What does it take to defeat evil? What is the personal cost, and is it even possible without sacrificing a piece of your own soul? Those are the questions in Once Upon Time’s eighth episode of the season “Desperate Souls.”
Jane Espenson’s intriguing script dives into Rumpelstiltskin’s (the mesmerizing Robert Carlyle) origin story, reflecting upon how he’d become the trickster imp we meet not only at the beginning of the series, but in the Grimm fairy tale as well. A weak and easily frightened man—a self-described town coward—he runs from the face of battle, having fled the front lines of the Ogre wars.
Watching the children being taken one by one at the Duke’s behest, Rumple knows that his son Baelfire (Dylan Schmid)—the only thing he has left in this world—is next, as his 13th birthday fast approaches. Baelfire is willing to follow the knights onto the front lines, but Rumple explains that the red sky visible on the horizon is not from the fire of war, but from the blood of the people—the children—upon whose back the battle is ruthlessly waged. No sane person would knowingly submit to such certain death.
As I mentioned in my preview of the episode, this idea of forced conscription of the persecuted and oppressed goes back a long way in European history. (My own grandfather fled forced service Czar’s army in pre-Soviet Latvia by fleeing across the border.) But this scenario also made me think of the countless young men in the trenches of WWI sent endlessly to the front lines at places like Gallipoli and Ypres. They went not to fight (using Rumple’s words), but to die.
And so Rumple and Bae flee down the King’s Road, encountering a beggar (Brad Dourif, Lord of the Rings) to whom Rumple gives a portion of his meager cash as alms. But soon, the duke’s men overtake the journeying father and son. Rumple would do anything to protect his son from certain death—even debase himself in front of the 13-year-old boy. Having been humiliated by the Duke’s soldiers, Rumple is beaten down, but has saved Bae for the moment. But he knows they will return on Bae's birthday.
Suddenly, the beggar appears again, this time with the promise of a way out. The Duke possesses a magic dagger, he explains, and with it he controls “The Dark One,” a mysterious force in the universe. If Rumple can summon the courage to steal it, he can save Bae, and perhaps redeem his good name—and himself. Rumple believes that by acquiring this great power, he will not only save Bae, but all the children, rescuing the entire people of the Frontlands. This power will be a force for good in his hands.