Once Upon a Time: Birth & The Bear King Reviews


By Marianne Paluso (@Marianne_P81)

One of the greatest things about a show like Once Upon a Time is its ability to engage, inspire, make you think, and most especially make you feel with stories weaved together to create this beautiful, fantastical tapestry grounded in human emotion. In the first of this two hour event, “Birth,” we were witness to one of the most beautiful, tragically heartbreaking, epic, and captivating episodes not only of the series but that I’ve ever seen on television, with moments and performances that were so emotional and gripping, they resulted in sobs and instances where I honestly forgot to breathe. Written by David H. Goodman and Jerome Schwartz and directed by Eagle Egilsson, with poignant performances most especially by Jennifer Morrison and Colin O’Donoghue, “Birth” will stay with me forever. As we followed intensely the flashbacks in Camelot and the present day drama in Storybrooke, two questions drove the story – what happened to lead Emma into embracing the darkness and what does she want now that she is truly the Dark One? Those questions were finally answered and we discover that both have one sole motivator – her love for Killian. In Camelot, Arthur threatens to kill Emma’s family unless she gives him the dagger and the Prometheus flame. After Henry tells her that he and Killian had picked out a house for them in Storybrooke as a promise for the future, naming their mission “Operation Light Swan,” she has all the motivation she needs. Even though Emma takes down Zelena, she couldn’t beat Merlin who was under the control of Excalibur. Emma begs him to fight and for a moment he does, which proves long enough for Killian to break free from the shackles and take out Arthur. The blade cuts his neck but Emma heals it and with her family safe, she is finally ready to complete her task and destroy the darkness once and for all. But Emma, who has always had trouble letting go of fear, is struggling to light the ember. Regina tries to get Emma to break down those walls and admit she’s afraid by using the dagger. That method is wrong but it did help Emma realize her fear – she just needed the only one who is always able to break down those walls: Killian. She admits to him she’s afraid to destroy the darkness because once it’s gone, their future together becomes real. But he helps her let go of that fear and the flame ignites beside them. She’s finally ready for their future. Their joy and hope is shattered, however, when she tries to reunite the blades and Killian’s wound opens, leaving his life in peril because a cut from the blade cannot be healed. Emma pleads for him not to leave her and says if she tethers him to Excalibur it can save him, but it would also multiply the darkness and create another Dark One. Despite her parents’ and Regina’s objections, she refuses to lose him and takes them to the field of Middlemist flowers. He tells her to let him go saying he is not strong like her, and doesn’t believe he can fight the darkness again. She wants their future together, but he’ll just be happy knowing she’ll have one. She sobs over him on the verge of death, crying that that’s not good enough for her as she tethers him to Excalibur, saving his life, but bonding his soul to the blade. He disappears and his name appears on the sword as she transforms into the Dark Swan and he emerges from the Dark One’s vault.  These heartbreaking turns of events were slowly revealed in the present. Emma accelerates Zelena’s pregnancy so her baby girl can be born. Regina and Robin stay by her side, thinking Emma is after the baby, but it was Zelena she was after. Killian, whom Emma saved from Arthur and from a leap off the roof to get her attention, wants answers, especially when she says she’s doing it all for him. She plans to transfer the darkness into Zelena to destroy it but that is not enough for Killian. He wants to know everything. But when Zelena displays his memories before him and the Dreamcatcher Emma made, he’s horrified by the truth. Emma begs forgiveness saying she only wanted to save his life, but Killian looks at her in anger at what she’s done to him, their happy future together suddenly turned into an elusive dream. But is all hope lost?

Before delving into the heart of the episode, I must first discuss some other smaller but fantastic moments. Rebecca Mader continues to portray Zelena as very layered and endlessly entertaining. She is so deliciously wicked, and the kind of person who delights in other people’s misery, but can also surprise you with a sense of humanity. You never know what to expect from her as evidenced in her scenes where she gave birth to her daughter but then was captured, along with Killian, in Emma’s basement. She seems to honestly already love her baby but can’t help but taunt it in Regina’s face. She keeps her word and lets Killian go from his chains but then takes pleasure in revealing the painful truth to him. Speaking of the birth of Zelena’s daughter, these moments provided a sense of levity in a very dramatic episode. I laughed out loud at Zelena knowing the drill because she was “a fake midwife,” as well as the return of Dr. Whale who can’t cannot help but make a joke about the entire situation and defend his dyed hair. Anytime David Anders comes on screen as Whale I am happy and I hope he pops up in Storybrooke again. But the poor guy always seems to get thrown across the room. Regina also showed great strength in a scene that was very painful for her. She still smiled for Robin because no matter the situation, the birth of a child is always a joy. Regina, Snow, David, and the others were also in a very dire and difficult situation in both the past and the present. They still have no idea why Emma is acting the way she is, with Regina willing to take drastic measures while her parents don’t want to hurt her. Emma stops them and we finally see that the anger she feels towards them is completely understandable. Emma’s family may love her and want what’s best for her, but they don’t always completely understand her or the way to get through to her. It is true that Regina knows Emma better than she once did, and understands that she has walls that she puts up, but she also isn’t able to break them down which is why she tried to control her with the dagger. Of course the purpose of that scene was meant to contrast the following one with Killian, the person who can always break down those walls. This demonstrated the importance of him in her life – something her parents and Regina didn’t seem to understand or acknowledge as much as they should. Emma said her parents had failed her and she showed animosity toward Regina when she wanted help to save Robin from the fury saying, “Now suddenly life is precious to you!” It’s because they implored Emma to not save Killian in Camelot. They all showed great concern asking if something could be done, but when Merlin says there is not, they quickly give up, telling Emma not to embrace the darkness. What was painful was that if all three of them were in similar situations, they would do anything to save their true loves. But when Emma is faced with the same tragic possibility, they tell her not to do so. It is no wonder Emma is angry. Regina pushed Emma to save Robin with dark magic and Snow willingly put her unborn child and her own life at risk to split her heart to save David’s life. It definitely screams hypocrisy and a lack of understanding of how deeply Emma loves Killian, and as if Emma’s happiness is not as important as the greater good. Emma has always helped bring back the happy endings. But what about her own? I think losing the love of her life would push her far more toward the darkness than their fear that saving him ever could. I hope their actions are simply a stepping stone in the overall story and they will all soon not only acknowledge Killian’s place in Emma’s heart but will help to fight for the happy ending she wants with him – the happiness she deserves.

That belief and hope that love and happiness is still possible even in the darkest of times is what Once Upon a Time has always embodied, and has been exquisitely portrayed in Emma and Killian’s story this season, encompassing these deeply rooted themes in very moving ways. Jennifer Morrison and Colin O’Donoghue are the kind of scene partners writers and directors dream about, breathing their beautiful words to life with visceral potency. In each moment of this episode, I felt every heartbeat, every breath, every tear, making their scenes truly remarkable. Their story both together and as individual characters, is now brought to the forefront in a romantic, epic, and enthralling way that exemplifies how powerful true love can be. I was moved beyond words to hear that it was Killian and Henry who had formed a mission together to pick out a house in Storybrooke – a promise for their future together. Emma questioned whether they could get back to a “white picket fence life” and Killian told her to have faith and that he’d never stop fighting for them. His faith in Emma and their love only shines brighter with this promise of a home together. It’s a beautiful dream she wants but she is frightened at the same time – the future is uncertain and she has always lost those she’s loved. Now that she has found the greatest love of her life and the man she wants a future with, that fear reappears. It is what makes that scene where she admits this to Killian even more moving. Not only was it touching that he didn’t realize how much she wants a future with him, but also that she only admits these fears to him. Only he can truly break down her walls because he shows her the patience she needs and belief to not fear the future. As they softly kiss and the Prometheus fire is lit, we see that their love truly ignites, a symbol that she not only is ready for a future with him but that the darkness is ready to be vanquished with the light of their love. And it was a lovely parallel to the moment Emma finally accepted Storybrooke as her home and her magic alighted Rumple’s wand. In both moments, Killian is there providing the understanding she needs and in both those moments she has found a home. First in this sleepy little town with her family and now in an actual physical home that she can share with the man she loves, the man who is now a part of that family and her heart in an unbreakable way. This is what makes the following moments even more heartbreaking. When Killian’s wound becomes fatal and Emma frantically pleads with him to stay and not leave her, the desperation in her voice is so potent that I was moved to tears. As she transports them to the field of Middlemist flowers, a place that represents a faith that they can overcome anything together, we bear witness to one of the most beautiful, and heart-wrenchingly poignant scenes in series history. Killian’s resignation of his fate that she must let him go because he doesn’t want to become what he hates, fearing he couldn’t be as strong as his dear Emma, absolutely broke my heart. And Colin O’Donoghue portrayed Killian’s pain and selflessness with a quiet vulnerability that was truly beautiful, saying he will be happy simply knowing Emma will have a future. Emma’s pleading was just as heart-wrenching because she believes that they can fight the darkness together, echoing what he has always told her. She cannot lose him; life without him would be unbearable, so she chooses to tether him to the darkness. When Jennifer Morrison cries, “That’s not enough for me!” her agony is almost unbearable to watch as you can see all of Emma’s dreams and hopes she so desperately wants on the brink of being lost forever. As she holds his hand and strokes his face, it is clear how much she cherishes him and cannot imagine a life without him. And there was no right or wrong from either of their actions. Killian just wants to know Emma will be okay, having a future that is no longer filled with darkness. That is enough for him. And for Emma, her choice is not for power or darkness. This tragic way to save his life may have led them both down what is a path of darkness, but Emma chose love. Killian may be devastated that the woman he loves has turned him into the thing he hates more than anything, but we also must remember that no matter what, he loves her just as much and she loves him. Just as the rings he wears remind him that all sins can be forgiven as long as you have someone who loves you, we are also reminded that so much as she was his Savior, in many ways so too has he been for her. And now in these dark times they can save each other as long as they believe in that love and in themselves. Seeing Killian become another Dark One because of Emma’s choice was heart-wrenching indeed. But it was said from the beginning that the only one who could vanquish the darkness was the Savior and for centuries Killian has been trying to destroy the Dark One. Now that they are both tethered to the darkness, their names residing next to each other on a blade forged from the Holy Grail, perhaps it was always their destiny to destroy the darkness together. As the product of true love, whose own parents have had their own epic love story, I think it apropos for Emma to be living out a beautiful and epic fairytale of her own. As tragic and heartbreaking as this chapter in her story is, it only exemplifies that true love is always worth fighting for. We may not know the end of the book yet, but the love story between Emma Swan and Killian Jones is becoming my favorite fairy tale.

Before concluding, I must briefly discuss the second hour of the night “The Bear King,” which featured an adventure between Merida, Mulan, and Ruby battling against Arthur and Zelena both seeking King Fergus’s helm for different reasons. The thing about this episode is that it was enjoyable and engaging on its own, but in the context of the arc of the season, there is little to no connection with the rest of the story. It did, however, plant seeds for things that are sure to be important in the second half of the season, including a connection to the Underworld and a reiteration about the importance of friendship, family, and love. These things are ever present and no doubt the power of love will continue to be a significant part of this remarkable fairy tale.

Favorite Moments: Every single instant of Emma and Killian’s journey in “Birth” was filled with what true love embodies, from sweetness and comfort, to passion and desperation, to an unwillingness to live without the other. I loved every single one of their scenes, but the moment where Killian lays beside Emma in a field of flowers on the brink of death, telling her to let him go, uncontrollable tears in Emma’s eyes, will stay with me forever. Only the greatest of stories can leave you speechless, and this remarkably moving fairy tale undoubtedly does. In “The “Bear King,” the moment Merida was able to speak to her father’s sprit was so touching and a lovely scene that any child who has lost a parent can relate to and be brought to tears by.

Favorite Lines:

Killian: Emma, you have to let me go. I don’t want to pay this price. I don’t want to become that.

Emma: You won’t. You can fight the darkness. I can help you. We can do it together.

Killian: I’m not as strong as you, or Merlin. I’m weak. The things I’ve done. I’ve succumbed to darkness before in my life. And it took centuries to push it away. I don’t know if I can do it again.

Emma: But our future…

Killian: I’ll just be happy knowing that you have one.

Emma: That’s not enough for me!


  1. MonicaNovember 21st, 2015 at 3:04 am

    Great review, I agree with you and from now on I am expecting the sense of loosing hope to increase, in the next episode, with Killian’s initial reaction being (understandable) surrendering to revenge and betrayal feelings. The best of all is that there is no way to not understand both sides, Killian’s and Emma’s, because we, as audience have felt their feelings in our skins, as we watched the episode. I expect that only in the climax of episode 11, in the climax of this arc, we get to see the negative tide of what will come turning to the positiveness of hope and love. I totally agree with your opinion regarding Morrison and O’Donoghue performances – these two deserve at least one important award each because they are addressing the intensity of emotions – from deep joy to deep pain, with such sensitivity that brings tears to the audience, brings fear, brings hope – brings every emotion their characters are supposed to be feeling, that they have earned the right of official and public recognition. Their synchronized pace and chemistry is so natural and unique that sometimes we forget that they are acting. Of course we get to remember that those powerful performances are combined with a powerful cinematography (beautiful photography and soundtrack), sharp direction and great writing (specially in the way the Storybroke-Camelot transitions are smoothly orchestrated), which makes Birth one of the best episodes of OUAT, ever. Above all, this is the result of a huge cast assembling. My applause to all the cast, ALL of them, they all shine even without saying a word, they are completely present in the scenes they are in, composing beautiful pictures after beautiful pictures that look like paintings: their body languages and facial expressions conveying the turmoil of emotions their characters are experience is a reflex of their talent and of the great art direction. In summary, a perfect modern “Greek” tragedy version combined with the Hope that comes with Fairytales.
    Now, after writing my comment, this site seems to complicate its uploading – I HOPE it will work now.

  2. prairiepirateNovember 21st, 2015 at 12:45 pm

    Marianne, I think this is one of your best reviews yet – and for one of the best episodes of Once I have ever seen. You made me relive all of the emotions I experienced while watching it again, as I read your words. And I agree most fervently that I don’t think I will ever encounter a love story that has touched me as much as Captain Swan’s. My favorite fairy tale by far. Well said!!

  3. MNovember 23rd, 2015 at 1:10 am

    In all honesty this was a difficult review to get through because those were some insanely long paragraphs. Maybe next time consider breaking up those extra chunky paragraphs (e.g. in this article a natural break occurs in the second paragraph between the bit about Dr. Whale and the next part about the Evil Queen and Robin Hood’s baby).

  4. MarvinNovember 23rd, 2015 at 4:56 am

    Someone from OUAT paid you money to write this, right?

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