Recap and review of Once Upon A Time – Season 2 Episode 16 – The Miller’s Daughter:
One of the defining characteristics of Once Upon A Time is how the back stories of the characters are always intertwined — often to a downright mind-boggling degree. Not that it doesn’t make sense for Cora (Barbara Hershey) and Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle) to have had a history, nor that it’s even necessarily hard to believe, as I’m pretty sure their past knowledge of one another has been hinted at, if not outright acknowledged. But the extent to which their history with one another has shaped who they are in the present, and influences the decisions they’ve made that have brought them to this point, is far more than I feel like any viewer could have reasonably inferred. And that’s kind of exhilarating when you think about it, in the sense that while the show keeps building more and more intricate back stories and past relationships for these characters, they never really feel illogical or implausible. “The Miller’s Daughter” is a terrific episode in how it explores these past relationships while fleshing out what these connections mean for the characters in the present.
We flashback to the Young Cora (Rose McGowan), a miller’s daughter who suffers humiliation at the hands of Princess Eva (the future mother of Snow White), who trips her and causes her to spill the flour her family needs to sell to make a living. After being made to kneel before Eva by King Xavier (Joaquim de Almeida), Cora harbors a grudge against the royals, and sneaks into a costume ball. However, she is quickly recognized by the corrupt King. In desperation, she plays on the financial issues of the kingdom by claiming that she can spin straw into gold. King Xavier, intrigued, confines her to a tower until she does. If she can spin the straw into gold, she’ll win the hand of the King’s son, the handsome Prince. If she fails, she’ll be killed.
Enter Rumpelstiltskin, who offers to spin the straw into gold for her, in return for her first born child. Cora, ever ambitious, offers a counter-proposal: if he teaches her how to spin the straw herself, she’ll give him a child of his own. And so he takes the deal, teaching her how to tap into her hatred and resentment in order to create and harness magic. In the process, they develop a relationship that results in Cora having to make a choice: run off with Rumpelstiltskin, or marry the Prince and have the opportunity of finally having the royals and subjects of the kingdom kneeling at her feet. It’s a story that’s fairly routine in its central dramatic structure, the pull between love and ambition — lust for power and blood often overrules the matters of the heart, which is what helps the storyline feel as emotionally-resonant as it does, even though this is CORA we’re talking about here. It helps that Rose McGowan is eerily perfect as a young Barbara Hershey, nailing every vocal quirk and facial tic, while also imbuing the character with a deeper emotional core. Cora truly is conflicted about what she wants. She loves Rumpelstiltskin, but he can’t make her Queen, nor can he promise her a child who will sit upon the throne. And so she removes her greatest liability: her feelings for Rumpelstiltskin. And how else does she do it, but by removing her heart and placing it in a box. With her heart safely tucked away and her emotions dead, she bears a daughter, Regina, who will one day rule over the kingdom — though not necessarily in the way Cora might have expected.
Cora’s boxed heart comes into play in the present in Storybrooke. Nearing death from his wound at the hands of the poison-tipped blade of Hook (Colin O’Donoghue), Gold implores Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) to use the dark magic candle that, at as a girl, she couldn’t bring herself to use in order to save her own mother. Impelled by her vow to kill Cora, Snow goes to Regina’s family crypt and retrieves Cora’s heart from the box in which it’s been stored. She lights the candle and speaks Cora’s name over the heart — an act which will restore Gold, while killing Cora once the heart is placed back into her body. Regina (Lana Parrilla) races to the crypt to stop Snow while Cora attempts to magic her way through the protective force field Emma (Jennifer Morrison) and Neal (Michael Raymond-James) are using to keep Cora at bay. When Regina comes face-to-face with Snow, Snow White convinces Regina that the reason her mother hasn’t been loving towards her is because she doesn’t have her heart in her body — through her pleas, Snow is able to convince Regina to place the heart back in Cora’s body. However, Snow almost immediately regrets her decision, particularly once David (Josh Dallas) confronts her at the crypt, and Snow truly begins to realize the error of her ways.
Back at Gold’s shop, Gold fears that his end is near, so he calls Belle (Emilie De Ravin) and has one last heart-to-heart with her, reminding her of the kind of wonderful, loving, caring person she’d been, and how she loved an ugly man, seeing the good in him when he didn’t see it within himself. Belle is brought to tears, as is Neal, once Gold admits that he spent years looking for Bae just to tell him that he loved him. Neal curls up like a child in his seat, insisting that he’s still mad at his father. But when Gold offers his hand, Neal takes it, breaking down and weeping in his father’s arms. And no sooner do father and son make peace than Cora arrives to seemingly finish the job. But she first has a poignant moment of her own with her former lover, explaining that she removed her own heart because Rumpelstiltskin was her only weakness. He was the only man she ever truly loved, and she couldn’t abide that weakness in herself. It’s one last gasp of humanity before she sets about plunging the knife into Gold and becoming The Dark One herself. But just as she’s about to lower the boom, Regina arrives and places her mother’s heart back in her body. Though there’s a momentary spark of loving recognition in Cora, the possibility that Snow was right and all Cora needed was her heart, the moment sours quickly, as Cora collapses and dies in Regina’s arms — but not before Cora looks into her daughter’s eyes and lovingly tells Regina, “You would have been enough.” Snow arrives too late to stop Cora’s death, and Regina is quick to put-together who’s responsible for the tragedy. In essence, Regina has far more reason to hate Snow now than she did when it was simply an innocent girl’s misunderstanding resulting in the death of her fiance.
“The Miller’s Daughter” offers nuance to Cora and her motivations, to where I’m actually kind of sad to see her go. She was a great motivating presence for the storylines of the series, as it organized all of the characters against a central villain whose evil was relatively unambiguous, at least until tonight. The full-fledged return of vengeful, evil Regina has the possibility to make for an explosive end to season two, to say nothing of the fact that Hook is still out there, and Greg Mendell is still in the hospital, threatening to expose the secrets of Storybrooke to the world, at large. I’m genuinely enthusiastic about where this latter half of the season is headed, particularly when individual episodes go to such great lengths to provide substantive development for its characters.