ONCE UPON A TIME There Was No Happily Ever After

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Episode 216 “The Miller’s Daughter”

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Oh, my.

Remember last post, I said there were three kinds of episodes for this show. This one falls into the “Holy Greenjeans, Batman!” category — where everything that’s been piling up over the last couple of episodes comes to a head here, and even manages to mix in plenty of back-story to go along with it.

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[SPOILERS ABOUND AHEAD]

Casting aside the whole “Hook sailed to New York without any crew” bit, we’ve now got a ticking time bomb in the way of the poison on Hook’s … hook. Let’s ignore that it’s an extremely slow-acting poison and allows our do-gooders plenty of time to stand around and discuss options and then go back to Storybrooke and then fight a couple of rounds with Cora and Regina after making a phone call to the girlfriend who doesn’t remember him.

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Robert Carlyle gives what is arguably his best performance in this scene, as he lowers all of his defenses to talk to Belle for what he believes is the last time, telling her “You make me want to go back. Back to the best version of myself.” It’s gut-wrenching, on some levels, to watch him finally be almost as human as he’s ever going to be again. Yet, at the same time, we know he’s not going to be the one that kicks it. Because A) Carlyle is a principle cast member that fans love, and B) Joss Whedon isn’t writing this show.

This episode gives us the actual Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale involving the miller’s daughter, who is tasked to turn straw into gold. It’s got a Once Upon a Time twist to it, to be sure, but it’s nice to see this fairy tale play out, being the most recognized tale involving Rumpelstiltskin.

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Kudos to Rose McGowan. I don’t think the show could have found a better actress to play a young Barbara Hershey. She got almost spot-on with her voice and tone. It was a very believable performance. (Between McGowan and Bailee Madison, you have the makings of a Young Once Upon A Time spinoff?…) Her facial expressions — even behind a purloined mask — leave no doubt that this is a younger Cora. Although it’s easy enough to figure she’d want the upper crust royals to get their come-uppance, I wonder just where the ruthlessness came from. Her father’s a drunk, there’s no mention of a mother, so yes — a hard life, to be sure. But ruthless to the point of manipulating pretty much everyone to satisfy this one singular desire for respect from her “betters”, which devolves into an unquenchable craving for power.

And that makes her just like Rumpelstiltskin on so many levels — craving power to avoid life as a second-class citizen of the realm. Wanting to be better not because it’s part of destiny, but because of a perceived slight. And just like Rumpelstiltskin, Cora makes choices that ultimately lead to her downfall.

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The Storybrooke elements worked, too. The invisible chalk was fun (and apparently, Jennifer Morrison got in the habit of carrying the “chalk” around between scenes…), and to see the heroes standing together in a sort of Magnificent Seven style lineup was also good for adding to the question of which one would fall. Of course, we know we’re not going to lose Snow White, Charming, or Emma. But Neal’s fair game.

Deep down, you’ve always wondered just what would happen if Snow White crossed a line. Many probably have wondered if she’s even capable of such a thing. Given how many times she’s had motive and opportunity to do something horrific, she’s always pulled back and done the right thing. Every time.

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Until now.

This is the culmination of several plot lines, and it goes a long way to resolving the question of whether or not Regina is being manipulated by Cora. Their conversation in the mayor’s office seems to put to rest any question that Regina’s doing this on her own. Of course, Regina realizes that there’s more to the story, as Cora becomes unusually obsessive about getting the Dark One’s power.

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It’s something we’ve understood for a while, and this episode just sheds light on the “why” of it: Cora has always been about revenge on those who humiliated her, and she sees power as the only means by which she can get that. And by now, she’s so used to doing it that way, that any other option is off the table anymore. Where Regina is motivated by the desire to reunite with Henry, Cora’s passion for the power that would give her ultimate control over everything finally shines through bright enough for Regina to see it.

Emma, too, has a bit of a magic moment. She gets to be the one who casts the protection spell over Gold’s shop, as he’s too weak to do it. She undoubtedly has something to protect, but how can she cast a protection spell — or any other spell, for that matter — without any kind of training at all? The other times we’ve seen Emma work magic has been accidental, powered by something from within that even she doesn’t understand. And up until now, we’ve had no indication that she was moving any closer to accepting her ability. Even over in Fairy Tale Land, in the dungeon, she was convinced that everything was set up from the beginning. Has she now embraced her magical self? Do we even have an inkling what that is yet?

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In addition to setting up the ending, which had better be the setup to another HGB episode next week, the Fairy Tale Land elements also give us Cora’s history with Rumpelstiltskin. After their kiss a few weeks ago, fans were wondering just how much history the two had, and whether or not Regina could belong to Rumple. We get answers to that this week, in addition to seeing just how ruthless and conniving Cora could be, even at an early age.

[A trifle nitpick: Is this Prince Henry supposed to be the same Henry we see as Regina’s father in earlier episodes? They look nothing alike.]

Cora is even able to outsmart Rumpelstiltskin to the point where she has nothing he can claim as his own as part of their deal. And to find out she pulled out her own heart so that she could ultimately rule the kingdom as revenge for being treated badly… she’s clearly got issues.

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Which are made even more heart-breaking to watch because in the end, all Cora needed was someone to love her. Her last words — “You would have been enough.” — clearly show that she would have been a completely different person if her heart had literally been in the right place. The irony of her understanding that just as she dies… it’s a powerful moment for Regina, as she (and the audience) realizes the “could have been” just as she also loses all the possibility of reconciliation with her mother.

And then there’s the look she gives Snow.

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Evil Queen is back.

Now, this episode also gives rise to the question of Rumpelstiltskin’s fate. We’ve now seen the completion of a story arc that began pretty much the same as his — down-trodden, heartbroken, poor “woe is me” character rises up to a standing of greatness through dark magic — and magic always comes with a price. Are we seeing a foreshadowing of Rumpelstiltskin’s fate?

Next week: Snow White deals with the consequences of a black heart.

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[Official Show Site at ABC]     [Previous recap: “The Queen is Dead”]

Jason P. Hunt

Jason P. Hunt (founder/EIC) is the author of the sci-fi novella "The Hero At the End Of His Rope". His short film "Species Felis Dominarus" was a finalist in the Sci Fi Channel's 2007 Exposure competition.

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