Once Upon a Time and Philosophy:
Once Upon a Time is a fun and sometimes fascinating little TV show, one that my wife and I have taken to watching together in the evening. After binging through the first few seasons, we now have to join the rest of the masses to wait for one new episode a week—an abysmal experience if there ever was one. Writing for the show can be uneven—from quite good to painfully banal (Prince Charming as David is a reliable source of the latter)—but several characters in the show are compelling and a few plot points are thought provoking in distinctively philosophical ways. Perhaps the biggest recurring philosophical issue that arises in the series is ethics, issues of right and wrong, good and bad, virtue and vice. The show has both its good and bad guys and gals. Snow White and Prince Charming, along with their daughter Emma and her son Henry, are obvious heroes; Regina and Rumpel(stilskin) are villains. But the heroes have their temptations and feet of clay, and the villains their charms and redemptive characteristics.
For those unfamiliar with the basic story line, the evil queen Regina performs a curse, which sends all the storybook characters we know into this world—Storybrooke, Maine, to be precise. No one from this world can see the town, and all the storybook characters, arguably except Rumpel and (perhaps) Regina, have no recollection of their previous lives. They reside in the town blithely unaware of what has happened, and carrying on in largely the same way, day after day, at least until a certain day. Regina is the mayor of the town, Rumpel runs an antique shop, and Snow White is Henry’s elementary school teacher. Henry, through Snow White, comes to possess a book of fairy tales and somewhat mysteriously becomes aware that they’re more than stories. He, and he alone, comes to see that they are true, and he sees it as his task to help the inhabitants of the town remember who they are. Having been adopted by Regina from outside the town (Emma gave him up for adoption outside of Storybrooke), Henry, unlike anyone else in the town, is able to travel beyond its borders. He does so when he’s ten, in search of Emma, finds her in Boston—a meeting that takes place in the first episode. He persuades Emma to take him home, and she sticks around to make sure he’s happy. Her arrival breaks the loop in the town, and, significantly, the town clock starts to run for the first time. She finds his fantastical claims about the town incredible and assumes he’s a troubled kid. Eventually, though, she discovers that what he says is true and that she, in fact, is the only person who can break the spell.
The villains are perhaps the most interesting characters in the show, and the two most compelling villains, Regina (the evil queen/mayor) and Rumpelstilskin (Mr. Gold), have done terrible things. Regina is responsible for the curse itself, for killing the sheriff, for framing Snow White for murder, and for a litany of other villainies. Rumpel, too, has done his worst—killing, conniving, and such. But much of what makes the show inherently so interesting is the possibility of redemption in each case. Although both of these characters are clearly morally bad, there’s something deeply likeable about both, and, as the story unfolds and the backstory gets filled in, there’s something sympathetic about each character as well. They’re anything but stock or one-dimensional villains. Each, at one time, was a very good person, but, as their lives unfolded, their choices shaped their characters in dark directions.
In Regina’s case, she was the daughter of an ambitious, diabolical woman with great magical powers, who wanted her daughter to be delivered from a life of servanthood. She manipulated events to bring about a proposal for marriage to Regina from the king. At that point in Regina’s life, she harbored no desire for power or marriage to the king; her deepest desire instead was to marry the stable boy Thomas. Just as she’s on the verge of escaping from her dominating mother and eloping with her true love, her mother shows up, kills Thomas, and ensures that Regina will marry the king instead. To make matters worse, it was a young Snow White’s (honest) mistake that divulged to Regina’s mother the knowledge of Regina’s plans to defy her. Regina’s loss of her loved one made her seethe in resentment toward Snow White, and go down a path of using magic in harmful ways, as her mother had done, and seeking power and revenge. Ironically, she becomes very much like her own mother, whose ways she had despised so much, and even takes to repeating her mother’s mantra that “love is weakness.”
Rumpel’s story is equally intriguing. Rumpel’s father had abandoned him—a fascinating story in itself, which we’ll come back to in a moment—and Rumpel, in contrast, wants to be there for his own son. But he’s afflicted with a huge character flaw: lack of courage. C. S. Lewis once suggested that courage is the virtue that functions at the foundation of every other virtue; if true, without courage it’s hard to sustain a life of much moral integrity. Once we see Rumpel’s genuine desire to be there for his son, however, and the fact that he’s given cause to believe that his participation in a war into which he’d been drafted would result in his death unless he turned back, his decision to feign an injury to be with his family becomes more understandable. It’s perceived by everyone else, though, including his wife, as nothing but an act of cowardice. Bullied by the local military leaders, Rumpel understandably wants to protect himself and his child—even, as he puts it, “all the children,” a noble sentiment indeed—and, when given the opportunity, he avails himself of the chance to acquire the necessary power to do so. Suddenly, as the “Dark One” invested with such power, his fear dissipates and he starts to use the power for increasingly ignoble ends. This strains his relationship with his son, who begs him to stop using magic and who wants them go to a new land for a fresh start. When the time comes, however, Rumpel’s cowardice holds sway and he chooses not to go with his son.
The difficult circumstances in the lives of Regina and Rumpel don’t excuse their decisions, but they do make those decisions a bit more understandable. They at least help explain those decisions, and they probably do something else. They make the watchers of the show root for these characters; there’s something recognizable about them, something human, something that resonates. Perhaps, we find ourselves thinking, they’re not beyond redemption. Maybe their humanity can be salvaged. Indeed, much of the show is geared toward this very question. Henry functions as the conscience for Regina, and Belle, who sees the good that remains in Rumpel, serves in this capacity for him. In each case, they’re encouraged to give up magic, to put a stop to evildoing, to change course. In fits and starts, each experiences some success in this regard, but almost inevitably they’re drawn back into magic, darkness, and vengeance.
Both stories are compelling, but for me the Rumpel story more so—perhaps in part because I find the actor playing Gold/Rumpelstilskin so delightful. His little mannerisms, idiosyncrasies, modulations of voice, physical presence, and gratuitous comical flourishes make for a simply wonderful character to watch. Knowing the goodness that once resided in his heart, too, makes the viewer hope he’s not too far gone. Rumpel, though, sees himself as a monster, as something no longer human, no longer a man. In the episode “Skin Deep,” Belle tells Rumpel it would be understandable if he were lonely. “Any man would be lonely,” she says, to which he replies, “I’m not a man.” Belle doesn’t give up, though, saying, “So you were a man once, an ordinary man?” Rumpel replies with skepticism, wondering if she’s just trying to uncover “the monster’s weaknesses.” “You’re not a monster,” Belle assures him. A few lines later, discussing a courageous act that she’s performed, Belle says, “I figured, do the brave thing, and bravery would follow.” Belle recognizes the causal connection between actions and character, specifically from actions to character, rather than vice versa—at least before one’s character gets cemented into place. But if this can work in a positive direction, it can also work in a negative direction. The notion here that evildoing, a heart of darkness, bad choices and their inevitable trajectory, could actually result in a loss of humanness is, at bottom, a profoundly troubling insight. Yet there seems something about it that rings with sober truth. We can’t forever divorce our actions from who we are; our actions put us on moral trajectories; one who lies enough is no longer just one who lies, but a liar. In time a liar can even start to believe her lies.
Aristotle argues that virtues are tied to our humanity, vices to something else, and an organic connection obtains between our actions and our character. What would make for a stock and, frankly, uninteresting bad guy (or gal) would be a villain who has a bad character and never deviates or departs from it, never shows any signs of ambivalence, remorse, or potential for anything else. What makes for a more nuanced and believable character, one we both love and hate at the same time, one we can root for, is a good person gone bad, step by incremental step. Part of the beauty of the Breaking Bad series was watching a good man go down a dark path, each step implicating him further, sucking him in deeper—until eventually we see the nearly complete devolution of the fellow. Rumpel has gone down this path, too, but, however much he himself may doubt it, he seems to retain the capacity to turn—or return. Such a turn requires courage and virtuous actions that, over time and painfully, can reshape his character. Rumpel’s definitely a moral work in progress, but it’s unclear what the final product will be. His character doesn’t seem to have been sealed in quite yet; his actions are still shaping his character rather than simply being its inexorable entailments. He’s gone quite a way down a dark path, though, which makes a change in character harder to accomplish. Long habit has made extrication from evil all the more difficult. The great philosopher and psychologist William James, in his Talks to Teachers, recognizing the power of recurring actions and entrenched habits in shaping our character and destiny, said that a teacher’s primary job is to inculcate the right habits in his students—particularly when they’re young enough to be more easily malleable. Change later is possible, but increasingly difficult as we get older and more set in our ways. For Rumpel to change, he really needs to find the courage to turn, the strength to resist temptation, the wherewithal to effect change—exactly when, for lack of doing enough of this beforehand, it’s the hardest for him to do so. Whether he will or not, which of these warring factions within him will prevail, makes for gripping television.
We have reason to hope for Rumpel’s redemption because he’s not his father’s son. His father is despicably evil, willing and happy to relegate his own son to misery so long as it suits his own purposes. Rumpel, to save Henry from his (Rumpel’s) father’s clutches, needs to be willing to sacrifice himself. And, importantly, he’s indeed willing to do so. Moreover, when Rumpel’s father points out the parity between himself and Rumpel the disanalogy is immediately clear—and it’s pointed out by, of all people, Rumpel’s son, who’d harbored years of resentment over his own abandonment.
What was the difference? It was this: Rumpel’s father never regretted his wrongdoing. Rumpel did. As soon as he lost his son, he regretted it, and set himself to the seemingly impossible chore of rectifying it. On the surface, their actions may have seemed similar, but digging beneath the surface, we find that the appearance is misleading. One endorsed his own wrongdoing, embraced it, and gladly let it define him. His second order and first order desires perfectly meshed. The other regretted it, fought to fix it, and didn’t try to justify it. In one case there was wrongdoing and perfect reconciliation with it. In the other, Rumpel’s case, there was wrongdoing and enough unhappiness with it, enough dissonance, enough guilt, enough regret, enough irremediable tension, that it couldn’t entirely define him. It left room for repentance, and a chance for change. That Rumpel’s not his father’s son gives us reason to think he will find redemption. Now, let’s hope.
David Baggett is currently a professor of philosophy at Liberty University. He’s edited a number of books on philosophy and popular culture (Harry Potter, Tennis, Sherlock Holmes, Hitchcock), co-edited C. S. Lewis as Philosopher, edited a debate between Gary Habermas and Antony Flew, and co-wrote (with Jerry Walls) Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. He’s also one of the few who retain the fervent hope for the redemption of the loveable curmudgeon Bill (“T-Bone”) Irwin.
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