If there is one thing that bothered me in tonight’s excellent Once Upon a Time episode “Manhattan,” it was in the long-awaited answer to my question of what happened to Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle) during the Ogre Wars. I say disappointed, not because I think the show’s talented creative team were wrong in where they took Rumple’s back story, but because I had hoped it was something more significant on a grander scale.
I love the idea that Rumple went to fight in the war with a light heart, believing that he will overcome the stigma of his father’s reputation. “I am not like my father!” he insists to Milah. He sees his draft notice as an opportunity to be lifted from the quagmire of being the town coward’s son.
But while at the front, the brave Rumple comes upon information that causes him to act impulsively, on incomplete information, when he comes across a seer who tells Rumple his future. At first skeptical, Rumple realizes that she really does know, and when she suggests to him that his “actions on the battlefield will leave [his] son fatherless,” he acts, not out of cowardice, but out of the fear his son will grow up without a father, just as he had.
So he takes a sledgehammer to his leg (which takes a considerable amount of courage) knowing he will be sent home injured. I’m sure Rumple realizes before damages his leg that when he returns to his village, he will, like his father before him, be branded a coward for bailing out on his duty to fight (and die).
But the prospect of Baelfire (Michael Raymond-James) growing up destitute and without a father is too much for him to bear, and so he makes the sacrifice. But Rumple had not heard the entire prophecy from the seer; he’d not asked about the circumstances. And Rumple’s actions only serve to set off a series of events that lead eventually to Baelfire growing up fatherless anyway, fulfilling the seer’s prophecy.
“Manhattan” is all about family dynamics, mistakes made, the prospect of redemption and forgiveness, and about trying not to make the same mistakes made by the previous generation. Rumple wants desperately not to be his father, who had abandoned him; Baelfire wants just as keenly to stay as far from his own father as possible. The episode also explores how impossible it to escape it from your destiny, at least not completely.
So Rumple has finally found Baelfire, but the timing could not have been less opportune. Caught virtually mid-threat with Emma, Baelfire/Neal, intervenes, seething with a centuries-old anger. Never mind that Gold has yearned for this moment and has vowed to make himself worthy of his son’s forgiveness. All Baelfire sees is a man threatening Emma, the same man who had apparently chosen power and magic over being with his young son. It’s hard to blame Bae for not wanting ever again to see Rumple, and no pleas or promises can erase all that hurt.
And we also get the much-anticipated reunion of Neal and Emma, last seen together 11 years earlier in “Tallahassee.” Abandoning Emma (and their unborn son) to serve time in prison to take the rap for some stolen watches, Neal, too, wants forgiveness from Emma, and wants to get to know the son he never knew. But Emma is angry, her fury built up over more than a decade. And like Baelfire refuses to hear Rumplestiltskin, Emma refuses to hear Neal.
Abandonment and reconciliation, regret and forgiveness: Henry and Emma, Neal and Emma, Gold and Baelfire, the Charmings and Emma. And now they are all one big dysfunctional family. As Charming so adroitly says, thank goodness they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in “their land.” Can you imagine those family gatherings? Sheesh. Makes Dallas‘ Ewing family look positively normal.
But I think this crisis point, all of this narrative merging, sets an interesting stage for the remainder of the season. How do these new, fractured relationships play out? Will Rumple begin to redeem himself in Bae’s eyes? Will Emma and Neal get back together? Can she ultimately forgive him? And what of Henry in all of this? What is his role in the greater narrative scheme? “He is more than he appears,” as the seer says to Rumple. But what?
I loved (as I mentioned in my preview article) the beginnings of a real relationship between Henry and his grandfather Rumplestiltskin. I loved their conversation during “Manhattan” in which Rumple acknowledges Henry’s role in bringing him to Baelfire. “You are a remarkable young man,” Gold tells him.
Of course, we wonder what the future holds for him, as Gold is reminded of the seer’s prophecy “the boy will be your undoing,” she foretells. To which Rumple replies rather flippantly, “I guess I’ll have to kill him.”
But it’s possible to understand the term “undoing” in multiple ways. Does the seer mean undoing in the sense that Rumple’s Dark One persona, always lingering in the background of his soul will wither as his relationship with Henry deepens? As it has with his relationship with Belle, and even Emma?
And will that undoing eventually lead him to Baelfire not just physically, but in a more significant sense? Speaking of which, the episode digs very deeply into Rumple’s past letting us glimpse how he got acquired his gift of prophecy. But Rumple’s prophetic skills seems idiosyncratic at best. He’d not been able to foresee his reunion with Bae, nor his connection with Emma.
As he tells Henry, “Seeing the inevitable can be a terrible price.” And it is not the great gift one might think, nor reliable. “The future is like like a puzzle, missing pieces, difficult to read and never, never what you think,” Rumple explains.
I wonder if when he had been confronted with the onrush of information taken from the seer, whether over time, he had chosen to suppress that information to avoid going completely mad. The way in which he had seen the future, out of context and random bits of information (why do I keep visualizing the Stargate Universe episode “Human” and Dr. Rush’s experience with data completely out of context?) must have been impossible to deal with. Puzzling out how to distinguish “what will be from what can be” must have been a nightmare. The seer was only too happy to have someone else assume her terrible burden.
I wonder, too, whether when we first meet Rumple in the pilot, so happy to be locked away in prison, whether this knowledge had already begun to drive him mad, and being locked away, solitary and alone had actually allowed him a sort of peace?
Back in Storybrooke, Cora (Barbara Hershey) has a pretty diabolical plan in mind to acquire for Regina (Lana Parrilla) the one thing she truly wants — Henry. And if mama can get her Henry, then she will of course have Regina’s undying gratitude, and perhaps, even love. And how to do this? Get Rumple’s dagger and control him, forcing him to murder the rest of Henry’s family: Snow, Charming and Emma. Regina (and Cora) will be blameless, and Rumple will be destroyed.
Can they do it? Possibly. But how do their plans play into these newfound family connections? The battle lines are very clearly being drawn with Hook, Cora, and Regina on one side, and the Charmings, Emma (and perhaps Bae/Neal), and Rumple on the other. The outcome will have a huge impact on Henry, and with so much at stake, the battle will be epic.
In addition, Rumple has his future with Belle also at stake. He needs to win her back, presumably bit by bit. His actions over the next weeks will have an impact on her for better or worse.
Monday night’s Let’s Talk TV Live will be an all One Upon a Time special, and once again will feature out panel from last week, Blogcritics writers JeromeWetzelTV and RHeart Chrissy. The show will air live at 9:00 p.m. ET, and I’ll open the chatroom approximately an hour before showtime. Call in or discuss the episode from the chatroom with us!
Once Upon a Time will be back March 3 with “The Queen is Dead.” Once Upon a Time airs Sundays at 8:00 p.m. ET on ABC.