Because the American Music Awards are next Sunday, ABC aired two episodes of Once Upon a Time back-to-back this week. While this does cut down the waiting time for us rabid fans, I know many felt this pairing was hit or miss. In “Birth,” Emma’s secret plan for Excalibur is finally revealed, with a dark twist that no one saw coming. In “The Bear King,” two OUaT alumni return and explain where in the worlds they’ve been. And King Arthur continues to be a jerk to everyone.
Once Upon a Time 5×08, “Birth” and 5×09, “The Bear King”
In the present, everyone is looking for answers. The gang confronts Arthur to ask why he sabotaged the Crimson Crown, and who the heck is Nimue? The shady king flees, only to end up facing Hook in the woods. He almost slays the pirate, but Emma intervenes with Excalibur. Before she can vanish, Killian provokes her into revealing a cryptic hint of her motives: “I’m doing this for you!”
In Camelot flashbacks, Arthur uses his control over Merlin to issue an ultimatum to Emma: hand over the dagger and Promethean flame, or he’ll kill her family. She outsmarts Zelena and Merlin manages to resist his darkness, but it is Hook who escapes his bonds and subdues Arthur.
Back in the present, Zelena’s pregnancy suddenly accelerates and she goes into labor as a result of dark magic. The gang prepares to protect her baby from Emma, believing she needs the child for a spell to snuff out all light magic. Instead, Emma takes Zelena. She intends to transfer her dark magic to Zelena and then cut her down with Excalibur, extinguishing the darkness. Despite his hatred for the Wicked Witch, Hook protests at the outright murder. He and Zelena form an unlikely partnership to escape the dungeon, and Zelena delights in stabbing him right in front of Emma.
The pirate emerges unharmed, prompting the witch to reveal Emma’s secret. Zelena gleefully uses one of Emma’s dreamcatchers to show Hook what happened to him in Camelot: after she kindles the Promethean flame, Emma prepares to reunite Excalibur and the dagger. Unfortunately, Hook’s wound from earlier re-opens and he begins to die, as injuries from Excalibur never heal. Refusing to lose another loved one, Emma uses the darkness to save Hook. She tethers Killian to Excalibur, making him a second Dark One.
Having lost Excalibur to Emma, Arthur and Zelena seek an enchanted helm that will make Arthur’s knights follow him blindly. Merida, on the cusp of her official coronation, is also seeking the helm to prevent a curse on her kingdom. Apparently King Fergus struck a deal with the local witch “to ensure the future of his kingdom” against the southern invaders a few years back. The confrontation with the invaders is the same battle where Fergus died, and Merida blamed herself. We’re treated to flashbacks-within-flashbacks of Merida training with Mulan, contemplating her future as a ruler, and seeing her father’s murderer pluck the helm from his head.
Queen-to-be Merida tracks down Mulan, who’s now working as a mercenary, and enlists her help in finding the helm. They encounter Ruby/Red Riding Hood along the way, freeing her from an enchantment. Apparently she went back to the Enchanted Forest after Zelena was defeated in S3, and we’re only just now finding out about it. Anyway, super-sniffer Ruby tracks the scent of Fergus’ killer to Arthur, who has just found the real helm in a lake. The one Fergus wore to battle was ordinary, as he had decided not to use magic to cheat his people. With the backing of the clans and her friends, Merida retrieves the helm. She vows to destroy it and seek vengeance on Arthur.
“Birth” was perhaps the more exciting of the two episodes: between Zelena’s pregnancy and Hook’s desperation for answers, there was a persistent sense of urgency. And while I had started to think that maybe Hook was killed in Camelot, I couldn’t fathom how he was walking around Storybrooke. “The Bear King” awkwardly alternated between being a fun female team-up and an angst-fest for Merida.
These were generally good episodes, but I had a few hang-ups with the suspension of disbelief. Hook’s been a Dark One for weeks, before the gang even returned to Storybrooke, but there weren’t any signs? If anything he’s been a goody-two-shoes since Emma went dark, so while the Dark!Hook plot twist was pretty cool and unexpected, it’s also difficult to believe.
Emma’s final step into darkness was also pretty underwhelming. I was expecting some kind of Dark One transformation sequence when she saved Killian with Excalibur. But no, just a sudden costume change after a cut-away. Is this supposed to indicate that Emma’s different from all the other dark ones before her?
Lastly, there was also no explanation as to why Mulan bailed on The Merry Men. I can buy her mercenary/no honor change because she had her heart broken by Aurora, but the last time we saw Mulan she was shaking hands with Robin and joining his crew. He and the Merry Men have been in Storybrooke for almost two seasons without a mention of her ever being in their party. I thought when Mulan herself returned to the show we’d get at least half a line as to why that team-up didn’t work out.