Rumplestiltskin reveals another delicious layer to his backstory as the series hints at the real identity of the town's mysterious Stranger. Or, as Emma describes him, "a typewriter wrapped in an enigma wrapped in stubble."
In the fairytale world, Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle) is enjoying a reign of fear. Everyone, including his son, Baelfire, is afraid of his growing power and evil.
Much to Rumplestiltskin's dismay, however, Baelfire (Dylan Schmid) finds a way to get back the father he loves. Courtesy of a magic bean, they can both go to a safe zone -- a world without magic. A world where The Dark One would be powerless.
He opens a portal to it, but Rumplestiltskin doesn't want to leave his power behind. And in the moment of truth, he pulls away and his son is ripped through the magic portal without him. Devastated, he vows to do whatever it takes to find Baelfire again.
And in Storybrooke, The Stranger (Eion Bailey) -- currently going by August Booth -- is poking around Mr. Gold's life. Mr. Gold, in turn, begins to dig around for answers to Booth’s mystery identity.
When Rumplestiltskin clues into the realization that Booth is his long-lost son, a touching family reunion ensues. That is, until The Stranger tries (unsuccessfully) to use magic against Mr. Gold. Rumplestiltskin knows his son would never use magic against him. So no one yet knows who Booth really is. Only that he has come to Storybrooke because he is sick and needs magic as a cure.
In other news, Kathryn Nolan (Anastasia Griffith) has returned. She was apparently drugged and kidnapped by Mr. Gold. Regina (Lana Parilla) is, of course, just annoyed that she wasn't killed.
The trail of her frame job and the real evidence of Kathryn's kidnapping will lead directly back to the mayor. So she convinces poor, deluded Sidney to take the bullet for her.
Disgusted by Regina's machinations, Emma vows to take her son from Regina’s grasp.
The episode's bait-and-switch regarding the identity of The Stranger was well-played. The series has been letting his storyline simmer for several weeks now, raising the expectation of a Big Reveal in this Stranger-centric episode. And for most of the episode, that reveal seemed obvious. But August Booth's real identity remains cleverly hidden away like a heart in a locked box. And Rumplestiltskin continues to incite both hatred and sympathy, as his tragic history of fear and self-loathing is developed.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK
Did 'August' really not understand that magic doesn’t work in this world? For someone as cool and clever as he has been portrayed, this was an embarrassing rookie mistake. It lessened the character. Also unworthy of the build-up was Kathryn Nolan's disappearance/reappearance. It was all explained away too quickly and was much less interesting than it should have been. It deserved a storyline of its own -- perhaps some magic and mystery -- rather than ending up as a footnote to an unrelated story.
GIVING CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE
"The Return" was directed by Paul Edwards. It was written by Jane Espenson.
"Once Upon a Time" airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.
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