TV Time: Once Upon a Time 2.16

Title The Miller’s Daughter

Two-Sentence Summary As Cora plots to stab the dying Rumplestiltskin and become the Dark One herself, we uncover the twisted history between them during flashbacks to Cora’s life as the miller’s daughter who was taught dark magic by Rumplestiltskin before betraying him, ripping out her own heart to allow herself to do so. That heart becomes the means by which Cora ultimately meets her demise at Snow’s hand.

Favorite Line “You are a hero who helped your people. You are a beautiful woman who loved an ugly man—really, really, loved me. You find goodness in others, and when it’s not there, you create it. You make me want to go back—back to the best version of me… And that’s never happened before. So when you look in the mirror, and you don’t know who you are—that’s who you are. Thank you.” (Rumplestiltskin, to Belle)

My Thoughts Ever since I started watching Once Upon a Time, I’ve loved it for two reasons: its unashamed optimism in an age of television cynicism and its ability to create a world in which fairytales are no longer black-and-white but much more morally complex. It wasn’t until this episode that I realized having morally complex characters means that their actions won’t always inspire optimism. If I love Once Upon a Time because the villains aren’t 100% evil, then I also have to accept that the heroes aren’t always going to be 100% good—not even my favorite hero of them all.

“The Miller’s Daughter” was all about the choices we make and the reasons we make them—and what that ultimately says about who we are. No one in this episode was pure good or pure evil, and that’s how I like my Once Upon a Time. This episode was one of the richest, most well-written episodes the show has ever had, which should surprise no one after learning that Jane Espenson wrote it. This woman has a talent for character development and adding layers to the Once Upon a Time mythology that I’ve yet to see matched by any other writer for this show.

First and foremost, let’s talk about this week’s flashbacks. Once again, the casting gurus at Once Upon a Time outdid themselves with the casting of Rose McGowan as young Cora. Her appearance and demeanor were disarmingly similar to Barbara Hershey, but she was still able to make this character her own rather than an imitation of Hershey’s incredible work.

I’m not sure I felt compelled by Cora’s initial motive for wanting such large-scale revenge, but I’m not sure we were supposed to feel it was justified. Unlike Regina, Cora didn’t seem like a kind soul twisted by circumstance into darkness. Her lust for power was evident from the start. (And speaking of lust—can I just briefly talk about how much I’m lusting after Cora’s gowns in this episode? The costume designers deserve as many accolades as possible for their work on this show.)

Cora’s lust for power manifested itself initially as lust for Rumplestiltskin, a man with seemingly limitless power and the means to share that power with her. I have to say, I found the spinning wheel seduction scene both incredibly hot and incredibly unsettling. Cora may have believed she loved Rumplestiltskin, but we know for a fact that her love wasn’t true (because his curse didn’t start to break like it did when Belle kissed him). She loved the Dark One; she loved his power. Not all love is pure—not every love story ends in happily ever after. Sometimes love is dark and twisted and unhealthy.

Cora made her choice between love and power in the most absolute way, by cutting out her own heart. She wanted power so badly she was willing to never love anything or anyone—not even her own daughter—again in order to have it. That twist—Cora ripping her own heart out—gave new layers to Cora’s seemingly one-dimensional villainy this season.

The other twist in the flashbacks was Cora’s manipulation of her deal with Rumplestiltskin in order to keep her child, who ultimately became Regina. I was wondering how they were going to play with the traditional fairytale after he told her his name, and I loved what they did with it. It helped me understand why Rumplestiltskin was so unwilling to believe that Belle actually loved him, and it made Rumplestiltskin’s relationship with Regina even richer and more complex than ever before.

I loved the parallel between Rumplestiltskin teaching Cora and Emma magic. It revealed so much about these two women: He motivated Cora with bloodlust and Emma with love. Emma’s magical abilities fascinate me—especially because she’s so reluctant to use them—and I can’t wait to see more of them as well as more of her relationship with Rumplestiltskin.

Another beautiful parallel in this episode was between love that brings out our darkest qualities and love that makes us our best selves. Rumplestiltskin’s phone call with Belle was such a stark contrast to the toxic relationship he had with Cora in the flashbacks. That phone call featured some of the best dialogue and best acting I’ve seen on this show to date. Robert Carlyle is—and I don’t say this lightly—a genius. The physical and emotional pain on display in that scene was palpable, but so was a love deep and selfless enough to rival anything I’ve seen from even the best Snow/Charming scenes.

In what could be his last moments, Rumplestiltskin doesn’t want to talk to Belle to make himself feel better. He wants to use some of his last breaths to help her, to make her feel loved, to tell her who she is. She’s a hero—she’s his hero. And before he dies he needs her to know that.

It’s so important for Emma and especially Neal to hear him talk to Belle. It led to my favorite scene in the episode—the father/son moment between Rumplestiltskin and Neal. Michael Raymond-James was the perfect addition to this cast. He’s brilliant in this scene—you can see the lost boy coming to the surface after so many years of building up a jaded exterior. The moment when he grabbed his father’s hand was almost brutal in its assault on my emotions. Family stuff gets to me on this show like nothing else, and this was such a powerful moment of reconciliation that felt earned and pitch-perfect in both the simplicity of its dialogue and the rawness of its performances.

Speaking of raw performances, I have to single out Ginnifer Goodwin once again for her work in this episode. Watching my favorite character—the symbol of goodness on this show—struggle with and ultimately give in to the darkness in her soul was difficult to watch, but only because it was done so well. We all have darkness inside of us—even heroes. And Snow had very few choices open to her except the darkest option. She couldn’t let her family die, which is what would have happened had Cora lived. And she couldn’t put the heart back in herself—especially not once Regina caught her. So she thought on her feet, she made an active choice, and she saved the lives of her family (and I’m sure many other lives as well). But all magic comes with a price, and in this case the price was her sense of self.

Were Snow’s motives as pure as simply protecting her family? No. She was also driven by vengeance after being pushed to her breaking point last week. But is Snow White evil? I still say no. Look at her reaction to what she’d done. Look at how much she wished she’d made a different choice. An evil woman would have embraced her dark side, would have enjoyed using dark magic and fulfilling a lust for blood. But Snow White isn’t evil. She’s a human being who had to make an impossible choice. She’s a human being who doesn’t always do what’s right and noble 100% of the time.

It all comes back to what Rumplestiltskin said to Snow near the beginning of the episode: “You’re all grown up now.” And we all get darker as we grow up. The adult world isn’t the black-and-white world of our youth; it’s a world lived in gray areas. And that’s what makes Once Upon a Time so compelling; it acknowledges the fact that these are fairytales for grownups, about grownups. They’re stories not about clichéd heroes who always stay on the side of the right and villains who have no soul. They’re stories about human beings who are neither all good nor all evil. And it was time for that to be true for Snow as well.

I’m more than excited to see where this all leads. I felt incredible amounts of sympathy for Regina because once again Lana Parrilla was able to break my heart into pieces in the episode’s final moments. I’m eagerly anticipating her fully embracing her Evil Queen side, and I like that we have a really strong motive for her hatred of Snow now. I’m curious to see how Charming handles Snow’s actions, especially because he was so adamant about her keeping her soul pure. And I’m waiting with bated breath for more layers to be added to Neal’s relationship with everyone as well as for Emma to learn more about her magical abilities.

In other words, is it next Sunday yet?

 

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9 thoughts on “TV Time: Once Upon a Time 2.16

  1. Before I talk about the episode, I just had to let you know that this is a really amazing review.

    First of all, I have so much love for Jane Espenson and I should have recognized that she wrote this episode because it was really good!

    I love seeing how each of the characters grew into who we see them as, and Cora’s history did not disappoint me at all. Which, in typical OUaT style, made her death scene legitimately sad, even though we’ve been rooting against her all season. My heart broke (mostly for Regina) when Cora said that having Regina would have been enough had she had her heart in all of these years.

    I really love what this episode means for Snow’s character. I hope we get to see her work through what she’s done and how she deals now that Regina is going to be looking for revenge. I also really like that the show had her be the one to kill Cora instead of Charming stepping in to do it for her in order to keep her soul pure. A similar situation came up on the show Angel but the guy stepped in so the girl would stay pure and it never quite sat right to me. Part of having agency is having the ability to make choices for yourself even if they are the wrong ones. It’s how we learn and grow and I like the Snow will have the opportunity to really examine what she did and how she will cope.

    • Thank you so much, Heather! I worked really hard trying to sort through my feelings about this episode, so I’m happy you enjoyed my review. 😀

      I loved everything you had to say about Snow being the one to kill Cora. It would have felt so wrong—especially for this show—to have Charming step in and ultimately do it for her.

      “Part of having agency is having the ability to make choices for yourself even if they are the wrong ones. It’s how we learn and grow and I like the Snow will have the opportunity to really examine what she did and how she will cope.”

      This is so profound and so true. In order to be a fully realized character, wrong choices—fallible human choices—have to be made; perfection is boring. It’s the only way we grow as people. And I can’t wait to see what happens with Snow’s character as a result of the choice she made.

  2. Great review. 🙂 You point out some great parallels between the flashbacks and current timeline that hadn’t occurred to me. For one, I hadn’t thought of the fact that Rumple didn’t start to change back when Cora kissed him, insinuating that she didn’t truly love him (although I think she believes she did, as much as she’s capable of loving anybody).

    I have to admit I don’t share the same feelings about Goodwin -I think she overacts. But I agree Carlyle is a genius and I think one of the best actors on TV.

    • Thank you! I definitely agree with your thoughts about Cora. I think she really believed she loved him even though it was such an unhealthy kind of love.

  3. Yes Snow White is evil. Not only did she prove this in “The Miller’s Daughter”, but also in “Into the Deep”, when she tried to kill Mulan. And she is good. I can say the same about EVERYONE ELSE on this show . . . even Rumpelstiltskin and Cora. Why is that so hard to accept? Why must we resort to labels and excuses to define certain characters?

    [“I think she really believed she loved him even though it was such an unhealthy kind of love.”]

    Cora did love Rumpel. She pretty much made that clear, even if you don’t want to believe it. She loved power more.

    • I would never want to resort to labels and excuses to define any character on this show—they’re all beyond simple definitions of “good” or “evil.” When I say that I don’t think Snow White is evil, I mean I don’t think she’s the kind of evil the show was building her up to be (through mostly Charming) if she made the choice to kill Cora. She’s both light and dark, which as you said is a quality everyone on the show has and is one of the things I love so much about it.

      And I definitely believe Cora loved Rumplestiltskin, but I’m never going to say it was a true or healthy kind of love. She did love power more, which is the reason his curse didn’t break with her kiss. That’s the point I was trying to get across about their relationship. I’m sorry if I didn’t articulate that well.

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  6. [” And Snow had very few choices open to her except the darkest option. She couldn’t let her family die, which is what would have happened had Cora lived. And she couldn’t put the heart back in herself—especially not once Regina caught her. So she thought on her feet, she made an active choice, and she saved the lives of her family (and I’m sure many other lives as well). But all magic comes with a price, and in this case the price was her sense of self.”]

    I find the above comment so disturbing. You’re stating that yeah, Snow gave in to the evil within her. But at the same time, you seemed to be making excuses for her.

    All Snow had to do was squeeze Cora’s heart. But instead, she set up Cora’s death in a cruel way by making Regina a tool in her mother’s death. That was low. And to Snow’s credit, she was willing to admit it . . . even if others, especially Emma, refused to consider the idea that her mother had committed an act of evil.

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