Wednesday , December 2 2020
Much is revealed in this week's Once Upon a Time as Robert Carlyle's Mr. Gold believes he has found his long-lost son.

TV Review: Once Upon a Time – “The Return” and a Theory About the Curse

This week’s new Once Upon a Time episode “The Return” (airing on ABC) answers many questions, yet poses several others. As well, it presents evidence for a theory, a possible key to the curse and what might end it.

With the focus on Mr. Gold/Rumplestiltskin (the amazing Robert Carlyle, whose intensity is beautifully layered with humanity and grace), we begin to understand his game and the origins of the curse—and more importantly, what drives him. But more importantly, his actions in this week’s Once Upon a Time hold some subtle clues to The Evil Queen’s (Lana Parrilla) curse upon the realms of Fairy Tale land.

Is the enigmatic Mr. Gold friend or foe of the good people of Storybrooke? Mayor Regina certainly believes Mr. Gold is her ally; after all, it was Gold’s alter ego that conjured up the queen’s curse in the first place. On the other hand, he doesn’t seem too enamored Regina, and it was his alter ego that gave Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) a way to save them all and end the curse once it was in place. So, who’s side is he on?

“The Return” makes it clear that Mr. Gold/Rumplestiltskin is on his own side. Everything from the curse itself to its ultimate ending serves one purpose: to reunite Rumplestiltskin with his beloved son Baelfire (Dylan Schmid). All else is mere collateral damage. 

Picking up Rumple’s story from last fall’s “Desperate Souls,” “The Return” continues to explore Rumple’s relationship with his son. We learn that Baelfire hates what his father has become—is becoming. And despite the fact that Rumple stopped a terrible war and saved the children, he has sacrificed his soul to do it.

He is feared—even by young Baelfire, desperate to have his father back, coward or no. When Bae wonders if Rumple will give up his power should he find a way to transform him back to his old (albeit powerless and fearful self), Rumple reluctantly agrees.

Calling upon the Blue Fairy, Baelfire obtains a magic blue bean, which will transport him through a wormhole-like portal into another realm—one without magic. It is in this new realm that the power of The Dark One evaporates, Bae will have his father back, and Rumple will be rid of the curse that controls him. It is there he plans on leading his father, but the whirlpool through which they must descend is a terrifying cyclone, and Rumple, for all his newfound power, is terrified of making this leap of faith with his son. He hangs back while Bae slides down the portal and away from his father, who has let go his hand. It is something Rumple regrets from the second that happens.

So this has been his motivation from the start—to find a way to make amends with his son; to reunite with his dear son Baelfire. It’s an elaborate plan borne of desperate love.

If I didn’t love Rumple before (which I did), I certainly do now. Not that Rumple/Mr. Gold is an especially “good” man. He can be brutal wielding his power both as Rumple and as Mr. Gold; as Bae, the Blue Fairy and Belle all knew, there lies within him a darkness. But there is a profound sadness within him, and a desire to do right by his son. And it is a desire borne of true and unconditional love. But Rumple is also controlled by the curse of The Dark One, and these two sides battle within both Gold’s and Rumple’s soul.

The Blue Fairy points out that Bae is the only thing keeping Rumple human; when Bae slips out of his hand into another realm (likely our “real” world), Rumple is in danger of losing that last glimmer of humanity. But although the loss of Bae certainly drives Rumplestiltskin mad (his obsession with names and babies, at the very least), the hope of one day finding Baelfire may yet keep within him that spark of humanity, something of which we see ample evidence in “Skin Deep,” both as he talks about his son—and in his vulnerability in Belle’s presence. Certainly someone truly evil would either not care at all about the loss of his son—and would not spend “every waking hour” trying to find him and put things right.

In “The Return,” we also learn the why behind Gold’s dislike of the nuns. As you may recall, the good sisters are, in fact, the fairies of Fairy Tale Land, and the Blue Fairy who allows Bae to escape into another realm is the Mother Superior. No wonder Gold blames them for taking his son from him—and making it impossible for him to follow, once he realizes that Bae is lost to him forever.

So the curse appears to be Rumple’s elaborate plan to enter the realm into which Bae has crossed, “beyond the bounds of time and space, a world without magic, where even Rumple’s dagger is powerless. But it is a place that holds for him the promise of redemption—someday.

Which brings us to August. August Boothe (Eion Bailey) has been sniffing ‘round Storybrooke for several episodes now. At the beginning of “The Return,” August is clearly ill, but not ill enough to phone someone, telling that person they need to ramp up the plan. Who is he talking to? Might it be Henry, whom he enlists in his snooping-around-Gold’s pawn shop plan? And what’s wrong with him, anyway? (That’s an answer, I suspect, for another episode.)

His presence has Mr. Gold disturbed, making him suspect that he is the long-lost Baelfire, all grown up. Gold has been looking for his son for many years, and now that he’s been found (or so he believes), he is terrified to confront him, even going so far as to hesitantly approach town therapist Archie (Raphael Sbarge). The powerful Mr. Gold bares his soul, allowing himself to appear vulnerable! That in itself is an astounding turn.

He knows he needs to ask Bae’s forgiveness.  “I let him go,” confesses Gold, “I let him go and I’ve spent my whole life trying to fix it.”

And when he finally confronts August, so willing to believe, Gold gives up his dagger willingly, hoping finally to heal that terrible wound. “I chose it once, now I choose you,” Gold tells him remorsefully and in tears, at the hope of reconciliation and redemption.

Gold wants so much to believe that he lets down his guard, seeing in August only what he wants to believe he sees. Alas, August is not his son, and his only desire at this point is to possess Rumplestiltkin’s powerful dagger, which controls The Dark One. Of course this is Storybrooke, the land without magic, and the dagger has no power to control anyone. (Or so we think at this point.)

But the question is, “why” he wants the dagger so much that he will risk such a plan to fool the powerful (and potentially brutal) Mr. Gold? August explains that his efforts to convince the “savior” have been unsuccessful—and he’s running out of time. “I’m dying,” he reveals to Gold.

“She trusts you? It might be enough.” Gold says, ready to slice his throat. That revelation is enough to make Gold back off. Enough to what? To spare August’s life? To ensure that eventually Emma will come ‘round? To break the curse?

Gold might easily have killed August, sliced his throat—and gotten away with it. But he lets the Stranger live, which strongly suggests Gold’s stand in this strange little play. Will he now become August’s protector, despite the deception? Does August hold some key for Gold, one that will give this dying stranger power over the most powerful man in Storybrooke?

What an intense hour of television! Phew! Of course with Rumple/Mr. Gold at the center of the action, played by the ever-intense Mr. Carlyle, how could it not be? And paired with Jane Espenson’s fantastic script it is one of the best episodes of the season. Ms. Espenson has truly become Rumple’s storyteller, having been responsible for making his story come to life nearly from the beginning of the season!

Okay, folks, I’m going to go out on a limb right now with a theory. We know that the only thing more powerful than magic is love; love will break any curse, even this one. We also know that the love between Snow White and Prince isn’t strong enough to break the curse, neither was the reunion between Emma and Henry, though their love is very strong.

I’m beginning to wonder whether the ultimate curse breaker will be the eventual reunion between Rumple and his beloved son Baelfire. The curse is a perverse extension of that love, created by someone driven mad by it. Even Rumple’s original power source was gained out of the desire to protect his son. Rumple’s quest for his son is what drives him, and, I’m coming to believe what will ultimately break the curse.

The remorse he feels (as evidenced by Gold’s willingness to be vulnerable in front of Archie—and the tearful reunion with the Baelfire poseur August) is powerful in itself, and something else just occurred to me that might explain why (really) Rumple was willing to let Belle go, despite his true love for her. Had he allowed her to continue, and break the curse, which holds him in its power, Bae might have been lost to him forever, with no way to reconcile with him. No matter how intense and true his love for Belle, it could not trump his love (and the terrible burden of loss) for his son, whom he drove away. Talk about your romantic quests!

What do you think?

We’re down to the final three episodes of season one; a new Once Upon a Time episode airs next Sunday night at 8:00 p.m. ET on ABC.

About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."

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