The newly evil Rumpelstiltskin surveys the soldiers he has just slayed.

BHmmm, what pop culture reference should I use to indicate that my weekly episode reviews have returned? A variation of “Here’s Johnny?” Maybe play off of the “back from outer space” line from “I Will Survive?” Or should I pay homage to “It’s Britney, b***h!” How about, Chris is back, back again. Chris is back, tell a friend. Guess who’s back? Guess who’s back? Guess who’s back…

Nobody? Eminem? “Without Me?” From “The Eminem Show?” I don’t even know you people anymore.

Anyway, TV has returned from it’s holiday break as we have, and the midseason premiere of OUAT was a grim reminder. Incidentally, that might work for this show, though it may seem counterintuitive with its direct competitor being fairy-tale filled procedural, Grimm. Sorry, I had to.

We begin with the sadistic host of “Let’s Make a Deal,” Rumpelstilitlskin in a more humbling form. This fairyback (fairy tale flashback for those who lost their short-term memory while gaining holiday weight) harkens back to a simpler time for Rumpy when he was still on his spindle, but living in the countryside, spooling coveted wool. Alas, beyond the hillside the Ogre Wars are taking the lives of countless youth (I need a spinoff directed by Peter Jackson please…post haste!) and the Duke is rounding up girls and boys as young as fourteen to join in the cause. Here the episode went strangely political, condemning the military industrial complex (not really) as Rumpy grew worried for his son (GASP), dreading the day of his fourteenth birthday in just 3 days, when he too would be forced to fight. When he tries to whisk his son away, running from his problems, the Duke’s entourage finds Rumpy and berates him, They tease him about his name, his limp and how he went AWOL and lost his wife due to his cowardice. The wounds are still fresh for him, but the shame doesn’t stop him from submitting himself before the Duke and kissing his boot upon request. Afterwards, an old beggar (played by Brad Dourif) gives him shelter, and his ominous yet comforting speech implies he may have more to offer him.

Meanwhile in present time “real world” Maine, Emma, (and Regina superficially) are mourning the death of Sheriff Graham. Emma after two weeks though feels it is time to take up his mantle and protect the citizens of Storybrooke, but Regina will tolerate nothing of the sort. She ousts her, appointing Sydney Glass (played by the brilliant Breaking Bad alum Giancarlo Esposito), editor-in-chief at the Storybrooke Daily (wait for it) Mirror (The queen’s magic mirror is his fairy tale land persona). Emma is surprisingly behind the 8-ball on this one, and sort of just gives in to mindless brooding before pawn shop owner and Rumpy’s real world alter-ego, Mr. Gold, offers Emma his services as benefactor. He’s like a local government level lobbyist without a finite cause, but it doesn’t stop him from corrupting and extorting! His first act as the OUAT version of Karl Rove is to point out what seemed obvious to me, Regina is overextending her mayoral authority. As the town charter states: the mayor can nominate a candidate, but the town must ultimately decide by election. Now Emma’s back in the running and the Queen smells something fishy. Actually more like sheepy…since he using that sheep crap oil to stain woodwork…oh never mind.

Back in the FTL (the much less crunk cousin of the ATL), the Old Beggar plays the role of “tell us exactly what’s about to happen” Man by encouraging Rumpy to take another path besides flight. I enjoyed Robert Carlyle as Rumps very much in this scene. Sure he consumes the small screen with his over-the-top style, but I genuinely pitied this man, and identified with his struggle, whereas most of the fairy tale characters have displayed such naivete that their descent into evildoings did not surprise nor pain. Beggar, who is suspiciously knowledgeable (foreboding) tells of a magic dagger that when possessed controls the will of the biggest Sauron rip-off EVER a.k.a The Dark One. Currently, it is the Duke and champion of the Ogre Wars who owns the dagger. Without it, he would be powerless to whomever owned it. Rumpy shies away from being the slavemaster of pure evil (which sort of sounds like a redundancy), and Beggar proffers that instead of harnessing the power he can take it for himself. How may you ask? Well, Rumpy tells us five minutes later (through his exposition to his son) that if he uses the dagger to kill The Dark One, he shall become the new Dark One. Of course Rumps believes he can use the power to bring all of the drafted children back to their parents, so for good. Obviously this won’t happen, and the son already starts to question his father’s motives, probing him about if his mother really died or just left him due to shame. He mumbles that she is dead, which doesn’t seem to comfort the boy. So what’s the plan? Apparently these magical fortresses are made of half wood, so….burn baby burn!

Over in high stakes, yet no stakes, Storybrooke the campaign for Sheriff is in full swing. Regina wastes no time in beginning her smear campaign for The Chicken Man—Sorry, wrong and infinitely better show (Breaking Bad is awesome)—I mean, Sydney Glass, using anonymous sources to divulge that Henry, her adopted son, but natural son of Emma, was born in prison. Emma reluctantly admits to the boy that it’s true and starts for the first time to doubt whether their is any point to fighting his Evil Queen mother since she will always win if she continues to play dirty. This development was extremely encouraging to me, because since the pilot Henry would not shut his precious little mouth about how important it all was, about how good must triumph over evil, that Emma is the savior, blabitty blah blah blah. Needless to say when the kid started having some doubts I was THRILLED that maybe the kid, and the real world struggles would be more nuanced and not so dire all the time. Maybe we could just spend some time getting to know and love the characters of Storybrooke, maybe the whole parallel between FTL and real world would be less overt and the Queen could stop being so undoubetdly awful and might have I don’t know, some emotional complexity? Too much to ask probably, and not why people are tuning in I’m sure.

With Mr. Gold now in her corner though, he takes his steps towards amassing her political capital—by orchestrating a scenario where she saves Regina from a burning building. Wait what? Well, Gold sets up a contraption which creates a mini-explosion when one of the doors in City Hall opens creating a small wall of fire that he just KNEW Emma would be courageous enough carry her mortal enemy through. But how did he know Regina’s leg would get mildly crushed and she wouldn’t be able to walk. Also Emma is assuredly the kind of person who wouldn’t leave someone to die, but what if she were the one incapacitated, what if they both only had minor scratches and Regina walked out of her own accord? The idea behind it, that Gold would give Emma a chance to be the hero is an interesting commentary on public image in a time where the Republicans are scurrying about trying to find ANYONE who doesn’t harm conservative sensibilities, but logistically Gold couldn’t have “planned” that. It worked out nicely, but he is just too infallible of a evil mastermind, and his tactics required more than a Ben Linus-esque (LOST connections!) psychological manipulation (giving you an idea, and you making you believe it’s your own). Emma suspects Gold’s influence when she smells “that sheep crap oil” among the wreckage, and Gold neither denies nor confirms her suspicions with vague allusions to what he would have done if he had done it, doing a fine tribute to O.J. All Emma knows is she doesn’t want the kind of benefactor who will risk lives for a P.R. stunt.

In typical OUAT fashion, the parallels abound and Rumpy uses wool to burn down the half-wooden fortress of the Duke, all-too-easily stealing the dagger that reads the name of The Dark One—Zoso (okay…)—whom he summons so that he may steal his powers. It is revealed when Rumpy stabs him that…Yup, we ALL guessed it, the old beggar. Apparently being evil is quite the burden on your soul, and Bozo wanted out. We get beat over the head with the “Magic has a price” platitude again and Rumpy starts to bronze like Snooki, with even the same dead eyes. Then as his son is about to be forced into fighting the gruesome, red sky-inducing Ogre Wars, Rumpy appears for the first time in his Dark One form and slays all of the recruiters in epicly badass, and cheaply choreographed style, frightening his son of course with what he has become. Echoing Darth Vader, he loses all he loved and wished to protect because he sold his soul in order to protect it. But now as an audience we can all rejoice that swindling, murderous, greedy Rumpelstiltskin is BACK BABY.

Emma mulls over what to do about Gold’s PR bump as the debate nears and FINALLY we get the scene with the endearing friendship between her and Mary Margaret, where she opens up about why she even cares to be Sheriff. Her budding feelings for Graham aside, she wants to be someone in Henry’s life, even if she can’t be his mother. So instead she will be the hero. But what is the heroic thing to do? Then Archie (a.k.a Jiminy Cricket) begins as moderator absolutely infuriating me with “Use your conscience!” and a non-joke that incites, “Crickets.” Seriously, we get it! They are all fairy tale characters. Instead of making cheap allusions, maybe flesh out the personalities to create organic comparisons with their legendary traits? Yeah, they can’t hear me. After Glass recites overly rehearsed babble, Emma takes the stage and bravely divulges what really happened with that fire, implicating Gold, and even herself in the hoax. Gold leaves the audience, and Regina smiles devilishly. Due to the laws of  happily ever after though, Emma wins the election anyway, as her gall and fortitude shine through, endearing her to the people. Also…lucky for me…Henry is so encouraged by her willingness to stand up to evil he announces that Operation Cobra/Make everyone realize they are fairy tales, is back on! Goody!

Oh, and there’s one more thing. Remember how I didn’t buy that Gold could orchestrate her heroism in the first place, not being able to know for sure that the fire set-up would pan out? Well, it turns out that Gold planned all along for Emma to save Regina AND expose him for faking the danger for political gain. Huh? I mean I am familiar with long cons, and Horowitz and Kitsis had their fair share on LOST, but no way. Yes, there is a psychological precedent that Emma would behave that way, but there are so many variables, so many balls in the air there, I don’t know whether this reveal is absurdly awesome or awesomely absurd, but I bought it. If only because his goal was to make her Sheriff so that the favor she owes him, from WAY BACK in the season’s fourth episode where he pulled strings to make sure a pregnant girl (FTL’s Cinderella) kept her child, could be adequately handled from her position of authority.

Despite all the ways OUAT has opposite-of-shattered my expectations with its continued devotion to groanworthy character motivations and dialogue along with a rigid adherence to parallelism in its least subtle form I am encouraged by Rumpelstiltskin. He is a much more intriguing evil than the Queen by far. Whereas Regina/EQ makes her objectives  painfully obvious, and openly destroys lives to a point where a Storybrooke coup d’etat seems abundantly necessary, Rumps keeps his endgame close to the chest. Why did he make the curse in the first place? What vested interest does he have in the Queen’s success, or failure? And where the Queen’s personality is carbon copied in the real world, alter ego Mr. Gold seems to just be a more subdued Rumps, but is he? What could the favor he is holding against Emma have to do with his FTL prosperity? I am more interested in a con artist than I am someone who is openly ruining people’s lives. I fear more what I can’t see. Regina will be easy to defeat once these Storybrooke imbeciles wake up and smell the sheep crap oil!

OUAT continues to spurn my affections like an ex I don’t quite hate yet in retrospect, refusing to capitalize on its best attributes, (i.e. Mary and David, the cutest should-be couple ever, are only allotted a solid two minutes of very shoehorned interaction) and abusing me with its worst like its cheeseball plot twists and predictable storytelling. I’m continually encouraged though by the fairybacks’ subversion of happily ever after, even if the concept has already been beaten to death in it’s creators previous series (again, LOST, it’s wonderful). Now that the real world, despite its almost sitcom-like end-of-episode resolutions, has more at stake with Mr. Gold plainly stating that he is an even greater enemy than Regina, I finally feel like these somewhat lovable characters (mainly Emma and Mary Margaret) have something truly frightening to fight against beside Regina’s petty power trips. As the weeks go on she proves to be small potatoes, the popular girl who will always get her way until her adoring populace finds a more benevolent force to support. Adversely, Rumps/Mr. Gold is lurking in the shadows, unbeknownst to most, awaiting his chance to truly destroy any sense of tranquility these noble townsfolk once had. Mostly on this conditional basis of potential, and only partially for this episode’s intrinsic value, my “new year, new me’ positive outlook (not really) shines down favorably on a darkening, murky Storybrooke with a B*.

*A better overall show would have received a B-/C+for this quality of episode, but for a show this shaky in terms of finding its sweet spot, it’s one of it’s best efforts so far aside from the Cinderella episode, The Price of Gold.

About The Author

Christopher Peck is a former Blast television editor

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