There is so much to love about tonight’s Once Upon a Time episode “Skin Deep.” At its heart is Belle’s “tale as old as time” (as the lyric goes) with a fresh angle courtesy of writer Jane Espenson. “Skin Deep” was created especially for Valentine’s day—a tragic love story that casts Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle—and yes, that’s the way Rumple’s name is spelled in the series) as the Beauty’s beast, who makes a deal with Belle’s (Emilie de Ravin) father just as in the classic story.
Carlyle’s riveting performance helps make this episode the best episode to date in ABC’s hit series. He plays every emotion perfectly—from Gold’s usual quiet and Rumple’s signature demonic glee to the depths of Rumple’s despair and loneliness and Gold’s rage—and surprising vulnerability in his final scene with Regina (Lana Parrilla). Lost alumna de Ravin arenders Belle as sweet and strong; her scenes with Carlyle sparkle with emotion.
The story dramatically shifts from the classic French fairy tale (and the Disney animated film), with Belle sacrificing herself by for the good of her father’s realm. She willingly accompanies Rumple back to his castle as his prisoner in exchange for his magic needed to keep the ogres at bay and away from the citizenry of Belle’s land.
Although he keeps her prisoner, locked away in a dungeon, Rumple eventually grows accustomed to Belle’s presence, beginning to let down his guard as spring rolls ‘round. And she is drawn to him as well, seeing within him an underlying humanity that even he cannot see within himself. Perhaps it is a sadness in she perceives in him, something beneath the monster he feels he has become. Where he finds himself unlovable—a beast—she sees something gentler and nobler beneath the surface and within those dark, opaque eyes.
She wonders why Rumple’s at his spinning wheel so much, and without thinking, he honestly admits he spins “to forget,” that is, before quickly covering with a joke and a creepy giggle. When she falls from a tall ladder, and he catches her, it is clear that he’s bewildered by feelings that seem to have overtaken him. His sudden shyness is disarming and surprising. It is almost fear he seems to feel.
She wonders about him, the children’s clothing she finds hidden away upstairs in a closet, which rather than provoking his anger, remind him of a terrible loss he’d suffered long ago. He opens up to her just enough to make her fall in love with him, uncovering a long-forgotten streak of humanity that remains deep within and beyond the grasp of the terrible curse under which he lives a loveless life.
Testing her, he lets her go into town alone, assuming that she’ll never return, yet yearning for her as he stands vigil at a window, believing that she’ll never come. But she does return to—after an encounter with the Evil Queen, whose calculations will prey on both Belle and her real prey—Rumplestiltskin.
The queen plants within Belle’s mind the means to break the Rumple’s curse; it will render him an ordinary man—able to look at himself again, but strip him of his powers. It’s a simple fix—true love’s kiss—but powerful. It only works, however, if both parties love each other.
Rumple has, indeed, come to love Belle, and the kiss begins to work—until he realizes that this is the queen’s handiwork, and a ploy to render him powerless. Without the ability to understand that Belle might actually love him, Rumple mistakenly believes that she had been in the Queen’s service the entire time, plotting with her. This cannot have anything to do with love; who could love such a man as he? So disgusting, he knows, that he must nail shut the drapes and cover all the mirrors so no one can see his face—not even himself.
His lack of faith in Belle’s love leaves him broken hearted with her perceived betrayal, furious at her—and himself. I wonder if he locks her in the dungeon at this point to protect her from his own rage as he breaks and smashes everything in his reach—except for a delicate teacup (cute reference to “Chip” from the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast), something Belle had broken, but had, for Rumple, become symbolic of her—perhaps of her ability to love such a broken man. Although Belle is safely shut away while Rumple takes out his fury on his possessions, she is soon cast out, sent home, leaving Rumple as broken as the China now lying shattered on his floor.
Then the Evil Queen visits, and Rumple can only watch in horror as she almost cheerfully tells him of Belle’s tragedy brought on by her association with him. It is yet something else he must live with—another burden.
In the end, anguished and alone, he gently picks up the teacup, handling it with great care. It is his last remnant of Belle, and I wonder if as long as he has that cup, he holds out hope that she may yet live—that the queen is lying to him. But if her story is true, it is perhaps more than he can bear.
That cup, then, has great power over Rumple, both in Fairy Tale Land (FTL) and in Storybrooke, where it now has been stolen from his house. The lengths to which Rumple goes to retrieve it—and the anger he displays towards the burglar who stole it—speaks to its meaning for him.
Again the queen, this time as Mayor Regina Mills, taunts Mr. Gold with that same cup. It is something he wants back—seems to need to have back in his possession. He knows who’d stolen it from the beginning, and with the big reveal at the end that Gold remembers everything—who he is, who Regina is and why that cup is so important to him—it makes us wonder what his agenda is even more.
He cannot break the queen’s curse—that much is clear. But because he remembers, he must know that Emma (Jennifer Morrison) is Snow’s (Ginnifer Goodwin) daughter and that Henry is Snow’s grandson. Bringing Henry (Jared Gilmore) to Storybrooke as a baby was crucial to breaking the curse—and Rumple’s prophecy back in the pilot episode. And now Regina knows that Henry—and Emma—might be essential pieces in Gold’s own plans to destroy the curse (that is, after all, actually his). Which also now leads me to wonder what Rumple got in exchange for giving the queen that dark curse way back when. Might it have been information (even false information) about Belle?
Until now, Regina has likely only speculated that Rumple had been aware of his true past. By stealing the cup, so dear to him, she buys the leverage necessary to force this crucial reveal. She must, of course, now wonder how Rumple has manipulated the entire scenario—including Henry and Emma—and what she must do to stop him.
We also witness the extreme cruelty of both the Queen and Regina once again—a woman who is truly heartless, keeping Belle captive and shut away in Storybrooke. I have to believe that Belle is Regina’s ultimate weapon against Gold. She had needed to know how much Gold remembers, because if he remembers Belle—and his love for her has never died (of which she obtains irrefutable proof in “Skin Deep”) she can use it against him to control him—as he becomes more and more emboldened with Emma’s presence in town to move against the curse.
This is probably the darkest we’ve seen Rumple; he beats the florist (but without permanent damage, which I’m sure he could have done had he really wanted to maim him). As Emma notes, there’s a lot more here than simple robbery. Gold becomes completely unhinged, losing his ever-present calm and becoming enraged in the presence of Belle’s father—a man whom Gold believes murdered his own daughter. I’m sure this won’t be their last encounter.
By the way, ‘gotta love the name of the florist, “Game of Thorns,” a shout out to the HBO series Game of Thrones, for which Espenson wrote last season).
Thank you once again to Jane Espenson for joining our post-episode LiveChat. In case you missed it read the replay transcript. A new Once Upon a Time airs next Sunday night at 8:00 ET on ABC.