As "Once Upon a Time" returns from its nearly month-long hiatus, it focuses on one of its best characters and a sudden death in Storybrook.
In the modern world, it's been two weeks since Sherriff Graham had his heart broken -- literally -- and was killed by the Mayor/Evil Queen. And when Regina (Lana Parilla) plans to appoint her own man as the new sheriff, Emma (Jennifer Morrison) and Mr. Gold (Robert Carlyle) band together to force an election instead.
Of course, Mr. Gold plays dirty to win, setting a fire to make Emma appear heroic in the town's eyes. She realizes the mistake she made in siding with him and publicly admits his deceit to the townsfolk. Impressed by her choice to stand up to Gold, the town votes her in as the new sheriff. Mr. Gold, however, tells her that he planned the whole thing in order to ensure that Emma -- who owes him a favor -- got into office.
Meanwhile in the fairytale world, we meet Rumpelstiltskin before he was the powerful wielder of deals and magic that we know. A penniless, helpless father, Rumpelstiltskin is desperately trying to save his young son from forced conscription and death in the Ogre Wars. He also harbors a humiliating secret of cowardice.
To gain the power to save his son, Rumpelstiltskin steals a dagger that controls a mysterious and deadly figure known as the Dark One. Tragically, he ends up being tricked into killing the Dark One and unwittingly becomes the new Dark One instead. Although his new role gives him great power and fearlessness, all magic comes with a price.
His own son, although safe, is now afraid of him.
Filling in backstory about mysterious characters is always a gamble. Will it take away the intrigue or build on it?
This episode added more layers to Rumpelstiltskin, and still left him an unknown variable in both worlds. Robert Carlyle continues to do fantastic work. He shows great range, bringing to life Rumpelstiltskin as a desperate father, an inscrutable fairytale character and an enigmatic real world character.
The episode's themes about the definition of heroism and cowardice, and parents and children flowed nicely between the fairytale world and real world stories.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK
Storybrook seems woefully under-policed. How safe are they if their only choice for law enforcement is between an ex-con with only a few weeks' experience and a milquetoast newspaper editor with no experience?
Also, the Dark One could have used some more explanation, although it's possible that it will come in future episodes.
Finally, why have we learned nothing yet about Ruby/Red Riding Hood? She's in nearly every episode, but to date is little more than strikingly red window dressing.
GIVING CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE
"Desperate Souls" was written by Jane Espenson and directed by Michael Waxman.
"Once Upon a Time" airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.
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