‘Once Upon A Time’ Review: ‘Birth’ and ‘The Bear King’ Are Emotional, Twist-Filled

Recap and review of Once Upon A Time – Season 5 Episode 8 and Episode 9 – Birth / The Bear King:

Next week’s American Music Awards means we needed to double up on Once Upon A Time in order for the show to be on schedule when it goes on midseason break. So we got “Birth” and “The Bear King”, two episodes that couldn’t possibly be any more different. One is a brilliant look into how the best of intentions can corrupt us, while the other is a compelling morality tale about leadership.

And yet, while I can’t say I LOVED “The Bear King”, I can at least say I respected what it was going for: It’s clear that Merida (Amy Manson) is going to be important to the endgame of this King Arthur (Liam Garrigan) storyline, so we needed to establish why and to what degree. And this is easier said than done, considering Merida is a character who, up until this point, hasn’t even been particularly likable. I like Amy Manson in the role of Merida, but she hasn’t always been given the best material, often coming across as unnecessarily combative and standoffish. And so this episode was necessary to soften the character and illustrate why she’s as hard-nosed as she is. This episode also gave Manson the opportunity to really shine, while also bringing back some OUAT alums I didn’t realize I’d missed, such as Mulan (Jamie Chung) and Ruby (Meghan Ory). We also get to meet more of Merida’s family, such as Queen Elinor (Caroline Morahan), and — through flashbacks — the late King Fergus (Glenn Keogh). It’s a story that details how Merida is shaped into a warrior and a ruler who inspires leadership in her people, and from that standpoint, it’s one of the season’s more effective character studies.

We get Fergus instilling in Merida the sense of sacrifice that is required in leadership, and Mulan (as Merida’s fight instructor) instilling in her the virtue of honor. And instead of beating us over the head with these repeated mantras, we see how Merida puts them into practice: when she finds Mulan years later, getting over a broken heart by beating up thugs in taverns, she helps remind Mulan of the importance of honor and doing what’s right; similarly, after her father is killed in battle, Merida is able to inspire the loyalty of her subjects by showing her own willingness to sacrifice herself for the kingdom. These are all great character beats to follow, and it made for a rewarding episode. However, I found myself frustrated by the plot itself, which felt like a retread of Brave itself. Merida learns that her father visited the old Witch (Lily Knight) and made a deal in exchange for an enchanted helm that would, presumably, allow him to have greater control over his own men. It adds a dark shade to the Fergus character, who’s been portrayed as nothing but honorable by those who remember him.

And yet, the story eschews this interesting, shades-of-gray morality in favor of the reveal that, ultimately, Fergus chose never to use the helm, opting to throw it into the sea. The decision gets him killed by Arthur, who led the Southern clans of DunBroch while in search of a way to reforge Excalibur. It’s not a particularly surprising reveal, although the scene is still noteworthy for actually showing us the traumatic moment Merida referenced in “The Bear and the Bow”, as she launched an arrow at her father’s killer, only to come up short. The whole hunt for the helm storyline is largely window-dressing for the more emotionally-involving tale of Merida’s maturation, and the explanation for why she wants to kill Arthur, as we end with Merida declaring that Arthur has no idea what’s coming for him. I can certainly appreciate what the show was going for in illuminating Merida’s backstory, but I don’t know that she needed an entire episode dedicated to her in order for us to understand why she has a vendetta against Arthur. Still, I feel as though I can’t really condemn this episode for thinking outside the box and giving us an episode that is virtually all adventure and whimsy, eschewing the Present Day story altogether. Then again, I probably wouldn’t be as positive on “The Bear King” if we’d had to wait seven days for it, especially considering the massive cliffhanger that ended “Birth” (what IS it with shows having episodes that end on huge cliffhangers, that are then followed up with episodes that have nothing to do with the cliffhanger waiting to be resolved?).

“Birth” is filled with so many answers that I’m surprised this wasn’t the midseason finale. It finally gives us the reason for why Emma (Jennifer Morrison) wiped everyone’s memories of Camelot, while also delving into just what she’s trying to accomplish with Excalibur. Early in the episode, she saves Hook (Colin O’Donoghue) from being killed by a vengeful Arthur. When Hook demands an explanation for why she’s turned to the Darkness, and why she’s done all she’s done the past several weeks, she offers only the explanation, “I’m doing it for you.” And from there, it becomes fairly apparent what happened in Camelot. All we need is the flashbacks to tell us how Hook was killed, and why he’s still alive in our time. Realistically, it was the only outcome that would have made any sense, considering how quickly and definitively Emma had turned away from the Light. And yet, the obviousness of the storyline’s direction doesn’t diminish it in anyway, as the flashbacks tease having Hook die at several moments, such as when he’s tied to a tree by Arthur, who has commanded Merlin (Elliot Knight) to capture and tie up all of Emma’s loved ones. He wants the Flame of Prometheus, as well as the dagger and Excalibur, in order to complete the reforging. But when Emma successfully gets Merlin to fight against the darkness Arthur is using to control him, Arthur ends up on the defensive. Hook escapes his restraints and has a brief duel with the king of Camelot, taking a cut to the neck in the process. Arthur escapes with Zelena (Rebecca Mader), and all seems well…that is, until the cut reopens later in the episode.

What I loved about this episode was how it warped the Emma/Hook relationship into something tragic. The relationship was always beautiful, in its own way, but this element of tragedy elevates their tale to an almost Shakespearean realm, as Hook lay dying in Granny’s diner with all of Emma’s family and friends explaining why she has to let him go, for everyone’s sake. Merlin explains that the Darkness would consume Emma if she were to use it to save Hook, and Regina (Lana Parrilla) is quick to agree, noting that it would change things in ways Emma couldn’t possibly imagine. And yet, Emma makes a valid point when she responds that Regina would do the same thing for Robin (Sean Maguire), and would have done the same for Daniel years ago. This is some of Morrison’s finest work in the run of the series, imbuing Emma with a ragged desperation, and it’s filmed beautifully as well, with Emma transporting she and Hook to a flowery field to be alone as she makes the life-altering decision to save his life. What makes this all the more heartbreaking is that while it’s an act of good intention, it’s undoubtedly selfish as well, as Hook straight-up tells Emma not to do it, practically begging her to just let him go. I was genuinely conflicted on the choice Emma had to make, even as I knew she would inevitably choose the path of resurrection. On the one hand, I love the “Captain Swan” relationship; on the other hand, this feels like the kind of act that is hard to come back from. Of course, that conflict makes for excellent TV, as the big twist of the episode is not that Hook died in Camelot and Emma resurrected him, but that, in resurrecting him, she bound him to Excalibur: there’s no longer just one Dark One, there are two.

While the episode makes certain we understand why Emma did what she did, I liked that the script had enough trust in its audience to allow them to decide for themselves whether or not it was the right thing to do. We can see how desperately Emma wanted to finally have her happy ending with Hook, and can understand her approach from that perspective; but Hook had spent years trying to renounce his former darkness, and has only just now transitioned into a wholly good man again. He made it known that he would rather have died than have the darkness back in him. So it’s understandable why he condemns Emma once Zelena gives him his memories back at the end of the episode, since this is just about the worst thing Emma could have done to him, locking him into a form of darkness-fueled immortality that will eat away at his soul. Granted, Emma’s plan for saving them both actually makes a lot of sense. In order to avoid killing any innocent parties, Emma speeds up Zelena’s pregnancy, resulting in the Wicked Witch giving birth to a baby girl in just two months’ time (and welcome back Dr. Whale! I hope seeing you get slammed against the hospital wall becomes a running gag). Emma then imprisons Zelena with the intention of giving her all the dark magic that exists in Hook and herself. She would then kill Zelena with Excalibur, destroying the Darkness by killing its vessel (Zelena). Emma and Hook would be free to return to their normal lives, Zelena would be dead, and everyone would be happy, no? And yet, the plan backfires spectacularly once Hook discovers the truth, as it appears he’s chosen to embrace his newly-returned Darkside in order to hurt Emma the way she hurt him. In a poetic form of tragedy, Emma loses Hook just as surely as she would have had she just let him die in that flowery field. Of course, I fully expect the show will find a way to restore them both to the Light, and put them back together by season’s end. But how the hell they get there, I have no idea. And that is exhilarating, to me.

'Once Upon A Time' Review: 'Birth' and 'The Bear King' Are Emotional, Twist-Filled

Credit: ABC/Jack Rowand

While I found “Birth” vastly more compelling than “The Bear King”, the stark contrast between the two episodes actually made them more interesting to watch, since it represented a wider sample of the things Once Upon A Time does well. We had romance, adventure, morality, twists, heartbreak and tragedy, layered through with some solid performances. I know it’s not possible all the time, but I could actually get used to seeing some two-hour special events a bit more often. Hell, I’d love to see one feature-length episode at some point. This is a show that plays well when each of its stories have time to breathe, and I feel as though that’s what we got here. Even though these were two separate episodes stitched together, they were still part of a larger narrative framework, and I found myself genuinely engrossed by the stories they told.

But what did you think of Once Upon A Time, Season 5 Episodes 8 and 9, “Birth” and “The Bear King”? Sound off in the comments!

And for more on Once Upon A Time, relive how the darkness was born with our in-depth review of last week’s “Nimue”!

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