Once Upon a Time 2.04 "The Crocodile"

A tv review article by: Laura Akers


Last week’s episode was good. It really was. But it had one major flaw: Rumplestiltskin wasn’t in it.

Robert Carlyle’s Rumplestiltskin is, hands down, the best thing about Once Upon a Time. Part trickster, part wounded soul, part monster, Rumple’s constantly shifting personality not only keeps us guessing (important in a show about well-known characters) but makes us feel: sympathy, antipathy, everything but apathy.

This week’s episode sparks in us the whole wide range of emotional reactions. We hurt when Rumple is forced to ask his wife, “You don’t really wish I’d died during the Ogre Wars, do you?” knowing the answer as well as he does. We cringe when he is forced to let his wife go because he knows a lame man has no chance against a pirate (and dying would leave Baelfire without any parent). We thrill when he confronts Hook as the Dark One. And we despair when Belle tells him that she never wants to see him again.

But it also makes us think by raising some interesting questions. Is Milah a selfish bitch for abandoning her husband and son, or is she striking a blow for women everywhere, those trapped in loveless marriages with no hope for growth? Is Belle better off forgetting that she’s ever been in love, if it means escaping the myriad dangers explicit in a relationship with a man called “the Dark One”? Is Rumple an avenging angel when he attacks his sexual replacement upon hearing of the death of his son’s mother, or just an ordinary man caught up in an Oedipal nightmare?

But all these aside, it is another construct of Freud’s that makes the character of Rumplestiltskin so fascinating. In 1920, Sigmund Freud published a paper called “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” in which he posited that our psyches are split into three parts: the id, superego, and ego.

The id is unbridled desire: for love, for food, for revenge, for anything that can instantly gratify. This is Rumple as the Dark One. He possesses untold power to manipulate the world around him in order to achieve his desires, and he exercises it largely without a thought of the consequences for anyone else.  He wants what he wants and there is literally no one to check him.

The superego, on the other hand, is the (culturally) imposed conscience: the part of us which clings to rules, often without regard for circumstance or larger issues of justice. In this episode, Belle takes on this role, imposing a no-magic rule on Rumple with no wish to consider the possibility that he might be trying to do good with it—even when he saves her with it. She makes imperious demands on him—demands that, like the superego itself, are absolutely correct…in a vacuum. And the Storybrooke, with its complicated relationships, dynamic personalities, and interaction with other dimensions, is hardly a vacuum.

Which leaves the ego. According to Freud, the ego was the part of us that works to balance out the opposing pulls of the id and superego—to find a middle ground that allows us to be healthy and happy members of a larger society. And it is this struggle that defines Rumple: he is neither good nor bad. Rather he is a quite ordinary man loosed from the normal constraints of the superego by the enormous power he wields. Society cannot punish him for his transgressions so he acts according to his desires.

But one of the most powerful desires of all is the need to love and be loved. And Rumplestiltskin, more than almost anything else, wants both of those things. It is his primary motivation: to find his beloved son, and to be worthy of the love of Belle. The former is what made him into the Dark One and what leads, indirectly, to his murder of his own wife. And his status as malevolent trickster is, in turn, the very thing that endangers his relationship with the long-suffering Belle. His only hope for happiness lies in finding a way to balance out the id unleashed by his power with the restraint demanded by his lover-as-superego.

Thus, despite the fact that Rumple can deal effectively with just about anything that might threaten him and his chance for happiness, he is still is great danger. And like most of us, that danger comes not from outside, but from within. This week’s episode cast that conflict in the sharpest possible terms: has, as he suggests, his power ceased to be useful in his quest for his son and instead become a crutch which serves primarily to hobble him? His wife left their child in order to go with the man she loved. Will Rumple likewise turn his back on Baelfire in order to have the love long denied him by the machinations of Regina and his own certainty that he is unlovable? Or can he find some kind of balance?

“The Crocodile” answers almost none of the questions that it raises, but in the best possible way. We have equal evidence of the potential for good and bad, redemption and revenge, in Rumplestiltskin. We know the path he’s on is a long one, plagued with twists and turns of progress and backsliding. And we want to be there every step of his way.

Laura Akers is a teacher by calling and a geek academic by nature. Her sporadic but often too-lengthy writing for Comics Bulletin (and her own personal musings) tend to revolve around issues of gender, sexuality, identity, politics, religion (and all the other things you’re not supposed to bring up in polite conversation) in TV/film/webseries narratives. You can get topical whiplash and occasionally offended by following her at @laurajakers  

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