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TV Review: Once Upon a Time – “The Miller’s Daughter”

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This week’s Once Upon a Time episode “The Miller’s Daughter” is in many ways a game changer. It is stunning episode on so many levels, affecting several story and character arcs as the show moves into the final episodes of the year. It is one of the series’ best offerings.

It is noteworthy that in an episode in which the main characters are Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle) and Cora (Barbara Hershey and Rose McGowan as the young Cora), so much significant happens in all the other character arcs. And it is episodes like this one that show Once Upon a Time at its absolute best. Everything worked: fantastic writing, gorgeous score and photography, superb acting.

With Cora now dead at the hands of Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin), the hatred Regina (Lana Parrilla) feels for Snow will only intensify. The battle lines will be drawn clearly along family lines, especially since Snow has essentially murdered Cora to save Rumplestiltskin’s life.

Written by the fabulous Jane Espenson, “The Miller’s Daughter” takes us back to the original Grimm tale “Rumplestiltskin.” Rumple has been a part of so many of Once‘s stories since the series debuted in 2011. He has been deal maker and Dark One; he has even been cast as Beauty’s beast in last year’s breathtaking “Skin Deep.” But now it is time to hear Rumple’s classic tale told in Once Upon a Time fashion. 

In the process, we learn of Cora’s fateful decision to excise her own heart so that love doesn’t get in the way of ambition and her desire for revenge on those who have oppressed her. On the eve of her marriage to a prince, which would make her fifth in line to the throne, Cora is torn between her ambition and hatred, and Rumple’s offer of nothing but a chance at love. But she wants power and revenge more than she wants his love, so ripping out her own heart, she breaks Rumple’s and ascends to power.

Her rejection of Rumple resonates all the way back to “Skin Deep,” (in fact, many years later in the narrative timeline) when he ultimately meets Belle (Emilie de Ravin), someone that can love him despite his flaws. His self-hating words in that season one episode, “Nobody can ever love me!” ring with even more tragedy now that we understand the cruelty that she wrought upon Rumple. No wonder he detestes her even now so many years later. 

Snow’s arc also hits a major crossroads; her willingness to commit murder (fueled not doubt by Cora’s cold-blooded murder of Mrs. Patmore…er…Johanna in last week’s episode) puts her on a potentially much darker path. Driven by the powerful magic of hate, she is able to cross into the darkness long enough to set the gears in motion. By the time she has second thoughts it is too late. Charming (Josh Dallas) isn’t very happy with this turn, and for her part, Snow is devastated that she turned to her darker instincts, albeit to save everyone from Cora’s evil intentions.

Emma (Jennifer Morrison) also comes to a significant moment, as she uses her magic, believing in herself enough to make it happen, setting up a defensive line to protect the dying Mr. Gold. It is a wonderful milestone, especially watching Mr. Gold almost will her to confidence with the last of his waning strength.

We learn a lot about both Cora and Rumple in “The Miller’s Daughter.” Like Rumple, Cora comes at her ambition from a position of powerlessness. She is a victim, humiliated in front of the King and his court.

No wonder Rumple feels comfortable enough to admit the lowest, most debased moment in his life. And like Rumple, she lives in the shadow of her own weak father. You can imagine she would never want that sort of life for her own offspring, willing to do whatever it takes.

Whatever Cora and Rumple share, it is based on hate and vengeance. Like love, powerful hate, is a strong enough emotion to propel magic, but there is nothing deep or pure in their love. At this point in his long life, Rumple is isolated and alone; he sees in Cora someone dark, and someone with whom he can share his isolation.

But his offer to her is genuine, and he is bewildered when she accepts him. “I can only offer you loneliness and isolation,” and, he adds “love.” But in the end, it is not enough for the ambitious Cora. At his core, Rumple is a good man, a deeply romantic man, and for Cora, that will never be enough. Rumple is crushed at her rejection, wondering throughout the ages whether he had so misread Cora’s emotions.

Confronted with the choice of running off with the “evil imp” for love or fulfilling her ambition and entering into a loveless marriage for power, Cora’s choice is easy once she removes her heart from the picture. “You are my weakness, Rumple,” she tells him, rejecting his offer of love. And this is how Cora has viewed love ever since, as a weakness. It is not until her heart is (albeit briefly) replaced in her chest that she realizes, yet, it would have been enough.

Rumple’s heart has always been there, sometimes buried beneath manipulation and a tendency towards his Dark One persona. He could have, at any time, removed his heart just as Cora has, but he has never seen love as a weakness, and most of his actions have been driven by love, not hate and revenge (except maybe the murder of Milah). Rumple has, for all his glee and bravado always hated that part of himself, and when he suggests that perhaps it will better for the world if he dies, we understand the world-weariness that underlies his facade. 

The one woman to truly love the “ugly man” he sees in himself has no memory of that love, nor him. And on his deathbed, in a powerful and one of the episode’s most heartbreaking scenes (and there are several), he confesses to Belle, who has no memory of Rumple or their love, just what she has given him. “You see good in everything,” he reminds her. “And when it’s not there, you create it.” It is for Belle that Rumple has tried so hard to suppress the darkness within him. As he says, she makes him want to be “the best version of himself.” 

This is Rumple at his most vulnerable, and I can’t imagine that he has laid himself so bare since his offer to Cora on the eve of her wedding, and in his expression when she rejects him. In “Skin Deep,” Rumple is guarded and wary. Even in the library scene in “The Crocodile,” as open as Gold is, his emotions are nowhere as raw as they are in this scene. It is an amazing speech, and one that astonishes both Emma and Baelfire, who finally realizes that Rumple has forsaken the Dark One (or has at least tried).

A bad decision made in a moment of weakness separated them, and Rumple has regretted ever since. “I’m full of love,” he confesses to Bae. “I have spent my whole life looking for you.” And as Bae sees in his father genuine remorse, not couched with magic or anything but raw emotion, he finds it in himself to forgive him.

So where does “The Miller’s Daughter” leave the series as it goes into its final six episodes of the season? Snow stands on a precipice. Will Cora’s murder change her? Or is she redeemable? I believe she first has to forgive herself the choice she’s made. And Charming has to be supportive and understanding.

Regina has an opportunity to follow her mother’s (literally) heartless path (maybe even removing her own heart to do it) or win Henry with remorse backed with actions. But, I suspect that Regina will want nothing less than to crush Snow’s Heart, and perhaps Rumple’s as well. Heaven hath no fury like an evil queen scorned. 

From ABC’s promo, next week’s episode “Welcome to Storybrooke” looks to continue directly from “The Miller’s Daughter.” We are all in for quite a bumpy ride!

Reminder: Tuesday night Jane Espenson will be my guest on Let’s Talk TV LIVE on Blog Talk Radio 9:00 p.m. ET. She will be live in the studio and will be taking your calls during part of the show. We’ll talk about “The Miller’s Daughter” and what’s in store for the rest of the season. 

Once Upon a Time airs Sunday nights on ABC at 8:00 p.m. ET.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • WML

    What an amazing episode. And what a lady’s man! Still, the difference between Cora, Belle and Milah are clear. Milah could not take the humiliation. Cora could not do without power. Belle, love Rumple, even when she must know the doubts of everyone around her. Her acceptance of who she loves is the true mark of love. It’s not what someone can give to you, it’s what you give to someone. Ultimately, love is a gift that is given. Among the three women, Belle alone is able to give. And so, for all the romantic in all of us, we can see true love manifested. Rumple’s speech is probably (hopefully) be the catalyst of his redemption. It shows that in his darkness, the light still shines.

    And the preview – Rumple telling Regina to get rid of her blood lust – is that suppose to happen in early Storybrooke (where he supposedly doesn’t know of the enchantment) or later in the season? If it is a development in the life of the modern day Mr. Gold, then how far is Gold from finding the true power of love? The ability to give. And forgive.

  • Betsy

    Before I comment on anything else:

    Did Gold really care if Cora loved him? He looked like he needed to hear that she loved him…….and I don’t get that at all.

    What was THAT about?

  • I think he did care. She hurt him deeply, and he’s lived with that terrible pain all his life. How could he have so misread her (like that)? I think after all that time he wanted to know if there really was nothing there and he had just been the romantic fool to her cruel ambition.

    That’s my take. Rumple is a very romantic character fundamentally, he has always sought love. He thought he’d found it with her (on a very perverse basis to be sure), but it was the best he could do and he fell for her.

  • WML

    On a marginally OUAT related news, it appears that Red may not be as prominently featured in the show the coming year, now that she has signed to be a lead in a show for CBS. While the show has yet to be picked up, it appears that Meghan Ory may be doing double duty in the coming year. She deserves the break. She’s a good actress that has been underused somewhat (well, they don’t have a shortage of talented actors in OUAT).

    More on Rumple. It was fascinating to see him play with Mary Margaret’s emotions, basically goading her to use the candle to save him. I guess his desire for self preservation wasn’t part of the injury, that he’s still a work in progress as redemption is concerned. Still, you can see how far he has gone with that speech to Belle. People are most honest when they feel they have nothing to lose – Rumple is no different than most. Let’s hope, though, that his great capacity for love wins the day, especially now that the Charmings (and especially Mary Margaret) are in mortal danger from a vengeful Regina.

    I am going to miss Barbara Hershey. Any chance she’s not really dead? She was fantastically cast, a great foil for Rumple (and Regina).

  • Not only what Rumple said to Belle, but that almost throw away line when he says that maybe it would be better if he died and the dark power was finally gone from their midst (or words to that effect).

    As far as Barbara Hershey, we still haven’t seen her whole story–just the beginning and the end (and some of the middle). We still don’t know what happened between the in the intervening years. (and Regina)

  • Pixie Michele

    Turns out one of the best episodes also has the most insightful synopsis by one Ms. Bennett. Kudos and thanks once again for your work!
    Lots to say, but I’m a CPA in tax season. Wish I could get to Blog Talk tonight. Have fun! Lady Jane set up a beautiful path to redemption for Rumple, Regina, and Snow. Hope can save them all.
    Hope/Henry will be Rumple’s “undoing”. It’s hope that Belle sees in him and reaches for. He has marvelous opportunities with Belle and Bae now, but the first thing he did upon healing was reach for his dagger and protect himself back in his old persona. How long will that last?
    Regina circles back to face her original hatred of Snow, but now having learned much in between on her road to winning Henry/hope. What a choice for her. Can she realize Henry is enough and learn from her mother’s past or will she give in to power’s pull and harness it for revenge on Snow?
    Snow lost her way in a moment much like Rumple, knowing it immediately after. She’s lost, so Charming will help her find herself again. Then Snow and Regina need the forgiveness hope provides. Oddly enough, they are both joined by hope/Henry.
    I hope hope wins. I feel like a child saying that, but it’s a wonderful persoective to hold when watching the show. I’ll keep it.

  • Jo

    Sorry but I just do not see chemistry between R and Belle? Never did. Also, if Belle felt real love for R, she wouldn’t try to trick him into losing something that means so much to him. She would accept him as is and not try to change him. And now she has an alter ego named Lacey? Yeah, that’s normal behavior. Kick her to the curb NOW!