Title The Bear and the Bow
Two-Sentence Summary Emma’s quest to turn Rumplestiltskin into a hero takes a dangerous turn when she sends Merida after Belle. In flashbacks, we see a better side of Merida and Belle’s relationship, as Belle helps Merida believe in her own ability to save her brothers and take back her place on the throne.
Favorite Line “You can make your own fate.” (Belle)
My Thoughts Heroism takes many forms. Sometimes, it’s a brave woman with a bow and arrow fighting for her family and her right to rule her people. Sometimes, it’s a group of people who will never stop fighting for the person they love—even when it seems she’s stopped fighting for herself. Sometimes, it’s a brilliant woman with a gift for seeing the best in people and a heart that’s always ready to forgive. And sometimes, it’s a man who spent his whole life running and hiding who finally chooses to stand up and believe that he—even with all his past misdeeds—can change his fate.
There are so many ways a person can be strong, and Once Upon a Time has always embraced the idea that emotional, inner strength is just as important as the kind of strength it takes to shoot an arrow or wield a sword. “The Bear and the Bow” was all about different kinds of strength and how they all contribute to different kinds of heroism. The bravery it takes to face down a bear or a group of warriors is important, but just as important (if not more so) is the bravery it takes to admit your faults and failings without trying to justify them and to apologize to those you’ve hurt.
Taking ownership of your actions and your choices is such an important theme on Once Upon a Time. But it doesn’t stop at just admitting the bad things you’ve done. You also have to believe that you have the strength within yourself to be better than those bad choices. You have to believe, as Belle told Merida, that you can make your own fate. You can define yourself on your own terms by believing you can be worthy, brave, and strong enough just as you are. Regina learned that last season. Killian learned it, too. Merida and Rumplestiltskin both learned it in this episode. And it’s a theme that’s been at the heart of Emma’s character since she first told us all the way back in Season One:
People are going to tell you who you are your whole life. You just gotta punch back and say, ‘No, this is who I am.’ You want people to look at you differently? Make them. You want to change things? You’re gonna have to go out there and change them yourself…
Emma seems to have twisted that beautiful sentiment into punching back and telling people she’s the Dark One now. But that’s not Emma talking; it’s the Dark One talking through her. The darkness convinced Emma that she needed it, that she was stronger and better with it than without it. And she let it creep into her heart and define her, to the point where she’s now trying so hard to convince everyone that this is who she is now, when we know Emma is still there underneath the darkness. But that little bit of Emma seems resigned to the idea that she’s fated to be the Dark One and live the lonely life that comes with that identity.
How a person decides to change their fate and the fate of those they love has always been an important theme on Once Upon a Time, and the stories of both Merida and Rumplestiltskin might prove to foreshadow what made Emma fully embrace the darkness back in Camelot. Both Merida and Rumplestiltskin believed they had to use magic to make themselves stronger to change their fate and the fate of those they loved. They wanted to use dangerous magic to protect their loved ones because they believed they weren’t strong enough to save them from almost certain death on their own. While Rumplestiltskin made the choice to become the Dark One to protect Bae hundreds of years before Merida tried to turn herself into a bear to save her brothers, both of them were fueled by desperation to save the people they loved. Could that be what pushed Emma to fully embrace the darkness? My gut says yes.
And is a desire to protect the people she loves still fueling Emma’s actions? My gut says yes to that, too. As Emma said near the end of the episode, there are heroes all over Storybrooke; she had plenty of people she could have used to pull the sword from the stone. So why did she use Rumplestiltskin? I think the lack of emotional entanglements between them was a big motivating factor; Rumplestiltskin doesn’t love her, and she doesn’t really care about him. She didn’t have to worry about him making her vulnerable like Killian, Henry, her parents, and probably even Regina would have made her feel. And if it didn’t work and he turned to dust, she wouldn’t have killed someone she cared about as deeply as she cared about others.
So while it did feel a little quick and easy to have Rumplestiltskin pull the sword out of the stone as a hero after only a couple of episodes of struggling while other characters have been working on earning their hero status for seasons, it made sense from a story perspective—and it led to some great character growth for a character who really needed to move beyond who he once was. It’s also important to remember that, in this universe, the removal of Excalibur doesn’t seem to be as crucial as the re-forging of it with the dagger. Arthur was able to remove it, but he couldn’t reunite it or wield it with any power. I wonder if Rumplestiltskin was simply the Dark One’s Chosen One like Arthur was for Merlin. But there’s still much more to learn about Excalibur, including why it was so important for Emma not to remove it. (I loved that little moment of remembering between Emma and Merlin.)
The actual act of removing Excalibur was important for plot purposes, but what I liked about this episode was the way it balanced moving the plot forward (once again at a much quicker pace than I was expecting) with giving different characters room to develop and interact in meaningful ways. And I especially liked that the character at the center of those meaningful interactions was a character who doesn’t ever get enough love on this show: Belle.
While it was cute to see Merlin acknowledge Belle’s intellect and have her reply that it was about time someone noticed, it actually hinted at something much deeper: Belle is often stuck on the sidelines. She’s not magical or great with a weapon or physically strong. But there are so many ways women can be strong, and you can be a hero by using your brain just as you can be one by using a sword. And you can save the day by encouraging someone just as someone else can save the day by shooting an arrow.
It was wonderful to see Merida and Belle interact because they’re such different women but so strong in their own ways. Amy Manson is absolutely wonderful as Merida. It’s easy to gush about how perfectly she captures the essence of the animated character, but there’s also a depth and a maturity to her version of Merida that fits with the new chapter in her story the show is telling. This Merida has known true loss, and it’s changed her. But it hasn’t taken away her fighting spirit; it’s only made that spirit stronger. And Emilie de Ravin took her character’s time in the spotlight and ran with it, turning in some of her best work on the show to date.
Belle was the perfect character to help Merida find her bravery again, because Belle knows the dangers of using magic to solve your problems when you feel too scared to handle them on your own. My heart broke for Merida when she talked about not being able to save her father (Manson was incredible and very realistically vulnerable in that scene), but Belle was right; she needed to forgive herself in order to find the strength to save her brothers. She couldn’t be a true hero and a queen without believing in herself, and her desire to use magic proved that she didn’t believe she could be more than her past failure.
Merida thought she was destined to fail without using magic to help her change her fate. But Belle knew better; she knew that Merida had the power to change her own fate and the fate of her brothers. It took extreme measures to convince Merida of that (giving her water instead of the potion, which was explained adorably by de Ravin), but it worked. It forced Merida to believe in her strengths instead of magic, and, as such, she proved herself to be a true hero—not just to those watching but to herself.
By believing in Merida, Belle didn’t just help someone become a hero; she proved to be a hero herself, too. Heroes don’t always fight armies; they often help others fight their own insecurities and fears in order to help them be their best self. That’s who Belle is; she’s a hero whose true strength isn’t just in her mind—it’s in her heart.
Belle’s heroic heart came into play again in her interactions with Rumplestiltskin in Storybrooke. I appreciated the fact that she was the first (and only) one to defend him when talking to the other heroes, but once she was alone with him, there was understandable tension between them. She loves him, she’ll fight for him, and she believes in him—but that doesn’t mean everything is perfect between them. There was a lovely layering of emotion between Belle and Rumplestiltskin in this episode (kudos to de Ravin and Robert Carlyle—one of Once Upon a Time’s most dynamic duos) that showed that these two characters love each other but can’t ignore all that’s happened between them. Their dynamic is messy and complicated, but, God help me, I can’t help but root for them again because of the sincerity de Ravin and Carlyle give to every moment they share.
I was especially proud of Belle for being able to walk away when Rumplestiltskin showed that maybe he couldn’t ever be the kind of man she deserves or even the kind of man he deserves to try to be. I don’t know what it is about those two characters at the town line, but that location has made for some of the most compelling dramatic moments in the history of Once Upon a Time.
By walking away, Belle essentially did to Rumplestiltskin what Henry and Killian have done to Emma—showing that if you refuse to be your best self and instead act resigned to a fate you could choose to change, you’ll lose the people you love. Belle gave him a choice: He could continue to cling to his fear and his identity as a coward, or he could choose to create a new path for himself with her by his side. But she was done letting him have both. She deserves to be chosen above fears and the need to run away or get power from magic, and I’m so proud of her for knowing that and sticking to that belief now.
Rumplestiltskin has always struggled with believing he could choose his own fate and define himself. He thought he always had to be a coward. Then, he thought he always had to be a villain. He thought he could use the darkness to control his fate, when it really controlled him. And he thought he could use the Author to write him a new destiny, but he couldn’t choose to let go of his fears even then. Ultimately, the only thing that proved to be stronger than his fear was love. It was his love for Belle and his desire to protect her that allowed him to finally punch back and tell the world—including himself—that he wasn’t a coward anymore; he could be brave. He finally stopped taking the easy way out, which is so important for his character.
While coming back and saving Belle from Merida in bear form was a true act of bravery, perhaps an even greater act of bravery came before it, when Rumplestiltskin told Belle the real reason why he crippled himself. It takes guts to admit to moments when you weren’t your best self. And a true hero does exactly that: They don’t justify their actions; they take ownership of them. And only in doing that can they move beyond their worst moments and become truly better people. For so long, Rumplestiltskin wasn’t able to do that; he made excuses and resigned himself to life as a coward or a villain (or both). But Belle finally helped him choose to change the path he felt he was fated to remain on forever. She inspired bravery in his actions, but she also inspired bravery in his heart, which is even more crucial to becoming a hero than facing down a bear. His path toward true heroism doesn’t stop at pulling out Excalibur, but it’s a start—and it’s a good start.
Rumplestiltskin chose to let love be greater than fear, and, as such, he was able to let Belle in instead of pushing her away or keeping her in the dark like he did so many times before. On the opposite side, we saw Emma more alone than ever because she’s pushed away everyone who loves her at this point. In fact, she couldn’t even get Zelena to ally with her; that’s how far she’s fallen.
I could have watched Zelena and Emma talk all day; Rebecca Mader and Jennifer Morrison are perfect scene partners right now, as Mader’s unbridled enthusiasm contrasts perfectly with the controlled edge Morrison has while playing the Dark Swan. It was interesting to see Emma trying to manipulate Zelena with her lines about knowing what it’s like to be pregnant behind bars and her offer of onion rings, but the scene was about something deeper than just two very different kinds of villains (and strong women) matching wits. Zelena was able to touch on Emma’s weakness: her love for Henry. And by hitting that nerve (with her comments about “next level darkness” and more comparisons to Cora), Zelena reached the humanity under Emma’s darkness and was able to bring it to the surface again when she called her out for not wanting to be alone.
That’s always been the deepest desire of Emma Swan’s heart. It was the wish that brought her to Storybrooke—a wish not to be alone. And after fighting so hard for that wish to come true, we see her alone in her kitchen again. That shot of Emma at the table by herself (complete with Morrison’s chillingly perfect posture) said so much about the price of her choice to accept her identity as the Dark One. But if Rumplestiltskin’s story showed us anything in this episode, it’s that you can change your fate by believing you can be more than who you feel destined to be. Emma still has the power to punch back and define herself on her own terms by choosing to let go of the darkness; she just needs to believe that she doesn’t have to be the Dark One to be a stronger version of herself. She can be enough just by being herself—just as Rumplestiltskin and Merida both learned in this episode.
However, it seems that choice won’t be an easy one for Emma to make, as she might be more entrenched in the darkness than anyone realized. When Henry’s attempt to contact Merlin led to Merlin’s “voicemail” (a perfectly executed nod to Princess Leia’s message in A New Hope), my first thought was that Merlin is dead and Emma killed him. His heart might have been the one crushed to cast this latest curse, especially since I have a strong feeling that Nimue was both the first Dark One and Merlin’s one true love—so she could crush his heart through Emma.
Whatever answers we get in the coming weeks about Nimue, Excalibur, curses, and Dark Ones, the answer we’re all looking for is what happened to Emma in Camelot to make her believe she needed to fully embrace the darkness. Whatever happened, she believes it so strongly that she’s allowed it to completely alter the way she defines herself. But if Rumplestiltskin could choose to be brave, there’s still hope for Emma. She just needs to remember that there is always a choice, and it’s never too late to change your fate.
• Because Charming was gullible and made everyone leave Arthur alone in the vault, we were deprived of the great comedic potential of Arthur trying to contact Merlin but failing with everyone watching. But thankfully everyone knows again that Arthur is a lying liar who lies.
• Once again, Jared Gilmore did a great job of selling me on Henry’s heartbreak but also his resolve to fight for his mom. In addition, I loved the heartwarming moment of Killian encouraging Henry before he talked to Merlin and Regina asking him if he was okay. Without Emma, Henry is going to need support more than ever, and it’s nice to know he has that.
• The casting for all the Brave characters could not have been better.
• I’m excited to see Rumplestiltskin fight against Emma now. Will he do it on his own, or will he team up with everyone else?
• The opening scene of Charming, Killian, and Merlin disarming all the guards in the Camelot dungeons was so fun to watch. A little bit of fairytale action and a trio of handsome men are the perfect way to start an episode.
• Did anyone else love that the food Regina was giving Zelena was all green? I also have to wonder who on the writing staff loves onion rings, because they are a staple of these characters’ diets. (And now I want onion rings…)
• Carlyle’s performance in this episode deserves to be singled out with a bullet. I don’t think I would ever feel as deeply as I feel for Rumplestiltskin if another actor played him. There’s nothing like watching an actor deliver masterful work week in and week out for years, and that’s exactly what Carlyle has done and continues to do on Once Upon a Time.