Empathy is a funny thing. It can give even the most diabolical figure softer edges. And in the latest instalment of Once Upon a Time, thanks to a well-done FairyTaleLand back story, Rumpelstiltskin became less black-and-white villain and more shades-of-gray-complicated.
The episode begins in a darker-than-normal FairyTale, as the King’s Army arrives in Rumple’s village to “draft” a just-turned 14-year-old girl. (Apparently, enlistment age comes early here.) The wails of this anonymous girl’s mother as her daughter is led away proved a haunting beginning and gave us a hint of the shadowy tone to come, at least in FairyTale. Storybrooke proved a bit brighter, but more on that later.
With his own son’s 14th birthday only days away, Rumpelstiltskin and his boy run away from their village, and the King’s Army. Before they get far, a knight finds the pair. Recognizing Rumple as “The Man Who Ran” during the Ogre Wars (I have no idea what the Ogre Wars were but perhaps a future episode will illuminate), the King’s knight takes great pleasure in tormenting and teasing a very meek and subservient Rumpelstiltskin. With relish, the knight informs Rumple he can save his son from the draft by kissing his boot. Rumple begs the Knight to spare him the humiliation in front of his boy, but to no avail. As he bends down to complete the humiliating task, the utterly nasty Knight drop kicks him to the ground, completing poor Rumple’s degradation.
Robert Carlyle as Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold continues to hugely impress, and the look of profound shame on his face, as he realizes what he must do, spoke more than pages and pages of dialogue could. Furthermore, that one scene has forever softened me to the much more evil Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold that now exists.
Just as the dastardly knight exits, an old beggar appears. He tells Rumple he can indeed change his cowardly ways as, “Everyone has a choice.” He also explains that power is the key and he has a plan for Rumple to find that power. There is a mythical man called “The Dark One” who has been enslaved, to harness all his power. If Rumple can just learn The Dark One’s true name, and steal his dagger, all that lovely power will be his. Heady stuff for a meek and cowardly village man.
In a fiery theme that this week runs through both FairyTale and Storybrooke, Rumple and his son set fire to the castle that houses Mr. Dark and Rumple steals the dagger. Engraved on it is the name “Zoso”, which leads me to believe at least one of the showrunners is a Led Zeppelin fan. As Rumple repeats the name aloud, The Dark One appears, sounding a wee bit like Darth Vader. I actually found this scene a bit silly and the all-powerful Dark One rather non-menacing. It reminded me of the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. Nonetheless, after some trash talking, Rumpelstiltskin stabs Darth Vader/The Dark One . As he crumples, he morphs into the old beggar and tells Rumple, “Magic always comes with a price.” And now all that magic/power belongs to him.
Fast forward to his son’s birthday and the King’s Army arriving. The newly-powerful father fights back and the same knight that once kicked Rumple is now at Rumpelstiltskin mercy. Rumple kills him, and everyone else for that matter, in front of his horrified son. Yikes. While there’s no excusing multiple murders, I do feel empathy, not only for Rumple as a father protecting his son, but also as a meek man who finally has a taste of power and control. That’s heady stuff, and again, hats off to Carlyle for conveying all that conflicting emotion with very little dialogue.
Meanwhile, in Storybrooke, it’s been two weeks since the Sherriff had his heart quite literally ripped out of his chest. Emma realizes she wants to be the new permanent Sherriff. Mayor Regina has other plans. She’d much prefer Sidney Glass (aka the Magic Mirror) become her lackey, er, Sherriff.
But help for Emma’s plight comes in the surprising form of Mr. Gold, who shows Emma the town’s Charter. Apparently, the mayor can only nominate a candidate for Sherriff, and there must actually be an election. So Emma storms into the mayor’s office, just as she’s holding a press conference announcing Sidney as Sherriff. Emma steals her thunder with her own proclamation: she is running for Sherriff, too.
The Mayor’s office, by the way, is fascinating. It’s almost completely done in black on white. Black on white damask wallpaper, black on white furniture, accessories, accents, etc. It’s an obvious, but still effective, metaphor for Good and Evil. Or to be more specific, perhaps it’s Regina’s unconscious desire for Evil to prevail over Good?
But back in Storybrooke, Henry has grown a cynical side and no longer believes in Good prevailing. Emma is more determined than ever to win the Sherriff’s election and prove to her son that Good can triumph.
To that end, she goes to the Town Hall (and a HUGE shout-out to my local Community Hall substituting for Storybrooke’s Town Hall) to confront the Mayor over some dirty election tactics. Lo and behold, a fire breaks out (there’s that fire theme again) and Regina falls during the explosion. Emma helps her to safety, making her a heroine and ensuring she wins the election. Right?
Not so fast. Emma smells a rat (more likely accelerant) and accuses Mr. Gold of deliberately setting the fire. He admits to the arson, wanting Emma to do something “big” to seal her win. But Emma, who is sometimes nauseatingly good, admits the set-up during the candidate’s debate and tells the town that’s no way for her to win.
But file this under the Sometimes Doing the Right Thing Pays Off category, because Emma wins the election after all and Regina hands over the Sherriff’s gold star to Emma-Do-Right.
While I found the Storybrooke portion of this episode the weaker element, with the Good winning over Evil theme rather predictable, there is great future potential with Emma as Sherriff. She now owes Mr. Gold not once, but twice. And Regina loathes her more than ever, if that’s even possible. Things are about to get very complicated, and therefore entertaining, for Sheriff Emma.
But where this episode excelled (again) is with Robert Carlyle’s Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold. Giving Rumple a history, and a reason for his ways, was brilliant. Moreover, the actor himself can be over-the-top maniacal, subtly sorrowful or quietly cunning, and make them all seem equally effortless. More, please.
All in all, though, another strong episode for Once Upon a Time, adding more threads to pull on in the future.