Thursday , July 18 2024
A detailed character study of Rumplestiltskin, 'Once Upon a Time's most complex character.

‘Once Upon a Time’: The Many Faces of Rumplestiltskin – Part Two

Part One of “Once Upon a Time: The Many Faces of Rumplestiltskin” left off with the very beginnings of early Dark One: Rumplestiltskin (the brilliant Robert Carlyle) using his powers liberally and ruthlessly, but with telling himself that all was done for the good of his family, his young son Baelfire. But all that changed the moment Rumple let go Baelfire’s hand, letting him slip through a portal to a unnamed land without magic.

Rumplestiltskin Once Upon a Time

Because we see Rumple in bits and snatches bouncing around his long timeline, probably more than any other character in the series, we rely Carlyle to be our goodly guide. Yes, his appearance changes, as do his costumes, but it is Carlyle who takes us into his soul, breathing life in a character, taking us behind the shell-like mask and behind the “evil imp’s” eyes into what Rumple is really feeling.

The horror on Rumple’s face as he realizes he cannot follow Baefire is heartbreaking. It is a pivotal moment in the character’s life, which takes now an even darker turn. It is from this moment that Rumplestiltskin begins to turn his thoughts to how he might get back to his son–how he might cross that portal and follow him into this undefined land that has no magic. This version of Rumple is the most dangerous of all.

Post-Baelfire Rumplestiltskin

In the aftermath of Baelfire’s leaving, Rumple cuts a swathe of unbridled anger directed at everyone, but perhaps, most especially himself. We’ve seen relatively little of Rumplestiltskin from this time period (and I understand why). But believe it is during these years that Rumple acquires his fearsome reputation as one who makes inescapable deals, not really caring much about the consequences for the one on the other end of the contract. Of course Rumple regrets his own action, but that’s not what’s driving him here. He’d made a deal with Baelfire and broken it–the only deal in his life he’d not carried through. He is ruthless in his dealmaking, but warning anyone wishing to make a deal to be wary, for there is no way out.

Rumplestiltskin at this stage continues to amass wealth and property, getting as far away as the humble peasant as he can. Here he represents hubris: he “does” simply because “he can.” He wields magic and that dagger like a bludgeon, however, at this time he also acquires skills as an expert swordsman, able to do battle–fairly or unfairly, using magic–with any adversary.

When I see this Rumple, cocky, rich, and strutting about, cutting down anyone in his way, I know I am seeing him at his most dangerous. He is unbridled power, coupled with unbridled anger and self-loathing. People know him and are afraid of him.

But soon Rumple’s regret over Baelfire takes hold, and he becomes single-minded in his determination to reunite with his son. He will stop at nothing: no cost is to high, no consequence to severe (whether borne by him or anyone else).

Master of Dark Magic

Time passes and Rumple continues to seek a way to find Bae. But he is also lonely out there in the darkness, with no family. So he entices others to join him in his magical world. Perhaps it is something he sees in a vision, one of the fractured bits of the future with which Rumple is burdened. “The boy will be your undoing,” Rumple is warned by the dying seer, and perhaps this is why Rumple entices young women to apprentice with him. A whole succession of women: Cora, Regina, Zelena, and others–nameless beautiful women. What is his aim? What is looking for?

The lonely Rumplestitskin is seeking a playmate, someone to distract him from his loneliness, but perhaps at the same time find a way to return to Baelfire. Perhaps there is something he has seen in his distorted visions that suggest the only way is through a female sorcerer of his equal (or near his equal). Or–what if he is seeking a way to replace the terrible pain left by his loss? So his deals take the form of baby-stealing in away: “I will give you what you desire, but in exchange I want your child.” Believing himself repulsive–a green-skinned monster whom no can love, Rumple believes the only way to chase away the dark loneliness is by having someone else’s child.

But by the time he meets Cora, Rumple must have already conjured the idea for the curse–a way to find the land without magic. This, after traversing other realms, only to find that they, like the Enchanted Forest are driven by magic and dreams.  With Cora, Rumple finds that he is not so unlovable as he seems. But when she stamps on his heart in by ripping out her own, Rumple is again thrown into the darkness. 

Pre-Curse Rumple

Somewhere during this time, Rumple likely stumbled upon a solution to his problem. Baelfire had been transported to Earth–a place of disbelief and magic was only possible in the realm of fantasy and fable. But how to get there had presented Rumple with a dilemma. This Rumple is patient, willing in his immortal life to wait until he has all he requires: the ingredients to create the curse, the ingredients to break it. But Rumple is still lonely, turning to his spinning wheel for solace, a recluse in a huge castle–a lonely man in his Xanadu.

Into his life walks Belle, her companionship revives him–Jane Eyre to his Edward Rochester. And though his brain reminds him that he is essentially unlovable, a dark soul, a beast, his heart still yearns for love. And even as he casts Belle from his home, believing that she will one day spurn him, he mourns her loss.

We see glimpses in this Rumple of the decent man capable of fighting the darkness in his heart, if only he will give himself a chance. But he won’t–or can’t. We know from last week’s episode “Witch Hunt” that Belle had been in Rumple’s life a mere two years before the curse. After Belle’s departure (and presumed death), Rumple sets his plan in motion, and it is during this time, I think, that Rumple encourages Charming, making deals to acquire the necessary tokens of truest love–from him and from Snow White.

Rumple is smart enough to keep his cards close to his leather vest, manipulating the chess pieces: here a curse, there an Evil Queen. Placing them on the board just so. For when true love comes together and conceives a child–Emma, all in place.

Of course Snow and Charming marry, and once that is secured, Rumple allows himself to be captured and imprisoned, where he remains captive of Snow White and Prince Charming. By the time the Evil Queen is ready to deliver on her promise of taking away everyone’s happiness, Rumple is right where he wants to be–close by Snow, Charming and their soon to be baby–Rumple’s key to ending the curse–and reuniting with Baelfire. For only by knowing Emma’s name, memorizing it, writing it hundreds of times over, does Rumple put in place the final puzzle piece–a trigger for him to remember who he is, and what he’s doing in Storybrooke, Maine.

Rumple Becomes Gold

Because we see Mr. Gold in a linear arc, he is much easier to puzzle out, yet his journey is no less fascinating than that of his alter ego, Rumplestiltskin. When we meet Gold, he seems oily as a used-car salesman (apologies to all used car salesmen who read this article!). He is feared, owning the entire town, part of his bargain with Regina. Meeting Emma for the first time, her name slithers off Gold’s tongue as if he is remembering it, wakening from a dream. “Emma,” he says, voice a near whisper. And the trigger clicks–Gold understands. Twenty-eight years of waiting in suspended animation of a sort, and his dream of finding Baelfire might finally come to fruition.

Gold keeps to himself: reserved, courtly, very Old World-Eurpean. Perhaps what Rumple came to be, but without the green, mottled skin and rotted teeth. Just as Rumple had, Gold dresses beautifully. He walks assisted by a cane, a leftover from his self-injury–a reminder of why he has wrought the curse, and his life’s goal.

He is also still reclusive, and his uneasy alliance with Regina is fraught with tension. She knows his Achilles heel: Belle. Confirming that still after all these years is an open wound, Regina tries to manipulate Rumple with it. Rumple may yet be the Dark One (in modern attire), but he still has a fragile heart, one that can be broken.

As the following two seasons have turned, we’ve seen Gold mellow, warmed by family and realizing love. But more importantly, we understand the journey on which he has gone: from that frightened abandoned child, abused spouse and terrifying Dark One to the hero that emerges at the end of season two and into season three. His one constant is that he will do anything for family; he is fiercely loyal, but also slow to forget the injustices done to him. All he wanted his whole life is family and love; it is Rumple’s essential tragedy that he has been able to sustain neither for long. Baelfire is dead in an ironic and tragic twist, and now as the captive of the Wicked Witch Zelena, he is also denied the succor of his beloved Belle–or any of his family.

How will this chapter end? How will he get out of Zelena’s clutches? All remains to be seen. So…stay tuned!

I’ll be talking more about this fascinating character on Let’s Talk TV Live Monday night. Tune in, call in, and join the conversation.

About Barbara Barnett

A Jewish mother and (young 🙃) grandmother, Barbara Barnett is an author and professional Hazzan (Cantor). A member of the Conservative Movement's Cantors Assembly and the Jewish Renewal movement's clergy association OHALAH, the clergy association of the Jewish Renewal movement. In her other life, she is a critically acclaimed fantasy/science fiction author as well as the author of a non-fiction exploration of the TV series House, M.D. and contributor to the book Spiritual Pregnancy. She Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (

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  1. Wonderful article Barbara, thanks for posting 🙂

    So many different layers to this one character and the journey he has been on is amazing.. Such an awesome portrayal by Robert Carlyle, he is the best actor on television portraying the best character on tv..

    • So true! I have thought since the pilot episode that Rumple is the series most complex and interesting character. I have been borne out to be right. It was Rumple that captured me from episode one, and hasn’t yet let go!

  2. Barbara, thanks for this! Gold is my favorite character and always has been for a basic reason: he’s SO full of love (that line from TMD still gts to me)
    I won’t blather on when you said things so beautifully, but I will note a couple of things:

    1) He’s a hero. My baby is a hero……..He sacrificed his life, everything he had, for his love and his boy, and in so doing, saved everyone. Belle’s presence utterly changed him……and it’s been a wonderful and beautiful thing to see that transformation. Bobby has repeatedly commented on how Belle is Gold’s anchor, his moral center, his touchstone….his strength. Like Gold said in Going Home and Emilie just said, Belle gave him strength…

    2) I really LOVED that Belle loves her Rumple SO much that she actually wanted him to stay dead if the only way to bring him back was to perhaps have him controlled. He was ready to die in order to save her, Bae – their lives were, and always have been, more important than his. She wanted to honor that sacrifice even if it meant never seeing him again (and we saw how desprately she wanted that when he came back)…..To have Rumple return only to see him tortured and suffered? No, she couldn’t ever want that….and that was one thing I thought was odd about Neal. Yes, he sacrificed in the end, but he really didn’t think about his father at all ….he was ready to bring him back no matter the cost to his papa.

    3) Gold running to Belle, all but tearing the door down to his shop, to get to her…… Neal form.. Sigh

    4) I can’t handle much more of Gold suffering, It hurts, so much, seeing him trapped in ac cage, kept in darkness, fed nothing more than scraps. His suit hangs off of him – he’s lost a lot of weight……He sacrificed his life for this? It seems so unfair. So there’s the physical and the emotional torture WW is putting him through, forcing him to do things h doesn’t want. Undoubtedly WW will demand that he kill Belle again; she’s jealous of Belle, and obsessive towards him. She wanted to hear Belle say that Gold was dead, make her suffer, and no doubt she wants to see Belle die at his hands……enjoying it all.

    To me, if Gold’s curse isn’t broken, if the dagger is to remain a constant worry, then what is the point? The curse has run it’s course – it’s time to give Gold and Rumbelle much more story to play than just separations and curse-related/villain revenge stories. This is such an …..emotional and almost operatic story….that it demands an appropriat ending: that True Love is far more powerful than dark magic. What I would LOVE to see is Belle offering herself to Gold for him to kill, knowing that he wouldn’t, trusting in his love for her. Gold would struggle mightily, but ultimately his love for her would win out. I would accept something else, but NOT just the stealing of the dagger. That would be banal and ultimately unsatisfying. Also as mentioned above, bad storytelling.

    • I fear theirs will be a star-crossed love for awhile (to make them have a happily ever after would end their journey…Gold’s journey). Maybe they are reunited, but some other threat intervenes. I wouldn’t want their story to fade back to the realm of normalcy like Snow and Charming.

      • Well, no one will have a HEA yet, but I think they can be together and face obstacles. I think it’s really the sign of lousy writing to constantly separate a couple; good writers can make anything work. We’re not going to have Bobby and Emilie for much longer – what, maybe another couple of seasons? To waste their chemistry would be a shame. Rumbelle could have been one of the great TV couples of all time…..I really think they could support their own show. I really regret that I probably won’t ever get to see them together again after ONCE…at least not on film, though I hope that maybe Bobby will one day ask Em to be in one of his movies. Emilie is so terrific, but I think she’d really shine in the movies like Bobby makes, smaller, indie-type stuff.

        I definitely would not want them to fade into boringness like Snowing, but Rumbelle is different than them, anyway, so they couldn’t.

        To me, Gold’s journey has come full circle and now it’s about how he (and everyone) can find happiness.

        I really want them to break his curse because aside from it being time (and for other reasons), I think giving him fresh new story (and Belle) would be wonderful. Think about it. He’s mortal now – that’s a huge deal. Is he physically in good condition? My guess is not. He could have a heart problem, say from all the stress of living these many centuries., No doubt he’d fear dying well before Belle and leaving her alone…..,and he’d probably be nervous about being an older father. It’s time that these two deal with life together….Oh, and then how about Belle getting pregnant and then sick? Or the baby is sick?

        I think it’s time to put the big bad villains away for a bit…….
        Just some suggestions…….

        Oh and I LOVED how integrated Belle was. I can’t believe it, but the Charmings (and Emma) were wonderful to her…….

        Hook was a sarcastic twit who obviously has no clue how much damage he did to Belle, but I love how she didn’t take his . you-know-what and actually was the leader in that scene, lol