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Once Upon a Time: Skin Deep

“I would never suggest a young woman kiss a man that kept her captive. What kind of message is that?”

I’ve praised the great Jane Espenson before, and I won’t do so at such length again here. But I will point out that Espenson has the remarkable ability to turn dross into gold while still maintaining a show’s identity. She did precisely that in this latest Once entry, bringing sweetness to a rather annoying character and, finally, finally, finally, creating some progress in the show’s overarching narrative.

Once is a difficult show to love. I don’t mind the cheap effects, the silly wigs, or the stilted language of the fairybacks: they’re part of its charm. But lately I’ve felt like the show has been dragging its feet, in large part because the fractured narrative structure wasn’t very well planned. On Lost, characters were mostly separate in their flashbacks, but we gained knowledge about them that was relevant for their “present-day” interactions together on the Island. But on Once the characters are often separate in the present and only tangentially related in the fairybacks, which makes the flashbacks less relevant for the grand narrative of a town’s inability to understand itself in the present. Additionally, a flashback about Cinderella/Ashley, for instance, starts to seem irrelevant if we don’t see Ashley on a weekly basis in the present.

“Skin Deep” solved that problem quickly, bringing new mom Ashley back into the fold, albeit only tangentially. While that story was just a minor point, it directly addressed some of the major questions of this episode, of the show, and of fairy tales generally: what happens after happily ever after? The answer: the hard work of living, which is sometimes rewarding and sometimes involves working at a cannery. (Aren’t those all in China now?) Prince Charming’s relationship with Mary Margaret, meanwhile, is running into the same problem: how is it possible to be happy when someone’s “ever after” is adulterous?

Rumpelstiltskin (which is the most difficult word I’ve ever tried to spell) has his own love problems. In this week’s fairyback, he’s all evil bluster and no bite. His apparent desire to steal the Emilie de Ravine’s princess of Australia Some Magical Province to “manage” his “large estates” (tee-hee!) really wasn’t that evil. He just wanted a housekeeper, and he got more than he bargained for.

Oh, the irony! Rumpie’s mercenary nature was trumped by the simplest of things: love. And yet his own lack of self-worth, his own sense that he wasn’t deserving of love for either physical or emotional reasons, prevented him from imagining that he was taking part in a fairy tale. Rumpie doesn’t believe that “happily ever after” applies to him. The twist? Now that we’ve seen he is loveable, we start to think that maybe it does. Nothing breaks my heart more than a character who fears closeness with others and feels unworthy of love, and Rumpie’s weakness makes me willing to overlook his annoying giggle. (I really like Robert Carlyle’s willingness to ham it up, but the giggle! The giggle!)

Having said that, Rumpie’s chaste affair with Claire Belle was rather strange. “Stockholm syndrome,” I cried, “this is really dark!” It wasn’t, though: we were asked to believe that Belle saw through the whole captive-princess thing to love her much-older captor without reservation, and I think we’re meant to support their affair. Is my inability to feel comfortable with this situation a flaw in my own romantic nature? Or were you sorta creeped out, too?

The tale’s conclusion was equally troubling, although for different reasons. Belle is now captive in the Mayor’s underground lair, watched over by Nurse Ratchet and Chief from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (What on earth are they doing in Storybrooke?) How long has she been in there? Does time pass so differently in town that she’ll be okay, or will Belle emerge crazily screaming for her baby and creating creepy totemic objects?

All of which brings me back to the struggle I’m having with Once. “Skin Deep” felt like a major episode, because we finally made progress in Storybrooke. Or did we? We learned that Rumpie knows he used to be a fairy-tale character, but that’s not things changing, it’s our knowledge of those things changing. As most of us suspected it anyway, has anything really progressed beyond the Mayor learning about what Rumpie already knew?

I’m hoping that “Skin Deep” marks a turning point in the show’s narrative. That is, I hope we’ll see more episodes like tonight, in which one-off fairyback characters interact more fully in the present, featured characters learn crazy things and do something about it, and the difficulties of “happily ever after” are addressed with the sort of complexity that was almost present in this episode. Otherwise, it might turn out that some of the charms of Once are only skin deep.

Three out of four chipped cups.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

17 comments:

  1. We were totally creeped out by the Belle-Rumpie connection, too. So you weren't alone, Josie!

    This was a much better effort than the last episode, and I was really intrigued by the stuff between Mr. Gold and the Mayor. But overall it is still a bit of a mixed bag.

    I like Snow White and Prince James together, but this David and Mary Margaret situation is driving me bonkers. If he loves Mary Margaret that much, he should just leave his wife. Nothing is holding him there, and he's not really trying to "make it work" if he's got something going on the side. He's just hurting everyone involved. It is maddening. Leave. Your. Wife.

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  2. I'm enjoying OUaT, but I'm not strongly connecting with the characters and format quite yet. (Fantasy is hard for me.) "Skin Deep" is definitely the episode I have found the most intriguing so far. And it wasn't because I thought the Rumpie-Belle (Rumbbell?) romance worked, because it indeed gave me the creeps.

    Lana Parilla and Robert Carlyle are probably the two strongest actors on this show. (Giancarlo Esposito absolutely killed in Breaking Bad, but so far he hasn't been given as much to work with.) The Queen is so evil that there is no room to move her character away from it. But Rumpelstiltskin might have some good lurking inside of him, and he's the evil character that can quite possibly be redeemed. And it was that suggestion that made this episode work for me.

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  3. Agreed about the creepiness of Rumple/Belle..but it does prove he might have a heart. The scenes with Gold and Regina in the prison were so strong it almost eclipsed everything else that was going on.
    David needs to wise up and leave his wife.
    I do hope Belle gets out of the asylum, maybe with Gold's help.
    Anna

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  4. I keep hoping that the complexity of this series isn't just "skin deep". For all the similarities to Lost, including it's format, I would like to see them do another carryover at the end of the season.

    I'm of course referring to the change of theme and setting that happened in each season of Lost. For example; at the end of Season 1 of Lost we got the hatch, and that completely changed the dynamic of the series. They no longer needed as many supplies, they had a central location to call home. Additionally the mysteries only deepened from there. That being said, I don't want them to fall into same more questions than answers pit that mired Lost.

    This show has a lot of potential, I really think it could be great. Also I thought the Belle/Rumpy romance was kinda sweet, and maybe a little uncomfortable. But the beauty and the beast story has always been inherently uncomfortable.

    Personally I like Rumpy's laugh. It is creepy and menacing, but goofy at the same time. It makes his character absurd on the surface, which can momentarily disarm his targets. But the darkness in that laugh makes my skin crawl every time.

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  5. I kinda do understand why you people creeped out about whole stockholm syndrome thing. But I don't necessarily see the point in it. I mean it's not like Once invented the Beauty and the Beast story now. That thing is around for ages.

    Is it any worse than Cinderella's story about bow down to your abusive parents and endure until you find a rich husband?

    We all know fairy tales are racist and sexist. They came from an unenlightened era.

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  6. Just to clarify, I'm not defending the act here.

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  7. For my part, it wasn't just the Stockholm Syndrome aspect that I found creepy. It was also something physical about seeing Belle being flirtatious and playful with Rumpie. It simply skeezed my husband and I out on a visceral level. Shudder.

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  8. Despite the really weird giggle, this has been my favourite episode so far. I still think about it after seeing it.

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  9. I agree completely with JD in everything he said.

    Besides, I think it's less uncomfortable to see Rumple (tell me about spelling his name!) as a suitor than Disney's Beast. Rumple never really abused her, nor was he cranky. He may even be the best humored character in the show.

    I love the giggle. Rumpie has the artificiality of a Joker, of an Alex Burgess.

    And they'd better make a big change by the end of Season 1.

    I was uncomfortable, BTW, with Ashley's drinking. Isn't she breastfeeding?

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  10. Many mothers who breastfeed pump so that they have food on hand for the baby when they aren't personally available. You can stockpile a good supply. Then, if you want to have a night out on occasion, you can have a few drinks and "pump and dump" when you get home. (Meaning, you still have to pump, just don't use that particular milk for the baby.)

    So, no worries, Gus! As long as she doesn't go home and immediately feed the baby, Ashley enjoying a drink or two during a girls' night out should be perfectly safe for her child.

    Just what everyone on this site wanted to read, huh? A breastfeeding primer. :)

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  11. Jess, I was about to post the same thing.

    Also: how weird is it, to think about Cinderella with a diaper genie?

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  12. We've had some interesting threads before, some of which have segued pretty much out the door. But the technical aspects of breastfeeding? Do we have a cool site, or what?

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  13. I have been watching this show from ep 1, but haven't started weeks ago, so perhaps that makes me enjoy the stories in a different way. Altho sometimes cheesy, I have no difficulties with the cheap effects and wigs (are they? Perhaps they look nicer on pc than on tv) nor any stilted language in the fairytales. I guess I feel that belongs in the stories (tho admittingly I did wonder about the Australian accent ;) )

    Personally I love Rumpies giggle and so does the friend I watch with. It is creepy cute (if that exists) and makes his character only more apart from our world.

    However I am totally fed up with Davids wishy washy attitude, and have been for a few eps. His first confusion was okay, but grow up already, geesh. If I was MM I'd tell him to get Lost. (clue to reference ;) ) Strangely enough, I do really like Snow and Charming, is that a nod to acting capabilities?

    In the review and comments there are a lot of people saying they were uncomfortable with Rumpie and Belle's "romance". Even naming stockholm syndrome. But did he in fact capture her? She went willingly, no?
    I don't have more issues with that, than I would have with the original tale, aside that the development here seemed more likely, since they "you know" actually talked and such.

    I was wondering about the choice to name her "Belle" instead of "Beauty"? Isn't the original tale in English Beauty and the Beast? (here in the Netherlands it is Belle tho)

    Thanks for the reviews Josie and for that breastfeeding primer Jess, very educational. :)

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  14. Aly: Disney owns ABC and has bascally been using this show to pimp it's versions of the various characters.

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  15. Hey, has anyone else noticed the sign on the side of the van? "Game of Thornes", what's that about?

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  16. I've said it before, but it bears repeating; the Espenson/Carlyle combination is among the best ever.

    I, too was a tad creeped out by the "romance," but I found myself feeling so sorry for Rumpie. Anyone with so little sense of self-worth I just want to talk around until they come to their senses. Granted, he's not the nicest guy in this world, but he is far more interesting than James (who is cheating, at least in his heart) and Thomas (who is neglecting his family).

    The chipped cup was a lovely metaphor for the broken relationship. Not to mention, Chip is a character in the Disney film. Coincidence? I doubt it.

    Finally, does anyone else think that the shopkeeper is Sneezy the dwarf?

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