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.