After weeks of looking forward to "Skin Deep"—the much vaunted "Beauty and the Beast" episode of Once Upon a Time—our friends in the writers room served up some half-baked monkey business that not only butchered the original fairy tale but verged on self parody. As a Valentine's Day episode, "Skin Deep" was more disappointing than a heart-shaped box full of uncooked oatmeal.
It didn't bother me that Rumpelstiltskin was supposed to be the Beast. I had plenty of time to mentally prepare for that, thanks to the episode's promos, but what I was not prepared for was Robert Carlyle's eery, chittering laugh to be thrown in after every line.You could have "a body like Arnold and a Denzel face" and I still wouldn't let you near me if that Leprechaun chuckle came out of your throat. Curly-toed shoes, decades of age difference and rotting prosthetic teeth aside, there's no love that could overlook a shriek-chuckle like that.
Still, the failure here is not Robert's. Fairy tales are embedded with the kind of psychological truths that echo in the most primitive regions of our minds. Plot elements, character names, and details change over the years, but the essential messages, the soul of the folklore, stays the same. OUaT makes a point to tinker with these deep psychological truths that have been honed in hundreds of years of re-telling and upgrade them in some twisty little way. Therefore the classic meaning of Beauty and the Beast (you love someone for what's inside them, not for how they look) became a more amorphous "if someone loves you and you have low self esteem, you will shut them out and lose them." It doesn't bother me that they wanted to graft this more specific message onto the classic moral, but it does bother me that they completely undermined the original meaning. In OUaT's update, Belle returned to the Beast because the Evil Queen told her he could be cured of his beastliness (i.e. body glitter and contacts) with the kiss of true love. Belle sprinted back to Rumpelstiltskin's side in the hope of giving him a magical makeover. That's not exactly the "true love is blind" message shining through.
Also, she really shouldn't love this person. The beloved Disney cartoon, which ABC has unlimited access to borrow from, made a point of giving the Beast an arc that transformed him from cruel bully into protector and friend, and so his relationship with Belle seemed natural and inevitable. What about Rumpelstiltskin won over the beautiful Emilie de Ravin? Was it the time he threw her in the dungeon, or when he didn't whip her with a riding crop for dropping a teacup?
Maybe it was his giant grandmotherly spinning wheel or his promise to get used to daylight or how he said he would tell her about his son and didn't. I have now mentioned the extent of the romance between Rumps and Belle, because in this episode it was not the romance that was privileged but the break-up. And it's a shame, because Emilie de Ravin is fantastic, and created a real chemistry between herself and Carlyle. Yet after a few moments of conversation and an awkward kiss, we spent twice as much time on Rumpelstiltskin's horrible breakdown, screaming into his mirror, terrifying Belle and forcing me to laugh until my sides ached. (You have to step out of this show and laugh at it, or it becomes too claustrophobic.)
I think we got more scenes between Carlyle and Chip the Cup than between Carlyle and de Ravin. Don't tell me they didn't have the time to fully develop their romance in an hour-long episode. All this show has is time. The writers could easily have made this a two- or three-episode arc. Rumpelstiltskin is a major character and Disney's Beauty and the Beast is currently in theaters. Don't tell me that new viewers coming in on the second episode of a multiple-episode arc would be alienated, because this whole show is alienating if you haven't seen every episode before. Sequential viewing reaches its zenith in shows like OUaT and Lost, and if the writers are going to cultivate that kind of loyalty in their viewers they might as well reward them by giving them miniseries-like development for important relationships. That's what they're doing with the loathsome David Nolan and Mary Margaret.
If the Beauty and the Beast story was a slap in St. Valentine's face, David Nolan buying two last minute ninety-nine-cent greeting cards for his wife and mistress was a roundhouse kick to the personal regions. David caught Mary Margaret leaving the saddest girl's night out of all time:
... and gave her a valentine meant for his wife, leading MM to the obvious conclusion that if he really wanted them to be together he would LEAVE THAT WIFE. David promised he would "find a way" for them to be together: David, you don't have to head to the lab and invent a new element, it's pretty obvious what you have to do: LEAVE THAT WIFE. Seriously, what is the conflict in this relationship?
That's not a rhetorical question, I want some answers. Is he not leaving his wife because he is afraid of losing the house and wouldn't be able to pay rent on his animal shelter income? Is it because he genuinely kind of likes the wife that didn't check the local hospital when he went missing for untold years? The series, in its haste to create dramatic suspense, has eviscerated Prince Charming's character and intentionally made him a creep. The promo for next week addresses this head-on, promising that we'll finally see him "manning up" and continuing the now eight-episode arc of this pair failing to get their sh-t together.
So why not give Robert Carlyle a little extra time to develop an epic romance? Was Emilie de Ravin that booked? I just don't understand why Once Upon a Time insists on rushing us through all the emotional highs so we can continue to tread water in the giant emotional low of Storybrooke. I love this show dearly, but NOTHING EVER HAPPENS. Forward momentum comes only in the form of reveals that may one day possibly be important, and in this episode three possibly important things happened:
1. As discussed, MM told David Nolan to go home and stop making her creep, creep yeeeah, just keep it on the down low, nobody is supposed to knoooow.
2. Mayor Regina put a lot of time and effort into putting Mr. Gold in jail so she could force him to admit he remembered being Rumpelstiltskin in the long-ago before-times. (Which apparently happened on ANOTHER PLANET? In his words, "I've been Mr. Gold as long as I've been on this Earth.") This moment was a small highlight in a lot of grim darkness.
3. Deep in the bowels of the hospital, guarded by a nurse with circular bangs and a spooky emo janitor, Regina was keeping Belle prisoner, as possibly a mental patient? Belle was looking out at daylight despite being apparently three stories underground, is all we know.
This is fascinating, because Evil Queen Regina told Rumpelstiltskin that Belle had been driven to suicide by her father. Now she has a trump card she can play at any time to undermine Rumpelstiltskin, which may one day be a key plot point (several years in the future, when the show finally kicks the plot into gear). Three times a charm: I love this show, but with the fine actors, lovely costumes, and meaty premise available to them, "Skin Deep" was essentially an origin story for Chip, and that disappointed me on a profound level.
... You caught the "Game of Thorns" reference on the flower van, right?
... How did Regina not know that Mr. Gold remembered his fairy tale identity? Wasn't that the subtext of many of their previous conversations and part of their "Please" deal? Why does this knowledge benefit her—because she can now use Belle as a bargaining chip?
... Are you excited about Ashley's proposal? Were you stunned that her Prince worked at a cannery?
…Did you miss Lumiére and Cogsworth?
... What is keeping David Nolan from LEAVING THAT WIFE?!
... Do you still have love for "Creep" by TLC?