The kickass & complex villains of Once Upon A Time.
I think one of the main differences between them is that Regina wants to get back to the person she used to be, and Rumple doesn’t.
Before Daniel’s death and Regina’s inevitable blame-game with Snow, she was kind and compassionate and optimistic and caring, and throughout all Regina’s evil adventure times, she’s never quite been able to shake the memory. You can see glimpses of young Regina peppered throughout her life — in curious moments of mercy, in thoughtfulness, in her interactions with her father (before she killed him), in her desire to be loved (even though she obviously goes about it the total wrong way), in the brief and fleeting glimpses of her internal struggle along the way. Maybe that girl was oppressed by Cora, but before young Regina was broken, she was strong. She survived. She flourished despite all odds. And she had hope.
She wasn’t perfect, but Regina lost more than a companion when Daniel died. She lost herself, and I think it’s been pretty obvious (even without the writers and actors basically straight-up saying ‘she wants to go back’) that Regina wants to return to the person she used to be. She just doesn’t know how, or if she can, or how she can reconcile moving on from revenge and into this unknown way of life that’s since become so foreign. Her quest is to find that person again, and to discover how to reconcile the person she is now with the person she used to be. Find the morals and the goodness she used to have, and dust them off, and give them a workout again.
I think the closest we’ve ever seen to Rumple’s complete self was his pre!crippled persona in Manhattan— the soldier who was brave, confident, happy, lively, and also not afraid to accept his dark edges with his sass and a bit of a temper all mixed in. He was part snarky Mister Gold, part kind Rumple… he was everything. All the versions after that are only a shadow of a complete person. It’s like when he shattered his leg, he shattered everything else along with it. He lost all the edges and became soft. When he got power, he deviated so far from this ‘weak’ version of himself that he became cruel. Weak and cowardly, but kind— or powerful and confident, but cruel. No in between. He lacks balance.
Instead of moving back, then, Rumplestiltskin needs to find a way to move forward and integrate all these aspects of himself into a complete person again. This means accepting the cowardly AND the cruel, the strength AND the weak. And I think that’s one of the reasons why Belle can help him when nobody else can. Unlike the people from Rumple’s past, who only see the coward (Milahhhh)— and the people he encountered as the Dark One, who only see the cruel (Corrraaaaa), Belle was able to uncover the complexities in him and draw them out. She’s the only one who loves all of him, who want to love all of him, if he’ll let her— and that’s why he doesn’t think he can ever reform without her. Because she can love him when nobody else can, even when he can’t love himself. Belle is teaching him balance.
Sorry for spamming your dash. This was longer than I anticipated.
-climbs down off soapbox-