Once Upon A Time has been walking a fine line with me this season. The show insists no one is wholly good or wholly evil but has worked quite hard to put all the good characters on one side, the evil on the other. So it gets confusing when suddenly Rumpelstiltskin, a guy so evil he murdered his own wife because she left him, seems to get a pass from the good guys, and even reluctantly embraced by them as family while Regina, his twin in every way but the physical one, gets dump after dump taken on her emotions and reputation and her legitimate relationship with her son delegitimized at every turn.

It seems like the show, just like the characters themselves, is tacitly approving of Rumpel as they reject Regina. It has smacked of sexism, this disparity in treatment of evil, and it’s muddied the line they’ve tried to draw between good and evil. A line which in season one they made clear only Emma could safely straddle. But then last night happened. Last night where everything shifted. Where Rumpel’s heart was exposed for the first time in a realistic fashion since, well, ever. Where Regina learned who cared and who didn’t. Where Snow learned that as good as she and the show have presented her to be she can be really frickin’ evil when she feels justified.

pissed.

pissed.

That last big discovery is the most vital. It single-handedly rectifies the major issue of the season, which is Regina’s redemption and every single other character’s rejection of it and her. The exclusion of Regina has felt positively Mean Girl-ish since Snow and Emma made it back from Fairy Tale Land, but there was always some simple way to explain away the exclusion. Talk of her being psychotic and evil and incapable of change. The good guys have happily justified their actions despite those actions not necessarily being in line with what we, as a society, view as good (forgiveness y’all–it’s a big deal).

And then Snow cursed Cora’s heart to save Rumpel and, in the process, manipulated Regina in what might be the cruelest way possible without murdering someone. It is hard to pinpoint exactly which part of what Snow did was the most evil. Was it using her knowledge of Regina’s desperate need for love that she uses to convince her to shove a heart into Cora’s chest? Or was it murdering Cora out of a desire for vengeance when she could have easily given Regina a loving mother and ridded the world of “the Dark One” in a single stroke? The latter is the kind of thing the show has told us is evil. Vengeance, we’ve been told time and again, is never the purview of the good. Snow’s previous rejection of exacting vengeance is what has made her so lauded as pure by the show (and made Regina so reviled). But the former, the manipulation of Regina. That’s something more than vengeance. That’s fiendish. It seems almost designed to be the most callous action Snow could possibly take, and it’s one so dark and indefensible in light of whom Snow is that it will be curious to see the reaction of the other “good guys.”

In the voice of GOB, Snow's made a huge mistake.

In the voice of GOB, Snow’s made a huge mistake.

We know how Regina feels. Her pure wrath was the last thing we saw before the cut to credits and for the first time in perhaps ever she is entirely justified in it. Previously it was always just a little crazy that she hated Snow so much for her part in Daniel’s death. It made sense, but it was…off–suggesting that poor Regina was ill-equipped to deal with the rigors of the real world. Now she has a reason that even a saint could acknowledge, and, vitally important to the longevity of Once Upon A Time, it’s a reason to renew her reign of evil without serving as a major step back for the character.

Too bad they didn’t do this back when Cora first showed up. Regina’s sudden shift to her mother’s side will always be one of the weakest arcs the show has attempted. The intent behind the shift was there and both actresses played it, but the meat of it was never displayed for the audience. I’m all for making leaps when a show I enjoy as much as OUAT asks. You tell me Regina goes to her mother because she’s that desperate for love then I’ll make the leap, but I need just a little more cajoling than that one tiny moment in the car.

Nevertheless I still found myself staring at my computer screen in the middle of a very busy convention center and watching in muted horror as Barbara Hershey’s lips curled into the most joyful and breathtaking of smiles. How extraordinary was the acting and screenplay of this episode that it managed to take the evilest of characters, Cora Mill, and turn her into a tragic figure condemned by a desire for power and autonomy from all men? That’s what was at play by the way. Cora became someone painfully real in the “Miller’s Daughter.” She’s an adult child of alcoholism additionally beat down by society. That’s a situation a lot of people, particularly those disenfranchised in our current society, can relate to. All she wants is to be free from the degradation heaped on her day by day and she’s willing to go to extreme measures to accomplish her goal.

But after everything, after heeding the words of those she despises (and who keep her under their thumbs), after sacrificing familial and romantic love, after acquiring a kingdom and wealth beyond measure, after it all she finally finds joy, not in the wealth and power acquired, but in the arms of her daughter.

It's the ciiiiiircle of liiiiiiiife.

It’s the ciiiiiircle of liiiiiiiife.

It’s patently unfair that Rumpelstiltskin undergoes much of the exact same arc only to survive. Yet it isn’t unexpected. Rumpelstiltskin is a man, Cora is the miller’s daughter who dressed up for the ball so she could eat.

At least we know he’ll have one regret he can’t curse his way out of. He genuinely loved Cora. Cared for her as an equal where he seems to care for Belle as a “thing.” And he helped craft her into what she became and there is nothing he can do to ever regain the lover he lost. Everyone made poor choices in “The Miller’s Daughter” and the fallout will be fascinating.

Notes

  • Rose McGowan was wonderful and uncanny as young Cora. I could watch a whole show about her…or many many flashbacks.
  • Sexy gold spinning is the new sexy ghost pottery.
  • The path they’ve put Snow has me completely reinvested in this show. Especially if Henry and Emma show up for Cora’s funeral and Snow and Rumpel watch from trees (but different trees) and look pained.
  • Poor Regina. Will a dead mother finally be what she needs to have some agency?
  • Emma was a hoot this episode all surly and then doing magic and grinning and then getting puffed into the woods with a confused Nealfire.

OUAT 2x16 - LOL Wut

  • Speaking of Neal. I was worried he might be a regular, but the way they glossed over his arrival to focus on the ladies and Rumpel has me feeling less concerned. He just stood around being adorable. Raise your hands if you suspect he’s dead by the finale.
  • Cora and the phone tap. She is my mother…my mother would not approve of that comparison.
  • Regina was full on wooby this week. Except for the synchronized fireball. When is that going to be announced as an Olympic sport?
  • Gold was COLD with his manipulation of Snow. We expect and know him to be evil so it wasn’t a big deal, but the bit about him being Henry’s grandfather and pointedly avoiding mentioning Cora as his grandmother was heartless.
  • Baby Regina and Cora will forever make me weepy.
  • Regina as Rumpel’s daughter is a dodged bullet FOR NOW. Only Cora and a DNA test can actually confirm her paternity though.
  • Young Old Henry was a fox. So was his evil and influential dad.
  • Snow’s mother was a massive inappropriate and non-feminist word.
  • Next Week: Regina goes on the warpath and the preview shows NO ONE COMING TO SNOW’S DEFENSE. Also a worried Snow. Also some possible heart ripping. Also a pragmatic and paternal Gold. Also Graham and the 80s will appear and we’ll learn how she adopted Henry. Bets on Henry talking his ragey mom down?
  • K.P.

    Yes, yes to all of this, but especially:

    “Too bad they didn’t do this back when Cora first showed up. Regina’s sudden shift to her mother’s side will always be one of the weakest arcs the show has attempted. The intent behind the shift was there and both actresses played it, but the meat of it was never displayed for the audience. I’m all for making leaps when a show I enjoy as much as OUAT asks. You tell me Regina goes to her mother because she’s that desperate for love then I’ll make the leap, but I need just a little more cajoling than that one tiny moment in the car.”

    I look forward to see where Regina will go now that she actually has some realistic motivation. At the same time, I wonder what effect Cora’s dying words will have – “You would have been enough.” Will Regina take this to mean that Henry can be enough, if she gets him back? (Unlikely as that may be, because she only raised him for ten years. She’s not related to him by BLOOOOD.)

  • MsJack

    This almost makes up for last week’s episode, which should have been titled, “Evil will always triumph because good is dumb.”

    Also, Regina is a rapist. To our knowledge, Rumpelstiltskin is not. Just sayin’.

    • http://fempop.com/ Alex Cranz

      Yeah the Regina/rape thing is incredibly problematic. Consent was completely absent in FTL and dubious in Storybrooke.

      Though Rumpel and his relationship with Belle is incredibly problematic as well, especially because it romanticizes one of the most blatant domestic violence allegories I’ve seen in a while. I prefer to avoid discussing if one is more evil than the other and settle on both of them having done incredibly awful things they’re going to have to work like hell to redeem themselves for.

      • MsJack

        You posit in this article that the writers/audience seem more willing to forgive Rumpelstiltskin’s evil than they are Cora’s or Regina’s because he’s male. I sometimes wonder if you’re more willing to forgive Regina’s status as a rapist because she’s female.

        I’m not going to make the case that any of these people are more/less evil or that any of them are more deserving of redemption than the other. The writers could go any direction with them at this point and I wouldn’t complain, though I think there’s been a lot more build-up to Rumpel and Regina as sympathetic figures than there has been Cora, who was almost monolithically abusive, manipulative, and murderous until this episode.

        However, if evil characters are going to be redeemed, I do prefer for their evil to be addressed a bit, for there to be some repentance and remorse. Rumpel attempted to apologize for and acknowledge his terrible treatment of Belle when he called her this episode. The show occasionally tries to redeem Regina and make her a sympathetic figure without ever taking a second glance at what she did to Graham. Something about that really bothers me.

        • http://fempop.com/ Alex Cranz

          As I’ve noted elsewhere what she did is nearly identical to what Damon did on The Vampire Diaries. On both shows the rapes are virtually ignored by the other characters, which is indicative of the rape culture we live in where characters can commit such acts with little repercussion.

          Regina’s is compounded by the joviality with which the writers treat her crime. They laugh and call Graham her sex slave in commentary. It’s extremely, extremely problematic.

          As for Regina’s redemption, my personal concern is that they’re spending so much time victimizing her that they’re making it more and more difficult for her to ever accept responsibility for what she’s done or for the acceptance to be palatable for viewers.

          Meanwhile Rumpel has a support system of ADULTS who are all willing to hold him responsible and to whom he wants to be held accountable. The show has given him a very clear path to getting better while it continues to victimize her and suggest that her evil is spun from mental illness rather than the hard heartedness that forged Rumpel’s evil.

  • Rosie

    ["Meanwhile Rumpel has a support system of ADULTS who are all willing to hold him responsible and to whom he wants to be held accountable. The show has given him a very clear path to getting better while it continues to victimize her and suggest that her evil is spun from mental illness rather than the hard heartedness that forged Rumpel's evil."]

    You really don’t know what’s going on . . . do you? Rumpel is the one who receives the support system from the fans and is continuously given a chance over and over again by the Charmings.

    • http://fempop.com/ Alex Cranz

      Oh Rumpel is definitely given a pass by the show and creators and it’s awful and irritating that he’s the trickster while the women are the villains. But Regina has a HUGE swath of fans online. She’s not lacking for support from fans–just from the writers.