What does it take to defeat evil? What is the personal cost, and is it even possible without sacrificing a piece of your own soul? Those are the questions in Once Upon Time’s eighth episode of the season “Desperate Souls.”
Jane Espenson’s intriguing script dives into Rumpelstiltskin’s (the mesmerizing Robert Carlyle) origin story, reflecting upon how he’d become the trickster imp we meet not only at the beginning of the series, but in the Grimm fairy tale as well. A weak and easily frightened man—a self-described town coward—he runs from the face of battle, having fled the front lines of the Ogre wars.
Watching the children being taken one by one at the Duke’s behest, Rumple knows that his son Baelfire (Dylan Schmid)—the only thing he has left in this world—is next, as his 13th birthday fast approaches. Baelfire is willing to follow the knights onto the front lines, but Rumple explains that the red sky visible on the horizon is not from the fire of war, but from the blood of the people—the children—upon whose back the battle is ruthlessly waged. No sane person would knowingly submit to such certain death.
As I mentioned in my preview of the episode, this idea of forced conscription of the persecuted and oppressed goes back a long way in European history. (My own grandfather fled forced service Czar’s army in pre-Soviet Latvia by fleeing across the border.) But this scenario also made me think of the countless young men in the trenches of WWI sent endlessly to the front lines at places like Gallipoli and Ypres. They went not to fight (using Rumple’s words), but to die.
And so Rumple and Bae flee down the King’s Road, encountering a beggar (Brad Dourif, Lord of the Rings) to whom Rumple gives a portion of his meager cash as alms. But soon, the duke’s men overtake the journeying father and son. Rumple would do anything to protect his son from certain death—even debase himself in front of the 13-year-old boy. Having been humiliated by the Duke’s soldiers, Rumple is beaten down, but has saved Bae for the moment. But he knows they will return on Bae’s birthday.
Suddenly, the beggar appears again, this time with the promise of a way out. The Duke possesses a magic dagger, he explains, and with it he controls “The Dark One,” a mysterious force in the universe. If Rumple can summon the courage to steal it, he can save Bae, and perhaps redeem his good name—and himself. Rumple believes that by acquiring this great power, he will not only save Bae, but all the children, rescuing the entire people of the Frontlands. This power will be a force for good in his hands.
But, as Rumple has come to show us in previous Once episodes, magic is something not be trifled with—and comes with (and often steep) price. He has also warned that deals are tricky things, and in the end you better know in advance what you’re getting yourself into. This lesson comes hard for Rumple. Very hard.
Succeeding in stealing the dagger, he summons the dark power of Zoso. (Zoso is a magical symbol, closely associate with Led Zeppelin’s legendary Jimmy Page. Double Hmmm.) He learns that The Dark One is none other than the beggar, who has engineered the entire situation. He wants only to die, and in Rumple, he’s found a way out—a way to pass the torch to another desperate soul who’s stumbled into a bad bargain without reading the fine print.
In the end, Rumple loses himself—and the son he fought so hard and at such great cost to protect. He comes out of this bargain as the new incarnation of The Dark One. It is a fall with great ramifications, most of which we’ve not yet experienced (but which I’m sure form many excellent bits of future Once Upon a Time narrative).
Back in Storybrooke, with Graham now dead, the town needs a new sheriff. Although Emma (Jennifer Morrison) has been serving as deputy, the mayor (Lana Parrilla) pulls rank and fires her, only to put in place her own man—the politics writer for The Storybrooke Mirror. His name? Sidney Glass (Giancarlo Esposito), a man who only wants to reflect well on the town. (Okay, enough with the bad puns.) But Emma doesn’t take this lightly.
Despite Henry’s (Jared Gilmore) admonition that good never prevails because it has to play fair, while evil can do whatever it wants, Emma is determined to win the mayoral race without resorting to political chicanery. However, Emma has a benefactor, who is equally determined to use whatever means necessary to win—and defeat Madame the Mayor. That, of course is Mr. Gold.
Apparently a master chess player, Mr. Gold plays Emma like a burnished knight, anticipating her moves and everyone else’s. In the end, Emma wins by defying him—all part of the plan. A greater good forged by underhanded means and a strategy that would make Niccolo Machiavelli proud.
I loved this episode. We learn a lot about what makes Rumple (and Mr. Gold) tick. Rumple is quite insane when we first meet him in the pilot episode; he bears no resemblance to the desperate soul we meet in “Desperate Souls.” The deal he’s made with The Dark One has cost him everything. He says early in the episode that if he loses his son, he will have nothing. He will truly be “dust.” And perhaps that is what he’s become.
And like a man insane, Rumple finds new desperate souls, seeking to strike bargains, yet warning them time and again of the steep price to be paid if they deal with him. He is no longer the town coward, but the town madman. A classic tragic figure, he is damned in the Enchanted Forest, ultimately imprisoned—soulless and friendless.
Does Rumple still bear this burden deep within his heart as Storybrooke’s Mr. Gold, or has he gleefully embraced the dark power of magic? Are there vestiges of humanity resident in his heart, or has that organ truly turned to dust? And although Rumple/Mr. Gold has seeming left the saddest chapter of his life far behind him, I cannot help but wonder if the remnants of those memories ultimately drive him in the present-day story.
How does it all tie in, then to Rumple’s decision to help Snow White hide the infant Emma—and Mr. Gold’s connection to Henry? And what are Mr. Gold’s motivations in helping Emma? Will her ascension to sheriff (with its accompnaying increase of power) weaken the curse further? And is that something Mr. Gold desires? Or does he simply want to defeat Regina, his old rival—or is there something more significant at play; some endgame that could lead to Rumple’s redemption someday? Perhaps that’s Gold’s angle in all this. What would it take for him to win back his son? To be reunited with the one person that gives his life meaning?
I know it sounds like I’m romanticizing the character—a character who may turn out to be the most evil of evil characters: the devil incarnate (after all, he is The Dark One). But I think there is so much more to Rumple and Mr. Gold than meets the eye, and every fiber of my literary sensibility insists that I’m right. But it’s probably not something we’ll know for certain until the very end of the series run—perhaps years in the future.
Rumple and Emma take parallel paths to combat the evil confronting them. Yet they both seek to be saviors in the eyes of their sons. The both seek to triumph over evil. Rumple follows a path into darkness, never intending to get lost within it; only hoping to save his son and his people. He doesn’t understand the risks or consequences, but needs to do what he has to in order to save his son’s life. He cannot play fair; he has to play evil’s game to defeat it. But instead, it consumes him; he loses.
Emma insists that she can win by playing fair—as good must. But in forging an alliance with Mr. Gold, Emma has innocently trod on a darker path. In the end she wins, but not without a little help from the side that doesn’t always play fair. Both she and Rumple play with fire, and that’s always dangerous. We know the consequences (at least some of them) of Rumple’s path; we do not know what Emma’s coerced alliance with Mr. Gold will bring. Lots to chew on!
This review cannot be complete without saying something about Robert Carlyle’s performance in this episode. Carlyle is an actor of astonishing range, as his body of work demonstrates. And as Rumple/Mr. Gold, Carlyle always plays two very distinct sides of the same character. His Rumple is impish and crazy, bizarre and gleefully demonic. Gold is reserved and enigmatic; as menacing as he is courtly.
In “Desperate Souls” the brilliant Mr. Carlyle adds yet a third side to this character—the terrified, powerless victim, who can do nothing but watch helplessly allowing his oppressors humiliate and trample him. It is a great performance.
And a couple of random thoughts: I love Mr. Gold’s ties. They seem to change in every scene. The dazzling colors are always striking against his dark wardrobe. Do they signify some light within the darkness of his soul, or do the costumers just like giving the dapper Mr. Gold beautiful accessories to wear?
The next episode of Once Upon a Time airs next Sunday, January 15 at 8:00 p.m. ET.