Once Upon a Time: the courage to be vulnerable


Relationships are hard. Inevitably, everyone has an opinion about them, even when they’re not one of the two people in the relationship. Perhaps especially then, since it’s so easy and so clear cut to weigh and measure something from the outside. The sad truth is that there are those who will always judge another for who he/she loves, for who he/she has given his/her heart to. The saddest thing of all is when it is a family member, or someone whose opinion is held in high esteem.

Truly being in a relationship is fraught with emotional peril. For it to work, you have to be honest. You have to be vulnerable. You have to bear the ugly parts of yourself, not run away from them. Moreover, you have to fight for your relationship, for that other person. If you cannot fight for that other person, why would that other person fight for you? Like honesty, the hard work necessary is a two way street. When only one partner is doing the heavy lifting, something is rotten in Denmark.

Last night’s episode of Once Upon a Time (The Crocodile) was full of equal parts hardship and hope, love and loss, lesson and the object of that lesson. In Fairytale Land, we find a cowardly Rumplestiltskin, whose wife is longing for adventure. She resents him for being a coward (the quickest way to kill a relationship, btw, is to breed resentment). Supposedly, Milah is kidnapped by Killian Jones, who will later become Captain Hook (expertly portrayed by the dashing Colin O’Donoghue; this guy is wonderfully cheeky, having named his fans Hookers. A fact that nearly caused me to spit wine.). The cowardly Rumple goes to get her back, but is unable to fight for her, because of his debilitating fear. Hook, well-clad in leather and Johnny Depp’s leftover eyeliner, proclaims, “A man unwilling to fight for what he wants deserves what he gets.” And, you know, that’s true. Just as we accept the love we think we deserve (Perks of Being a Wallflower shout out), we are also bound those we choose to risk for – people, opportunities etc. We are what we dare. And if we do not dare, no one else loses but us.

Of course, we later learn that Hook and Rumplestiltskin encounter each other again, but Rumplestiltskin is the Dark One, brimming with power. It turns out his wife isn’t dead, as he thought; she ran away with the Captain, because she fell in love with him. This breaks his heart, not only for what that meant for him, but for how she abandoned their son. He exacts revenge by almost poetically ripping out Milah’s heart, perhaps as a metaphor for the emotional toll she took on him. Hook, who is not a clear cut bad guy, is obviously wrecked by this, which feeds into the idea that evil isn’t born – it’s made. As we find at the end of the episode, Hook and Cora are plotting to take a trip to Storybrooke.

What I loved most about this episode is the evolution of the Belle/Rumple relationship. In the beginning, Belle has a nightmare that exemplifies her fears. In it, he gives her a necklace (pretty, yes – but ornamental), gets in a fight with Leroy, and turns back into the Dark One. Once she wakes up, she spies him in the basement practicing magic, and his refusal to answer her questions makes her leave his home. Wisely, she tells him, “You don’t need power, Rumple. You need courage – to let me in.” That is what anyone in relationship needs: courage to honest. Courage to be vulnerable.

Rumplestiltskin, upon finding her gone, goes to David for help. While they are not friends, Rumple points out that he’s in a unique position to understand what he’s going through. This emotional appeal was a brave thing, because the Rumple we know would never ask anyone for him. David agrees, and they begin looking around Storybrooke for Belle.

Belle, of course, has the unfortunate experience of being kidnapped by her own father, who is absolutely horrified that she has fallen in love with the Dark One. This conversation is completely resonating for anyone who has ever loved someone that their parents disapproved of.

Belle: He wasn’t holding me captive. I choose to be with him.

Moe (Belle’s Dad): Are you saying you fell in love with him?

Belle: But I fear it may be over now.

Moe: It must be. Promise me you no longer love him. That you will no longer see him.

Belle: I’m not a child.”

Moe: You don’t understand what that man will do to you, what he’s already done.

Belle: No, you don’t understand. It’s my life.

Moe: Then I don’t have a choice. I’m sorry.

With that, Moe takes the overprotective parent angle to new, horrifying (somewhat PSYCHOTIC) heights: he has someone else take her to the mines, in order to forcible send her across the town boundary – which would erase her memory, thus her love. Stop and think about that for a second. I’m sure that in each parent’s life, there are things he/she would take away from his/her child. Most likely, it would be pain or a bad memory. But Moe, being dangerously ignorant and self-righteous, would rather his daughter lose who she is – than to be in love with someone he disapproves of. The implications there are truly revolting. It is one thing to disagree with someone; it is another to insist you know better and attempt to stamp out that person’s agency.

Meanwhile, David and Rumplestiltskin are asking around, and the townsfolk are not entirely helpful. It isn’t like anyone has Mr. Gold over for tea. And yet, there is this sweetly touching moment between these two, where Rumple is (again) raw and vulnerable – and very, almost sweetly human.

Rumple: Can I ask you a question – about you and Mary Margaret. How…how does that work?

David: Are you asking dating advice?

Rumple: Of course not, no.

David: Honesty. That’s how we did it. Hard work and being honest with one another.

Rumple: I don’t lie.

David: There’s a difference between literal truth and honesty of the heart. Nothing taught me that more than this curse.

This brilliantly illustrates how much Rumple doesn’t know about relationships – and draws a nice parallel between Cursed David and Rumplestiltskin. That version of David didn’t know how to be perfectly honest, and that’s what mucked things between him and Mary Margaret; he couldn’t be the brave version of Charming. Likewise, Rumplestiltskin is in foreign waters, because he hasn’t exactly had the best track record with relationships. His first wife pretended to be kidnapped, ran off with someone else, and constantly berated him. He was used to being the Monster (the Beast, the Crocodile), until he met Belle. Belle, it is fair to say, is his catalyst for change. Love, after all, is the most powerful magic.

David, Moe, Ruby, and Rumplestiltskin arrive in the mines in time to rescue Belle; Rumple makes his biggest display of magic yet, which impresses Ruby. He is relieved to find that they are not too late, that Belle hasn’t forgotten him. The beginning of this exchange has shades of their conversation in last season’s finale – “I do, Rumplestiltskin. I remember.”

Belle isn’t a weak character. She doesn’t immediately forgive the man she loves, simply because he rescues her. Instead, she challenges him, “Thank you for what you just did, but that doesn’t change that you’re too cowardly to be honest with me.” Belle isn’t afraid of the dark parts in him; what she fears is that he cannot show them to her.

Of course, somehow Crazy Moe thinks that he and his daughter will now live happily ever after – because nothing says Daughter, I love you! like trying to take who she is – but Belle is having absolutely none of that, declining to go with him, “After what you just tried to do to me? You’re not better, father. You don’t get to decide what I do or how I feel. If either of you cared about me, you would’ve listened. I don’t want to see either of you again, ever.” Beautifully, she leaves, with everyone else just gaping at her. I cheered a bit, while feeling horribly bad for Rumplestiltskin. Let’s face it: if my ideal type was personified as a character, it’d be him. And I’m not just saying that because I have a crush of Robert Carlyle. That doesn’t hurt of course.

The story does not end there. In her nightmare, Belle was given a very opulent necklace by Rumplestiltskin, something pretty – but impersonal. It was not a gift that says I know you; it was a gift that says I am buying you. Or, even, you are just another possession, like this necklace. However, in reality, someone leaves Belle a key to the library. It is, as we learn, from Rumplestiltskin. The parallel between these two gifts is remarkable. While the necklace conveyed an emotional disconnect, the key does the exact opposite: it shows that he sees her and appreciates what she holds dear. In other words, he gets her.

He is waiting for her in the library. And it is there that he is the bravest we’ve ever seen him, without a whisper magic or power. All he is armed with is his naked vulnerability, his love, and total honesty. He has, we see, taken David’s advice. The motive is not to win her back, but to be a worthy person.

Rumplestiltskin: I came because, you’re right. About me. I am a coward. I have been my entire life. I tried to make up for it by collecting power, and the power became so important that I couldn’t let go. Not even when that meant losing the most important person in my life.

Belle: Your son.

Rumple: Baelfire is him name. After he left, I dedicated myself to finding him. I went down many, many paths – until I found a curse that could take me to the land where he escaped.

Belle: Here.

Rumple: Now I find myself in this little town, with only thing left to do. Wait for the curse to be broken, so that I could leave and find him.

Belle: But instead of looking for him, you brought magic.

Rumple: Because I’m still a coward. Magic has become a crunch that I can’t walk without. And even if I could, I now know I can never leave this place.

Belle: Because anyone who leaves, forgets the people they love. So, when you go to look for balefire, you won’t know him.

Rumple: Magic comes with a price. Belle, I have to break this new curse. That’s why I was using magic, the night you saw me in the basement. I have lost so much that I loved. I didn’t want to lose you again, without you knowing everything. [Here, he touches her face, with such a loving gesture. I am not ashamed to say that it melted my heart.] Goodbye, Belle.

What is love, if not forgiving? What is love if not a display of difficult honesty? Belle sees the pain of what he’s going through, what he’s gone through. She sees, through that conversation, his ache. The one he has carefully hidden from the world. The mad desire to find his son consumed him in Fairytale Land. In a horrible twist of fate, it might be his release of magic that rendered him unable to go in search of Bae. The question hanging in the air is: if he hadn’t release magic, would he be able to cross the town line without consequence?

Before he can leave the library, Belle stops him.

Gold: Have you ever had a hamburger?

Rumple: Yes, of course.

Belle: Well, I haven’t. But I hear that Grannies makes a great one. Maybe, maybe we could try it sometime.

Rumple: I would like that.

That is the beginning of forgiveness. It is a new, honest start. It is also the promise of a date. I think that it’s interesting that Belle knows exactly who she is, and what she wants, even though she’s been absent from the world for 28 years. She is experiencing so many things for the first time, and yet, she is secure in herself. She has an almost childlike delight in the things we (as everyday people) perhaps take for granted. The little pleasures, like iced tea and pancakes for breakfast. The delight of sharing a meal with someone, something that’s new. It is a simple thing, but so very important. When we begin to take those moments for granted, we begin to take each other for granted – we take life for granted. She takes nothing for granted. And I love that.

While Belle portrays our very best self when in love (brave, honest, strong, and willing to FIGHT – even if that means fighting the other person), Rumplestiltskin reminds us that we all have the potential to be cowardly – to run away and wall ourselves off. However, he also reminds us that we are more than who we have been. We are more than our past. We have the ability to change, to be braver and more honest. The most important thing we can do in a relationship is to be honest, to share the messy parts of ourselves, trusting the other person more than our fear. To offer up the darkest parts of ourselves to the person that we love, without ulterior motive. Because no one is truly a coward in love. Love itself makes us braver, stronger, and truer. Flaws and mistakes are not who we are; they are just things that we have done.

Now, a few small points, just for fun. Rumplestiltskin goes a bit Princess Bride on occasion, which I adore. He says truly and true as twooly and twu, not unlike the bishop in the marriage scene between Buttercup and Humperdink. Additionally, Captain Hook uttered a Buffy shout out, when he instructed the cowardly Rumplestiltskin on the fine arts of duelling, “The pointy end goes in the other guy.” Between the Game of Thorns flower shop, and that, I did a geeky dance of happy.

  1. October 23, 2012 at 5:20 pm

    Very insightful about the characters’ motives and weaknesses in Once Upon a Time–I enjoyed reading this!

  2. October 26, 2012 at 5:54 pm

    [“This breaks his heart, not only for what that meant for him, but for how she abandoned their son.”]

    But Rumplestiltskin was guilty of the same thing by the time of his second encounter with Hook. Murder by hypocrisy is a little tacky to me.

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