Rumplestiltskin’s Journey and Transformation in Season Four
By Teresa Martin - @Teresa__Martin
Rumplestiltskin went through a major transformation in Season Four. He went from the hero who saved Storybrooke into full-on villain and ended in stasis with a clear heart and all of the Dark Curse sucked from him. What is to come remains to be seen, but I believe hints of his journey were given throughout the season.
His shift, swiftly, and largely off-screen, was so abrasive in 4a that there was a lot of speculation that he might be under the Snow Queen’s Shattered Sight Curse. He was too confident, too indulgent in the worst aspects of what his character could achieve. It was so drastic that he even began “confiding” in Hook, who, strangely, took on the role of Belle in a way, as the exhorter, the preacher. And Rumple met solid walls until he hit rock bottom, not only after Belle banished him, but even after as it appeared he really couldn’t see the fallacy of his plans.. I speculated that he, being the master manipulator, was actually playing everyone like violins. As it turns out, I was wrong. It really was a simple as what we were seeing. That said, I believe that looking backwards from “Operation Mongoose Parts One and Two” can shed some light on his recent arc.
I would like to begin with the last few minutes of the Season Four Finale: Emma becoming the Dark One.
Rumplestiltskin is under The Dark Curse
Emma understood The Dark Curse and exactly what was going to happen when she took it upon herself. She turned to her parents and told them that they would have to save her. Hook too. Her declaration of love seemed to me not only just a romantic admission, it was also a plea. Emma loves him, and if he loves her, he will also have to play a role in saving her. She understood what Belle used to about being The Dark One: saving will be beyond her. Once she becomes Dark, there will be no hope for her. It is a curse. Curses take away free-will, and worse, are seductive. Like people taking their first shot of heroin, it is impossible without outside intervention to be cured. Regina can actively work towards Emma's rescue. And lastly, perhaps most significantly, Henry as The Heart of the Truest Believer and Author logically could be front and center.
Love, all love—in all its forms: parents for their children, friendship and romantic is supernatural and hence the cure for darkness.
But what does this say about Rumplestiltskin? Exactly the same thing it says about Emma. He was under a curse for hundreds of years. So all of his actions since he was tricked by Zoso into killing him have been from a man to a great degree without free-will, without selflessness, and who is a complete junkie.
Which brings me to my next point:
Rumplestiltskin is an Addict
All of Rumplestiltskin's choices, especially in Season Four, show a man who was in complete bender mode. When under the influence of one’s drug there is no reason or truth, any lie will suffice to keep the fix, to take the next drug, the next drink. Therefore, Rumple grasped at everything except the truth that he was at fault in his desperate attempts at freeing himself while keeping his power. This transferred also to his belief in 4b that to cure his dying heart he needed the Author to rewrite his story. It was an easy answer, and, as with all addictions, the easy answer was impossible, as was seen in his failures at every turn.
I believe this point was also made explicit in his marriage. For every addict, there is an enabler. Alcoholics Anonymous has a spin-off called Al-Anon for those whose loved ones are addicted. Enabling and self-deception can be just as much an addiction as the drug. This is Belle. She “forgot” that Rumple was under a curse perhaps because she spent so long consumed with the idea of redeeming him. She spent all of 4a deceiving herself, and finally during “Heroes and Villains” admitted she had lost herself in trying to save him. Indeed she had. And there is no greater proof that Belle became an addict than in her shallow, shockingly quick choice to date Will. She could not stand on her own two feet without a man—even a man madly in love with somebody else—for more than a few weeks. The more we saw her in 4b, the more we saw the signs of a junkie along with its mood swings. These were accompanied by quick “happy” fixes especially in how she would beam at Will without seeming to notice his seasick visage every time he was with her. Moreover, she abandoned her library, a symbol of her independence and dignity from within. Instead, she preferred an attempt to shoe-horn what looked like a reluctant Will into what she and Rumple had. From insisting on staying in Rumple’s shop, to sharing meals and romantic moments there, and even that disturbing echo of the Hamburger Date at Granny’s . . . she came off as oblivious and rather pitiable. Very uncomfortable scenes. I am aware that there are other interpretations to Belle’s actions. I come to this, my personal conclusion, since it is to me most congruent with what was presented on-screen both before and during 4b.
Addiction, in all its forms is a powerful thing, and takes something near supernatural to hold it at bay. Hence, Belle’s addiction to enabling and her illusion of its solution with Will can illustrate Rumple’s state more than any other scenes presented to the viewers.
But paradoxically, I believe Rumple's addiction makes him a solid anti-hero because of the fact that
Rumplestiltskin Knows Himself Better Than Anybody
It is always easy for Rumple, especially around Belle, to state exactly who is is. A “monster” he told her in “Broken.” He is also a man who sees himself as unloved. In “Skin Deep” he freely admitted “I’m a difficult man to love”, “No one could ever love me” he screamed to Belle, and then in “Operation Mongoose Part Two” he told Belle that he could not believe in the possibility of his redemption through her for “Who could ever love me?” Perhaps it might have been useful to have heard that last line sometime in 4a to give some perspective to the viewers, but it was left to the last. Rumple knows that he is unlovable and a horrible man; perhaps because of his curse, but also because he is not certain how much is within himself or the Dark Curse. He told Belle before his proposal that “Not all of it was Zelena” when she tried to excuse his 3b actions. There is a dark side in him. Moreover, unconditional love is harder to accept than hatred, and because of this he unconsciously pushed Belle away at every turn after their marriage. He had already tried explicitly pushing her away. His hatred of Hook also likely flows from his self-knowledge. Milah's affair with Hook proved that even before the curse he was a flawed man.
But the important thing is that Rumple knows he is unlovable. He is weak, and more often than not, selfish.
However, that is ultimately strength, not weakness. For because of his self-knowledge, he is capable of manifesting his next quality:
Rumplestiltskin is a Hero
It takes heroic virtue to do good when there is no hope for reward and no thanks is coming. One does the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. Rumplestiltskin did this when he went to save Henry in Neverland, expecting his death to result, and when he killed himself to save his loved ones, inadvertently all of Storybrooke’s inhabitants, during“Coming Home”. He also recognizes that he harmed Regina. One of the most moving scenes to me in Season Four was when he took Regina by the hand and said he wanted a Happy Ending for her.
He knows that what he’s done to others was wrong.
Villains don’t acknowledge that.
Rumple also made a gesture that I’m certain would even give Charming a run for his money: he let his True Love go. He gave his blessing to Belle leaving him: his Belle, his sweetheart, his wife, his redemption, his Beauty . . . with a man he despised. Not once, but twice! Because he believed that Will made her happy.
And he said he did so because he did not deserve her after the way he deceived her.
That takes courage. That takes heroism. And that is completely unselfish.
That is a hero.
Lastly, there is his greatest act: in 3b Rumple made the ultimate choice between power and True Love: he chose Bae. When he was faced with saving his son, or grabbing the dagger, he took his son unto himself. We saw in that action True Love, and it also led to what I feel needs to be explored more explicitly:
Rumplestiltskin was Abused
A mad-woman insanely “in love” with Rumple got his dagger. She proceeded to place him into a cage, and psychologically tortured him, holding over his head the knowledge that at any moment she could order him to kill. Because she had indeed done so when she ordered him to kill Belle and forced him to nearly kill young Roland, as his father pled for his life, Rumplestiltskin knew this fear was not idle..
That messes a person up something fierce.
But there is one other thing that messes somebody up: non-consent.
The scene in the hospital in 4b brought this to mind, the way Rumple shrank from every “loving” touch Zelena gave him, and his absolute horror and immobility as she cut off his air.
There was a memory within his response.
I nearly didn’t go here.
And I wouldn’t be if we didn’t have the explicit “Dubious Consent” plot with Zelena and Robin Hood.
That “twist” showed that Zelena was capable of what I believe happened.
There was likely a horrible violation of Rumplestiltskin that he would have been powerless to stop with Zelena in control of the dagger. Any victim of sexual assault will tell you that you never, NEVER, recover from this. A person learns to live with it, may move on, but it haunts every day. There are many different paths these victims, sadly, take.
One of them is self-destruction.
If this is indeed in Rumple’s psyche, it explains why he was so incapable of dealing with the events of Season Four in a rational manner. He lost his mind in blind obsession to cleave himself from the dagger, making certain that what he suffered in 3b never happened again. That brings some logic to his sudden change in 4a. There was no “debrief” of his horrible year as Zelena’s “puppet.” Belle wasn’t there to help, and it wouldn’t be in Rumple’s nature to ask her to share that burden.
This is dark. Very dark.
And leads finally to what we saw in the season finale:
There Has Been a Change in Rumplestiltskin
I will always worship at the altar of “Skin Deep” because it is to me the definitive “Beauty and the Beast” for Once Upon A Time. And I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get the Beauty and the Beast ending I thought was coming, given the drawn-out emotional agony of Season Four. I was wrong. I’ll admit it. I thought it was leading to True Love’s Kiss as a logical conclusion to the arc. Rumple’s darkness being taken away from him by the Apprentice was an anti-climax for me. But that is the direction that the writers chose, and so that is the direction with which I must go in my analysis.
And I actually really like it!
Rumplestiltskin is now a “clean slate.” The parts of him that were of the Dark Curse are now gone. Hence, the conflict that could come from him revisiting who he is will arrive without that baggage. He can possibly to face what is “him” rather than what in the past could have been explained away by the curse. This is also good for Belle. It’s time for her to put her money where her mouth has been. Does she really love him? Does she love the man behind the Beast? Well, we have potential to see that now!
We haven’t seen this since “Manhattan.” How much rich material is waiting to be explored! And in a way, this could free Rumple to become a character in his own right: face up to what is his true motivation, what does family mean to him? What does Henry mean to him? And, yes, what does his marriage mean?
I believe that in 3b the Rumbelle marriage happened too soon because of what happened in Season Four. Its occurrence made things a little too problematic because it cast into doubt that marriage symbolizes Happily Ever After as endgame, as it has to with fairy tale characters. Not immediate happiness, not without struggle . . . fans understand that is necessary in a story. But declaring negative reactions to Rumple's turn are based on the audience's lack of comprehension of the need for conflict in a story . . . that is to me is a straw-man response. The fans are not upset by legitimate conflict. The hurt derives from the fear that crushing the Rumbelle marriage provides doubt in Hope as a theme of Once, and that will have repercussions. It portends that other True Loves, and their potential future onscreen marriages, could be next on the chopping block.
However, now that everything is stripped to bare bones, this melancholic prospect has an opportunity to be negated. A redo is possible. We can see again that good does win in the end!
To use an analogy, this could be what The Wrath of Khan was to the Star Trek Movie franchise.
For being good can be just as exciting as being evil. As Rumple finds himself, and reclaims his humanity, he has chances not only with Belle and Henry, but Regina, his “bromance” with Charming, and his “shipping” of Snowing so prevalent in Season One.
Everything can now come full circle.
And with Rumple’s knowledge of magic, perhaps even white magic now, he, Regina, and Henry as Author can kick butt and take no prisoners in teaming up to Save the Savior.
Possibilities. And my own personal speculations.
Nothing is more fun than a blank piece of paper waiting to be written upon!
Because it is a blank page, I believe it must be stated that that it is likely there really is not much more to be said on Once about Rumplestiltskin and Belle as separate characters, and also Rumbelle/Beauty and the Beast. I believe firmly this story is in its denouement and will likely be a “B” possibly a “C” story in Season Five. Not quite an afterthought, but a story winding down. Rumple’s (and Belle’s) arc in Season Four contained stark 180’s without adequate development. This does not happen to characters if their fate is a priority to the writers. And that is ok. At the end of the day, Once is the story of said writers and I believe they wrote in bold letters through the brilliant Season Four finale that the arc of the Once Series is firmly in the hands of the Emma and her magnificent son. And I love it! Rumbelle was a fun, albeit frustrating, ride and I will always have fond memories of how it propelled me back into writing after a ten-year hiatus. It reinvigorated a love for my favorite fairy tale and stories in general. For that I am whole-heartedly grateful to Adam and Eddy.
So into the denouement we go! It will be perfect, I believe, and well done. And then for the rest of the series:
Long Live the Savior, our Ugly Duckling: Emma Swan.