‘Once Upon a Time’ Review: ‘Sympathy for the De Vil’ Offers Fascinating Look at True Villainy
Recap and review of Once Upon a Time – Season 4 Episode 19 – Sympathy for the De Vil:
I was probably too quick to judge last week’s Once Upon A Time. One of the things that occasionally bugs me about the narrative for this season, and which “Sympathy for the De Vil” happily corrects, is this idea that every villain has a kernel of goodness in them. Cruella de Vil (Victoria Smurfit) is bad all the way through, and the show is better for it.
Which is why it’s kind of a shame that this is the end for her. But it feels like a natural end for the character, considering that the show has been gradually tying up loose ends with the Queens of Darkness storyline. In fact, the Queens of Darkness storyline itself feels like it was little more than a transitional arc, which would bug me if that transition was to something other than the return of Zelena (Rebecca Mader), a villain who’s arguably worse than all three put together. We’re trading up in the threat department, and I think it’s a smart choice for the series to make. And yet, I’m still mourning the loss of Cruella, if only because we’ve only just found out what an interesting character she can be. What’s funny is that her interesting nature comes about as a result of her being entirely one-dimensional. As we discover from her flashback story detailing her first meeting with the Author (Patrick Fischler), Cruella is irredeemably awful. Yet she hides it under a thin, sociopathic veneer of humanity. It’s one of the season’s best portrayals, and while I can see why we only got this story now (we needed to meet the Author first, after all), I wish we could have gotten a bit more of Cruella’s background before this point, because Smurfit is great in the part. Far greater than she’s been given the chance to show, actually.
But even without the solid performance behind it, Cruella’s backstory is simply compelling. It’s basically a Rapunzel tale with a dash of mystery: Cruella has been kept in the attic her entire life by her mother, a widow to three dead husbands. It takes the better part of the episode for us to find out why she’s been locked away for so long, although we could probably have inferred it. I mean, I certainly didn’t, but that’s mostly because I took the “evil mother keeping daughter hidden from the world” story at face value. And I didn’t bat an eyelash when Cruella told the Author that the reason she was locked away was because her mother didn’t want it getting out that she poisoned all her husbands. But, in retrospect, it seems fairly obvious that this was all a ploy on Cruella’s part to goad the Author into giving her the means by which she could finally set herself free. Granted, if we’re to accept this, we have to also accept that Cruella somehow knew that the Author had such power to give her in the first place. In this case, with the stroke of his magic pen, he gives her the ability to control all animals. A somewhat random power, at first, but it becomes handy when Cruella uses the ability to turn her mother’s dalmatians against her. After the dogs have killed her mother, Cruella kills the dogs and fashions a coat out of their fur, because — well, of course — Cruella was really the one who murdered her mother’s husbands. Cruella’s mother was simply trying to protect the world from her daughter.
And Cruella’s mother was right to want to try: Cruella makes no apologies for having used the Author to achieve her murderous goal, nor does she seem the least bit bothered that she killed off her only remaining blood relation. Perhaps it’s a byproduct of a fascinating little detail we learn from the Author about Cruella’s world: her world isn’t ours. She lives in a facsimile of London, but not the same London in our world. It’s an area outside of time, and the Author claims there are others like it. He travels between “realms of storytelling,” implying that while places like the Enchanted Forest are real, they also serve a narrative function outside their respective realities. These places and these people are someone’s stories. More succinctly, they’re ours. That’s a genuinely fascinating concept, one of the most interesting that the show has explored. And leads to what ends up being a pretty exciting finale, as Cruella and the Author struggle over the magic inkwell. It spills on Cruella and turns her blonde hair the iconic black-and-white…but not before the Author uses the ink left in his pen to write a curse that prevents Cruella from taking the life of another (I love that it doesn’t specify between people and animals. The Author can see that Cruella loves killing, and so he takes away that love with the stroke of a pen, not even leaving her the pleasure of stomping on an ant).
This ties into the conclusion of the present day storyline: Cruella abducts Henry (Jared S. Gilmore) to blackmail Regina (Lana Parrilla) and Emma (Jennifer Morrison) to kill the Author for her. Neither woman knows Cruella is incapable of actually harming Henry, which…ends up harming the narrative, in a way. In the conclusion, Cruella has Henry at gunpoint while overlooking the edge of a cliff. Emma threatens to end Cruella with her powers, but Cruella insists that Emma doesn’t have the guts to do it, since heroes never kill. But Emma doesn’t think twice. She blasts Cruella off the side of the cliff, plummeting her to her death. Now, the reason I say the reveal about Cruella hurts the narrative is that the show seems to want us to view Emma as slightly more villainous for choosing to kill another person. Villain or not, Cruella didn’t deserve to get blasted off a cliff, right? In theory, yes, Emma should have found some other way to subdue Cruella without actually killing her. But here’s the problem: for one, Emma didn’t know that Cruella couldn’t actually hurt Henry; and, most importantly, Henry was in imminent danger. It was either Cruella or Henry. Should we really have expected Emma to choose differently? The show has sinister music play while Jennifer Morrison adopts a sinister glance as her comrades come to the scene and realize she’s essentially murdered Cruella. But it all feels false. You could probably argue whether or not Emma was justified in her actions, but “defense of others” is a corollary to self-defense law in many jurisdictions. Now, if we’re supposed to think Emma enjoyed killing Cruella, then that’s another story. But it felt like the episode wanted us to believe that the act itself makes Emma an inherently bad person, when having enough love for someone to want to protect them in the first place should keep this from being the heart-blackening act it would have been if she’d just done it for, say, revenge or something.
That said, Once Upon a Time is proving to be pretty adept at these sorts of middleground conflicts. Case in point, Gold (Robert Carlyle) is now being blackmailed by Regina, who’s stolen Belle’s heart as insurance that Gold won’t report her actions back to Zelena. You know, since Regina is planning on heading to New York to search for Robin and rescue him from her evil(er) sister. But we’re still meant to feel some pang of sympathy for Gold, as he explains to Belle that his condition is darkening his heart, and it’s worsening with each day. Before long, whatever sliver of goodness remained in him will be gone, and he’ll be incapable of even feeling love. Granted, this would be a far better storyline if Gold hadn’t portrayed in such a morally dubious light this season, but Carlyle does a great job of illustrating Gold’s inner-turmoil without having to say all that much.
Maybe I don’t buy that Gold necessarily deserves his happy ending, but I don’t feel he’s entirely beyond redemption. However, “Sympathy for the De Vil” shows that not everybody is a shades of grey character. Some people are dark to their core, and that thematic through-line made this one of the more engaging episodes of Once Upon a Time this year.
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