‘Once Upon A Time’ Review: Compelling ‘The Bear and the Bow’ Crowns a New Hero
Recap and review of Once Upon A Time – Season 5 Episode 6 – The Bear and the Bow:
Merida (Amy Manson) has been one of the more problematic characters of Once Upon A Time Season 5. Outside of her noble mission to rescue her brothers, we aren’t really given much reason to like her, since she spends all of her screentime being insufferably abrasive. “The Bear and the Bow” doesn’t really change that characterization, but it does add a lot more nuance to it, resulting in an episode that is both exciting and compelling, from a character standpoint. The episode also crowns a new hero, in a moment that was a long time in coming.
The episode is split pretty evenly down the middle between present day Storybrooke, and the past back in Camelot, and this is the rare story where both sides are equally strong, although they tackle a similar subject matter in different ways. In this case, it’s a story about both Merida and Gold/Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle) discovering their bravery, and finding the fortitude to do what needs to be done. But most of all, it’s about believing in yourself enough to change. In the flashback story, Belle (Emilie De Ravin) accompanies Merida as she embarks on a journey back home to save her three brothers from the three clans who’ve joined together to try and take her kingdom. Granted, Merida basically abducts Belle into her service, but the result is that Belle ends up being the conscience Merida needs in order to evolve. In a throwback to the movie Brave, Merida plans on using a potion to turn herself into a bear in order to combat the clans and prove to them that she’s strong enough to rule the kingdom herself. Initially, the episode presents this as the only way Merida has any hope of saving her brothers. Yet the story ultimately sides with the argument that there’s nothing magic can do that a person isn’t capable of doing herself. Or, at the very least, a person needs to have the courage to do it without magic, since spells aren’t infallible. Hell, Belle herself makes another solid point when she states that the clans won’t respect Merida if she defeats them in her bear form, they’ll only fear her. But if she can defeat them using her own ingenuity and skills? Well, that would prove to them she’s a Queen deserving of their loyalty.
What made this flashback story compelling was that so much of it traded on Merida’s ambiguity as a character. Yes, she wants to save her brothers, but she isn’t above slamming Belle on the head and abducting her, if it’ll help accomplish that goal. So while we might root for Merida to succeed, we don’t necessarily have to agree with the methods by which she does. And yet, her story remains engrossing because we see the change in her character. Sure, she’s always been strong-willed and independent, but she’s lacked confidence in herself, even despite her immense fighting capabilities. She doesn’t believe people will willingly follow her as their leader without some sort of grandiose, magical display. Yet, with Belle’s encouragement (and a trick in which she switches out the potion with water), Merida is forced to either start believing in herself, or watch her brothers die before her eyes. In one of the best moments of the episode, Merida steps up and delivers a display that’s arguably as grandiose as turning into a bear. When archers from the rival clans launch their arrows at Merida’s brothers, Merida fires an arrow of her own and knocks each and every last one of the arrows out of the sky. The clans make a move against her, but Merida is quick to brandish her sword, declaring, “You’ve just seen what I can do with an arrow! Do you really want to know what I can do with a sword?” It’s a moment of towering bravado, and it’s enough to convince the clans to lay down their arms and pledge their loyalty to Merida. In achieving her goal, Merida becomes vastly more likable, because she’s shown to be about more than her goal. She doesn’t just earn loyalty from her subjects and love from her brothers, she deserves it. We even learn why she’s so abrasive all the time, as she blames herself for her father’s death, all over a missed bow shot that failed to stop his killer. Saving her brothers brings her story full-circle, and adds a lot to her overall character arc.
In the present, however, she’s ultimately reduced back to simply being little more than a goal-oriented character. She is her mission, and not a whole lot else, as she’s training Gold to become a hero so she can get her heart back and leave to go find her brothers. It renders her a bit of a boring character, but I mostly overlooked it for this half of the episode because, really, it’s not supposed to be about her. It’s all about Gold and the discovery of his heroism. Gold has been a complicated, ambiguous character himself, moving past the point of redemption on more than one occasion. But now, it feels like the show is truly committed to having him embrace the light, rather than waver back and forth between good and evil. His story here involves escaping Emma (Jennifer Morrison) and finding his way back to Belle, with the plan of leaving Storybrooke and forgetting all about darkness, heroism and magic (although he does take along a bag of magic dust that will protect them from the memory-erasing effects of leaving town forever).
Belle, however, wants no part of this plan, since it’s basically just Gold reliving his actions during the Ogre War so many years ago. Gold’s cowardice becomes his defining trait in this moment, since he’d still rather leave than run the risk of endangering himself. It isn’t until Merida transforms into a bear and threatens to kill Belle that Gold becomes the hero he needs to be. Much like Merida herself in the flashback, he does what needs to be done when put between a rock and a hard place. In this instance, he goes toe-to-toe with the bear, and uses the bag of magical dust to undo the bear spell and render Merida unconscious. He not only saves the day, he achieves the level of heroism necessary to allow him to remove Excalibur from the stone, but not before bargaining for Merida’s heart. This ending is pretty poignant, as Gold is faced with the possibility of being turned to dust if he fails. And yet, he takes up the task, telling Belle that he’s sorry he couldn’t be the man she deserved right from the very start. Carlyle is terrific in the role of the reformed Gold, because it’s all predicated on Gold’s determination to change. Once he accepts that he must change, the story kicks into high gear, and it feels like actual progress is being made on his character. When he removes the sword from the stone and throws it at Emma’s feet, declaring that the other heroes failed to stop her because the other heroes aren’t him, I practically let out a cheer. It’s the most fist-pumping line of the season, and Carlyle delivered it with real conviction. For a show that’s ostensibly about subverting fairy tale tropes or finding new twists to classic stories, Once Upon A Time actually has quite a talent for embracing those tropes, as they do here, with Gold playing the role of the redemptive hero. I’m surprisingly excited to see where the show takes this new Gold/Rumplestiltskin, because making him a true hero is pretty audacious, by Once Upon A Time standards.
“The Bear and the Bow” is a really compelling episode for Once Upon A Time, and I admit that I wasn’t necessarily expecting it to be. However, the separate trajectories towards heroism and self-confidence for both Merida and Gold were genuinely engrossing. And as an added bonus, we got a little more plot advancement with Arthur (Liam Garrigan) and Merlin (Elliot Knight), as Regina (Lana Parrilla) and the gang learn that they’ve been deceived by Arthur in Storybrooke: he promised to place the magical toadstool in a cauldron to summon Merlin, but he ultimately burned the artifact instead. David (Josh Dallas) discovers the object in the ashes, and just like that, Arthur’s true nature is revealed. More troubling still, despite using Henry (Jared S. Gilmore) to complete the summoning spell, they don’t really get any of the answers they’re looking for. All they learn is that they need to seek out someone called “Nimue”. The plot thickens, and it didn’t feel like part of the same episode as the rest of the story, considering how singularly focused it is on the Gold/Merida arcs. But it was necessary if next week’s episode is going to kick off the search for this mysterious person. So I can’t really complain about it. All in all, I thought “The Bear and the Bow” delivered, as Once Upon A Time continues what is gradually becoming one of my favorite first-halves of any season in some time.
But what did you think of Once Upon A Time, “The Bear and the Bow”? Sound off in the comments!
And for more on Once Upon A Time, read our review of the thrilling “Dreamcatcher” here!