Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold gets some long overdue backstory, and everything is set on fire
Credit: Jack Rowland/ABC

Hola, Once-lers! I’m Hillary Busis, certified fairy tale aficionado and your new recapper — as well as EW’s once and future OUAT live-blogger. It’s a pleasure to write about tonight’s installment, a well-paced and innovative episode that almost made up for the crushing loss of Sheriff Tight Pants Graham. (Blame Jane Espenson, the geek goddess who penned both “Desperate Souls” and many of Buffy‘s most memorable moments.)

After the first of several commercials hawking Beauty and the Beast 3D — which, by the way, I’m totally seeing — it’s time to get down to business. We open on Rumpelstiltskin, a humble spinner who looks a lot less eeeeeevil than the grubby-toothed sprite we’ve seen previously causing mischief in Fairy Tale Land.

Human Rumpel’s quaint village is picturesque but troubled: When its children turn 14, they’re snatched from their parents and forced to fight against an army of ogres. (Dare I dream of a Once/Shrek crossover event?) This Hunger Games-esque conscription is enforced by a team of sneering knights who serve a wicked duke. They’re backed up by a mysterious being known as the Dark One; he wears a nifty hooded cloak and has the power to create CGI force fields. Rumpel has not yet transformed into the world’s premier child-snatcher — but he does have a boy of his own, the awesomely-named Baelfire. Who happens to be 13 years and 362 days old. Uh-oh.

Meanwhile, in Storybrooke, Emma pays a visit to Mr. Gold. The quietly scary dude is passing the time by brushing some stuff with lanolin, as you do. We learn that Mr. Gold owned Graham’s apartment, which somehow means he’s the one who ended up with all Graham’s stuff. Maine’s got some weird laws. Anyway, he wants to pass some of it along to Emma; otherwise, it’ll just go to the trash, or worse, to Regina.

Though Emma somehow refuses to accept the ex-Sheriff’s jacket — I thought the girl never met leather outerwear she didn’t like — she ends up leaving with a pair of Graham’s old walkie talkies. Mr. Gold bids her to take them and share them with Henry, saying she should enjoy the time she has left with him: “That’s the thing about children. Before you know it, you lose them.” And the cat’s in the cradle, and the Ogre Wars…

But even a pair of neat police toys can’t cheer up Henry, who’s convinced that Graham is dead because of Operation Cobra. (Bummer that he’s sorta right.) Henry’s in such a bad place that he’s apparently lost all faith in, well, everything: “Good always loses ’cause good has to play fair,” he tells Emma when she tries to pull him out of his funk. “Evil doesn’t.” Am I wrong for liking Cynical Broken Henry more than Relentlessly Cheery Henry?

Emma has bigger things to worry about than Henry’s shattered spirit. Though she’s finally ready to assume Graham’s old job, Regina has other plans: She’s using her all-encompassing mayoral powers to appoint Sidney Glass, editor-in-chief of Storybrooke’s Daily Mirror, to the Sheriff’s seat. Wait, pause — can we imagine a world in which Gus Fring serves as the sheriff of a small town in Maine? Can someone please make that series immediately?

Anyway — meow meow, Emma and Regina have their first catfight of the year. Everybody take a sip. Their encounter ends with Regina firing Emma altogether and snatching away the shiny sheriff badge.

NEXT: Hodor? Oops, sorry, wrong show

When Mary Margaret arrives home that night, she finds her secret daughter listening to angry grrrrl rock and trying to fix a toaster that she smashed in rage. Girl has got to invest in some Krav Maga classes or something. Suddenly, there’s a knock at the door. It’s Mr. Gold. He waltzes inside, revealing that he heard what Regina did (word travels fast in a town with 30 residents). Gold has a proposition for Emma: He wants to help her fight against Regina by becoming her benefactor. Ooh, it’s like when Spike helped the Scoobies at the end of Season 2!

Back in New Fairyton, Rumpel and Baelfire steal into the night, hoping to escape the knight Hodor Hordor and his band of teen-snatching miscreants. As they sneak, they’re approached by a beggar — played by Brad Dourif of Deadwood and Lord of the Rings fame — who asks for some coin. Rumpel appeases him. He’s apparently read a few fairy tales; the miserable beggar always turns out to be a powerful sorcerer in disguise. (See Beauty and the Beast. No, really, see it! It’s in 3D!)

And then the pair comes across something even scarier than Dourif’s dirty beggar: Sir Hordor and his crew. The main knight dismounts and realizes he knows Rumpelstiltskin. The spinner was once in an ogre war himself; he’s infamous for fleeing a battle in which every one of his comrades was killed, then being abandoned by a wife who was ashamed of his cowardice.

Alas, Rumpel doesn’t win any points for bravery after what happens next. He begs Hordor not to take Baelfire; the knight agrees to spare the boy (for now, anyway) if Rumpel kisses his boot. And then Rump does, only to get savagely kicked in the face for his trouble. This might be the most devastating scene in Once thus far. As the crew of knights rides away from a humiliated Rumpel and his boy, the beggar approaches them again and offers his aid. He says he wants to become Rumpel’s “benefactor.” Methinks the beggar doesn’t understand that generally, benefactors have money.

Speaking of money: In her fabulous, Cruella-chic office, Regina tells a crew of reporters that Sidney — presumably their boss, because how many newspapers can Storybrooke have? — will soon be the town’s new sheriff. But not so fast! Emma stalks in, informing everyone that Regina can’t actually appoint a sheriff; she can only nominate someone to take over for Graham. Meaning that before Sidney gets the badge, he’s going to have to beat Emma in a fair election. What a timely storyline!

Fairyback: Rumpel feeds the beggar at his cottage, bemoaning his fate. But the beggar believes Rump doesn’t have to sit back and let Baelfire be stolen. In fact, all he has to do to save his son is break into the duke’s castle and find a mystical dagger inscribed with the Scary Dark One’s true name. Once he takes it, Rump can control the inky baddie and force him to do his bidding — or take the Dark power for himself. Sounds like child’s play, right?

NEXT: Wrong!

After Regina and Gold have their weekly confrontation, Emma finds herself lower than ever. Sidney’s published a front-page article in the Mirror alleging that she gave birth to Henry while incarcerated; when she tries to reassure Henry that at least she has Mr. Gold on her side, he moans that Gold’s even worse than the Mayor. Geez, Henry, what will it take to please you?

Emma then storms into Regina’s office — you’d think the mayor might invest in some better security one of these days — and the ladies have another confrontation. This time, Regina warns Emma not to get in bed with Gold, the only guy in town more evil than she is. “I’m not getting into bed with anyone,” Emma answers. “I’m just fighting fire with….” FIRE!

Actual fire! Regina’s house-office is ablaze, and to make matters worse, the mayor’s ankle is pinned down by a bit of debris. (Earlier, Gold snarked about subtlety not being Regina’s strong suit; the same could be said for Once itself.) Emma runs off as though she’s going to leave Regina behind — but no, she’s just gone to find a fire extinguisher. She puts out a few of the flames and manages to carry the Mayor to safety as a breathless crowd of townspeople watch. Nothing like an instance of heroism to bolster your chances in a local election, right?

But Emma realizes that there’s something fishy about this fire. In fact, the whole thing stinks — just like Mr. Gold’s odoriferous lanolin. (A sentence I never thought I would write.) She confronts the pawn shop owner and accuses him of starting the fire. While he doesn’t exactly confess, Gold does say smoothly that it would take something big for the outsider to win an election against one of Regina’s minions. He couldn’t have just had her rescue a few kittens in trees, or something?

There’s fire afoot in Fairyworld too: Consumed by thoughts of saving his son, Rumpel sets the wicked Duke’s castle aflame and stalks inside to get the dagger that controls the Dark One. I guess just sneaking in and grabbing it would have been too subtle.

He races into the woods, thrusting the dagger aloft and calling out Zoso — the Dark One’s true name. Zoso appears and, after a tense bit of conversation, Rumpel stabs him straight through the chest…only to discover that Zoso and that suspiciously helpful beggar are actually the same person. So wait, maybe you shouldn’t ever give beggars money. Fairy tales have conflicting lessons!

In any case, Zoso’s plan all along was to have Rumpel kill him — thus freeing him from the curse of being the Dark One. “My life was such a burden. You’ll see — magic always comes with a price. And now it’s yours to pay,” he says before expiring. And then Rumpelstiltskin’s own name appears on the dagger in Zoso’s place.

NEXT: Rumpel Unleashed: The Stabbening

Back in Storybrooke, the Quickest Election of All Time has already progressed to the debate stage. After Sidney promises to embrace the values of honesty, neighborliness and strength, Emma does him one better by displaying those qualities outright. She comes clean about Gold’s involvement in the fire, saying that she never wanted to win the election through such a dirty setup. As the stunned crowd takes in her confession, Gold gets up and slowly limps out of the room.

Convinced that she’s thrown the election away, Emma decides to drown her sorrows in the only restaurant in town. (Side note: Ruby, for the love of Granny, please put on some pants!) Soon enough, she’s not alone — Henry appears, and he’s carrying one of Graham’s old walkie talkies. Her honesty has inspired him to throw away his cynicism and re-embrace Operation Cobra. Yay! (And boo.)

And as it turns out, most of the townspeople think just like Henry. A few seconds later, an irritated Regina waltzes in and tells Emma that by standing up to Mr. Gold, she’s won the townspeople’s confidence. She’s also officially earned that sheriff’s badge.

Our final fairyback is an intense, effective little scene. Hordor and his goons arrive at Rumpel’s cottage to take Baelfire. But before they can, they’re attacked by the new Dark One: Rumpelstiltskin himself, transformed into a powerful, bloodthirsty, dentally challenged monster. The formerly meek spinner commands Hordor to kiss his boot — and when the knight kneels, Rump swiftly breaks his neck, then systematically stabs each of his remaining men. Then he turns to Baelfire and hisses, “Do you feel safe, son?” One word: Awesome.

And Mr. Gold’s last scene is a doozy as well. He finds Emma in her new office, where he informs her that she’s been playing into his hands all along. He had a hunch she would out him, thus winning over the townspeople who fear him. “I know how to recognize a desperate soul,” Gold tells her, echoing the words Zoso once said to his fairytale counterpart.

When an astounded Emma asks why he went to all this trouble, Gold tells her it’s because she owes him a favor — and now that she’s in a position of power, he’ll be sure to collect. Moral of the story, kids: Unless his name is Monty Hall, never ever EVER make a deal with anyone. Ever.

Next week, we delve into the story of Hansel and Gretel, which includes an appearance by the awesome Emma Caulfield — a.k.a. Buffy‘s Anya — as the Blind Witch. I’m pumped, but it’ll also be pretty difficult to top tonight’s ep. What did you think of “Desperate Souls”? If he wasn’t there already, has Rumpel/Gold officially become your favorite character? And finally, did it bother anyone else that Baelfire didn’t have an accent?

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Once Upon a Time

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

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