I have no idea what kind of scheduling monkeys they have over at ABC, who tried to shuffle around some episodes in light of whatever award show is running in Once Upon A Time’s time slot next Sunday. Previously, the show’s two-parters have been two halves of one larger story, like season three’s epic pair of closing episodes. Despite the touting of a special two-part “event” here, “Birth” and “The Bear King” are clearly just two episodes that got jammed together somehow.

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It’s too bad, because lining them up against each other makes one stand out even more by comparison, and one really suffer. Although let’s face it, “The Bear King” was probably never going to hit anyone’s best-of-year lists, despite all of Mulan and Ruby’s best efforts.

Fortunately, “Birth” was magnificent enough to almost make up for all of that. We finally learn Emma’s secret plan, and it’s amazing: She had to turn Hook into another Dark One to save his life. In all the likely speculative scenarios, I sincerely doubt anyone saw that coming. So sure, Emma’s plan is a bit dastardly now: To have Zelena absorb all of the dark magic, then kill her, but hey, she’s the (a) Dark One! Of course her plan has to be a bit menacing.

This plot twist not only fills the need of every Captain Swan shipper out there—and Emma and Hook are just racking up the amazing scenes, from the ring last episode to the stories behind them in this one—it redeems our heroine and sets up the rest of season quite nicely. Hook! With dark magic! The mind reels!

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Less effective is Emma waffling before the transformation, afraid to give up the darkness because she’s afraid to move on with Hook. Regina’s attempts to pry the truth out of her using the dagger were pretty effective, from former villain to prospective one, until of course Emma’s parents ran in, flailing and clucking. (I knew it would never happen, but I almost wished Merlin’s choking of Snow would have succeeded. That headband has made me mercenary.)

Still, Emma’s pondering helped make this particular plot development so effective. It explained everything so neatly, even the house. Emma moving up Zelena’s pregnancy so that she can get the baby out of her before killing her. And at the end, Hook, after already teaming up with Zelena, turns on Emma, but is he really upset or has he already gone dark? After all, he had previously stated that he already forgave her for everything.

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Yes, Hook may be a bit frustrated by the way things turned out but, as Emma (and Rumple) both predicted, she had only the best intentions: She wanted to save his life. The rings scene nicely offered us some reminders of how dark Hook had been in the past before Emma; his trip to becoming the Dark One should be much shorter than hers had been. Honestly, I can hardly wait.

Unless, OUAT keeps tossing us lame goose-chase episodes like “The Bear King.” I’ve already complained about how the Merida storylines aren’t doing it for me, through no fault of the actress playing her, I just don’t think the Brave canon has much to offer as Merlin’s, say. Look how effective “Nimue” was last week, because there was so much to draw from, or “Birth,” because we’re already so invested in Emma and Hook and who the Dark One is. Instead, in this week’s choose-your-own-adventure, we have to track down Fergus’ helmet, which Merida must reach before Arthur and Zelena do. (None of these characters have anything better to do than to track down a dead man’s helmet?) I’m all for the girl power of warriors Merida and Mulan, with Ruby joining the fight to track down Arthur. But here the timeline changes were so jarring, as we tried to figure out what kind of mood Mulan was in and whether Merida’s dad was alive or not (and it felt like a bit of a cheat to have her be able to talk to him again in the end). I was glad to find out about Mulan and Ruby and what had happened to them in the interim, and would like to see more from both those characters. Here Mulan’s purpose seemed to be only to hold Merida back from a fight about a dozen times, and Ruby just to sniff out Arthur. I hope we see more of them, because they both deserve a better plot than this.

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At least Merida now has a reason to go after Arthur, and we’ve already seen her kind of align with Emma. So I predict she and her arrows bust in and save the day at some point. But after “Birth,” this episode was such a red herring, without any of our core cast except in a flashback (when Snow White’s present-day wardrobe was apparently as horrible a few seasons ago as it is now). It was hard to stay interested in it as OUAT crested its second full hour, no matter how glad we are that Merida is now ready to lead from the throne.

It’s too bad, because before that, OUAT has been on quite a streak. The Brave jaunts have been the only weak spot in this otherwise strong fifth season. The show rightly is taking advantage of how invested we are in these characters (Hook and Swan especially) to twist and reconfigure them in a way we couldn’t even have anticipated.

Stray observations

  • When they show Granny closing up shop at the diner, where is baby Neal? And Robin’s kid? And all the dwarves, who wanted so much adventure but really haven’t been around at all?
  • Regina and Emma both looked stunning in the flashbacks that first hour. Makes you wonder why Regina has to look so lackluster in present day when she so perfectly dons red cloaks in Camelot. Zelena’s outfits, naturally, are all over the top.
  • “Shut up, I was a fake midwife, I know the drill!”
  • I possibly am missing a step per usual, but what about Merlin’s message from the past that Nimue is the only person who can destroy the Dark One, even though she was a Dark One herself? If so, maybe she’ll show up again.
  • Nice to see Dr. Whale’s appearance, just in time to get slammed against a wall again.
  • Only one more episode until the mid-season finale, then we’re off until February 28.

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