Title Birth/The Bear King
Two-Sentence Summary In “Birth,” Killian’s desperation to learn the truth about what happened in Camelot leads to a surprising revelation not just about why Emma fully embraced the darkness but what happened once she did. In “The Bear King,” Merida’s quest to find her father’s killer and retrieve his lost magical helmet brings her, Mulan, and Red together.
Emma: But our future…
Killian: I’ll just be happy to know that you have one.
Emma: That’s not enough for me!
My Thoughts “Birth” and “The Bear King” highlighted so many of the things that make Once Upon a Time special: its ability to be both intimate and sweeping, its darkness and its light, its focus on creating beautiful romantic love stories and its focus on the bonds of family and friendship, and—most of all—the talents of its cast. From a thematic or even a plot perspective, there was very little tying these two episodes together, but their different elements helped create a comprehensive picture of all the things fans have come to love about Once Upon a Time. And, let’s face it; we needed an episode like “The Bear King” to give us time to process everything that happened in “Birth” without worrying that we’d missed anything too important for the main characters.
“Birth” was a perfect one-hour tragedy. Everything about it was carefully crafted and expertly acted to inflict maximum heartbreak. But it wasn’t just heartbreak for heartbreak’s sake; it wasn’t just for shock value. Every decision and every line made sense for the characters, and that’s where the best angst comes from. Even if I didn’t agree with certain choices or the actions of certain characters throughout the hour, I understood why they all acted the way they did, and that’s a sign of writing that reflects complex and well-developed characters. And even though I know the road ahead will be rocky and perhaps even more heartbreaking than this episode, I still believe that all hope is not lost. “Birth” might have been a tragedy, but it’s just one tragic chapter in a larger story—a story that has always been about the power of love and light to defeat darkness, even when things look bleak.
Let’s not put off the pain any longer: The title of “Birth” referred to so much more than just the birth of Zelena’s baby girl. (I need one second to say how adorable Sean Maguire looked holding that baby before I continue to talk about sad things.) It also referred to the birth of a second Dark One—none other than Killian Jones himself, the man who spent centuries trying to destroy the Dark One. The way the episode built to that reveal, amplifying the sense of dread with each scene, was nothing short of brilliant. It used the contrast between the bright daytime scenes in Camelot and the midnight scenes in Storybrooke so well, visually creating a captivating tension between the past and the present. And Colin O’Donoghue’s increasingly desperate performance as the hour went on was some of his best work on the show to date, painting a picture of a man rapidly coming apart at the seams until he reached a chilling depth of pain, hopelessness, and simmering rage in the episode’s final moments.
What made the revelation of Killian’s fate even more painful was the way it was preceded by incredible moments of faith, hope, and love in both Camelot and even in Storybrooke. This was the saddest chapter in Killian and Emma’s love story so far, but there were still so many reminders throughout the episode that their love is a powerful force against the darkness and something worth fighting for. Besides, what’s a good fairytale without darkness to overcome? In this case, that darkness is something Killian and Emma will have to fight within themselves and not something an outside villain has set upon them—and that reinforces the idea that this is a new fairytale romance with relatable roots. And that’s what makes it so special.
From almost the very start of the episode, the ending was foreshadowed. In Storybrooke, we saw Emma save Killian from Arthur with Excalibur. While Emma didn’t actually need to save Killian (She was, instead, keeping him from finding out about his immortality.), it was still important to see her race to save his life with the sword, since she used it to save him back in Camelot, too. And during their conversation in the woods, it was bittersweet to see Emma emerge from behind the façade of the Dark One when Killian admitted he could see the real her when she saved him. But little did he know then that saving him was actually the very act that pushed Emma fully into the darkness. Watching O’Donoghue and Jennifer Morrison dance around each other in that first scene was incredible, especially now knowing what she was trying to keep from him. But just like when Regina managed to get Emma to admit they freed Merlin, Killian’s persistence and appeal to Emma and not the Dark One made Emma come to the surface and reveal something she wasn’t supposed to: She was doing everything for him.
Understandably, hearing that drove Killian to new depths of desperation. It’s one thing to think the woman you love lost her soul to darkness and you couldn’t save her. It’s another thing to know she did it for you. For a man who’s always put Emma first, that’s a tough pill to swallow, especially without further answers, and the lengths Killian went to in order to get them gave us a good look at his deteriorating mental state. No one in their right mind would jump off a building to get answers from a loved one, but Killian was in no way, shape, or form in his right mind. We can now surmise that he hasn’t slept (Kudos to the hair and makeup team for making someone as dashing as O’Donoghue look like hell during the episode.), and he has all this darkness in him without any outlet because he doesn’t know it’s there. So when he decided jumping off a building was the best way to get Emma’s attention, it was both an act of faith and an act of total desperation shrouded in the madness of unknown darkness.
It wasn’t Killian jumping off the building that really got through to Emma (because she recognized it as the dangerous, desperate act it was—even if he can’t die); it was what he told her afterward that touched the woman beneath the darkness. I never expected we’d get to learn the story behind Killian’s rings in such a meaningful way, but seeing him list the terrible things he’d done to explain each ring was such a powerful moment. Those rings represented his fight to believe that love is more powerful than darkness. They started as symbols of the dark things he did in his past (which also served as reminders of how dangerous giving him the darkness will be), but they became symbols of forgiveness. Because when someone loves you, forgiveness is possible—not just them forgiving you but you forgiving yourself. As Killian said, no matter what Emma did, he still loves her. He might hate the darkness, but he believes Emma is more than the darkness. And so is he. I know their ability to find each other through the darkness and love each other despite the influence of the Dark One will be what brings them both to a place of forgiveness in the end.
(As a side note, don’t even get me started on the fact that Liam is the one who gave Killian the ring he gave to Emma. I might start crying all over again…)
Even in Camelot, the seeds were sown early on for the pain that was to come. When Emma went to save her family using her new powers, it showed there are things that matter more to Emma than giving up the darkness. The showdown with Merlin/Arthur/Zelena was appropriately tense (I almost started to cry when I saw the desperation on Josh Dallas’s face as Charming watched Snow choking.), but the best part was seeing Merlin find the strength in himself to fight back against the darkness controlling him—with Emma’s help, of course. That moment built on last week’s theme: You can fight back against people trying to tell you who to be—but you have to believe you can do it, and sometimes you need help.
With Emma and Killian now firmly in the grip of the darkness, it’s important to remember that there’s hope; Merlin saved himself, so it’s possible that one or both of them will be able to fight back like he did. And once Merlin did break free of Excalibur’s control, Emma was able to use her magic to heal the small cut on Killian’s neck (or so she thought). It was such a simple, sweet gesture of light and love (even the cinematography showed the warm glow between them), and it’s so hard to look back at their happiness in that moment, knowing what happened the next time she healed that cut on his neck.
Before that happened, though, there was the tiny matter of freeing Emma from the darkness to attend to. And some small part of Emma’s heart was still unwilling to let go of the darkness to light the Promethean flame that would reunite Excalibur. What could have possibly been holding her back? Only the sweetest “Operation” in the show’s history: Operation Light Swan. I was waiting for this Dark Swan arc to get its own “Operation,” and this did not disappoint. Discovering that Killian had been working to find the perfect house to live in with Emma was beautiful; discovering that he and Henry worked together to find a house made it even more wonderful. Henry’s gone from a boy who wasn’t sure if he was okay with his mom dating a pirate to a boy who was willing to help that aforementioned pirate create a future with his mom, which means a future with him, too. Both Killian and Henry know how important having a home is for Emma since she spent so much time without a permanent one, which made offering her a home to call her own one of the most meaningful gestures imaginable. It spoke of family, stability, and the kind of happy future Killian and Henry want for Emma—which is also the kind of future Emma has a tendency to be afraid of.
And Emma was definitely afraid of it. It took Regina’s pushing to get her to admit it, though. That scene between Emma and Regina was the best they’ve shared in ages; it was complex and layered and brought out both characters’ strengths and flaws in fascinating ways. I loved watching Regina admit that it’s fun to give in to the darkness but it’s still wrong. Honest Regina is the best Regina, and that’s exactly who she was in this scene. But then the tone shifted when Regina used the dagger to get Emma to reveal what she was really afraid of. While I understand Regina’s reasons for using it, I don’t like seeing anyone use the dagger to control whoever is under its influence. That moment showcased Regina and Emma’s flaws so well: Regina is pragmatic to a fault; she gets the job done but often does it without any regard for other people’s feelings. And Emma will hide her feelings even from herself until she’s forced to open up. Their actions were so consistent with who we know their characters to be, and I love that kind of character continuity.
When Emma admitted to Killian that the thought of building a real future scared her and made her cling to the darkness, I wanted to reach through the TV and hug her. Being afraid of taking the next step toward something you really want is terrifying for anyone. It’s even more terrifying for someone like Emma who’s taught herself not to get attached to the idea of a happy future, because it can get taken from you without warning. What happens if you finally let yourself really plan for the future and it all falls apart? Emma let herself hope for a home with a man she loved once before, and it was taken from her before they could ever build that home together. It’s understandable for her to fear it happening again.
But Killian has the magic ingredient to making a happy ending a reality: belief. He believed so strongly in their future that it allowed her to finally believe, too. The future is nothing to be afraid of when you have hope, and that’s what he’s always given to her. That hope—sealed with a kiss—sparked the Promethean flame, proving that Emma was finally ready to get rid of the darkness. She did what no Dark One before her was able to do: She chose to believe that love was stronger than fear, that an uncertain future with the right person by her side was better than a future she knew she could control with her dark magic. The love between Emma and Killian lit the flame that could destroy the darkness once and for all; it doesn’t get much more romantic than that.
That would have been a beautiful ending to the story: Killian and Emma’s love allowing her to reunite Excalibur and destroy the darkness forever, ensuring their happy future in a big house with a white picket fence. But as we flashed to Storybrooke again, we were reminded that nothing is ever that simple. Emma had the big house with the white picket fence, and she finally showed Killian that he’d chosen that house for them back in Camelot. But she still didn’t have the happy future that went along with the house. She was alone, Killian was clueless, and she had to keep him that way until her plan could be enacted. Therefore, she chained him up (which was a nice callback to both their first meeting and their meeting in New York City) and went to enact the final stage of her plan—because, much like Rumplestiltskin before her, Emma is a Dark One on a mission.
That mission initially seemed to involve the classic Once Upon a Time villain move of newborn baby snatching. Zelena’s accelerated pregnancy was an interesting twist, and it allowed us to see David Anders’s deliciously smarmy Dr. Whale again. It also gave us some nice moments of internal conflict and amazing growth for Regina, who chose to see the beauty of the moment and instead of the pain. (Lana Parrilla ripped my heart out in just a few seconds of screen time.) However, it turned out that Emma didn’t actually need a baby—because she wasn’t actually trying to snuff out the light. She needed Zelena—because she wanted to destroy the darkness. And that meant putting the darkness in a human vessel and destroying the vessel.
Throughout the episode, there were so many flashes of Emma’s true self under the darkness that it was easy to believe she was trying to do the right thing. But she was still the Dark One. Destroying the darkness by murdering another person—even one as bad as Zelena—wasn’t what Emma in her right mind would have done. But the darkness twisted Emma into thinking she was helping Regina by killing Zelena and avenging Neal and Marion’s deaths by murdering the woman responsible—and all in order to rid the world of the darkness. This version of Emma felt a lot like the version of Emma in Camelot who was willing to do dark things in order to rid herself of the darkness. It was a painful reminder that this wasn’t the same Emma who lit the Promethean flame.
That Emma disappeared because the hope that lit the Promethean flame disappeared. Watching the scene in which Emma started to reunite Excalibur made me so nervous, because we knew that the sword was still in pieces when they first got to Storybrooke. And I knew it would be Killian almost dying that would push Emma over the edge, but I didn’t expect it to play out like it did. Watching him bleed out from Excalibur’s wound was tough to take, and it was all because of O’Donoghue and especially Morrison. Both actors were so vulnerable in that scene. I was a mess when Killian was telling Emma it was alright as she broke down. He was bleeding out on the floor of Granny’s but what mattered was comforting her, because he was now going to be another person she lost.
And that’s when the pain really hit me. Morrison made every single one of Emma’s pleas resonate with a fierce desperation. (I still can’t even think of her telling him, “You have to stay!” without crying.) In order for Emma’s choices in this scene to be understandable, we needed to feel just how deeply she loved him, and Morrison made that painfully clear. Because Killian—as she said in this scene—is someone she can’t lose. All the way back after Season Four’s “Rocky Road,” I wrote about the important distinction between “don’t want to lose” and “can’t lose” when it comes to Emma’s feelings for Killian:
…perhaps the most beautiful part of that confession [at the end of “Rocky Road”] was the moment she looked at Hook and told him, “I can’t lose you, too.” The fact that she said “can’t” instead of “don’t want to” is so important. Emma has lost so many people, but Hook is the one man she feels like she can’t lose.
And that’s the very reason she did something so extreme to save him. Because she can’t lose him. She held other men she loved or could grow to love in her arms as they died, but with Killian, something snapped. He was the one who was supposed to be different. He was the one who didn’t leave; he was her survivor. And she’d finally let herself believe she could start to build a happy future with him, only to have that future taken from her such a short time after she’d finally started to hope again. Emma had finally stopped waiting for the other shoe to drop, and that’s exactly the moment when it dropped with the most painful thud ever. I’m not sure there’s anything more tragic than that.
So despite the rational, logical, and protective words of her parents and Regina (who Emma had every right to snap at, since Regina pushed her one big step closer to the darkness by having her save Robin), I understood why Emma made the choice to take the darkness out of Merlin, tether Killian’s life to Excalibur, and create a new Dark One in order to save his life. And in the moment, it was hard for me to argue against that choice because Morrison was so devastatingly good at making me believe that Emma literally couldn’t lose Killian. Lost love drives people to do drastic things on this show.
When Emma whisked Killian away from prying eyes to their field of Middlemist flowers in order to save him, that’s when the tears became sobs. Because that field was where he promised to help her by sharing her burden, and now he was going to be doing that in a way that didn’t erase the darkness; it multiplied it. And it was a way he didn’t choose. That was the saddest part of all—watching Killian beg Emma to let him die because he didn’t want a life of darkness for them. That wasn’t the future he wanted, but she thought that future was better than none at all. And the amazing thing was I didn’t see either of them as right or wrong in that moment; I just let myself get swept up in the emotions O’Donoghue and Morrison brought out of me. I didn’t think; I just felt. I felt for him when he told her he wasn’t strong enough to fight the darkness the way she did. I felt for her when she told him they’d fight it together. I felt for him when he told her he’d die happy if he knew she had a bright future. And I felt for her when she said that wasn’t enough for her.
That was it—a life without his love wasn’t enough for Emma. Morrison’s delivery of that line was filled with so much anguish, and it reminded me of how far Emma has come from a person who wouldn’t open her heart to love to a person who literally couldn’t face the idea of life without love. For Emma’s entire life, the greater good came before her happiness, but this was Emma making the selfish choice to keep something that was hers no matter the cost. This was Emma changing her fate to always lose the people she loved—but she was also changing Killian’s fate without giving him a choice. Agency has always been such an important aspect of Emma’s character and her relationship with Killian, so it was hard to see the way the darkness used Emma’s desperation to make her believe the right choice was to take away his choice.
That action—taking away Killian’s agency in order to turn him into the very thing he spent lifetimes trying to destroy—was what Killian focused on as Zelena gave him his memories back. Watching the darkness settle on O’Donoghue’s face was frightening. Throughout the episode, we saw Killian at his best—his most openhearted, supportive, loving, and heroic. And that contrasted so perfectly with those images of him emerging from the Dark One’s vault and then, in Storybrooke, coming to grips with what Emma did to him.
How did Killian not know he was a Dark One? My guess is that he didn’t see a vision of Rumplestiltskin because those visions come from a person’s own thoughts. Since he had no memory of being a Dark One, he had no need to give his dark thoughts a personification. Or maybe he’s so familiar with the darkness that he was able to push it down as he pushed down his darkness after years as a vengeful pirate, or Emma did something to abate his darkness once they returned home. So many options! Also, was he just playing Zelena, or does he really want to team up with her against Emma? I think he might be justifiably angry at Emma for a while and driven by a desire to know the truth, but I could never see him joining forces with Zelena to truly hurt Emma. The Dark One lies; the Dark One tricks, after all.
I don’t doubt that he’ll be angry, though, and he has a right to be. I understood his anger just as I understood why Emma made the choice she made. I don’t want to watch television with a mindset of “Who’s wrong, and who’s right?” Life is more complicated than that, and I want the media I consume to be more complicated than that, too. All I want to do is understand why the characters believe what they do, and I certainly understood both Emma and Killian’s motivations and emotions.
Watching this all play out is going to break our hearts. Because Killian Jones—a man who spent so long hating himself for his own dark deeds—has now become the thing he hates the most. And Emma Swan—a woman who gave in to the darkness and brought him into it with her to secure their future together—has seemingly lost that future because of her actions. She paid the price for bringing him back using darkness, and that price is losing him despite having him physically present.
Emma was wrong; she can’t help him through the darkness while she’s still making dark choices like trying to kill Zelena. It’s like one addict thinking they can help another through their addiction. The only way for them to destroy the darkness altogether as heroes is for one of them to serve as the vessel that’s destroyed. And my guess is that’s going to be Killian. He spent lifetimes trying to destroy the Dark One from the outside as a villain, but now he’s going to have to destroy it from within as a hero.
In order to do that, Killian is going to need to believe he’s strong enough to fight back against the darkness. And right now, he doesn’t believe that. He believes he’s not strong enough to defeat the darkness in himself. But he will be—that’s how this story has to end. (She says as she desperately reminds herself that this is a show about hope.) The love between Killian and Emma lit the flame that would allow them to defeat the darkness, but that flame could also be used to snuff out the light. Like a flame, their love could either bring about destruction or light; it’s about choosing how to use it. Their love led her to make a dark choice, but I think it will also ultimately lead them to realize they have to make the choice to destroy the darkness as a heroes. (Cue the Underworld arc that’s all but inevitable for Season 5B!)
“The Bear King”
Belief is so important in this universe. Emma allowing herself to believe in a happy future lit the Promethean flame. Emma believing she couldn’t lose Killian pushed her to create a new Dark One. Killian believing he can’t fight the darkness makes it all but certain he’ll be even more tempted by it than Emma. And in “The Bear King,” belief was also front and center in the storytelling.
Merida, her father, Mulan, and Red all struggled with belief in this episode. Upon discovering that her father sought magic to make him a better leader, Merida stopped believing in him and in herself. Mulan stopped believing that honor mattered after she was left with a broken heart. And Red believed she couldn’t be truly happy unless she was with her own kind.
Seeing Mulan and Red again was so exciting. I’ve loved watching Jamie Chung grow into the role of Mulan, and it’s always a joy to see Meghan Ory again as Red. I thought their first meeting (with Red pinning Mulan down) seemed to foreshadow more than just friendship in their future (since it paralleled Snow and Charming’s first meeting—and we already know the show will be introducing an LGBT pairing), and I could definitely watch something between those two develop—even if it just ends up being friendship. They’re both women who feel different from those around them, and I’d love seeing them find a sense of belonging with someone who understands.
Friendship was a huge part of this episode, which nicely balanced the romance that took center stage in “Birth.” We saw one of the show’s first and most beautiful friendships again in the scene between Snow and Red. And we also saw three friends (Mulan, Red, and Merida) come together to help and support one another. It’s not a secret that ladies supporting other ladies is one of my favorite things to see in fiction, so this was the perfect storyline to bring joy back into my heart after the end of “Birth.”
Ultimately, the plot didn’t advance much in “The Bear King.” We leaned that Arthur killed Merida’s father, we learned where Red and Mulan had been, and we discovered that Arthur was still trying to find magical objects to get people to do his bidding. But what mattered more than specific plot points was the way the episode highlighted the idea that you need to believe in yourself before you can inspire belief in others. That’s where Arthur failed and Fergus didn’t. Merida’s belief in Fergus helped him believe in himself, and that inspired his army (in a very cool battle sequence, perhaps the grandest I’ve ever seen on this show). Then, upon learning that Fergus didn’t use magic to take the easy way out (another common Once Upon a Time theme), Merida was able to believe in herself as a leader once again.
There were a lot of cool details and moments in this episode: The costumes were incredible. (I especially loved Merida’s armor.) The acting was excellent. (Amy Manson isn’t just great at imitating the Pixar princess; she’s a strong actor who managed to put tears in my eyes more than once.) The casting of the Brave characters continued to be spot-on. And the episode left us with an interesting new magical means of communication.
The magical ale used to allow Merida to communicate with her father in the Underworld led to the episode’s most poignant moment. Wouldn’t we all like a bit of magic to allow us just one more moment with a lost loved on—to hear their voice and feel their embrace when we need them the most? It was such a powerful scene, and I have a feeling that ale will be used again if Season 5B is really going to be about the Underworld. (Side note: Did anyone else pick up on the blue smoke around Fergus—perhaps a nod to Disney’s interpretation of Hades?)
Many questions were answered and many were raised in this pair of episodes. But I think the one we’re all left asking is: Why do we have to wait so long for the next episode?!