As Once Upon a Time progresses through its first season, new questions constantly replace the old. Fortunately, there are ways to get answers. We spoke to writer and producer Jane Espenson about what is to come on Once Upon a Time.
Known for her writing in a variety of adored series — Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Game of Thrones, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Gilmore Girls and Angel, to name a few — Jane Espenson is now a regular writer and producer on Once Upon a Time: her credits include “That Still Small Voice,” (the Jiminy Cricket episode) as well as the newest Once episode, “The Return.” Espenson spoke to BuddyTV about Once Upon a Time and some of her other projects.
WARNING: While Jane Espenson is, like most TV writers and producers, very good at keeping secrets, there may be some stray Once Upon a Time spoilers that wandered into this article. Read at your own peril.
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What can you say about the upcoming Once Upon a Time episode, “The Return”?
Jane Espenson: “The Return…’ I really love this one. It’s another Rumplestiltskin episode and he is my favorite.
And yeah, this is an episode in which he is, in Storybrooke he’s going to figure out who August is. And in fairytale land, he’s going to be dealing with his son, who’s not entirely happy about how his father’s changing and wants him to change back. So Gold is going to be going through some stuff. Because he’s a character who remembers his past. So, unlike a lot of characters, when we do the flashbacks, these are actually things that he remembers. You can imagine that this is going to be a little traumatic.
Oh yes. Now, you mentioned that your favorite character is Rumplestiltskin. What is it about the character that you like so much?
Jane Espenson: What don’t I like? Holy crap, this character amazing! I mean, it’s Bobby Carlyle playing these two amazing versions of this guy — Mr. Gold and Rumple — and they both radiate menace but in totally different ways. With Rumple it’s like this out-of-control hurricane of danger, where Gold is like this absolutely steely and contained and quiet, could explode at any moment… Totally different types of danger, and he inhabits them both so well.
Being able to write episodes that have both those characters in them, knowing they’ll be played that beautifully, it’s a gift to a writer.
Considering that it looks like the characters of August and Rumplestiltskin’s son are prominent in this episode, are we going to learn much about their identities — if any — in the fairytale world and Storybrooke, respectively?
Jane Espenson: I would say that… yes. Eventually, all things will be exposed. But I’m not putting a timeline on those! But yeah, I think that August’s true identity is something that is worth your time to start speculating about. Look at the clues! And try to decide which clues that we’ve given are real clues and which are designed to mislead you.
What was it that attracted you to Once Upon a Time in the first place?
Jane Espenson: Oh, the concept. I guess the concept and the execution. I love the idea of fairytale characters. And apparently everybody else does right now! We seem to be the lead car in a long train of fairytale interpretations right now.
I think these are characters that… there’s so much you can do with them! They’re so sketchy in the original folk tales, so you can really get in and give them these great motivations that are lacking in the originals. And that combined with this sort of tone that reminded me of Buffy — that things can be very dark, in the way of folk tales, but they also are, you know, leavened with this humor — that I absolutely love to write. It really did remind me of Buffy in that way.
In the show, do you have any preference for Storybrooke or fairytale storylines?
Jane Espenson: We’ve actually found, in the writers’ room, that we love both but they have a very different feel to them.
Fairytale-land stories tend to break more quickly and easily. You would think that, as we would write an episode, that the first thing we would do is figure out all the beats that are going to happen in Storybrooke — because that’s the episode that has to be told in chronological order, those storylines — whereas in fairytale land, we can bop around. So you’d think that would drive it, but in fact it’s almost always the fairytale stories that break first… Fairytale land tends to be the one that more quickly resolves itself, and then we work on Storybrooke.
What is your own favorite fairy tale?
Jane Espenson: You know, it’s so funny that over the years I’ve written on different shows… I’ve written fairytale stories. I did an episode of Buffy called “Gingerbread” — it was about “Hansel and Gretel.” And an episode of Dollhouse, it was called “Briar Rose” — it was about “Sleeping Beauty.” So that kind of gets mixed up in my head. I’ve got a fondness for those stories because I’ve dealt with them before…
But… My favorite fairy tale… Gosh. “Goldilocks” is pretty good! It’s a bit repetitive. But, you know, I’m someone who likes things just right. I identify.
I think we can all identify with that. So, of the stories you’ve done on Once Upon a Time, what has been your favorite twist on a fairy tale?
Jane Espenson: Oh, the “Beauty and the Beast” episode, called “Skin Deep.” You realize that we’re telling “Beauty and the Beast,” but Rumplestiltskin is our version of the Beast. I thought that was a brilliant way to retell that story and keep characters we knew front-and-center and really dealt much more deeply into Rumple’s psychology. I thought it worked really, really well.
We are going to see Belle again, right?
Jane Espenson: Yes! We’ll see Emilie de Ravin again in a future episode.
Good. In the future, which fairy tale that you haven’t yet used would you most want to see included in Once Upon a Time?
Jane Espenson: I have a great fondness for “The Little Mermaid.” I would be very happy if we did that one.
Considering that, in your overall career, you’ve worked in a lot of shows in the sci-fi or fantasy genre. What’s the draw for you?
Jane Espenson: The metaphor. I think the thing that distinguishes genre shows from a lot of other shows is that you are talking about the real world, but in a metaphorical way. We’re not talking about a literal aircraft carrier, we’re talking about Battlestar Galactica. And it puts this little layer of otherworldliness between you and our world — between the viewer and our world — which allows the writer to tell stories about the real world in a much more direct and honest way. Things that you couldn’t say about war, without putting the audience’s defenses up, you can say about a fictional war set in the time of the Cylons.
I think Once Upon a Time does the same thing. We are a genre show. We are as much sci-fi/fantasy as Game of Thrones is — it’s just different. So the ability to think about choices and relationships and how people feel about power and how people feel about family and how people are or are not willing to let love transform their lives… I think those are stories we can tell with a great deal of honesty because we have this fairytale cloak to wrap around it.
Finally, who do you think is going to end up the more evil character — Regina the Mayor or Mr. Gold/Rumplestiltskin?
Jane Espenson: Can you really put evil on a scale? I can’t say who’s more evil, but I will say we are fortunate to have two tremendous villains — most shows only get one.
Want more Once Upon a Time? Check out this video clip from “The Return.”
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“The Return” airs on Sunday, April 22 at 8pm on ABC.
(Image courtesy of ABC)