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REVIEW: Once Upon a Time 5×09 “The Bear King”

Written by Alex Reale

Here’s the thing with last night’s Once Upon a Time: since the American Music Awards will be airing next Sunday, the show will be taking a brief break. Instead of simply just skipping an episode, the network decided to air two of them back-to-back last night. We had the excellent episode “Birth” kicking off the night, and then we watched the slightly-above-average “The Bear King”, which had almost no connection to its predecessor. It’s like sitting down to dinner and getting to eat a big piece of chocolate cake at first, and then being forced to eat your vegetables afterwards. “The Bear King” wasn’t terrible, but it sure as hell wasn’t as good of an episode as the one before it. (spoilers ahead!)

In the last episode, Zelena and Arthur decide that they need to find a new way to defeat their enemies without Merlin’s help since they don’t have Excalibur anymore. Arthur declares that they need to find a magical item in DunBroch – sound familiar? For non-Disney fanatics, it’s the name of Merida’s kingdom in Brave. Yep, you guessed it: it’s another Merida episode. I’ve said it time and time again that I will not be upset with a story that revolves around Merida since she’s such a fascinating character. However, that being said, I’m not happy with the placement of this episode. It had almost nothing to do with the previous episode, and it could’ve definitely waited two weeks to air.

Merida is about to be dubbed the queen of DunBroch, but her crowning ceremony is interrupted by the Witch, who claims that Merida’s late father, King Fergus, owed her a major debt. The Witch gave Fergus an enchanted helm that would grant him the power to force soldiers to fight alongside him in any battle. Fergus never paid for the helm, so the Witch is demanding her toll. If Merida doesn’t return the helm (or pay a hefty sum) by the next day’s sundown, then all the citizens in the kingdom will be transformed into bears.

Again, do we need another item with incredibly specific powers? Once Upon a Time never gets tired of it. Now we’ve got to worry about an enchanted helmet. And what are the odds that this is the EXACT type of item that King Arthur is looking for to use in his battle against Swan and co.? Ugh…

We see two time periods for Merida’s story in this episode: in the flashbacks, there’s the younger Merida who wants to fight alongside her father in battle, and in the present Camelot time, there’s the older Merida who is on the mission to retrieve the helm while also coming to terms with the fact that her father may not have been such a great leader.

Through the flashbacks, we learn that Merida was taught how to fight by none other than Mulan! Yes, Mulan has made a return. Isn’t it kinda funny how these famous fairy tale characters just HAPPEN to encounter one another? It’s very rare that this show gives us a character who we haven’t seen or heard of before. Obviously, they’re going for public domain/Disney characters, but it’s still funny how small the fairy tale world is that these notable characters keep running into each other.

While training one day, younger-Merida discovers that Mulan is distracting her from a nearby battle. King Fergus has already led his troops to the fight. Merida arrives just in time to see her father get struck down  by a masked knight, who takes his helmet. She’s unable to stop the knight, and only manages to tear a piece of his cloak with her arrow.

Fortunately for her, the piece of cloak is just what older-Merida needs to find her father’s helmet. Along the way, she recruits Mulan, now a mercenary who is offering her services to the highest bidder. In addition to this, the two women are joined by another familiar face: Ruby!

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I’ve been saying it for weeks: what the hell happened to Ruby? She just disappeared! As it turns out, she traveled back to the Enchanted Forest shortly after Prince Neal was born in Storybrooke. During her journeys, she encountered the Witch, who turned her into a wolf and kept her as a guard-dog. Mulan and Merida recruit her and use her heightened sense of smell to track down the helm.

Merida, Ruby, and Mulan find the helmet at the bottom of a lake, but they’re soon accosted by Zelena and Arthur. Plot twist 1: King Arthur was the man who slew King Fergus and took his helmet. Plot twist 2: Fergus wasn’t wearing the enchanted helm into battle; he tossed the magical one into the lake and used a regular helm instead, meaning that he really IS a strong leader worthy of being the king of DunBroch, and that Arthur took the wrong helm.

Merida takes the enchanted helm, and thanks to the arrival of reinforcements in the form of allied clansmen, she scares away Zelena and Arthur. The Witch declares that this was all a test to see if Merida was really brave enough to be a leader, and she rewards the new queen with a potion that will let her talk to the ghost of her deceased father. Looks like someone finally got a happily ever after… until the Dark Swan comes along and captures her in a few weeks.

In the final moments of the episode, Mulan states that she will continue on her journey, only this time, she’s going to be accompanied by Ruby, who is looking for the other members of her pack. I think it’s almost certain that we’ll be seeing them both again sometime soon, mostly because the characters are such fan-favorites.

The two plot twists involving the helm and the kings were clever, but not exactly jaw-dropping, especially when compared to the Dark One twist in the previous episode. It’s not fair to compare the two, but can you blame me? That’s what happens when you put the two episodes back-to-back. Do I also need to go on about how “The Bear King” seemed like almost pure filler? I think the producers just tossed in Arthur and Zelena at the last minute so that there was some correlation with the rest of the season’s story. Regardless of all this, it was still an enjoyable hour of television, even if it was out-of-place.

Final Grade: B –

+ About damn time we saw what happened to Ruby! I’m also happy we got to see Mulan again.

+ Again, I can never be upset about a Merida-centric episode.

+ Even though this episode did very little to progress the entire season’s Dark Swan plot-line, it still did a fair job of connecting to the main story.

– More objects with incredibly specific powers!

– This episode seemed like pure filler; I think it was made partially as fan-service to people who wanted to see the return of Ruby and Mulan.

– Overall, a big letdown compared to its predecessor “Birth”. They should’ve just let this episode air two weeks from now instead of forcing both episodes to air on the same night.

Extra Thoughts:

– I remember seeing an article that said we’d learn more about Mulan and her relationships; I wonder if that means that she and Ruby will become a couple.

Were you disappointed by “The Bear King”, or did you think it was a fair follow-up to “Birth”? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!

About the author

Alex Reale

From a young age, Alex knew he was destined to be a writer. He also harbored a deep infatuation with superheroes and comics. Luckily, he was able to combine these two passions through his role with A Place to Hang Your Cape, where he works as Junior Sidekick and Social Media Hero.

When he’s not writing for AP2HYC or working full-time as a content manager for a small business website, Alex is diligently at work on other creative projects including a fantasy novel collection and an independent comic series.

You can find Alex's first book, Dodger's Doorway, on Amazon!