by Jeremy Grossman
Returning from its winter hiatus, “Once Upon a Time” still hasn’t approached must-watch status, yet it remains an entertaining hour of Sunday night television. The show suffers from each episode following essentially the same pattern, with a resident of Storybrooke having their “fairy tale life” explored, resulting in a colorful show burdened by exposition.
“Desperate Souls” at least treats Storybrooke like a real town, instead of some alternate reality where the citizens do nothing but discuss fairy tales. Following Sheriff Graham’s death, Emma finds herself in a race against Regina’s henchman Mr. Glass for the position of town sheriff. It’s refreshing to see the townspeople act like townspeople because a key to this show’s survival will be to make the characters fleshed-out individuals, rather than mere fantasy archetypes.
Emma’s race to victory was the most interesting part of the episode, as her struggle to be a hero in a town full of villains appropriately fit the progression of the plot and characters. The stakes have been set – Emma wants to take back Henry, and rid Storybrooke from Regina’s reign of terror. Finally, “Once” has established each core character’s goals and motivations, with the exception of the episode’s star player, Mr. Gold/Rumpelstiltskin.
Rumpelstiltskin is a slimy, creepy character played effectively by Robert Carlyle, but the writers seem not quite sure what to do with him. Week after week, he comes out of the shadows to cause mischief and mayhem, but “Souls,” which dives into the character’s backstory, reveals him to be quite the bore. A weak man, his wife left him for being such a coward, until a sword of darkness turned him into a madman. Such a revelation is just too easy and not creative enough for this show. Being “filled with darkness” is not a fulfilling character trait for a major character. Whereas the villainous Regina/Evil Queen has room to grow, Mr. Gold/Rumpelstiltskin is defined merely by “evil.” As wacky and fantastic as this show may be, it needs to have natural, realistic characters — even when they have magic powers — and Rumpelstiltskin’s story is a step backward. He can’t have any goals or motivations because he’s incapable of feeling anything but darkness.
Perhaps since Rumpelstiltskin’s plotline felt a bit rushed, it means that the show still has more back story planned for the character. After all, the fate of his son remains a mystery, as well as the identity of his wife that abandoned him. What’s important, though, is that the show find a way to balance Rumpelstiltskin as both a creepy, untrustworthy character as well as an actual human being.
Now that “Once” has essentially introduced each major character’s backgrounds, it’s time for the show to plan for the future instead of relying on the past, with the exception of Rumpelstiltskin. One day, this show may break out of its cocoon to become a brilliant, fairy tale epic, but it still has a few kinks to work out.
Jeremy Grossman is a staff writer. Email him at email@example.com.