This week’s installment of ABC’s ONCE UPON A TIME, more than most, is about the past. Every episode of ONCE UPON A TIME gives us glimpses of how the characters were, back in fairytale land. But this one, “The Miller’s Daughter,” finds the meat of the plot taking place back then, even as important things happen in the present.
“The Miller’s Daughter” is the classic Rumplestiltskin tale, where the evil imp helps a poor girl spin straw into gold in exchange for her first-born child. But now we learn that the poor young girl was none other than Cora (wonderfully cast as Rose McGowan, Charmed, in flashback). And Rumple (Robert Carlyle) fell in love with Cora, which left him vulnerable to her trickery and cruelty.
We now know why Cora (Barbara Hershey) hates the royals, especially King Xavier (Joaquim de Almeida, 24) and his son, Henry (Zak Santiago). We see her looked down upon and tripped by a young Eva (Eva Allan), who must not have been taught kindness yet. We see her heart turn black and bent on revenge, which is why she removes her heart, which she sees as a weakness, so she can resist the temptation of Rumple’s love and become a royal herself.
I don’t think this is enough to justify Cora’s bad behavior, not by a long shot. She can be annoyed and not like the royal family without becoming so focused on their destruction. Even as a young woman, Cora is not nice. Yes, her lazy, alcoholic father contributes to a heart full of bitterness, but it is her decisions and her attitude that result in her fate. Cora really is just not a good person.
Rumple knows this and knows that she must be stopped. He has a plan for doing so, and that’s to get Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) to use a candle to trade Cora’s life for his own. Why does Rumple choose Snow in this moment? Is it because of one of the future glimpses he has seen? Does he take one look at her and realize what a dark path she is considering? Either way, unlikely Snow is his weapon of choice.
Poor Snow is the purest heart in all the land, until “The Miller’s Daughter.” Not only does she curse Cora’s heart, but she lies and tricks Regina (Lana Parrilla) into putting the heart back into Cora’s body to complete the spell. This is an act that will ruin Snow forever. Yes, she may be able to come back from this, but she will always live with the knowledge that she is capable of evil, and that will haunt her for the rest of her life.
How might this change Snow’s marriage to David (Josh Dallas)? He loves her, of course, but he does everything he can to keep her from this act. Now he has to look at his wife differently, her not being the purely good soul he thinks of her as. This will knock her off the pedestal, and could alter their dynamic.
Snow’s actions have an even more dire consequence for Regina. Getting a moment to see that Cora actually does love her (and did love Rumple), and given the knowledge that love would be enough for mother and daughter, Cora then promptly dies in her daughter’s arms. Regina always struggles with her evil side, but having Snow murder Cora so clearly will stamp out any good embers still glowing within her. The feud is no longer about custody of Henry (Jared Gilmore), and no truce will be had. For the foreseeable future, Regina is the evil witch who will do everything she can to destroy Snow
Snow remains on the side of good and Regina remains on the side of bad, as has long been the story in ONCE UPON A TIME. But now viewers will sympathize somewhat with Regina, knowing Snow makes her into the current monster she is. It means so much more when the story becomes blurry like this, the hero having caused the villain’s descent in such a direct way, not by accident, but through an intentional choice. It’s an interesting move for the show to make, and it really shakes things up as we head into the home stretch of the season.
Rumple, for his part, has never been closer to good, despite turning Snow black, and will definitely be on the right side of the war this time. On his deathbed, he pours out his heart to Belle (Emilie de Ravin), revealing for this first time the depth of his love and desire to be a good man. This happens in front of Emma (Jennifer Morrison) and Bae (Michael Raymond-James), which is enough to soften both towards their son’s grandfather, and to prompt Bae to begin to forgive his father.
Is Rumple’s quest back to the light essentially over? He has Bae, the person he has worked so long and hard to find, and even if Belle can’t remember him, she has to be deeply moved by his words, and will begin to fall for him all over again. Surrounded by family, finally allowed to embrace and show his love, Rumple has a chance to be a hero.
Except, he knows Henry will be his undoing, and despite his doubt in “The Miller’s Daughter” if he should continue living, the Dark One inside of him won’t allow him to give up so easily. I worry this is the wild card left in the year.
Finally, we see Emma embrace her power in this episode. She is able to conjure up a protection spell to save (for a time) Rumple from Cora and Regina just by willing it so. It doesn’t seem a difficult feat for her, and through Rumple’s urging, Emma is getting a small taste of what she can do. I expect this will be explored quite a bit in the coming episodes, as the good guys will need every tool they can to fight Regina, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of what Emma is capable of.
“The Miller’s Daughter” is a compelling tale of good and evil, of love and revenge. It spills a wonderful back story that fills in some gaps in the plot, and changes a couple of characters to their core. Episodes this good, even in ONCE UPON A TIME, which is a great series, are rare. The acting this week, especially from Carlyle, is Emmy-worthy. The writing by Jane Espenson is smart and tight. Brilliant job, all around.
ONCE UPON A TIME airs Mondays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.