Once Upon A Time was a show about hope and happy endings. Likely because of this, for its seven-season run, nearly every significant villain got a redemption arc.
Regina AKA The Evil Queen got one. Rumpelstiltskin got one. Killian Jones AKA Captain Hook got one. Even Zelena AKA The Wicked Witch of The West got one! (Many of us didn't want her to, but there you are.)
There were so many redemption arcs, and some of them weren't bad. Regina's is considered pretty iconic. However, when it came to Rumpelstiltskin's redemption arc, it was an epic fail.
I'm not badmouthing Rumple. I actually think he's pretty great; I'm a Dearie, through and through. I just think Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis did a disservice to Rumple's character with how they handled his redemption and with how they handled him in general.
To understand how royally the writers screwed over our favorite imp, we must go back to the beginning. Once upon a time, ABC came out with a show about fairy tales. The show had a family of protagonists and two big, scary antagonists.
One was The Evil Queen, the main villain of the Snow White story. The other was Rumpelstiltskin, a wild-card that left the audience scratching their heads. He was a mystery. Both characters had the potential to be the great villain of the series.
Then we learned the key differences between the two.
Regina was motivated by revenge. Her tragedy was sympathetic, but she blamed a relatively innocent ten-year-old for her abusive mother's murder of her true love. She was full of anger, and she took it out on a whole kingdom.
Rumple, meanwhile, was motivated by love, guilt, and regret. He made a mistake and lost his son. His goal was to find his son and apologize.
He was willing to ruin and corrupt others to do so, but he also made David a prince, and helped him wake Snow White from a sleeping curse.
He was always interfering in people's lives. Sometimes he did nasty things. Sometimes he helped. He was morally ambiguous, but the story could not unfold without him.
He was deeply tied to all of their lives, and many of them might never have been born nor found love without his interference.
Given those two descriptions, if you had to pick someone for the big bad of the series, who would you pick? I think it was supposed to be The Evil Queen, and I think the show was written with that intent.
Raping him, and then heartlessly killing him was meant to show Regina as heartless, not to mention on Once Upon A Time Season 1 Episode 1, when Regina tells Emma she loves Henry, and Emma's superpower tells her Regina is lying.
All of this can be explained away, but why should it be? Well, the rumor is, Regina was supposed to be the big evil on the show. She was meant to be sympathetic, and it had not been planned to give her a redemption arc.
Then, the show got a lot of flack for being "anti-adoption." They didn't want to send that message.
Lana Parilla fought for Regina to get a redemption arc on Once Upon A Time Season 2, and the trajectory of the show was changed forever.
I'm not slamming Regina's redemption arc. It was the best on the series. it was compelling, and Regina became a fan favorite. I loved rooting for her.
However, from a story perspective, this left the writers in a bit of a pickle because their big bad was going to be one of the good guys. They needed a new big bad.
And sure, they could have season-long arcs with Peter Pan or The Wicked Witch as their big villain. I'm not entirely sure why they felt they needed one who lasted from beginning to end. It seems they did, though.
Rumple prophesized this big, Final Battle to come when the curse breaks on Once Upon A Time Season 1 Episode 1.
This was more or less forgotten after the curse, until Once Upon A Time Season 6, when the battle is fought between Emma, Rumple's mother, and Rumple's son.
Basically, the Final Battle comes back around to Rumpelstiltskin. And he gets redeemed! Yea! Except that this wasn't the first time he was redeemed, nor would it be the last.
The fact that Rumple exited the show a hero, combined with what we know about his actions and motives from the beginning would imply his character was always expected to be redeemed.
And if Zelena can be redeemed, why not Rumple?
Maybe because he was, in fact, redeemed. On Once Upon A Time Season 3 Episode 11, Rumple sacrificed himself to save the town.
He'd found love with Belle, and he'd reconciled with his son. He gave his life for them, his grandson, and everybody else in Storybrooke. Yea! He's redeemed. But wait, he's dead? Noooo!!!!
That was my reaction, and likely the reaction of many fans. Rumple was a very popular character, both for those who loved him and for those who loved to hate him.
He was also very useful. He was powerful, and he was clever. He understood magic, and he had pertinent information about nearly every character the leads ever came across.
The show couldn't function without the man who had been puppeteering things for 200 + years, and they knew it. They needed to bring him back.
I'll give Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz credit for this; they seemed to realize that they couldn't just resurrect people willy-nilly. Death stops meaning something if you can just bring people back without consequences, whenever you like.
(They forgot that on Once Upon A Time Season 5, but let's not focus on that.)
They came up with a way he could come back -- exchange his life for someone else. Since they decided they needed to kill off Neal anyway -- well, okay, that's just a theory. It's hard to prove, and they have never and will never admit to it.
Prior to that, it seemed that Kitsis and Horowitz were setting Neal up to be Emma's True Love. It made sense from a story perspective. However, Killian and his flirtation with Emma were very popular among the fans.
The fan theory is that due to that popularity, the idea was to get Neal out of the way so they could give fans what they wanted. They didn't think Emma could end up with Killian if Neal was alive, so Neal needed to die.
Officially, it was some BS about Neal saying "to hell with the consequences," in order to get back to his son, just like Rumple did for his son. It's meant to be full-circle and all that. I don't buy it, but you're free to.
Either way, however it happened, Neal picked the short straw as the guy to bring Rumple back. This meant that the son Rumple loved, the son who he devoted 200+ years to finding and reconciling with, died resurrecting him.
That's got to mess him up. His life was bought with Neal's death. His son was dead! His reason for doing everything he'd done was gone. Plus, he was a slave to a crazy lady. Regina saved the day, using light magic and becoming a hero.
Rumple had Belle, but nobody else seemed to give a flying monkey about him. All the other leads were then heroes, and he was a man who had just lost nearly everything.
As the story moved forward, Rumple had fewer and fewer reasons to be good.
The once-beautiful relationship he shared with Belle started to seem toxic.
It started small. He lied to her; she used the dagger on him. On and on it went, until Once Upon A Time Season 6, which had Belle hiding out on Hook's ship to stay safe from her husband.
In case you were wondering, that's the same Hook who once (make that twice) tried to kill her to get to Rumple, the same Hook who broke the truce from Neverland, bringing out the worst in both of them.
Those two were so alike and could have had a beautiful bromance, as proven on Once Upon A Time Season 7.
However, as things stood on Once Upon A Time Season 4, Hook chose to blackmail Rumple. He threatened to tell Belle that after months of being enslaved by Zelena, the woman who killed his son, Rumple didn't give up his freedom again. And he killed Zelena.
Rumple struck back, and all hell broke loose because, of course, those children couldn't play nice for five minutes.
Once the truth came out, everyone conveniently forgot that Rumple died for them, lost his son, was a slave, and that he was "family." He was in mourning, suffering from PTSD, and he had almost no support. Hook goaded him, and Rumple backslid.
Instead of hearing his side or considering there may be more to the story, the heroes cast him as the villain in their lives.
As the show continued, they continued to take that attitude with him. When something went wrong, they either tried to blame him for the trouble, or they tried to bully him into fixing it because, after all, they're "family."
As he got darker, backsliding again and again because the writers found him a convenient villain, it seemed less and less likely he would ever make his way out of the dark. And why would he, when he'd lost everything?
How could he come back from the lines he'd crossed? How could he and Belle come back from what they'd done to each other? Apparently, they could do that by ignoring all of their issues with their child, even though Belle's pregnancy was part of why she left him again.
Then, on Once Upon A Time Season 6 Episode 22, Rumple got redeemed by doing the right thing once more. His relationship with Belle was magically fixed. He got invited to Thanksgiving. He could be a good guy again.
Except how were we to believe it, when he had redeemed himself before, done the right thing before, and always backslid?
Well, Once Upon A Time Season 7 answered that question. We saw him living out his life, growing old with Belle, and trying to end his immortality so he could die and go to a good place, with her, for eternity.
In the end, he sacrificed himself to save his former enemy and finally got to die. It's the ultimate redemption. And it was great to see. But you know what would have been better?
If he could have come back from his first redemption and been brought back to life without losing his son, one of his main reasons to try.
Then we could have seen him try, and succeed, to be better, for more than just Once Upon A Time Season 7.
They could have made that happen if they really wanted to. They brought back so many characters from death.
Maybe Belle could have given him True Love's Kiss after he sacrificed himself to defeat Pan.
It worked for Emma on Once Upon A Time Season 6 Episode 22. It worked countless other times. But true love couldn't save Rumple or Bae? Why?
They could also have left him dead. Let him die as a hero instead of backsliding as a villain.
Frankly, much as we'd have missed him, it would have been fairer to the character than what they did to him on Once Upon A Time Seasons 4-6.
(Dying a hero was good enough for Baelfire, after all. Since we're talking about characters who deserved better, Bae was a no-brainer. It doesn't even merit an article. We all know it, and we all know why.)
They could have brought him back and still killed Neal, but given him a proper role in the family. He'd gone through trauma and needed support, not indifference and animosity.
If only Regina, Emma, The Charmings, and even Henry hadn't conveniently forgotten that he was family or all the times he had helped them -- if they had given him the same second chance they gave the woman who enslaved him and killed his son.
If he was always intended to be redeemed, why make him backslide so much? If Rumbelle was always going to be endgame, why ever make them toxic?
(And if you wanted Emma to end up with Killian, why did that mean Rumple's son and Henry's father had to die?
Because, seriously, if the only way CaptainSwan was believable canon was in a world where Neal was dead, that should have told shippers all they needed to know.)
Again, I loved Regina, and despite what you might assume considering my shipper preferences, I loved Killian. I'd never love Zelena, but two out of three ain't bad.
Rumple did a lot of bad things, but so did those three. In some cases, they also continued to backslide after their redemptions. But their crimes slid under the rug because redemption was always the expectation.
Rumple was to remain dark until the show was nearly over, and there was no use for a long-term villain anymore. He earned the right to be good, but he was expected to be bad.
Even when Rumple got his final redemption, it was in defeating a version of himself from the WishRealm. Rumple was still expected to play the villain, even when he was also the hero.
This character, who was built for a redemption arc, deserved better than being tossed back into the villain pile because they needed a bad guy. Sadly, it seems like that is what happened.
Do you think that Rumple was done a disservice? How would the show have been different if Regina hadn't been redeemed? Which redemption arc do you think was the worst (cough*Zelena*cough)?
Let us know in the comments.
Leora W is a staff writer for TV Fanatic..