Calling them a “menage a trois” wouldn’t give quite the right connotation, but this week’s episode of Once Upon a Time, “The Bear and the Bow”, does revolve around a couple of important threesomes. Both of these feature Belle (Emilie de Ravin), whose turn it is to take the spotlight.
The first involves Belle’s relationship to both Merida (Amy Manson) and Rumple (Robert Carlyle). In the present, Belle finds herself at odds with the rest of Storybrooke’s heroes (Mary Margaret [Ginnifer Goodwin], David [Josh Dallas], Regina [Lana Parrilla], Hook [Colin Donoghue], et. al.) over whether Rumple deserves their help, now that he is no longer the Dark One, and at the mercy of the one who is: Emma (Jennifer Morrison). Belle’s determination to go it alone, when everyone else sides with Emma, offers us new insight into her fierce independence. Oddly, that independence connects her in the “Camelot” past to Merida, who makes a similar decision, rejecting Merlin’s (Elliot Knight) offer of help, instead deciding to find and rescue her brothers on her own. With Belle’s help, she does manage to track the two brothers and face down their captors. Importantly, Belle must help Merida at this moment to find her courage: Merida wants to turn into a bear and ravage her enemies, but Belle convinces her she has the skills and bravery to win the day just as she is.
Yet in the present, Emma has tasked Merida with killing Belle, part of Emma’s attempt to spark heroism in Rumple. Here the roles shift, with Merida playing the part of aggressor and Rumple the reluctant hero. His impulse isn’t to turn himself into a bear, but rather to flee Storybrooke altogether. Once again, though, it’s Belle’s job to convince him — as she did Merida — that he is capable of heroism. When Belle is attacked by Merida, ironically in bear form, Rumple does finally summon his courage and protect his love.
Ultimately, the relationships here are complex. In one sense it is Rumple and Merida who exchange places, each convinced to act because of Belle’s intervention. At the same time, Belle’s independence in the present connects her to Merida in the past, with both women determined to solve their problems on their own.
Meanwhile, a second triangle develops between Belle, Rumple, and Emma, with Belle caught between the former and current Dark Lords. In Camelot, Belle takes on that role almost literally, becoming the keeper of the spell book, and conjuring up magic to help Merida find her brothers. Back in the present, she serves a more metaphorical, but also more pivotal role. Emma has sent Merida to kill Belle, but her actual intent is to force Rumple to become a hero. Thus Belle becomes both the object of Emma’s violence and her surrogate, convincing Rumple to act. For his part, Rumple recognizes his connection to Emma as well, pointing out at one point, “I know the Dark One better than she knows herself.” Near the end of the episode, as he hovers over Excalibur, ready to test just how much of a hero he truly is, he speaks directly to Belle, telling her, “I would change everything for you,” to which she replies that “it’s never too late.” This conversation though seems more aimed at Emma — who we watch in cutaway reaction shots — a warning of sorts from one Dark One to another about making the right choices.
Elsewhere in Storybrooke, Mary Margaret and company are finally coming to realize in the present that Arthur (Liam Garrigan) is not who he seems, something they realized several weeks ago in Camelot. Henry (Jared Gilmore), who seems to have recovered from the shock of discovering Emma’s apparent treachery, stands in for Arthur and contacts Merlin, who seems to have his hands full, wherever he is. Zelena (Rebecca Mader) grows increasingly pregnant, but rejects an offer from Emma to join forces.
Back in Camelot, Merlin frees Lancelot (Sinqua Walls) and Merida from the dungeon, and of course, Merida goes on her quest to find her brothers, which gives us a chance to explore her world. But while Camelot has been a strong addition to Once Upon a Time this season, the world of Brave seems far less interesting. Perhaps this has to do with how little it’s been fleshed out, both in terms of story and production. This week we get our most extensive look at “Scotland”, and it’s not terribly impressive. Merida’s enemies are arrayed like a kilted band of punk rockers (seriously: one of them seems to be doing a poor Billy Idol imitation), and her brothers seem even more silly, all empty-headed and helpless under their flaming red hair. Frankly, Merida herself has been portrayed as such a shrew throughout these episodes that it’s difficult to root for her success. I’m not sure if the producers plan to extend her plotline for much longer, but I for one wouldn’t be upset if she simply took her happy ending and went on her way.