Once Upon a Time: The Bear King

"Maybe helping someone else find their path will help you with yours."

What’s interesting about this episode is that it’s one of the rare instances of a show being able to rely on a new character to ground a story. It’s a bold move to put Merida front and centre, without the core cast there to give her fight for her kingdom some weight, but a couple of links to heroes we’re already familiar with managed to carry ‘The Bear King’ in a way I didn’t expect.

There’s a certain amount of this episode that’s borderline stupid (I’m not sure that the Brave movie blueprints needed to be followed right down to the bagpipes and fur-lined kilts) but despite this I think the story here managed to capture the spirit of the source film. It did justice to the strong familial bonds that permeated the history of Merida’s rise to her position as Queen, while still tying into Once’s pre-established storytelling mechanics.

Merida’s relationship with her father was surprisingly affecting. He was such a grounding force for her, and taught her the majority of what she knows about leading not just an army, but an entire kingdom of people. Watching her have to experience the possibility that he didn’t follow his own advice and took the easy way out was upsetting. How could she comprehend that the father who taught her the value of believing in your own causes to lead could have used a spell to cheat his way to victory? It led her to do some very un-Merida things, not the least of which is give up on her quest. Luckily, her father didn’t actually succumb to temptation, and his leadership on the day he died was true, thanks to Merida’s heart. That’s what gave her the motivation she needed to take over the helm of DunBroch and pledge war on Arthur and his kingdom of brainwashed followers.

As much fun as Merida’s escapades were, they did feel like a distraction from the main Dark Swan plot, which concerns 90% of the core cast. As such, it was a clever move on the writers part to bring not just Mulan back into the fold, but also Ruby, both of whom had been mysteriously absent for quite some time.

Mulan has been diving into the life of a bandit to forget about her missed opportunity to confess her long concealed feelings for Princess Aurora, which were last brought up way back in season three. She's still a bad ass warrior and I think she got to show off more in this episode than in any other, but she abandoned the spirit that she once had. It took helping Merida with her own struggle to regain her sense of self to help Mulan to remember who she was.

While Mulan’s absence was justified, Ruby’s was a little shaky but though the logistics surrounding her absence weren’t very concrete – has Granny not been in contact? – the motivations were actually understandable. They tied in with the desire she had to be a part of family, something we saw before in her unfortunately infrequent flashbacks. She scurried off quickly at the close of this episode to resume her quest to find her people, but I have hope that she’ll turn up again soon enough, with Mulan in tow of course.


Arthur was the man who killed King Fergus in his final battle. As if we needed another reason to hate him.

He Said, She Said

Mulan: “A true warrior doesn’t let anything hurt them.”

Ruby: “I might not be the best person to ask for dating advice, I kind of ate the only boyfriend I’ve ever had...”
Mulan: “Yes, I think that disqualifies you.”

Merida: “Arthur, you have no idea what’s coming for you!”

‘The Bear King’ is a bit too fanciful in parts, and I think a lot of viewers would struggle to take the barrage Scottish archetypes seriously, but there was a lot of heart to it that I bought into. I genuinely hope that Merida’s story isn’t forgotten about in the same way both Mulan and Ruby’s were, but the fact that those oversights were addressed here gives me hope that DunBroch won’t fade into obscurity, and that we’ll get the chance to see Merida take Arthur down.

3.5 out of 5 arrows

Originally posted at PandaTV.

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