Once Upon a Time roared back from hiatus with an episode revealing Rumpelstiltskin’s backstory. The episode was full of surprises (I jumped twice). It had twists within twists and striking parallels between the two storylines, all of it fitting together like an elegant, well-oiled, satisfying puzzle.
Rumpelstiltskin, before he became the giggling, deal-loving, string-pulling Rumpel we know today, was a coward, beaten down by life. As a soldier, he ran away from the battlefield, which led to the death of all his comrades and his wife leaving him because she was ashamed.
During the episode, at his lowest point, Rumpel gave in to an arrogant knight’s demands that he kiss his boot, humiliating himself in front of his son:
We’ve seen Robert Carlyle give a flamboyant over-the-top performance as Rumpelstiltskin, and we’ve seen him give a more subdued, but still subtly sinister, performance as Mr. Gold. Tonight we saw this amazing actor create a third, totally distinct personality as a cowering, defeated man without any hope or power.
While trying to run away from the knights who wanted to take his son to battle, Rumpelstiltskin passes an old beggar on a forest road.
As far as I know, this part of the story does not come from any classic tale. Yet it is so convincing as a fairy tale — it has so much of the feel of an actual ancient fairy tale — that it seemed totally authentic. Hats off to the writers for brilliantly channeling the Brothers Grimm and creating that seems very old, but is really new.
The beggar — in true classic fairy-tale style — helps Rumpelstiltskin get home (after Rumpel was kicked by the arrogant knight) and then tells him an amazing story. Rumpel, he says, can control the “Dark One,” the mystical source of the Duke’s power, and can claim that power for himself by stealing a magical dagger.
Rumpel hatches a plot: He will set fire to the Duke’s castle, with the help of some highly flammable sheep fat. The plan works; he steals the dagger; and he summons the Dark One by calling out his name: Zoso.
When he turns around, the Dark One is already there, inches away (and I jumped). The Dark One taunts Rumpel, saying that his brave son couldn’t possibly be his real son. Enraged, Rumpel stabs him with the magical dagger.
Again in true classic fairy-tale style, it turns out the Dark One is really the old beggar. And then, a twist within the twist: The Dark One had wanted Rumpel to kill him all along — he had set this all up so that Rumpel would kill him — because he couldn’t bear life as the Dark One any longer.
Now, that is Rumpel’s burden. By killing the Dark One, he has become the new Dark One himself.
The formerly cowardly, now suddenly fearless Rumpel goes on a murderous frenzy, killing his former tormentor and the other knights who were with him.
In an ironic ending worthy of O’Henry, Rumpel’s whole plan backfires. He did this all for his son, to keep his son safe, to keep his son free from fear. But his son is now afraid — afraid of his father. As Rumpel walks towards him, his son backs away. Rumpel has lost his son — has pushed him away by the very things he did to try to keep him near.
The Storybrooke part of the episode has many striking parallels to the fairytale part. But first, we have a battle for power between Emma and Regina. Emma thinks she is now sheriff because the rules say that she inherits the position after two weeks. Regina thinks that she can fire Emma and install her flunky Sidney as sheriff instead. Mr. Gold, saying he wants to join forces with Emma against their common enemy, Regina, finds a loophole in the Town Charter that requires an election.
And here is where I had trouble suspending disbelief. I don’t understand the limits of Regina’s powers as shown here and in some of the previous episodes. We now know that Regina has full memories of her life as the Evil Queen. We know she is responsible for the curse that controls everyone in the town. We saw her kill a man by taking his heart out of box and squeezing it. We know she can make time stand still!
How can this incredibly powerful woman — fully aware of her powers — be stopped by a rule in a town charter? If the mayor of New York City — who has no known supernatural powers, evil or otherwise — can successfully bend the rules of the City Charter that say he’s not allowed to run for a third term, why can’t a Queen with the power to freeze time, send smoke monster curses roaring through forests, and erase everyone’s memory — a woman who can bend the rules of nature and time and space — be unable to bend the rules of a small town charter?
Far more interesting were the parallels between the Storybrooke and Fairytale stories. In a prequel to the fire that Rumpel sets near the end, Mr. Gold sets a fire in Regina’s house — and like Rumpel, he uses the highly flammable sheep’s fat.
Emma saves Regina from the fire, making Emma an instant hero. When she learns that Mr. Gold set the fire, she makes the difficult decision to do the right thing and tell the townspeople what she knows, even though she is sure that will cost her the election.
In a twist ending that parallels that in Rumpel’s story, Emma gets elected because she told them about Mr. Gold. She gets what she wants by doing something good that she believes will cause her to lose it. Rumpel’s story is the exact flip-side — he loses what he wants by doing something bad he thinks will cause him to get it.
And just as Rumpel’s actions push his son away, Emma’s actions bring her son closer. Henry, who had been despondent and avoiding Emma because he thought that good can’t win against evil, comes back to Emma when she demonstrates that good can win.
In a twist within a twist, Mr. Gold reveals that he had been pulling the strings all along. Just as the Dark One wanted Rumpel to kill him and manipulated Rumpel into doing so, Mr. Gold wanted Emma to denounce him and manipulated her into doing so. His motive? To put her in a position where he can better cash in on the favor she owes him, from when she thoughtlessly made a deal with him earlier, in the hospital.
Themes and repeating motifs
“I know how to recognize a desperate soul”
The Dark One says this to Rumpel, and Mr. Gold says it to Emma.
“I will be your benefactor”
Another line that gets passed on. The Dark One (in the guise of the old beggar) says it to Rumpel, and Mr. Gold says it to Emma.
“Everyone has a choice”
The old beggar says this to Rumpel, just as Rumpel has said it to others in previous episodes.
“Magic always comes with a price”
The dying Dark One says this to Rumpel, and Rumpel repeats it to everyone.
The idea of magical power being the solution to life’s problems also echoes back to previous episodes.
Heroes and courage
Rumpel fails to be a hero to his son, but Emma succeeds in being one to hers. It takes courage to do the right thing.
Parents and children
In both worlds, the episode was about losing and regaining children. There were also questions, in both worlds, about who can claim to be the “real” parent.
Emma feels insecure in her relationship with Henry. If she’s not a hero or a savior, she says to Mary Margaret, then what role does she have in Henry’s life?
Good and evil
Henry, in a defeated mood, says that good always loses because good has to play fair, and evil doesn’t. That’s why Graham died. This week, though, Emma proves him wrong — at least for this time.
Before stealing the dagger, Rumpel tells his son that he will be using his new powers for good: “Imagine me with those powers. I can get to redeem myself. I can turn it towards good. I can save all the children of the frontlands, not just you.” But when Rumpel does get the powers, he doesn’t use them for good. Or does he? Rumpel’s ultimate goals are still a mystery to us.
Sidney (who is the Evil Queen’s mirror in Fairytale land), in his debate speech, saying, “I want to serve as a reflection ….”
Regina’s best line ever
You didn’t pick a great friend in Mr. Gold, Ms. Swan. But he does make a superlative enemy. [Pause. Big grin.] Enjoy that.
Most anachronistic moment
The knight taking a girl to be a soldier in the scene that opened the show. Much as I like OUAT’s portrayal of strong female characters in both worlds, the notion of the knights conscripting both male and female teenagers seemed far too much of a contemporary idea.
The other time I jumped
When Emma and Regina are walking down the stairs, arguing, and Emma says, “I’m not getting into bed with anyone, I’m just fighting fire with–” and at that moment, as we are mentally completing the sentence, Regina opens the door, and the fire bursts in.
I don’t notice any this time, except that after the last frame of the show, there was a clunking noise, which sounded like something they used to use on LOST at the ends of scenes.
What’s your take on Regina’s seemingly inconsistent powers — her ability to freeze time and to kill someone at a distance, while she is unable to get Emma to leave town and unable to get around the rules of the Town Charter? Do you think it’s a flaw in the writing, or do you think these limits on her power are there for a reason that we will learn about later?
How sympathetic do you feel towards Rumpelstiltskin before his transformation? When his son said it felt wrong to run away and that he wanted to be a soldier, and Rumpel told him he didn’t know what war was like, that it wasn’t about fighting, but about dying — was Rumpel being a contemptible coward trying to hold onto his son when it was time to let him go, or was Rumpel really being wise? Was his son really brave, or was he just young and naive?
Was Rumpel, after he became the Dark One, wrong to force the arrogant knight to kiss his boot? Was he wrong to kill him? To kill the others?
The Dark One tells Rumpel that he chose him to be the next Dark One because he knew “how to recognize a desperate soul.” Rumpel, in turn, tells Emma that in her, he recognized a desperate soul. This is probably far-fetched, but is it possible that Rumpel is setting up Emma to be his successor, to be the next Dark One?