It’s funny how Once Upon a Time has gone from simply retelling old fairytales in new and reinvigorated ways, and has turned into a show that excels at showcasing family relations and how parents can royally screw up their kids. Regina is emotionally stunted due to never feeling parental warmth from Cora and believes that power grants love. Emma is distrustful of anyone, believing they’ll ultimately leave her, because of never knowing Charming and Snow until later in life. Rumpelstiltskin’s estrangement from Neal caused him to fall into the dark side head first. It’s a trope used in abundance but one that nevertheless works seamlessly in a show that as of late has become more recognizable for its blunders rather than its successes. To watch this week’s episode, “The Miller’s Daughter,” and come out the other side of the hour feeling thoroughly entertained and convinced that the showrunners have created an episode that relies on its strengths rather than succumbing to its weaknesses is a pleasure. I wouldn’t go as far to say that this was a great episode, but it was more than solid and was the first thoroughly enjoyable episode in a very long time.
It isn’t without its typical pitfalls: an ill-advised decision to implicate a relationship that doesn’t add to a character’s depth, and instead becomes an obvious throwaway in order to spice up the plot, as well as a reliance on flashbacks to tell the majority of the story. What it does that elevates its faults is allow its typical saving graces, Robert Carlyle and Lana Parrilla, to shine in individual, stand-alone scenes, and moments that imply a finality of a storyline that’s been dragged out long enough.
We begin the episode in the past with Cora, a young woman played by Rose McGowan, who is tending to her mill and her drunk of a father who has once again fallen into a stupor. She reprimands him and tells him that she would like to eat this month so she brings the materials to the Royals herself. Thankfully, they’ve decided to not soften younger Cora up, but have made her just a tad bit naïve to the world, all the while keeping the same edge and self-perseverance.
At the castle she has an accidental run-in with a princess from another kingdom and is scolded and humiliated by the King, forced to kneel before them as they tower above. Initially, I cringed at the forced sentimentality of the scene. The backstories of the show are more often than not also the backbone, and when used correctly can be a strong narrative choice. When it focuses on giving emotional layers to a character as irredeemable as Cora, it’s close to pointless.
However, rather than having her run away belittled and mollified she instead returns during a Masquerade Ball and begins to flirt and enchant the King’s son, Prince Henry. Just as they’ve begun their dance of love, King Henry cuts in to dance with Cora himself. Instead of falling for her disguise he calls her out and threatens her. She tells him that she can weave gold from straw and he’ll regret speaking down to her. He laughs at her and mocks her in front of all of the arrivals, telling her that he’ll lock her in a room for a night and by morning if she’s spun gold she can marry the Prince and if not she’ll die.
In present day, we catch up to Emma and the family on Captain Hook’s ship sailing home. Emma checks on Rumple and asks him if he could kill all of them if he was possessed by Cora and the Dark One’s magic. He tells her that he could do such terrible things that would persuade her in letting him bleed to death. She says that she’s going to save him because he’s Henry’s grandfather (still weird) and they’re now family.
It would have been a much more touching scene had Jennifer Morrison not decided to spout roots and deliver the dialogue completely wooden.
In Storybrooke, Cora and Regina overhear a conversation between Charming and Snow that tells them that Rumple is gravely injured and his power is weakening. They realize his name in vanishing from the dagger, which means their time is running short. Cora tells Regina that she will need to stab Rumple with the dagger to transfer all of the Dark One’s powers to her, making her the new master. Regina tells her that this will be unforgivable in Henry’s eyes and isn’t this what the plan’s been all about?
This is finally what causes Regina to pause. A little too late but still, she asks Cora what the plan is really for, Henry or her own selfish need for power? Cora tells her that with the power she could protect her family and if they lose they’ll spend the remainder of their short lifetime on their knees, groveling to others.
This is an outcome that Cora finds unbearable.
Emma and co. get Rumple to shore and bring him to his shop where he immediately has them building a defense. Emma is drawing a line with invisible chalk that will apparently block anyone from coming in (hint: it does not), and casting a spell with her magical powers that pop up when necessary to the writers. Neal and Charming are fitting themselves with swords, and Rumple is manipulating Snow into killing Cora in the same way Cora almost got Snow to save her mother.
In the flashback, we see Rumple pop up in Cora’s room and watch as he begins to seduce her with the notions of power, love and bloodlust. He tells her he’ll spin her gold if she promises him her first born child. She says she’ll do as such as long as he teaches her how to perform that magical act herself. He agrees, and they sit, spin gold, imagine the ideas of horribly disfiguring the individuals who embarrassed them in the past, and fell in some sort of love in the matter of a night.
It’s based on fairytales where people fall in love at first glance so it’s arguable that it could happen.
The next morning, the King, impressed by her talents, allows for Prince Henry and Cora to become betrothed—unbeknownst to them, her infatuation with Rumple.
Back to the future, Cora and Regina easily, some may say pathetically, get past the group’s safe guards. They fight with badly CGI’d fireballs (for a show that invests such detail and beauty into their costume design it’s mind boggling just how awful their CGI skills are) and lazily choreographed sword fights until it seems the magical mother and daughter are winning. That is until Cora realizes something is wrong, saying that someone has gotten hold of her heart that lies in the crypt in the cemetery.
Oh yeah, did anyone else forget that she didn’t have her heart? Or was this a new development specifically written for this episode in order to create a more emotional impact because I can’t remember.
Regina rushes to stop Snow who ends up being the one with the heart, whispering Cora’s name over it in order to create the perfect means of murder. She tells Regina that if she puts Cora’s heart back in her maybe she’ll finally feel the love she’s always been missing from her mother. It’s cold, fighting dirty and will kill Cora instantly when it’s back inside her chest and Snow knows this and goes through with it anyway—until Charming finds her curled up in her own distress. She tells him he was right, murder isn’t in her and she tries to race off to stop Regina before it’s too late.
The story in the past wraps up with Cora telling Rumple she wants to be with him but wants to kill the King first for what he did to her. She goes to confront the King and to rip out his heart but is stopped by his speech, where he offers her power over her love for the man she runs away with in the shadows. She realizes that power will always be more important to her and rips her own heart out. Rumple is by no means pleased by this information. At least we know where so much of the hostility between the two comes from.
And now for my favorite scene of the night. In Storybrooke, in Rumple’s shop, he begins to really believe that he might die there. He begs Emma to let him call Belle even though she doesn’t remember him.
He gets her on the phone and asks her to please give him a moment of her time so he can say some things. He tells her he’s dying. He tells her she’s a hero, even if she can’t remember it, that she is a truly lovely woman who fell in love with a very ugly man, and that she makes him want to return to the best form of himself, something he hasn’t felt in a very long time. Robert Carlyle is wonderful in this scene, each word from his mouth drenched in emotion and regret and it’s interesting to see a scene between a couple I’ve often felt was contrived be so utterly convincing and my favorite of the episode. It’s not overtly emotional; it isn’t some huge declaration or love nor is it a moment that brings back Belle’s memories with the power of love. It’s simple and to the point, but acted brilliantly.
My frigid little heart may have actually allowed itself to thaw for a moment.
This leads to a reconciliation of sorts between Rumple and Neal with the former telling the latter he has spent the better part of a lifetime searching for him.
It’s all warmth until Regina returns and just as Cora is about to deliver the death blow (after magically sending Emma and Neal somewhere in the middle of the woods) she places her mother’s heart back into her.
Cora smiles at her daughter, genuinely and sad. Regina, teary eyed and beaming moves to her just as Cora falls. Her heart had become a liability like she predicted so long ago and has ultimately killed her.
Snow runs in a second too late, just as Rumple begins to heal due to the dagger being released back to his power.
Lana Parrilla’s acting here is also touching as she cradles her mother, asking her to not leave her now. It’s terribly sad to think that she’s just lost the one last human connection she had—despite how problematic it was.
This episode worked because it managed to emotionally connect in a way that show hasn’t been able to since Season One, in the episode centered on Jiminy Cricket. There are issues to clean up, as there always are with this show, but for this week’s episode they’re largely ignorable. It was well paced, well-acted by the actors who took the spotlight, and finally engages the audience because we got hints of the end of the plot. All they need to do now is redeem Regina’s character and they may have a good last third of a season on their hands.