Once Upon a Time, S5 Ep9 – The Bear King

“If you’re not fit to lead the clans, no one is.”

In “The Bear King”, Dunbroch get the spotlight as Merida goes on a quest to retrieve her father’s magical helm with the help of Mulan and Ruby. This helmet apparently has the power to make other men fight one’s battles. Arthur and Zelena pop up to wreak havoc, as they do. They’re after the helm too, since Arthur needs it to convince his knights to fight against Merlin.

Once Upon a Time, S5 Ep9 - The Bear KingOnce again, this entire episode plays out like a live-action, trying-too-hard-to-be-Game-of-Thrones version of Brave. This time we get to see other characters from the film such as Merida’s parents (though her father only appears in flashbacks since he was killed in a momentous battle), and the witch who has an ursine fixation. But despite the title of the episode and the witch’s threat of cursing Dunbroch by turning everyone into a bear, we don’t even get to see a single CGI-bear in the episode. That was one of my disappointments.

But my main problem with this episode was how utterly unnecessary it was and how it felt even more contrived than usual. In terms of Merida’s character development, I feel like we covered the same ground as we did back in “The Bear and the Bow.” Merida suddenly starts doubting herself and her subjects start doubting her ability to lead them AGAIN, only so Mulan (and later on, Ruby) can help her regain her confidence.

Once Upon a Time, S5 Ep9 - The Bear KingAnd Arthur and Zelena were there only to provide a flimsy link to the main story, which also proved to be useless since they failed in their quest (as expected) and just poofed back to Camelot empty-handed. And they’re still the most annoying characters ever, so seeing them get extra screen time makes everything worse.

As thrilled as I was about the return of Mulan and Ruby, the way they were written into the story was again, more contrived than usual, and also really out of character. Many fans were looking forward to seeing them again, and we know that they will be popping up in a few more episodes this season so that’s promising, but the way that they rejoined the story was rushed and quite nonsensical.

Let’s start with Mulan. So apparently, years back King Fergus asked her to train Merida in the art of fighting. The two became fast friends and Mulan taught Merida about honor. This much still makes sense and is true to Mulan’s character.

Once Upon a Time, S5 Ep9 - The Bear KingBut years later, Merida crosses paths with Mulan again and the latter has become a sword-wielding bandit, fighting for gold and just generally being dishonorable. She later explains that she was doing this after having her heart broken (by Aurora, everyone knows that but she didn’t say the name.) Now, the last time we saw Mulan was when she joined Robin Hood’s Merry Men in their crusade to steal from the rich and give to the poor. No one ever explained how Robin and his men ended back in Storybrooke while Mulan stayed in the Enchanted Forest (and Dunbroch, apparently). This wasn’t even addressed but instead, Mulan became a bitter bandit. It didn’t ring true to her character and blatantly ignored a part of the story we had been told before.

Once Upon a Time, S5 Ep9 - The Bear KingAnd then we have Ruby, who was acting as the witch’s guard dog until Mulan freed her from the spell. The reason Ruby wasn’t in Storybrooke or in Granny’s when everyone got whisked away to Camelot, or in the entirety of Season 4, was because apparently, after the Season 3 finale, she felt out of place in Storybrooke and wanted to go off in search of others like her. Because that worked out the last time she did that? When she refused to become like the wolves in her mother’s pack because they murdered humans?

And wasn’t her journey of character growth all about accepting herself and how she learned that she truly belonged with the people she cared about (like Granny, Snow, her friends) and not necessarily people who were like her (the wolf pack)? And I didn’t think she would ever leave Granny behind or that Granny would allow her to go off on her own? And was she really so friendless that no one would even accompany her on her journey?

But the writers needed an excuse to have her return to the Enchanted Forest, and they even hastily wrote in the existence of a magic bean (from Tiny the giant, who still exists?) for her to be able to cross realms. (And again, if there were magic beans, what was all the fuss about at the start of the season when they had to make Zelena use the weird magic wand to transport them to Camelot?)

Once Upon a Time, S5 Ep9 - The Bear KingFor what it’s worth, I did enjoy seeing these three heroines working together and forming genuine friendships. Merida, Mulan, and Ruby were a formidable team and it was great to see them supporting each other all throughout this journey. After the stuff with the magical helmet was dealt with (which turns out, was only a test of Merida’s worthiness for the throne), Ruby invites Mulan to join her on her quest to find her pack and the latter accepts. Hopefully, they will soon be making their way back to the main plot.

As interesting as Merida is, I think that we’ve seen more than enough of her backstory. Too much of it doesn’t relate to the main plot anyway, and the story is already complicated as it is. Isn’t she back in Storybrooke with Belle and Rumple?

While the first hour finally gave us answers to major questions about this season’s plot, the second took us on an ultimately useless side story to try and bring back beloved minor characters into the fold. There are two Dark Ones to contend with now, so there really isn’t time to be making irrelevant side-quests.

And in two weeks, we’ll be having a big Rumple-Hook showdown, centuries in the making: