Rumpelstiltskin finds love in a hopeless place -- but of course, it all goes horribly, horribly wrong

By Hillary Busis
April 30, 2015 at 08:46 PM EDT
ABC
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Stockholm Syndrome, a brutal kidnapping, a savage beating, a loony bin straight out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — welcome to Valentine’s Day, Once Upon a Time-style. Instead of warming our hearts with a celebration of romance, tonight, Jane Espenson and her league of writing wizards gave us a nightmarish, twisty tale of obsession and loss.

The results were decidedly mixed. While I’m glad that the show isn’t afraid to go dark — especially considering how pitch-black most real fairy tales are — this episode’s impact would have been greater if it had done more to build Belle and Rumpelstiltskin’s relationship. Yes, people fall in love quickly in traditional bedtime stories. But at least in the animated version of Beauty and the Beast, we could understand why Belle and her hairy paramour were meant to be. “Skin Deep” didn’t bother to explain that attraction. Rumpel forced Belle to leave behind everything she knew to become a glorified housekeeper — but by the second commercial break, she was already into him, even though he had yet to show her any kindness or warmth.

But more on that later. We open on yet another regal father — his name is Maurice — who’s just received bad news: a place with a name that sounds like Avonlea has fallen mercy to his enemies. Nooo, not Anne! The battle might have been won if a mysterious someone had lent a glitter-covered hand. And right on cue, there’s a knock at the door. Maurice and his entourage go to answer it, but find no one… because the visitor, Rumpelstiltskin, has taken the liberty of magicking himself onto Maurice’s throne.

Maurice and Co. want Rump to protect the village from the wicked ogres who are destroying their land. (Can we assume they live in or near the same place that Human Rumpel and Baelfire once called home?) The imp says that he’ll do it — for a price, of course. And he’s not talking about money, since he, uh, makes gold out of freakin’ straw. No, the Dentally Challenged One is in the mood for something else that looks good in yellow: Maurice’s daughter, a becoming lass by the name of Belle. (Yes, Lost fans, that’s Emilie de Ravin, a.k.a. Claire. No, she’s not still looking for her baiibee.)

Though Maurice isn’t as quick to give up his firstborn as every other character Rumpel deals with, Belle herself nobly declares that she’ll go with the Dark One — as long as he’ll keep her family and friends safe. “Belle, please! You can’t go with this…beast,” Maurice says in despair, and we cut to Rump making a hilarious, faux-shocked face. Nevertheless, the deal has been struck. “Congratulations on your little war,” Rumpel says gleefully, leading his new prize away.

Back in Storybrooke, Mr. Cold — er, Gold — repossess a truck that belongs to one Moe French, a portly florist who’s having money trouble. He also happens to be the Storybrooke equivalent of Maurice. French protests, but Gold’s not moved. The shopkeeper manages to piss off two birds with one stone by also snubbing Regina when she approaches him on the street.

NEXT: Bonjour, Chip!

Mary Margaret and David share a moment in Granny’s, then quickly turn away from each other when Ruby catches them in the act. They’re soon joined by Emma and Ashley (Storybrooke’s Cinderella; remember her?). Between her months-old baby, her largely absent boyfriend, and the fact that she’s still not officially married, the teen mom is feeling fairly frazzled. Luckily, Ruby has the antidote to Ashley’s malaise: a Galentine’s evening on the town. She invites MM and Emma along too, even though they’re both nearly 10 years older than Ruby and Ashley. There’s nothing more fun for a lady in her late 20s than doing shots with a few underage chicks in hot pants, amiright?

Gold limps into his multicolored manse and finds that he’s been robbed. “Funny how that keeps happening to you,” Sheriff Emma snarks after emerging from another room. “Well, I’m a difficult man to love,” he says by way of explanation.

So is Rumpelstiltskin. After showing Belle to her damp, dreary accommodations, he explains her duties: “You will serve me my meals, and you will clean the Dark Castle. You will dust my collection and launder my clothing. You will fetch me fresh straw when I’m spinning at the wheel. Oh, and you will skin the children I hunt for their pelts.” At that, a startled Belle drops the teacup she had been carrying. “That one was a quip,” Rump says drily. Ha! Awesome. Belle picks up the vessel, which is now marred with a small chip. Aww, does it have to sleep in the cupboard?

Later, Belle stands on a ladder, trying to tug open an enormous curtain. (Alas, it’s not covering a giant bookshelf.) She asks Rumpelstiltskin why he spins so much gold, and he replies that he does it to forget. “Forget what?” Belle asks. “I guess it worked,” her captor says without missing a beat, then laughs his weird goaty laugh. But Belle must be into barnyard creatures, because she giggles in response. And then, just as she’s finally gotten the curtain open, she tumbles off her perch and straight into Rumpel’s arms. She thanks him; he looks at her, pleasantly shocked. It seems there’s something there that wasn’t there before!

Emma has recovered the things stolen from Gold’s place, though she hasn’t found the thief himself. As the shopkeeper suspected, the robbery was the work of Mr. French the florist. Gold, however, is not content — there’s still something important missing from the recovered cache. The sheriff protests that she’ll get the item when she finds French. “Not if I find him first,” says Gold menacingly. Ruh roh.

NEXT: My, what a guy, that Gaston!

In the Dark Castle, Belle — who’s been captive for months now — and Rumpel are getting closer over a spot of tea. She intuits that he asked her to stay with him because he’s lonely, then reveals that she’s found children’s clothing in one of the upstairs rooms. Rumpel, uncharacteristically frank, tells her that it belonged to his son — but the boy is lost now. Their bonding moment is interrupted by a knock at the door. It’s Sir Gaston, Belle’s betrothed! Don’t get too excited, though; before we can see an awesome fight scene, the imp conquers the knight faster than you can say “fairy godmother.”

Rumpel transforms his rival into a gorgeous red rose, which he immediately gifts to Belle. He then asks her something we’re all wondering: Why the heck did she go with him to the Dark Castle? Evidently, Belle wanted much more than her provincial life; there aren’t a ton of opportunities for women in Ye Olde Sexism Village, she explains. Seems weird that her solution is becoming a monster’s kept woman, but hey, as a ninth-wave feminist, I guess I shouldn’t judge. After she opens her heart, Rumpel makes another deal with Belle. If she goes to town and fetches him more straw, he’ll tell her all about his son when she returns. Well, they say if you love something, let it go — right?

Hey, Storybrooke apparently has two bars! At a place that isn’t Granny’s, not-yet-21 Ashley downs shots as an on-the-prowl Ruby goes to flirt with a group of dudes. Maybe in this version of the story, Red is the Big Bad Wolf. As the gals party, David’s buying a pair of cards at Mr. Clark’s general store. Gold is there too, picking up some ropes and duct tape. You know, normal, average things for a regular dude to be purchasing on Valentine’s Day. Next thing we know, Gold has Moe French bound and gagged in the back of the former flower truck. Yikes, when did Once become Dexter?

Though Belle begins her journey into town alone, she’s soon joined by a gloriously evil creature wielding a wicked, spidery parasol: Regina, naturally. Before long, the queen’s butting into Belle’s business and telling her that her “master and lover” sounds like he’s under the influence of a curse. And we all know what can cure a curse: True Love’s Kiss. Oh, so all Emma has to do is make out with everyone in Storybrooke!

A somber Rumpel stands in his tower, clearly watching to see if Belle’s coming back. When he finally spots her, he rushes downstairs to sit at his spinning wheel and fake nonchalance. But after Belle prods, he admits he’s “not unhappy” that she’s returned. Belle tells him she wasn’t going to come back, but something changed her mind. And then she kisses him. The imp doesn’t float into the sky and start shooting light from his fingers… but his skin does suddenly start shedding some of its glitter.

NEXT: Once takes a turn for the terrifying

The change, alas, is short lived. Rumpel quickly realizes that Regina told Belle to kiss him. He cycles through a variety of paranoid thoughts: The queen’s trying to sap him of his power! Belle’s just trying to be a hero by killing the beast! She doesn’t care for him — nobody could! He roars in anger, then throws the girl into the dungeon again. Rumpel must be a Limp Bizkit fan, since his next reaction to this he-said she-said bulls— is to break stuff. But in the midst of his rampage, the Dark One can’t bring himself to smash the cup Belle chipped. Probably because he knows how adorable it’ll be once it learns to sing and dance.

Gold, too, is in full-blown rage mode. He’s brought French to a sequestered location: the cute cottage that once served as MM and David’s love shack. Gold thrusts the end of his cane into French’s throat, saying that he’ll let the man breathe once he comes clean about what he stole and who told him to steal it.

When Moe doesn’t comply, Gold starts hitting him viciously with his walking stick. Soon, it’s clear that this isn’t really about whatever the florist pilfered. “You had her love, and you shut her out,” he hisses as he hits French over and over. “She’s gone. She’s gone forever. She’s not coming back, and it’s your fault. YOU-ARE-HER-FATHER!” Luckily, Emma arrives and stops Gold before he can add first-degree real world murder to his long list of misdeeds.

Thank goodness for the next scene, a lighthearted one in which Ashley’s beau Sean shows up at the bar. He’s carrying a dozen long-stemmed Gastons — and an engagement ring. “Will you marry me? I only have a 20-minute break, so — any time now,” he tells her as she’s gasping in shock. What a romantic!

But the post-proposal high quickly wears off when MM walks outside and finds that David has come looking for her. He sweetly hands her a Valentine’s card; unfortunately, it’s the one he bought for Kathryn. D’oh! Not so charming. The star-crossed lovers go their separate ways that night.

As Emma hauls Gold to jail, his fairy tale counterpart approaches his own captive. Rumpel tells Belle he doesn’t want her anymore. But Belle won’t leave without giving the Dark One a piece of her mind. Like Sir Hordor before her, she calls Rumpel craven — and says that no matter how thick and glittery his skin is, he’ll still be a coward. Rumpel pretends to be unaffected by her words. He tells Belle his power means more to him than she does. Belle doesn’t believe him. Still, though, he’s made his choice; all Rumpel’s got now is “an empty heart and a chipped cup,” Belle says sadly before walking away. It can’t be a coincidence that after watching a monster fail to find love, we’re immediately treated to a commercial for The Bachelor.

NEXT: The human world is a mess. Life under the sea, however…

Emma’s noshing on a pastrami sandwich — I’m so pleased to learn they have a decent deli in Storybrooke — when Regina enters the sheriff’s office with Henry. She cuts Emma a deal: She can have half an hour with the kid if she’ll let Regina talk to Gold. Emma takes it, leaving Regina alone with her prisoner. The once and future queen admits that she has what Gold’s been seeking, and that she put French up to stealing it. And he’ll get it back, as long as he answers a simple question: “What’s your name?”

Gold plays dumb at first. But soon, his desire to reclaim his prize surges, and he admits he’s known all along that he’s really Rumpelstiltskin. Finally, Regina pulls out the object he’s been searching for: a tiny toy airplane. Kidding! It is, of course, Chip. Now that everything’s out in the open, Gold — or should we just say Rumpel? — warns her that he’s the one who has the real power. “We shall see,” Regina sneers, twirling her mustache and flouncing off.

Their encounter is mirrored by our last Fairyback. Queen Regina saunters into the Dark Castle, saying she’d like to discuss “a certain mermaid.” (Yes, I’ll admit that made me squeal in antici…pation.) But a dejected Dark One is in no mood to talk turkey. His mood only darkens when Regina tells him with delight that once she returned home, Belle was treated as damaged goods — her father cut her off and locked her in a tower. The girl was so distraught that, according to the Queen, she flung herself from the edifice and died. I’m not sure why Rumpel takes Regina at her word, but he does… and, as Belle predicted, he’s left with only Chip to remind him of his poor lost love.

Of course, Belle’s not really dead. Because if she were, she wouldn’t have a stringy-haired Storybrooke counterpart locked in a secret padded cell beneath the hospital. Bum bum BUUUMMMM!

Breadcrumbs

– The late Gaston was played by a guy named Sage Brockleback. SAGE BROCKLEBACK! I bet every last inch of him’s covered in hair.

– I’m really bummed that bibliovore Belle didn’t make a single reference to her love of reading. It’s her defining personality trait, as well as the only reason she’s every smart girl’s favorite Disney princess.

– Mr. French’s flower business is called Game of Thorns. Hee!

– On MM’s suggestion, David is reading Anna Karenina. Maybe she wants him to know what happens to adulterers?

– My favorite thing Regina has ever said, after “I’d have gone gravy”: “Oh, child, no! I would never suggest a young woman kiss a man who held her captive. What kind of message is that?”

– Henry has exactly one line tonight: “Hi, Emma.” Is this the least he’s ever spoken in an episode of Once?

– The way Robert Carlyle haltingly says “So she needs… a home” after the Queen tells him Belle’s been cut off by her father? Absolutely heartbreaking.

Next week, we’ve got a Charming-centric ep in which our main love triangle will finally come to a head. I’m looking forward to it — but first, I want to know your thoughts on “Skin Deep,” especially its final Storybrooke revelations. How did you like tonight’s ep?

Hillary on Twitter

Everything you’ve ever read about fairy tales is true—the residents of Storybrooke are living proof.
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