There has never been any doubt that Robert Carlyle is a gifted actor, arguably one of the best actors of his generation. He’s gone from film to television and back again both here and in the U.K. He’s done tiny budget independent films that allow him to create characters and give voice to films with great social or political weight and bigger projects that undoubtedly allow him to support small-budget worthwhile cinema. But there is also no doubt that whatever role he chooses to do, he has an ability to transform himself completely, making the character unforgettable.
Carlyle’s role on Once Upon a Time is a difficult one. His Storybrooke and Fairytale Land personas are in many ways reflections of each other, but each is so distinct in manner, voice and appearance, it takes a true sorcerer of an actor to make us comprehend that they are indeed one character. All of the main cast of Once play dual roles, but Rumple’s personas are so distinct from the other, coming from such distant times in his long life, that his is not like any other character on the series.
And that each persona: from terrified peasant to trickster to cuckolded husband to cool businessman to the courtly enchanted prince we seem to get glimpses of from time to time all inform and loop back on each other, often simultaneously. It’s just brilliant.
Rumple is child-like as much as he is demonic. He is graceful and flamboyant; he uses his voice to terrify: an enraged shriek or a chilling calm. But it can also take on an affected elegance that is cover for the impoverished, frightened, lonely, and powerless peasant he left behind when was cursed by killing the Dark One.
Mr. Gold’s icy calm is equally unnerving as it can turn to dark rage in an instant when he feels betrayed or threatened. Gold remembers what it was like; cursed not only as the Dark One, he is cursed with a memory that despite the distance of centuries, is still too raw and too painful.
In tonight’s Once Upon a Time episode “The Crocodile” we begin to understand why Rumple clings to power; he knows what it is to have none. He knows what it means to be so powerless that he must suffer the humiliation of watching his wife become whore to a pirate.
It is a testament to the power of Carlyle’s considerable acting ability that despite the terrible things Rumplestiltskin does in “Crocodile” he can still break our hearts. Carlyle’s range of emotional beats in this week’s episode is astonishing. He took us deep within Rumple’s heart: to the source of the loss, pain, loneliness and anger that coexist within him. But he also showed us as Rumple shows Belle, the love and yearning that also dwells within his ravaged soul. Wrapped around the anguish, however is Rumple’s armor of steel: blind rage, quick temper, even cruelty, and Carlyle’s performance made us fear him as much as we fear for him. It was simply brilliant.
We see the origin of the terrible losses Rumple has suffered. It is when his wife Milah (Rachel Shelly) leaves him and their son Baelfire that Rumple’s downward spiral begins. Everything that follows: from becoming the Dark One to the loss of Baelfire, to the curse and the breaking of it: all of it originates from this one point in time.
I have to wonder if Rumple had always been a coward. He says it is so, but are there memories beyond his remembering to the time of the Ogre War, when, as we know, he left the battlefield? What exactly happened during the war to make him leave?
What had he not disclosed to Milah? She tells him that this isn’t the life she imagined. What life might she have imagined, I wonder? How would it have been different if Rumple had not at one time been different?
Rumple tells her that there are reasons they cannot leave their village. Is it simply his cowardice that prevents them from going elsewhere? Is the Ogre War where Rumple injured his leg? This episode isn’t the first time mention has been made of Rumple in the Ogre War, and that can’t be a coincidence. I suspect we’ll learn more about that in the months to come (at least I hope so).
I loved the story of Rumple and Belle as it plays out in “The Crocodile.” She cannot understand his reasons for continuing to develop magic potions secretly in his basement laboratory. And he is no help by refusing to tell her. Even as the Dark One, beneath that cloak of power there still stands a terrified and powerless man, and to relinquish any of it means a return to the man he was; the man he hates; the man he cannot face.
But in the end, he finally trusts her enough to disclose the truths of his bitter losses. Ironically the considerable courage he needs is to appear vulnerable and weak before her, telling her how it had all been to find Baelfire, and how it had backfired. Only by exposing himself to her in this way, can he begin to win back a small amount of her trust. And perhaps, at some point, her love. I can see him little by little try to regain her love. Gold can be very courtly (as can Rumple), and I imagine that his courtliness will manifest in small gestures and unexpected moments of sweetness as the months go by.
I loved the episode as a whole, but there are a few scenes and beats that were so perfect that they require special mention. First, I love swashbuckling, and the sword fight between the dashing, Killian (Colin O’Donoghue) and Rumple wonderful. Then there was the library scene towards the end. How perfect. “We may sit in our library and yet be in all quarters of the earth,” says Rumple quoting 19th Century British naturalist John Lubbock.
He knows what books mean to Belle (as do we) and his gesture, no strings attached, to connect Belle to the world is beautiful and subtle. He knows that he had denied Belle the opportunity to explore the world back in Fairytale Land; something she had regretted. And now here in Storybrooke, she, like everyone else, is stuck, unable to cross the threshold between their village and the rest of the world. It is a poignant moment that for all his power, the only thing he can do is to grant her the world vicariously.
And of course the scene in which Rumple speaks to Belle from his heart, honestly and sincerely, struck a chord in her. It is a poignant moment, and his words so stirring and so heartfelt it leaves her in tears. A perfect moment.
But all of those moments of real poignancy are counterbalanced by some pretty stark cruelty on Rumple’s part, not the least of which is tearing out his wife’s heart. (Shades of Regina?) But his treatment of Smee, Moe French and even Killian are snippets of extreme violence in Rumple, motivations aside. Despite his considerable romanticism, Rumple has a real demonic streak, as we know.
Did I hear anyone say “Byronic hero?”
Once Upon a Time airs Sunday nights at 8:00 p.m. ET on ABC.
Note to my readers: Jane Espenson will be my guest November 5 on my BlogTalk Radio show Let’s Talk TV. Gareth Hughes of the U.K. Once Upon a Time fansite will be my guest October 29.