seen the episode and you don't need me to go into everything. I'm a little more selective, and with episodes being as packed as OUAT is, I need to be (if only to save on the typing!)

      However, I'll go into some Brothers Jones thoughts here and in doing so maybe it will help explain why I passed over the two brothers in question: I find Liam to be a flat, mostly forgettable character. The flashbacks were fairly useless (nothing like a good ol' hunt for a MacGuffin!) and didn't deserve any sort of attention on my part. The present day plot with Liam, Hook and Emma was worth it, but it was also so tied up in what the show is/was trying to say about redemption and forgiveness that it took center stage over any sort of rumination on the interaction between the brothers. I also thought that in the end, the lesson that was learned was that the bar was set so low, Hook could forgive himself because Liam had done things that were much worse, and afterall Liam got to be saved so why not Hook! It's a bizarre moral plot which is why so much of this review was spent on atonement.

      That brings up your second point about self-forgiveness. Sure, it's important but I don't believe it is as important as needing to make honest atonement when your crimes are as extensive as Hook's. He's murdered many people--yes, other have murdered more. That's not the point. He could forgive himself for all the murders, but that doesn't help the victims; and they are the ones who should grant him absolution, but we hear from none of them. Instead, it's only Emma who declares that Hook is alright now, so he can come back home to SB. So again, that's the focus of the review because the show was heavily playing with redemption/atonement but, in my view, they are 1) not saying it well and 2) not really saying something that makes a lot of sense either logically or ethically.

      As for selling Hook short, flogged and burned are terrible. But timeline wise, it's been what--2 days at most? And how many people did Hook kill over his long life? How long is long enough for punishment? Philosophers could argue for ages, I'm sure. For me, it wasn't long enough given the servility of the crime. But yes refusing to carve names on gravestone is a good first step, but it's still only one step. By episode's end, Hook feels that he has atoned (Emma said he's good, so it must be true) and we can all move on. It makes me frown and ponder the messages of the show.

    2. Liam was INCREDIBLY boring, and his whole ending of going to Heaven alongside his victims was far more troubling than anything going on with his brother, IMO. That's kind of why I wanted you to detail that in the review, because it threw me off completely.

      I see your point, but this is hardly new. This is the same show where trying to stop the doomsday mechanism you set in motion to begin with earns you a "you're a hero now!" (Regina), and defending your love interest from a bear makes you pure enough a hero to pull Excalibur from the stone despite centuries of evil-doing (Rumple). Hook is hardly alone here in the "he's a hero now because we say so" category.

      Also, I have a quibble with this:

      "Emma took up the law in the mundane world as a way to bring justice to the unjust world of Storybrooke. That means that people who committed crimes, like Regina, were supposed to pay for what they did. They did not get forgiveness or redemption from Emma just because they apologized or even acknowledged their crimes."

      No, Regina absolutely did not pay for her crimes and Emma absolutely did forgive her easily and insist she was redeemed just because she acknowledged her crimes, remember "The Cricket Game"? I think that's what's bugging me about this review, you're putting all the show's wonky morality and diminishing of Emma's character on Hook's shoulders just because he's your least favorite character when in fact this was happening with Regina looong before now. It's a good subject to talk about, but treating it like it's some fresh new troubling factor of the show that just sprung up in this episode is confusing.

    3. And keep in mind that I actually LIKE Regina, just as I like Hook, and I like Emma. But that doesn't change the fact that she's been dealt with in just as morally troubling a way as Hook and Emma (and I say Emma because I feel her "Savior" and "Hero" status is being used to absolve her of what she did as Dark Swan, like imprisoning Merida, threatening to kill Belle, creating Dark Hook despite Hook's dying pleas for her not to...honestly, while the people Hook tried to send to the Underworld easily forgiving him for it troubles me, Emma forgiving him for it does not since she shares culpability for that fiasco.)

    4. Lots of things to respond to, so I think I'll do this bullet point style.

      --Liam getting to go to "the better place" along with his murder victims is so utterly nonsensical that I just skipped over it in my head apart from a note I took that about how tone deaf it makes the writers. I mean, really...? The victims are going to spend eternity with this murderer? What is that??

      --It's absolutely not new, I agree with you. I detailed it in the review because it was the focus of the episode and because it's truly troubling to me (and maybe that's because it was aired on Easter Sunday when, believer or not, people's minds tend to focus on redemption and forgiveness and the like).

      --I see your point with Regina/Hook/my analysis. Regina, I think, has paid for some of her crimes, though. Certainly not all of them. By no means even close to all of them, most likely. But she did lose her child for a year, she has helped the "heroes" more than hindered them as of late, she has become friends with Snow White and a co-parent with Emma, even going in search of Lily with Emma. She refused to kill Zelena twice, she backed off when Marian re-entered the picture in S4. I think she's progressed to the point where I can call her quasi-redeemed more than gray anti-hero with a long journey ahead of her. Hook hasn't and--oh yes, I'll admit this fully--my bias comes into play, as it normally does with Hook, though, I don't think it's skewing my analysis too much. Hook, in my estimation, hasn't done anything in atonement, the sort of suffering and loss that someone like Regina has undergone. They might both be heroes now only cause other characters say so, but Regina has least made some pretty impressive strides.

      --Emma as Savior and culpable as Hook. A thousand times yes. So, I'm really split here and maybe in a future review I can go into more but I'm troubled that on the one hand the writers have Emma as the Savior/Hero but on the other hand they are making her this morally dubious ninny (for wont of a better word. She's overcome with love for Hook so it throws all her judgement of right and wrong out the window, so ninny it is...). It's not without merit if I thought the show was doing it deliberately. Authors can and have ruminate on what heroism means and the sorts of actions we as a society will accept as acceptable because of that hero status (I'm thinking of someone like George RR Martin's characters in A Song of Ice and Fire, if you're familiar with that. His "heroes" do rather unspeakable things in the name of good and this question of heroism and the heroes journey is at the heart of his narrative). But the problem is that I don't know that OUAT is actually being deliberate in this. In fact, I'd wager they aren't. So my split is that I want that cosmic story--the Savior vs the God of the Underworld--but I'm really uncomfortable with how their Savior is acting, to the point where it might be better if it wasn't Emma who ends Hades's reign/changes the Underworld.