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TV Review: Once Upon a Time – “The Return” and a Theory About the Curse

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This week’s new Once Upon a Time episode “The Return” (airing on ABC) answers many questions, yet poses several others. As well, it presents evidence for a theory, a possible key to the curse and what might end it.

With the focus on Mr. Gold/Rumplestiltskin (the amazing Robert Carlyle, whose intensity is beautifully layered with humanity and grace), we begin to understand his game and the origins of the curse—and more importantly, what drives him. But more importantly, his actions in this week’s Once Upon a Time hold some subtle clues to The Evil Queen’s (Lana Parrilla) curse upon the realms of Fairy Tale land.

Is the enigmatic Mr. Gold friend or foe of the good people of Storybrooke? Mayor Regina certainly believes Mr. Gold is her ally; after all, it was Gold’s alter ego that conjured up the queen’s curse in the first place. On the other hand, he doesn’t seem too enamored Regina, and it was his alter ego that gave Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) a way to save them all and end the curse once it was in place. So, who’s side is he on?

“The Return” makes it clear that Mr. Gold/Rumplestiltskin is on his own side. Everything from the curse itself to its ultimate ending serves one purpose: to reunite Rumplestiltskin with his beloved son Baelfire (Dylan Schmid). All else is mere collateral damage. 

Picking up Rumple’s story from last fall’s “Desperate Souls,” “The Return” continues to explore Rumple’s relationship with his son. We learn that Baelfire hates what his father has become—is becoming. And despite the fact that Rumple stopped a terrible war and saved the children, he has sacrificed his soul to do it.

He is feared—even by young Baelfire, desperate to have his father back, coward or no. When Bae wonders if Rumple will give up his power should he find a way to transform him back to his old (albeit powerless and fearful self), Rumple reluctantly agrees.

Calling upon the Blue Fairy, Baelfire obtains a magic blue bean, which will transport him through a wormhole-like portal into another realm—one without magic. It is in this new realm that the power of The Dark One evaporates, Bae will have his father back, and Rumple will be rid of the curse that controls him. It is there he plans on leading his father, but the whirlpool through which they must descend is a terrifying cyclone, and Rumple, for all his newfound power, is terrified of making this leap of faith with his son. He hangs back while Bae slides down the portal and away from his father, who has let go his hand. It is something Rumple regrets from the second that happens.

So this has been his motivation from the start—to find a way to make amends with his son; to reunite with his dear son Baelfire. It’s an elaborate plan borne of desperate love.

If I didn’t love Rumple before (which I did), I certainly do now. Not that Rumple/Mr. Gold is an especially “good” man. He can be brutal wielding his power both as Rumple and as Mr. Gold; as Bae, the Blue Fairy and Belle all knew, there lies within him a darkness. But there is a profound sadness within him, and a desire to do right by his son. And it is a desire borne of true and unconditional love. But Rumple is also controlled by the curse of The Dark One, and these two sides battle within both Gold’s and Rumple’s soul.

The Blue Fairy points out that Bae is the only thing keeping Rumple human; when Bae slips out of his hand into another realm (likely our “real” world), Rumple is in danger of losing that last glimmer of humanity. But although the loss of Bae certainly drives Rumplestiltskin mad (his obsession with names and babies, at the very least), the hope of one day finding Baelfire may yet keep within him that spark of humanity, something of which we see ample evidence in “Skin Deep,” both as he talks about his son—and in his vulnerability in Belle’s presence. Certainly someone truly evil would either not care at all about the loss of his son—and would not spend “every waking hour” trying to find him and put things right.

In “The Return,” we also learn the why behind Gold’s dislike of the nuns. As you may recall, the good sisters are, in fact, the fairies of Fairy Tale Land, and the Blue Fairy who allows Bae to escape into another realm is the Mother Superior. No wonder Gold blames them for taking his son from him—and making it impossible for him to follow, once he realizes that Bae is lost to him forever.

So the curse appears to be Rumple’s elaborate plan to enter the realm into which Bae has crossed, “beyond the bounds of time and space, a world without magic, where even Rumple’s dagger is powerless. But it is a place that holds for him the promise of redemption—someday.

Which brings us to August. August Boothe (Eion Bailey) has been sniffing ‘round Storybrooke for several episodes now. At the beginning of “The Return,” August is clearly ill, but not ill enough to phone someone, telling that person they need to ramp up the plan. Who is he talking to? Might it be Henry, whom he enlists in his snooping-around-Gold’s pawn shop plan? And what’s wrong with him, anyway? (That’s an answer, I suspect, for another episode.)

His presence has Mr. Gold disturbed, making him suspect that he is the long-lost Baelfire, all grown up. Gold has been looking for his son for many years, and now that he’s been found (or so he believes), he is terrified to confront him, even going so far as to hesitantly approach town therapist Archie (Raphael Sbarge). The powerful Mr. Gold bares his soul, allowing himself to appear vulnerable! That in itself is an astounding turn.

He knows he needs to ask Bae’s forgiveness.  “I let him go,” confesses Gold, “I let him go and I’ve spent my whole life trying to fix it.”

And when he finally confronts August, so willing to believe, Gold gives up his dagger willingly, hoping finally to heal that terrible wound. “I chose it once, now I choose you,” Gold tells him remorsefully and in tears, at the hope of reconciliation and redemption.

Gold wants so much to believe that he lets down his guard, seeing in August only what he wants to believe he sees. Alas, August is not his son, and his only desire at this point is to possess Rumplestiltkin’s powerful dagger, which controls The Dark One. Of course this is Storybrooke, the land without magic, and the dagger has no power to control anyone. (Or so we think at this point.)

But the question is, “why” he wants the dagger so much that he will risk such a plan to fool the powerful (and potentially brutal) Mr. Gold? August explains that his efforts to convince the “savior” have been unsuccessful—and he’s running out of time. “I’m dying,” he reveals to Gold.

“She trusts you? It might be enough.” Gold says, ready to slice his throat. That revelation is enough to make Gold back off. Enough to what? To spare August’s life? To ensure that eventually Emma will come ‘round? To break the curse?

Gold might easily have killed August, sliced his throat—and gotten away with it. But he lets the Stranger live, which strongly suggests Gold’s stand in this strange little play. Will he now become August’s protector, despite the deception? Does August hold some key for Gold, one that will give this dying stranger power over the most powerful man in Storybrooke?

What an intense hour of television! Phew! Of course with Rumple/Mr. Gold at the center of the action, played by the ever-intense Mr. Carlyle, how could it not be? And paired with Jane Espenson’s fantastic script it is one of the best episodes of the season. Ms. Espenson has truly become Rumple’s storyteller, having been responsible for making his story come to life nearly from the beginning of the season!

Okay, folks, I’m going to go out on a limb right now with a theory. We know that the only thing more powerful than magic is love; love will break any curse, even this one. We also know that the love between Snow White and Prince isn’t strong enough to break the curse, neither was the reunion between Emma and Henry, though their love is very strong.

I’m beginning to wonder whether the ultimate curse breaker will be the eventual reunion between Rumple and his beloved son Baelfire. The curse is a perverse extension of that love, created by someone driven mad by it. Even Rumple’s original power source was gained out of the desire to protect his son. Rumple’s quest for his son is what drives him, and, I’m coming to believe what will ultimately break the curse.

The remorse he feels (as evidenced by Gold’s willingness to be vulnerable in front of Archie—and the tearful reunion with the Baelfire poseur August) is powerful in itself, and something else just occurred to me that might explain why (really) Rumple was willing to let Belle go, despite his true love for her. Had he allowed her to continue, and break the curse, which holds him in its power, Bae might have been lost to him forever, with no way to reconcile with him. No matter how intense and true his love for Belle, it could not trump his love (and the terrible burden of loss) for his son, whom he drove away. Talk about your romantic quests!

What do you think?

We’re down to the final three episodes of season one; a new Once Upon a Time episode airs next Sunday night at 8:00 p.m. ET on ABC.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • Action Kate

    I made the Pinocchio connection as well, but we’ll see…

    Why, why, why does Emma insist on telegraphing her moves? Why does she TELL Regina “I’m onto you, and now I’m going to play a new game”? Why the whole business with the park blueprints which Emma didn’t bother to check? Why does she threaten the mayor with taking her son? Why does her brain ooze out her pretty ears whenever she takes on Madame Mayor? I like Emma, so watching her clutch the Idiot Ball (™ TV Tropes) tighter every time Regina waltzes in is very frustrating. I wish she’d learn something about tactics from either Regina or Gold.

    Plus Emma signed away all parental rights. She can’t “take back her son” even if she wants to. Not legally, at any rate.

  • Pixie Michele

    Fantastic synopsis as usual Barbara, and you’re definitely on to it. Rumple’s love/quest for his son could be the catalyst to unravel the curse, but I think it grew far more powerful than he anticipated. Rumple preyed on EQ’s need for revenge to fuel it as well. Lots of evil and emotional fuel in that curse back from the 2nd episode and in this episode. As you pointed out, one love isn’t enough to undo it so far. I think it will take multiplied, strong loves to break the curse.
    Fortunately, lots of loves have been presented, and many more to come I’m sure (lots of fairy tales left.) Also opportunities for strengthening and healing. Archie’s talk with Gold in this episode is perfect. It showed how the characters can help each other emotionally. Savior Emma can help many, but can’t do it all. I will trust Emma to provide a little magic when she and Storybrooke are ready. Until then…
    I think slow healing and hope will drive this forward. I always try to focus on the hope. It’s what the pilot episode promised. What I adore most is how the series shows children as the bearers of hope. That’s universal enough to join fairy tales and the real world.

  • Mary Ann Bittner

    I hope we see Rumple & Belle together again before this season ends!

  • Emily J

    That was such a sad episode! To think Mr Gold bore his soul to this man thinking he was his son and thinking that finally he found him and was finally forgiven…and then to have it all be false!! Totally broke my heart for him! Also, I don’t think it was very wise of Emma to threaten Regina with her son, that cannot end well seeing how much power she has. One last thing it wasn’t hard to tell that mr glass was set up to tell that whole story 🙂 oh and if August was Pinocchio he wouldn’t have been able to leave would he? Perhaps he has met and knows Bael?

  • lisa

    All I know, is I want Rumple with Belle and to find his son and be happy in the series end. I would love to see those three characters a family. Robert Carlyle is amazing, amazing. I wish Emile could be a regular. I think Belle would have understood if Rumple had told her the whole story.She would have stood by him and helped him find Bae. She would have wanted to save him and his son.

  • Jane E

    I have nothing new to add because I agree with you Barb and the above. What an amazing show that kept you on the edge of your seat. But any idea on who Augustus really is? Could he be a Grimm brother who wrote the fairy tales? I just say that because he put Henry’s book back together.

  • If August is truly Pinnochio, I’m surprised Rump hasn’t recognized him already. Just because Storybrooke is “the land without magic” still means there are people who know the entire story.

  • Sara–I absolutely think that Rumple’s love for Belle is true and strong, but that the bond between parent and child is truly unconditional (usually). and I think that’s why he gave up Belle (but not easily, and not without terrible regret). Rumple is a truly tragic character. Perhaps a tragic hero in this gorgeous tale.

    Bryce–good catch. Very interesting observation. Glad you like the reviews. Please spread the word 🙂

  • Bryce

    Did anyone catch the could-be-major clue? August’s paperweight was a donkey. I at first thought this was hinting at the donkey that almost ran Baelfire over at the beginning, thus confirming that he was Baelfire. We now know that isn’t the case so I was trying to figure out what it could be a clue for. There is a theory that August is Pinnochio and with the next episode being based on that puppet (while being called “The Stranger” hint hint), I wonder if the paperweight was hinting at the donkey that Pinnochio transforms into! Just a thought! Love your reviews!

  • Sar05

    I agree with you to an extent on that theory about Belle, but I also thinks he regrets letting her go, especially when he found out she ‘died.’ He keeps her cup with him at all times, he was willing to beat a man to death because of her, and I also think he was willing to take her back. He did ask Regina if she needed a ‘home.’ So I’m a bit mixed with the topic of his true love. I don’t think he would willingly give up his powers for her, but maybe he would have opened up more to her, tell her why he needed his powers, maybe ask for her understanding.
    I do agree that a confrontation with Baelfire and Rumpelstiltskin is part of the key to the curse, but I disagree that it is the only one. The curse itself seems like it is starting to weaken since Emma came to town. And even if Baelfire and Rumpelstilt skin reunite, the curse may still be intact. Regina will certainly not let it go without a fight, even if Rumpelstiltskin is the one who invented it.