Once Upon A Time, Ep. 1.08, “Desperate Souls”: Rumpelstiltskin’s on fire

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Once Upon A Time, Season 1, Episode 8, “Desperate Souls”
Written by Jane Espenson
Directed by Michael Waxman
Airs Sundays at 8pm (ET) on ABC

Writer’s Note – Starting with this episode, the rest of the season will be reviewed by Ryan Clagg. Let’s get started.

Once Upon A Time returns from the winter break with the cleverly plotted “Desperate Souls.” This episode explores the origins of the series’ most mysterious character, Rumpelstiltskin, better known to Storybrooke as Mr. Gold.

Gold opens this week by informing Emma of her promotion as Storybrooke’s sheriff in the wake of Sheriff Graham’s sudden death. Once Regina learns of Emma’s new position, she intervenes by appointing Sidney Glass (the evil queen’s magic mirror) as the new sheriff. However, Mr. Gold helps Emma take advantage of a technicality in the town’s bylaws that leads to a campaign race between her and Sidney for the spot.

In the Fairy Tale Universe, a normal-looking Rumpelstiltskin suffers abuse from the land’s Duke, who forcibly recruits local children into military service to fight in the Ogre Wars. To keep his son from the Duke’s grasp, Rumpelstiltskin plans to steal the Duke’s source of power, a dagger that controls a magical figure known as The Dark One. However, Rumpelstiltskin soon learns for himself that all magic comes with a price.

Though this episode was thoroughly engaging, the reason it works so well is because of Robert Carlyle as Rumpelstiltskin. Carlyle manages to play three different roles with a sharp precision that completely distinguishes each of his incarnations within this episode. With Mr. Gold, he caresses a subdued performance laced with hostility. His reserved conduct makes it more unnerving to realize that most of the characters fear him. Though he’s yet to lose his cool, it’s clear his menacing presence goes beyond his intellect. Whenever he finally displays his wrath in some future episode, it’s almost guaranteed that it will be ugly.

As the pre-magical Rumpelstiltskin, Carlyle is a genuinely sympathetic character. Considering the show’s allusions and creative ties to Lost, it’s tempting to draw comparisons between this Rumpelstiltskin and early Desmond from Lost’s second season. Cowardice defines both these characters, driving them to desperate measures. Whereas Desmond learns the meaning of sacrifice and remains a good soul, Rumpelstiltskin chooses a selfish and sinister path. At this point, Carlyle easily shifts into this familiar extreme of the dark Rumpelstiltskin.

It almost feels like series creators Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis are using Lost templates to see what more they can draw from certain motifs. For example, this show’s foundation is parallel worlds, the subject of Lost’s final season. Now, we’re starting to see the same character types in each show’s universe. Fortunately, just like they’re doing with the fairy tales, the creators are opting for a fresh take on these tried elements. With competent actors like Carlyle to execute these interwoven and layered storylines, the results are excellent.

So far this show has worked on a basic level. Good versus evil, light versus dark, blonde versus brunette. The painful simplicity of the show reflects even in character names (Jiminy Cricket as Archie Hopper). Though subtlety may not be the show’s biggest strength, it does tend to surprise with its handling of unconventional plot structure. So far, the weaving of the two worlds has been pretty much seamless. This is where simplicity works to the show’s advantage.

What’s more impressive is that this week the show employs its structure to go beyond simple exposition. It abandons the previous formula of showing a character in the fairy tale against the same character in the real world, developing a background and current obstacles. Instead, the parallel structure extracts an allegory of magic, perfectly mirrored by the real world’s politics.

Power is the magic of the real world, and Emma finds herself following the same beats as Rumpelstiltskin in order to obtain it. Though her intentions are pure, so were Rumpelstiltskin’s. And seeing how he turned out, the episode’s structure could also be serving as foreshadowing of Emma’s character. Considering all of this, the episode still manages to develop the background on the most interesting character while advancing the plot. Moments like these demonstrate the show’s deeper significance and will hopefully come to define future episodes.

With the thought-provoking parallels and multiple twists, “Desperate Souls” is a strong return and perhaps the best episode yet. Where do you stand on the new origin story? And more importantly, what do you think Mr. Gold’s next move will be?

Ryan Clagg





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