Title Sympathy for the De Vil
Two-Sentence Summary When Cruella kidnaps Henry, her connection to the Author becomes something of great importance to every character, especially Emma. That connection is revealed in flashbacks, which also show how and why the Author took away her happy ending.
Favorite Line “Forgive me if I don’t take advice from a woman who held a grudge for half her life because a 10-year-old spilled a secret.” (Emma, to Regina)
My Thoughts Sometimes it’s easy and fun for me to talk about challenging episodes of television. And sometimes it’s not. “Sympathy for the De Vil” falls into the latter category, so I apologize if my thoughts are a bit scattered this week. A lot of things happened in this episode; some I adored, and some I was less than enthusiastic about. Ultimately, this was one of those episodes that will probably be more enjoyable to analyze later on than in its immediate aftermath. So much of its emotional and thematic core depends on how actions and arcs are going to play out into next week and beyond. That’s the problem with cliffhangers—they’re cool to watch but not so cool to write about without devolving into pure speculation.
“Sympathy for the De Vil” did right by its title character in so many ways. It created a backstory for a villain that was engaging and unbelievably surprising. But the episode faltered a bit when its focus shifted from Cruella back to the Charming Family drama. This season has given us new characters with great stories to tell, and it’s also tried to build up a compelling story about Emma being tempted by darkness. However, I think both didn’t need to be in the same season. There’s such deep, complex emotional drama to be mined from Emma’s potential darkness and how her parents’ betrayal of her trust plays into that, but a lot of it is getting lost in the equally deep and complex backstories of this season’s many villains. I appreciate the scope of this season (and am happy these Queens of Darkness turned out to be so wonderful), but I’m ready for the focus to narrow down a little bit as the season finale approaches.
So much of this season—4A included—has been about self-definition and the difference between who we really are and who other people think we are. This episode was no exception. Point of view is such a great literary device, and it seems fitting that an episode dealing so heavily with the Author (who we now know is named Isaac) relied so much on it. The title of the episode implied that we were going to feel sympathy for Cruella, and that seemed to fit with the classic Once Upon a Time pattern of villain backstories. And then the opening scene was shot from the point of view of young Cruella, and I was immediately making Rapunzel comparisons and feeling sad for this little girl who was locked in a tower by her wicked mother.
However, looking back on the episode, there were hints all along that Cruella’s story was going to be different. When she and Maleficent had their confrontation, I thought she was lying when she said she left Lily to die because she was a horrible person. But it turns out that Cruella was being completely honest about who she is. It was only in the past that she lied about it in order to get what she wanted. She used the Author’s love for a good story to weave him a tale straight out of a fairytale, with herself as the captive princess, when in actuality she was the villain from the start.
Out of all the twists this season on Once Upon a Time, Cruella’s past may be my favorite (even more than the Zelena reveal in the last episode). I genuinely didn’t see it coming, and I love that this show still has some tricks up its sleeve and is self-aware enough to use its formulaic villain-episode plots to lull the audience into a false sense of security. The smart writing was also aided by the fantastic performances given by Victoria Smurfit and Patrick Fischler. Smurfit did such an excellent job of showing Cruella as being slightly off, which I attributed at first to her time as an abused child. And Fischler has always been great at playing unsettling characters, so I naturally believed Isaac was going to be the one to hurt Cruella by taking away her happy ending. Little did I know that, in doing so, he was acting as a hero.
Even when Cruellla’s mother went to Isaac to tell the true story, I didn’t believe her at first. It was only when she talked about not wanting to turn Cruella into the authorities because she was still her child that this story seemed too connected to this half-season’s themes of parents, children, and inherent darkness to be anything but true. And when we saw just how cruel Cruella could be—using her mother’s dogs to tear her apart—I was floored by how dark this episode seemed willing to go. Things only got darker when Isaac confronted Cruella and saw that she’d turned those dogs into her first Dalmatian-skin coat. Smurfit was genuinely terrifying in those two scenes, and I am going to miss the unique energy and charisma she brought to this show.
I am still a little bit in awe of how smart it was to have Cruella—a character nobody expected much from—to be the most purely evil character this show has ever had (with perhaps the exception of Peter Pan, but I think she might actually be worse than Pan). Cruella was a pretty ineffective villain in 101 Dalmatians, and on this show she seemed to be more about snark and gin than actual danger. Little did we know that the sass, diamonds, and passionate Angry Birds playing all masked a heart that seems to have been born dark. If we’ve been taught by this show to believe that evil isn’t born, it’s made, then Cruella just threw a big wrench into that theme. But it’s a wrench that somehow still seems believable. Some people are true psychopaths; some people want to kill because they like killing—not because of any deeper reason than that. And the realization that Cruella’s true happy ending was being able to kill again made her quite possibly the most chilling character in the history of this show.
There are still a lot of questions I have about both Cruella and Isaac, but I’m not sure they’ll ever be answered now. How did she get to the Enchanted Forest? Can the car cross realms, and, if so, how did Isaac travel without it? What happened to Isaac once his ink became the black part of Cruella’s iconic hairstyle? (That one I think will get answered this season.) And why did he still want to change people’s stories once he saw how manipulating Cruella’s story by giving her magic enabled her to do terrible things?
The flashbacks in this episode did such a great job of making me more invested in Isaac beyond just what he could do to the characters I already care about. They also brought up interesting ideas about darkness and intent. Cruella killed because she liked it; it made her happy. Isn’t that different from a person killing someone to protect someone else? I’d like to think so. But then again, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I think one of the key things we’ve learned this season is that when “villains” do something dark, they continue down that path and never look back. But when “heroes” do something dark, they try to atone for it. However, those lines between villains and heroes are blurring in such a complex way that this season seems to be leading to the eradication of those black-and-white labels altogether. Those labels generally refer to how the world sees these characters, when what really matters is how they see themselves.
Two characters who have always struggled with how they define themselves are Regina and Rumplestiltskin. In this episode, Regina seemed to embrace a middle ground between light and dark, which is exactly where I like her character the most. (There needs to be someone with a pragmatic, ends-justify-the-means mindset in the group.) I still don’t know if she had Belle’s consent when she took her heart, and I wish that was a bit clearer because that’sa pretty big thing to leave ambiguous. (Personally, I think she had Belle’s consent, but I can see why others would think she didn’t.) And Rumplestiltskin’s growing darkness continues to be explained in a believable way. The idea that his heart has grown so dark from his deeds that he could lose all ability to love is fascinating. I love when actions have consequences in fiction, and it’s amazing to see his quest for power come back to haunt him. However, his desperation doesn’t excuse the fact that he wants to corrupt Emma’s heart for his own sake. He’s still acting like a villain because he believes he can never be more than that, and it’s hard to completely sympathize with someone who isn’t even trying to be better than his worst self anymore.
It’s ironic to think that Rumplestiltskin went to such great lengths in this episode to manipulate Emma toward darkness, when her parents were already doing his job for him—perhaps even better than he was. What could be more of a push toward darkness than finally believing people loved your for who you are after a lifetime of struggling with that kind of hope, only to have the people you trusted the most make you wonder why you ever let yourself hope at all? That’s how I view Emma’s relationship with her parents right now. The very people who taught her to hope turned out to be people who had so little hope for her ability to be a good person that they did something terrible to another innocent life in order to take away her agency. And what was even worse was that they lied to her about it; they pretended to have the final word on being heroes when they were keeping this huge, dark secret from her.
One of the most important things to Emma is honesty, especially being honest with her about who you really are. Emma likes people who own who they are—for better or worse. She’s not from a world of heroes and villains; she’s from a world that is much more morally ambiguous. And that’s always made her more accepting of people like Regina and Hook than her parents have been. As Emma told Regina and Hook in the woods, they don’t hide the fact that they’ve done dark things. They (pardon my language) own their shit. But Snow and Charming let the world label them as heroes after doing something dark (and never trying to directly atone for it with Maleficent, as far as we know). And they’re still acting as if they have the moral high ground.
There are so many conversations I want Snow, Charming, and Emma to have right now, but the biggest one is an admission by Snow and Charming that Emma still has a right to be upset with them. My biggest source of disappointment with those characters in this episode was the way they invalidated Emma’s feelings. The show could have done a better job of indicating the passage of time, too. In my mind, Emma only found about the secret a couple of days ago at the most, so for Snow, Charming, and Regina to be telling Emma basically to get over it felt incredibly harsh. Instead of acknowledging Emma’s anger and helping her work through it, her parents seemed frustrated with her and continued to tell her that her goodness was a direct result of their actions rather than her choices. To be honest, that would probably push me toward the dark side, too.
Jennifer Morrison (and the makeup department) did such a good job of showing how broken, exhausted, and vulnerable Emma is right now, but I wish there was time for her to lay all her cards on the table with her parents instead of only getting brief moments of anger with them. Emma has had people lie to her and keep secrets from her many times, claim it was for the greater good, and completely dismiss her feelings about all of it. I want all of that to come out because Emma needs that catharsis (and viewers need it, too). Instead, we had to watch characters act as if Emma was supposed to forgive her parents because they deserve immediate forgiveness, which I didn’t enjoy at all.
The one character who was actually gentle toward Emma in her vulnerable state was Hook, and I thought Colin O’Donoghue did a great job of getting the point across that Hook didn’t want Emma to forgive her parents for their sake; he wanted her to forgive them for her sake. When he told her that even heroes make mistakes, he wasn’t trying to excuse what her parents did, which was so important. He was simply reminding her that things don’t always have to be black and white, which is something Emma has helped him believe about himself. He was trying to get her to stop holding onto her anger—because he knows all too well what that can do to a person.
But with anger still holding a tight grip around her heart, Emma was forced to confront Cruella as she held a gun to Henry’s head. Emma gave her time to put the gun down, but she eventually felt she had no choice; she had to kill Cruella to save Henry. It’s an act that I can never see as completely villainous because I could see myself doing the same thing if the person I loved more than anything had a gun to their head and I had magic. Could Emma have used her magic to get the gun away or get Henry out of Cruella’s grasp? Perhaps. But she wasn’t thinking clearly, and I think that was much more of a sign of darkness than the actual act of killing an immediate threat to her son’s life.
I’m a little concerned about the ramifications of this scene, especially for Emma and her parents. I’m worried about Snow and Charming acting judgmental about it once they find out (and it’s going to kill me to see them tell Emma Cruella couldn’t actually kill anyone), because that’s the last thing Emma needs in this situation. I’m worried that this is going to be shown as the one act that pushes Emma to the dark side (especially because of her facial expression in the last shot) instead of a stepping-stone on a path to darkness or an action that will make her question her ability to be a hero. But those worries could all be abated by how this is handled next week. I hope at least some of the focus is on the anger driving Emma’s actions and not just moralizing about the fact that she killed a dangerous person (which heroes have done before with no ramifications—Snow and Charming couldn’t have fought a war against Regina without taking some lives along the way).
The thing I’m most hopeful about in terms of this new challenge for Emma is the group she’s chosen to have around her in this difficult time. Hook and Regina are the backbone of Emma’s support system right now, and she’s going to need them more than ever. Regina can give her tough love, which Emma can give her right back. Those two women have never had unrealistic expectations of the other’s goodness, which is so important. And Hook’s understanding that heroes make mistakes is going to be vital in helping Emma understand that one dark moment doesn’t mean she has to completely give in to darkness. He promised to always see the best in her as she sees the best in him, and I have a feeling that vow is going to be very important in upcoming episodes.
Both Regina and Hook know the dangers of letting anger and self-loathing take over your heart and turn you away from the good person you once were. It’s no coincidence that they’re the people the writers decided for Emma to be closest to as she’s facing those dangers herself. While this story arc hasn’t been easy to watch at times, it has the potential to bring about huge moments of growth for so many characters. It’s just a matter of the writers giving those moments the proper amount of focus, depth, and time in the spotlight.