ABC’s Once Upon a Time returns from its December break with “Desperate Souls.” In fairy tale world, Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle) is a poor man who just wants to keep his son (Dylan Schmid) from being drafted into the army. Unfortunately, the Duke (Michael Phenicie, Angel, Knot’s Landing) has the power of the Dark One behind him, which makes Rumpel’s plight seem hopeless. Until a beggar (Brad Dourif, Deadwood, Lord of the Rings) tells Rumpel that the power of the Dark One is controlled by a dagger. If Rumpel steals the dagger, he will be able to stop the madness. Rumpel succeeds, but soon learns that by doing so, he makes himself the Dark One, a torment not easily escaped.
After a rough start to the series, Once Upon a Time has blossomed into quite a show! “Desperate Souls” is a wonderfully complex story about evil, redemption, power, and sacrifice. Rumpel is a sad little man who has no control of his own life, until he turns to a darker power. He doesn’t realize the cost of the magic, an ongoing theme in the series, and bites off more than he can chew. Once Upon a Time‘s central story is of darkness sweeping over good, and the hopeless nature of defeating such an abstract foe. In this, “Desperate Souls” does a great job of capturing that spirit with a tragic tale.
“Desperate Souls” also provides some surprising back story for a fan favorite character. Rumpel is not the first character to have an entirely different history than has been traditionally known, but his is, perhaps, the most surprising. One always views Rumpel as an imp who plays games with others for his own amusement. Now we learn that it may be desperation and a slim hope of redemption that drives him, not ingrained evil. Is there any way for Rumpel to ever escape his curse, perhaps in a large, self-sacrificial way? Or is he destined to forever be who he is, a troublemaker no one can love?
The implications of this episode are far reaching. One that might be of serious interest is, where is Rumpel’s son? Is he dead, through some fault of Rumpel’s? Did he leave his father after seeing the monster Rumpel has become? Is there any chance Rumpel can get his son back, who is his entire reason for living when the back story begins? Also, how much of the real Rumpel is left inside the shell of a body? Is the Dark One completely in control of the host? There is startling personality shift when Rumpel gains his power, and he is certainly not the same person anymore.
The next piece of Rumpel’s past that must be revealed to give viewers an idea of his motivations is what Rumpel’s beef with the Evil Queen (Lana Parilla) is. In the real world, Mr. Gold works tirelessly to defeat her. His motivation cannot be purely altruistic, as kindness is gone from the Dark One-possessed man. So does Regina have a hand in Rumpel’s son’s fate? Might she be the key to getting him back? It seems like these two stories may be intertwined in some unexpected way, and I’m anxious to learn what that is.
One small point that is kind of fascinating is the lack of power Rumpelstiltskin’s name has over him in this incarnation, a distinct departure from his traditional story. It would be tricky to work that element into the type of tale Once Upon a Time chooses to tell, but is it a simple convenience, or is there more to it than that? Only time will tell.
Back in the real world, the main story of “Desperate Souls” is Emma’s (Jennifer Morrison) quest to be the new sheriff in Storybrooke. Not wanting her enemy to have that power, Regina appoints newsman Sydney Glass (Giancarlo Esposito, Breaking Bad) to the position. But Mr. Gold finds a loophole in the town’s by-laws that states Regina, as Mayor, only has the power to appoint a candidate, not a sheriff (a distinction that makes no sense, and provides the episode’s one glaring misstep). Gold lends his support to Emma, but she is determined to prove to Henry (Jared S. Gilmore) that only by doing good can one truly win.
Is Emma really the pure hero she seeks to be? Learning that her act of saving Regina from a fire, a move that wins her serious popularity in town, is orchestrated by Mr. Gold, she defiantly calls him out in front of the townsfolk. This wins her the election, which Mr. Gold later says is his plan all along. So she is manipulated, despite her best efforts. How much sway will Gold hold over her now? She already owes him one favor, does her ascent to office mean she now owes him two? He certainly would like to take credit for her win. She can’t publicly let him, but now she will always be plagued with doubts and second guesses about whether she deserves to be in the position. Should she resign to cleanse her soul?
It’s also doubtful at this point that Once Upon a Time has a happy ending in store for it’s central characters. Sure, fairy tales always do, but the amount of darkness in this story, even before the events of “Desperate Souls,” seem overwhelming. Even when Emma tries to be good, she is tainted. She is acting like a hero, but cannot make much headway. It is early in the story, and thus it may be too soon to expect any sort of victory for the good guys, especially after Graham’s (Jamie Dornan) tragic murder in the previous episode. But something has got to break soon to give at least a sign of hope to Emma.
Hope is what some of the characters are getting. Emma’s win is celebrated by her friends, including Henry, Archie (Raphael Sbarge), and Granny (Beverly Elliott). They don’t know what Emma knows, and so see good things coming to pass. Is their optimism enough to inspire Emma, and to turn the tide for the right side? What would they think to learn that they’ve all been played by Mr. Gold, someone they fear and dislike? Truth always comes out eventually.
What’s really interesting in “Desperate Souls” is the parallels drawn between Emma and Rumpel. Both are, as the title suggests, desperate souls. Both are seeking to save themselves, their sons, and others, and are thwarted by tricky dark power. Rumpel’s ending is obviously tragic, at least for now. Is Once Upon a Time hinting that Emma is doomed for a like fate? Her similarities to Rumpel aren’t all encompassing. She is a much stronger person that he was, prior to the incident. Can she avoid making the same mistakes that he did? And might he see himself in her, and thus, possibly lend her a hand where he won’t anyone else? Their paths seem destined to run together, but the question remains, in what way? It gives one a lot to think about before next week’s episode.
It’s no wonder that “Desperate Souls” is so good, considering it is written by Jane Espenson, of Buffy and Battlestar Galactica, among others, fame!
Don’t miss Once Upon a Time, airing Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.