Note: The following contains spoilers if you have not seen Season 1, Episode 8 of ABC's "Once Upon A Time," entitled, "Desperate Souls."
As one of the most enigmatic and manipulative characters on "Once Upon a Time" thus far, Rumpelstiltskin has also proved to be the most fascinating. I've been eagerly anticipating this week's episode for some time, hoping that it might shed some light on the mysterious figure who seems to have every inhabitant of both Storybrooke and Fairytale Land in the palm of his hand -- but who could have predicted that the gleefully wicked imp would be the product of such humble beginnings?
Thanks to "Desperate Souls," we discovered that Rumpel was once a devoted father, whose only goal in life was to protect his son -- a far more noble cause than one might expect from a character who lives to extort and blackmail everyone around him in his current guise. Sadly, the simple spinner was also a cowardly deserter who had fled from the ominously titled "Ogre Wars" to the detriment of his fellow soldiers -- and apparently, that didn't win him many favors with the local knights. The backdrop of war enabled the knights to draft children who were 14 or older into the army. The opening scene, in which the leader of the knights, Hordor, carried a teenage girl away while her parents screamed, was surprisingly dark for the family-oriented show.
Not that I'm complaining. I'm glad that the show's writers (in this episode, Jane Espenson, who also penned the touching Jiminy-centric episode, "That Still Small Voice") don't shy away from giving the characters real stakes, imbuing every scene with emotional weight so as not to talk down to their diverse audience. After all, some of the most enduring Disney movies had their share of bleak moments. I especially appreciate the writers' continued attempts to add scope to the fairytale world, since the mentions of wars, kingdoms and politics offer another dimension to the storytelling. I'm hoping that the Season 1 DVDs contain a map of Fairytale Land so that we can actually see the places that the producers are envisioning and how they link together (Note: I wouldn't complain about seeing it sooner, either.)
Rumpelstiltskin's original fairytale placed great emphasis on his name, so having Hordor pretending to forget that infamous moniker was a satisfying wink to the myth, and Rumpel's transformation from a nervous, but noble man to a fearless and bloodthirsty killer certainly illustrates how power can corrupt, even if it's sought with the best intentions.
I wondered if The Dark One's true name, "Zoso," had any fairytale connection, but it's more likely that Espenson is just a fan of Jimmy Page (Google it for some interesting reading). It was great to see Brad Dourif (who I remember most fondly as Wormtongue in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy) playing Zoso. I felt that his magical dagger shared a few narrative similarities with the trilogy's One Ring, especially in the way it caused Rumpel to change both mentally and physically, the dark power discoloring his skin and twisting his mind, Gollum-style. Perhaps it was just a coincidental quirk of casting, but it amused me nonetheless.
Back in Storybrooke, two weeks later, Emma and Regina were still keenly feeling Graham's untimely death. (Guilty, much?) Sweeping it away as the result of "natural causes" was an easy fix -- a heart attack in a man so young would be far from natural -- but Regina has the whole town in her pocket, so why not the coroner, too? Regina couldn't have picked a better patsy to become her new sheriff than slimy Sidney Glass (a mirror by any other name), but I'm far more intrigued by Emma and Mr. Gold's interactions than the battle of Henry's moms at this point.
I'm still entirely invested in Mary Margaret and David's will-they-won't-they romance, too -- their poster scene was beautifully written and played, understated and filled with longing. Thanks to Regina's friendship with Katherine, her influence continues to provide a figurative barrier for their romance, just as the notice board and their choice of candidates literally did. I can't wait for the Jan. 22 episode, which will once again delve further into Snow and Charming's relationship. But I digress ...
In Fairytale Land, I didn't doubt Rumpel's care for his son for a second, but it's a testament to Robert Carlyle's talent that Mr. Gold's comments about the importance of a parent spending time with their child came off as decidedly sinister, rather than empathetic. Some actors would struggle to make different sides of the same character so distinct, especially considering how unrepentantly villainous Rumpel has been up until this point.
I also thought that Mr. Gold's "Inception"-style manipulation-within-a-manipulation was an inspired choice to help Emma win the election. Of course, saving Regina from a fire wasn't enough -- only unprecedented honesty from a public official could be enough to break Regina's spell over the voters (pun intended). I can totally believe that everyone is more scared of Mr. Gold than Regina, especially since we now know that it was Rumpel who provided The Evil Queen with the Storybrooke curse in the first place. But what kind of favor could he possibly want from Emma, now that she's officially sheriff? And will the curse continue to weaken, now that Emma has an even greater degree of power in Storybrooke?