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, 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.
You've written for a lot of television, including a lot of sci-fi genre TV. Do you think genre fiction has an easier time with strong female characters? If so why?
Hm. I think sometimes it does. Like in the Battlestar world, where the characters clearly come from a culture that didn't have the same inherited bases for discrimination that our culture does. So Starbuck and Roslyn are just granted more automatic respect than they might otherwise have been. And now, writing for ABC's Once Upon A Time, I'm realizing how truly female-dominated the old folk tales are. For as much as people talk about the passivity of the traditional Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, these fairy tales are stories loaded with women (the witches count) with names and goals, while the guys are practically faceless. And a show like the original Star Trek, as dated as it was, put women on the heavily-armed Enterprise and sent them into danger.
So yes, I think genre has a strong history of celebrating Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination, and women characters have benefited from that. Sometimes people comment on the preponderance of male sci-fi fans, and while that might be true, those guys really admire kick-ass female characters – there is not a lot of appetite for shrinking violets among the sci-fi fandom that I meet.
Going back to the fairy tale origins of Once Upon a Time, you must have had to research your fairy tales. Did you immerse yourself in the original versions, which can be quite violent, or in the more popular re-tellings?
"Oh my God, the originals are terrifying. I actually think it's important to stay with the more popular version because that's how most people have experienced these stories. If you start referencing arcane stuff you might be educating people but you're not reaching into their childhood memories. I think most of us grew up with the Disney movie interpretations of these characters. In our version of Beauty and the Beast you see Chip the Cup. Chip the Cup was not in the original French version of this story. We are definitely playing with the more modern, more popular versions of them and I think that's what resonates. That's what people know."
Speaking of the fans, many are a bit upset with the direction David has taken this season. They feel he's become a bit of a coward. Is that intentional? Is it the Storybrooke curse?
"One of the things that a curse can do is make you make some bad choices. I think Snow and David have a bit of a curse working against them. But you know what? David is Charming and that hero is going to come to the surface. Watch the season finale and I think people will be very satisfied."
Can you tell us any more about the finale?
"Expect the finale to deliver everything you've ever wanted, plus bonus gifts with purchase. Everything happens in this finale. It's one of the most satisfying hours of TV I've ever seen in my career."
“[Rumpelstiltskin's] son is not happy about what he’s turning into, and we’re going to see Rumple faced with a decision about what he values. Can he do what his son wants him to do?” she teases. Meanwhile, in Storybrooke, Mr. Gold will set his sights on figuring out the identity of The Stranger, August, and the rest of the gang will be reeling from the mysterious return of Kathryn, which was shown in the final minutes of the last new episode.
“There’s a huge amount of relief,” says Espenson. “Her reappearance is more of a solution than a problem.” But it does open up several interesting questions, she adds. For example, where she was the whole time and with whom she was with. “Regina never planned on her coming back, and someone is in trouble with Regina for this happening.”
Further ahead, the former Buffy the Vampire Slayer producer and writer is excited for fans to see the last stretch of episode, including the penultimate, which she also penned with fellow writer David Goodman. “So much action!” she says of the episode, titled “An Apple Red as Blood,” which will see a return from Snow’s seven dwarfs. It all sets up the season 1 finale, which, as Espenson told Spoiler Room, is “the biggest [finale] I’ve ever been a part of.” “It will be a very satisfying season finale,” she says. “This is the finale to end all finales.”
I was wondering if you could talk a little about your female characters. They aren’t damsels in distress; they’re very strong characters, which is almost anti-fairytale. Can you speak a little about that?
Espenson: I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Our show has such strong female leads, Mary Margaret and Regina, and it’s so great to write on a show with these great, strong female characters. It’s true that fairytale females get rescued a lot; they’re awakened by the prince. If you actually think about and if you count the witches and the evil queens in fairytales and not just the heroes you realize that there are a lot of strong female characters. In fact it is very hard to name a strong male villain from Fairytale Land. There’s Rumplestiltskin, I guess, and then you run out. So I think there are more strong females in fairytale history than what people give it credit for and I think we have taken that one step further. When Snow White is waving the sword around you know things have changed.
Fairytales are often metaphors; how important is metaphor in your work?
Espenson: It’s hugely important; it’s what I studied in college. I was linguistics major and my graduate work was all on metaphor. Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to genre shows because I love storytelling with a metaphor built-in. In almost all of the shows I’ve worked on I’ve had that. It’s something that allows you to write very honestly because you’ve got the safety of that little bit of subjective distance that the metaphor gives you.
THR: Let’s talk about other projects you’ve worked on. How did you feel about the last season of Torchwood? Is there anything you would have done differently?
Espenson: The Torchwood fans are very passionate. I’ve never dealt with a more passionate group of fans, so they weighed in very loudly about this last season -- which was the only season I was involved in. I was very proud of what we did. I thought it turned out amazingly well. I don’t think you can ever beat Children of Earth, the previous season, which was an absolute masterwork. But, I thought we did very well. I thought we did things with that show that are not normally seen on American television.
THR: You worked on Battlestar Galactica and Caprica, as well. The latest news is that the prequel, Blood & Chrome, is not going to happen now. What can you say about the future of the franchise?
Espenson: I haven’t been on top of that. I know for a while there was talk of it being a series and maybe a web series and now I’m not sure. I think there’s definitely a story to be told about that particular war that that’s set in and I hope they eventually get to do it.
THR: What’s the status of your web series, Husbands?
Espenson: We did season one. We did a kick-starter. We raised money from our gorgeous fans and they renewed us for season two and we’re deep in pre-production. People should be looking for it this summer.
TV Overmind has an interview that addresses a bunch of storylines on Once.
The press release for the episode:
"The Return" - Mr. Gold attempts to uncover the true identity of August, Emma confronts Regina about her involvement in Kathryn's disappearance, and David tries to apologize and reconcile with Mary Margaret. Meanwhile, in the fairytale land that was, Rumplestiltskin agrees to comply and do whatever it takes if his son can find a way for him to safely give up his powers and turn back into the loving man he used to be, on "Once Upon a Time," SUNDAY, APRIL 22 (8:00-9:01 p.m., ET) on the ABC Television Network.
"Once Upon a Time" stars Ginnifer Goodwin as Snow White/Mary Margaret, Jennifer Morrison as Emma Swan, Robert Carlyle as Rumplestiltskin/Mr. Gold, Lana Parrilla as Evil Queen/Regina, Josh Dallas as Prince Charming/David, Eion Bailey as August, Jared Gilmore as Henry Mills and Raphael Sbarge as Jiminy Cricket/Archie Hopper.
Guest starring are David Anders as Dr. Whale, Anastasia Griffith as Kathryn/Abigail, Keegan Connor Tracy as Mother Superior/Blue Fairy, Meghan Ory as Ruby/Red, Giancarlo Esposito as Sidney/Magic Mirror, Beverley Elliott as Granny, Dylan Schmid as Baelfire, Conner Dwelly as Morraine, Greyston Holt as Jim/Frederick, Gabe Khouth as Mr. Clark/Sneezy, Michael Coleman as Happy, Mig Macario as Bashful, Jarod Joseph as Billy, Christina Gooding as mute maid and Michael Roberds as donkey driver.
"The Return" was written by Jane Espenson and directed by Paul Edwards.