There are a lot of very talented writers working on Once Upon A Time, but this show’s limitations prevent them from reaching their full potential. Jane Espenson did great work on Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Battlestar Galactica, but her episodes of this series have been largely lackluster. That is, until “The Miller’s Daughter,” which is easily one of the strongest episodes OUAT has ever had. Exploring Cora’s past and shutting the door on her present-day exploits, this episode is full of significant plot developments and emotional character moments, with a very strong connection between the fairyback and Storybrooke scenes.
Rose McGowan is inspired casting as young Cora, and not just because of how much she looks like Barbara Hershey. She has an icy demeanor that is perfect for the youthful version of this season’s Big Bad, hiding her potential power behind a suit of armor that protects from the cruel nobility she delivers flour to. When she’s tripped by a princess and forced to bow and apologize, she’s filled with the rage that is essential for making magic happen. She sneaks into a ball that is intended to find the prince a wife, but the king sees through her disguise and threatens her until she says that she can spin straw into gold. She’s locked in the tower, setting the stage for Rumpelstiltskin to appear and give Cora a taste of the power that will drive her over the edge.
If there’s one thing this show has done relatively well, it’s combining fairy tales together to put a new spin on familiar stories. We finally see the traditional Rumpelstiltskin tale unfold in Cora’s story this week, but with a few alterations that make a considerable difference to the plot. Rumpelstiltskin still wants Cora’s first born in exchange for the knowledge to spin straw into gold, but he tells her his name right away so there’s none of that “guess my name” stuff. Rumpelstiltskin initially plans on doing the work for her, but Cora insists that he teach her, which leads to the episode’s strongest scene as they have a sensual spinning session.
This episode establishes that magic is an emotional act, not an intellectual one, when Rumpelstiltskin asks Emma to cast a protection spell over his store when they arrive in Storybrooke, and that same philosophy is in play during the imp’s lesson with Cora. He tells Cora that she needs to latch on to a memory that incites great passion in her, recalling the time he was forced to kiss a man’s boots in front of Baelfire. Cora realizes that magic comes from bloodlust, but the intimacy building between herself and Rumpelstiltskin helps turn up her emotional energy. Magic is like sex, and the transformation of straw to gold is the equivalent of Cora’s first climax, opening a whole new world to the budding witch.
Back in Storybrooke, Rumpelstiltskin, Emma, Baelfire, and Henry arrive in Hook’s ship to heal Rumpelstiltskin and eliminate Cora and Regina. The relationship between mother and daughter has started to weaken as Regina begins to realize that Cora is in this for the power, despite her mother’s insistence that she is trying to protect her family. While Emma, Baelfire, and Charming are fortifying Rumpelstiltskin’s store, Snow is shown how to eliminate Regina when she discovers the magic candle from last episode. Rumpelstiltskin tells her that she needs to find Cora’s heart, let the wax drip on it as she says Cora’s name, then get the heart back into the witch’s body in order for her to be killed. When the villainesses arrive to finish off Rumpelstiltskin, Snow runs off to Regina’s vault to finally get her revenge.
The potential death of Rumpelstiltskin leads to some nice emotional moments between Baelfire and his father, but it’s the relationships between Cora and everyone else are what really elevate this episode. Regina and Cora’s relationship in Storybrooke has been a major point of contention in these reviews, largely because of how much it backtracks Regina’s character. But the idea that Cora is the way she is because she lost her heart years ago and could potentially be good if her heart was returned make Regina’s motivations stronger. Regina has been stripped of any semblance of family at this point, and when her mother appears, she gets someone who appears to care for her, even though it’s all in the pursuit of more power.
Back in the fairyback, Cora and Rumpelstiltskin’s relationship becomes more intense as she spends more time in the tower. Cora becomes engaged to the prince when she shows off all her fresh-spun gold, but she’s secretly plotting to kill the king with Rumpelstiltskin. When she has a one-on-one conversation with the king, she rests his hand on his chest, and in the next scene, she has a beating heart in a box. When she meets with Rumpelstiltskin, she reveals that the heart is hers because she knows that love will prevent her from doing what she needs to gain ultimate power. The fairyback ends with her holding a baby Regina high, announcing that she will be queen, although she will never be loved because her mother has no heart.
Snow White is a badass trickster in this episode, using the candle on Cora’s heart and then running into Regina when she tries to leave the vault. She tells Regina that she wants her to return Cora’s heart to her body so that she can learn to love again, and Regina accepts the task. Snow immediately has doubts, though, and when Prince Charming shows up at Regina’s vault, she tells him that this isn’t her and regrets her actions. Over in Rumpelstiltskin’s store, Cora talks to the dying old man about their relationship, creating a great contrast between their past and present lives.
When Rumpelstiltskin asks Cora if she ever loved him, she asks him why he thinks she ripped out her heart. That’s when Regina appears to shove her mother’s organ back into her chest, ending the threat of Cora while setting Regina even further down the path of evil. As a horrified Regina holds her mother’s dying body, Cora says, “This would’ve been love. You would’ve been loved.” It’s a touching death scene that is going to have major consequences down the line as Regina looks up at Snow White with fury in her eyes before the episode cuts to black. Regina took everything away from Snow, and she’s finally taken something huge from her evil stepmother. There are still six episodes of this season left, and it looks like Regina is back to being this show’s main antagonist. At least now there’s a good reason for her to be evil again.
- I watched a screener of this episode that didn’t have music, and the silence proves surprisingly effective during the big emotional moments of the script. This show’s music-box score doesn’t really do much to enhance the script.
- The screener I watched also didn’t have completed visual effects, and it’s fascinating to see what this show looks like before the CGI is thrown in. The ball scenes in a sound stage are especially interesting.
- Ruby is this episode’s real hero for taking Henry off the grid once they get to Storybrooke. Thank God.
- I can accept that Regina and Cora can teleport and throw fireballs, but tapping Snow White and Prince Charming’s phones? That’s ridiculous.
- “I just came for the free food.” Young Cora’s my type of girl.
- “Don’t just do it. Teach me.”
- “Don’t stop until they are on their knees.”
- King: “You’re just a miller’s daughter.” Cora: “I am so much more.”
- “She always wanted the best for me. That’s love.”