How can we tell if someone has truly changed? How many chances should we give someone before saying “no more”?
The knotty nature of authentic change is a theme Once Upon A Time comes back to again and again. Sydney Glass has the chance to change from being Regina’s spineless, love-sick toy to a man of honor, but allows her to continue to use him. Emma changes from someone who’s alone because of her fears to someone who’s slowly building friendships and desperately wants to get back her son.
Each layer of Mr. Gold’s story especially returns to the nature of change.
In “Skin Deep,” we find out that Mr. Gold isn’t only Rumplestiltskin, but also the Beast to Belle’s beauty. She falls in love with him the way we knew she would, and believes it’s still possible for him to change. And she thinks she’s found the way—true love’s kiss.
Instead of escaping when given the chance, Belle returns to him and kisses him. The curse starts to break, and Rumplestiltskin jerks away. He demands to know what she’s doing. He has his chance, but he refuses to take it.
We see it again in “The Return.” Disgusted by what his father has become, Rumplestiltskin’s son makes a deal. If he can find a way to get rid of his father’s magic that doesn’t hurt either of them, his father has to agree to do it. When his son finds a way to take them to a world without magic, Rumplestiltskin turns him down. He has the opportunity to give up the power that’s making him cruel and evil, but he won’t.
I think the writers of Once Upon A Time keep coming back to the theme of change because we as people are forced to come back to these questions every time someone we trusted hurts us. I also think the writers, perhaps without knowing it, stumbled on part of our answer.
The motivation to change can’t be external.
Our love can’t make someone change. Blackmail or threats can’t make someone change. Not really. Any appearance of change will only be temporary.
I believe in second chances. I believe that people can change. But they have to want it. For their own sake. Outside forces might act as a catalyst, but the desire to change has to rise from within us.
Rumplestiltskin claims he’d be willing to change, but when it comes down to it, his heart still values his power more than his loved ones. Yet each time he walks into an episode, I’m rooting for him to find redemption almost as hard as I’m rooting for Regina to get her just desserts. One of the reasons I still have hope for him is that we see this balance shifting. We see the struggle happening within his heart. He’s passed up every chance he’s been given so far, but some people are more stubborn than others. It takes more for them to decide to change, and it’s dangerous to give up on people too soon.
As part of his backstory, we see that, even once he loses his son through his own cowardice, Rumplestiltskin refuses to accept it. He blames the Blue Fairy for stealing his son. When he thinks his son has finally returned to his life, though, it forces him to face how it was truly his choice that separated them. He’s the one who needs forgiveness.
True and lasting change involves not only desire but also taking responsibility for how our own decisions brought us to the point we’re at.
Even with those two lampposts, the path to change is long and windy and often unclear.
Since I don’t have all the answers, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. What helps you decide if someone has truly changed? How many chances do you give before drawing the line in the sand?