Once Upon a Time: Season 5, Episodes 8-9 – “Birth” / “The Bear King”

Despite the best of intentions, Storybrooke is becoming less and less compelling.

Has Once Upon a Time Lost Its Way?

This week Once Upon a Time doubled up on the episodes in anticipation of the upcoming holiday. This was a chance to weave a few story lines more closely together and introduce a couple of new twists for us to chew on along with our turkey. The thing about airing back-to-back episodes though is that it either reminds us just how much we love a show or it gives us an opportunity to see the cracks in the foundation. Although I’m rooting for the show to rebound, unfortunately we got a few too many of the latter this time around.

I’ve talked many times here about Once Upon a Time‘s brilliance at working new story lines into the world it’s already established. That’s both an impressive feat from a storytelling perspective and a fascinating commentary on our human history of fairy tales and legends. Mostly, this makes for engaging good fun. But while the approach may be brilliant, the execution can occasionally feel a little clumsy and uninspired. This fifth season began well, with a trip to Camelot and a cameo by Brave‘s Merida (Amy Manson). As the plot has unfolded, we’ve discovered Camelot is mostly facade, a crumbling castle disguised beneath a layer of magic dust.

The trouble is, the plot line itself also seems more and more like a facade. Where we began by exploring what it means to be a king, David (Josh Dallas) and Arthur (Liam Garrigan) offering interesting contrasts in their attitudes towards their responsibilities, Arthur has turned out to be a colossal disappointment, neither kingly nor darkly menacing but on the whole mostly childish. Guinevere (Joana Metrass) has remained mostly window-dressing. Lancelot (Sinqua Walls) showed up again, offering a chance to add depth to these characters and their relationship, but then seemed to vanish again. And Merlin (Elliot Knight), who seemed like a genuine asset to the show when he first escaped his tree prison (certainly there’s a great deal of talk on the web about his chiseled looks), has spent the last few episodes on the sidelines.

Yet Camelot seems positively well-developed in comparison to Merida’s Scotland. For the first time in the series, I think the show’s become genuinely offensive. Once Upon a Time has generally done a good job of dealing with politically sensitive topics: its treatment of Disney princess characters is a lesson in how to reinvent a stereotype. This parody of Scotland, however, makes me cringe on a number of levels. I don’t remember Brave coming across that way, but truthfully, now I’m afraid to go back and re-watch it.

This offensive portrayal, however, is almost secondary to my disappointment. Once Upon a Time is always a bit fanciful and deliberately simple in its presentation. In some ways, the fact that the Dark One’s dagger looks like it was bought at the local Dollar Store helps to reinforce the fairy tale feel of the series. But lately, the sets and costumes are starting to remind me of 1970s-era Doctor Who, with wigs and mustaches that look as though they may come unglued at any moment. Perhaps most disconcerting in these episodes is the local witch, played by Lily Knight, an actress with solid enough credentials (AI, The Artist), but who appears here to be doing a poor imitation of Cheri Oteri’s old “Colette the drug expert” character from Saturday Night Live.

To be fair, Once Upon a Time gets a lot of its intent right. There are some nice ideas here — the return of a couple of favorite characters we haven’t seen in a while, and some satisfying plot twists that should keep us interested enough over the Thanksgiving holidays to tune back in on the 29th.

And structurally, the writers seem to be mining interesting territory. Fergus (Glenn Keogh), for instance, might have made an interesting entry in this season’s exploration of kings driven by fears that they don’t measure up, had he not been so overplayed and had Merida not turned within seconds of her soulful reunion with his spirit immediately back to a spiteful, vengeful version of the film’s spunky heroine.

Beyond the silly sets and costumes, though, I think the big problem is that the characters simply aren’t compelling. I can’t seem to care even about a pregnant version of Zelena (Rebecca Mader); Arthur comes across like Eddie Haskell; other characters from these new worlds come and go without much in the way of compelling backstory. In short, every week we move a little further from the actors who established the series and the characters we’ve come to care about. David and Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin) had a few moments early on, and Emma (Jennifer Morrison) and Hook (Colin O’Donoghue) continue to provide sparks (perhaps now more than ever?). But Jared Gilmore, who plays Henry and seems to be just coming into his own as an actor, has been given short shrift; worse, the great Robert Carlyle is being almost criminally ignored. I want more Grumpy (Lee Arenberg) and crew! More Granny (Beverley Elliot)! And for God’s sake, whatever happened to Jiminy Cricket (Raphael Sbarge)?

RATING 3 / 10