Acclaimed writer Jane Espenson has a knack for writing emotional character moments and big revelations in on-screen relationships, so it's really no wonder that the episodes of Once Upon A Time she has penned, including "Skin Deep" and this week's "The Return," focus on such personal drama. It is, after all, what drew Espenson to the subject matter. No matter whether she's writing the saga of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), or Emma (Jennifer Morrison) and young Henry (Jared Gilmore), she is tapping into the most human interaction of all: love.
"Our show really is about true love, in all-- in various forms," Espenson shared, noting that both aforementioned couples have love at the core of their bonds, even if they're different kinds of love.
"I love writing that—I love any kind of longing or loss; it’s such a difficult place to take a story from. So writing that is as rewarding as writing something like “Skin Deep,” where I got to write a [more traditional] love story."
The parent-child relationship is one that has come into play more and more as the season of Once Upon A Time has unfolded, and it will continue to do so in the next few weeks. Two of Espenson's key episodes deal quite heavily in this, focusing on both Rumpelstiltskin's (Robert Carlyle) relationship with his son, as well as Emma's with hers. It may not be what an audience thinks of immediately when they think of a fairy-tale story; young girls, especially, were conditioned to focus on the Prince saving the Princess with true love's kiss time and again, after all. But for those who want to look a little closer, the theme is ever-prevalent.
"Fairy-tales are so often about lost children, and separate parents and children, that it just became a very powerful theme within our show," she pointed out. "I start from the axis of Emma and Henry and start thinking about ‘Well, what is Hansel and Gretel really about, with them being abandoned?’ That became a very powerful thing, particularly [because] Emma found her mother and doesn’t know it. That resonates with so many of our stories."
Looking at Rumpelstiltskin, for example, you have a man who loves his son more than anything, Espenson noted, but he lives in fear. He was a coward during the war, and he couldn't bring himself to believe he was lovable (perhaps because of his past actions) later on in his journey. So Espenson has been enjoying fleshing out whether or not he will give in to love or fear. Thus far, we have seen him choose both-- at different points in his timeline. But only one is what is truly in his heart; the other is just what situations provoke him to lean on. Which is which?
"You’re going to find out where Rumple comes from and which of those rules his life. We’re going to see that even in the dark parts of his life, there’s still a force of love, and when he can and can’t accept it," Espenson said of her next episode.
But if we come to the realization that deep down, it is love that drives Rumple, doesn't that mean he is susceptible to Regina's (Lana Parrilla) own brand of evil deeds? Espenson writes complex enough characters that it would never be so black or white-- even Regina is someone who tries to fight her nature at times, like with her adopted son. Espenson believes Regina really does want to love Henry and that can make her just as understandable, if not quite sympathetic, as Rumple at times.
"I think that’s perplexing and really interesting. She’s a character who wants to love. Just think about that!" Espenson exclaimed. "The fact that she always makes a decision in favor of hate-- and the fact that Rumple makes a decision in favor of fear…which is more relatable? Everyone has both of those things in them."
Espenson is an advocate of "Writer's Sprints" on Twitter, where she challenges and inspires her followers to join her in a clean hour away from social media or the internet or other distractions of any kind and just get creative. It's something she actively partakes in when she is working on a script for Once Upon a Time because she feels the notion of declaring you will focus on just writing means you end up getting a huge amount done.
Regardless of what you're writing, or when, though, Espenson feels it is most important to truly believe in the words and the idea behind them.
"Write what you want to read. Write what you want to see," she wisely advises. "A lot of times I think people write what they think other people want to see, and that’s trying to cook food to someone else’s taste buds. Trust that you have good taste! Trust that if you want to see it, it probably means other people do, and write for yourself, and you’re going to end up with something that’s a lot purer."