In the season premiere of ABC’s Once Upon a Time, Mr. Gold (the criminally underused–until this episode–Robert Carlyle) happens upon a magic hat–a very familiar magic hat. Of course anyone who’s ever seen the brilliant Disney movie Fantasia, would immediately recognize it as belonging to Sorcerer’s Apprentice (AKA Mickey Mouse). This week’s episode “The Apprentice,” of course references that iconic Fantasia segment.
I was actually a little fearful of watching this episode. I have been disappointed with the direction the show’s creators have taken the character of Rumplestiltskin this season (in the few scenes he’s been in). Having negated the character’s growth and the long journey’s he’s taken (first to find his son Baelfire, and then ultimately to be reunited with the love of his life, “the only light” in his dark life, Belle), the showrunners have turned the tables, making him, instead, an unrepentant villain, hungry for power, and power alone. Now dragging Hook into this maelstrom, with Hook as the “good” man brought down by the evil Mr. Gold. Huh?
But there was a lot I liked about this episode. A lot. Fantasia is one of my favorite Disney movies. As a child, it created in me a magical love of classical music, and to this day, I cannot hear Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony without thinking of the movie. And of course the Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment of Fantasia is one of the best bits of animation ever set to music.
So, I loved the way the show incorporated the Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Disney-style) into the episode, from the Apprentice becoming a mouse to the touch at the end, with Henry in effect becoming the character, broom in hand. And then, of course there was the walking broom! I can sort of predict what will happen if (and perhaps when) Henry becomes too curious of all the magical curiosities in Gold’s shop and lets loose who knows what magical mischief, ala Fantasia.
As much as I liked parts of the episode (even the Frozen parts weren’t as annoying to me as they have been), I am saddened that show has, with this episode, completed the destruction of my favorite character, rewriting him as a villain only obsessed with power and magic. Yes, I get that Rumple is a magic addict, but the writers have been careful for three seasons in showing the conflict within him when it comes to magic. They’ve always written him with layers (enhanced by Carlyle’s performance).
Characters like Rumple are always problematic for writers. You want to take him to the edge of dislikability, but never over the edge. Once a character becomes completely unlikable, you stop caring about the character. David Shore and the creators of House, M.D. were generally pretty cognizant of that (until the final season, anyway), as were the creators of Syfy’s Stargate Universe with the would-be dislikable character of Nicholas Rush (another character portrayed by Robert Carlyle).
This season’s revisionist version of Rumplestiltskin (and especially in this episode) gives me no reason to care about him at all anymore. He’s a completely different character, bereft of humanity, and with nothing to redeem him. He’s treating his wife with an inexplicable contempt (although we’ve barely seen her this season). His threat to Hook about destroying his marriage is something Belle would never countenance. She would hate him for it, and with good reason.
Before now, I’d never seen Rumple as beyond redemption. The writers (especially Jane Espenson and David Goodman) have created in Rumple a great tragic hero: not good, certainly, but not completely evil, either: layered and complex.
When we first meet Hook, Rumple is his victim, bullied and humiliated, and left as a single father by the villainous pirate. And when he becomes the Dark One, it is to protect his son, and even his actions after that had been driven by (a sometimes misguided) sense of love and family. But this new Rumple is beyond explanation. This is not a Rumplestiltskin I care about at all. Do I want his happiness? Not really (his actions suggest that maybe he doesn’t deserve it). Why would I care? Belle should leave him at the first opportunity.
He’s never (until now) been written that way, and just as the writers transformed Hook nearly overnight into a good guy (now only to be corrupted by Gold), they have destroyed the most complex and interestingly written character on the show. I think (and I’ve said it before) that after Rumple’s noble act at the end of Season 3A, the writers were not sure what to do with him, and now they’ve decided to recast him as an evil sorcerer, complete with apprentice. It’s an interesting idea, and one they might have accomplished without destroying a character about whom many fans deeply cared.
Rumple is now living a double life, keeping Belle in the dark (unbelievably so, since the character of Belle had been written as an incredibly intelligent and independent woman), while accumulating power (and for what?). Why turn him now into a devious, lying villain, with nothing to mitigate it, especially after the teary promise he’d made at Neal’s graveside in the season premiere? What had been the point of that? The one thing he declares at Neal’s graveside was that he was wrong to think he needed anything more than love and family. He speaks from the heart here, and little can explain this sudden shift other than that the writers need Rumple to be a villain and pull Hook to the dark side to cause conflict between Hook and Emma.
I suppose if we’d seen some outside hurt…something to explain Rumple’s sudden slide into the greedy, power-hungry liar he’s become…I’d understand. But now…?
I have always had a policy when it comes to my TV coverage: When I’m done with a series, I will stop writing about it; it’s pointless to endlessly criticize the showrunners and the series. Once Upon a Time is not my creation, and show creators are entitled to follow their own vision. So this will be my last “regular” Once Upon a Time column. I will continue to follow the series, write an occasional piece, and discuss the series on Twitter, and on my weekly radio show “Let’s Talk TV Live,” which airs Tuesday nights on the Blogcritics Radio Network.
I will also be turning my writing attention to other series, including Elementary, Madam Secretary and Newsroom, among others. So look for my coverage right here on Blogcritics in the coming weeks.
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