The crux of Once Upon A Time has always centered on the battle between good and evil and “The Miller’s Daughter” brought that to the forefront with an episode that was a game changer for both a major character and the show itself.
Prior to the episode’s airing, it was teased that “one would die” – and while there were a few cast members who could have fit this bill given their circumstances, in the end, it was Regina’s mother who was the hour’s casualty. With this development, “The Miller’s Daughter” effectively closed out Cora’s storyline as well as the parental storyline that had been hanging over the heads of at least three characters for the past few weeks.
In “The Queen Is Dead,” Mary Margaret vowed that she would kill Cora in order to retaliate for the fact that all her happiness had been taken away. This week saw her follow through with that promise by using the “take a life, save a life” candle, though not before having second thoughts about her actions which David repeatedly tried (and failed) to talk her out of. Never has Rumplestiltskin’s “magic always comes with a price” warning rang so true, and given Mary Margaret’s reaction to the realization that she was the cause of both Cora’s death and Regina’s pain, you have to wonder how this will change our heroine. As much fun as it’s been fun to see Ginnifer Goodwin head down this darker path, it would be even better to see a complete 180 of character given the inevitable guilt that comes with going against your own morals.
We've seen that Snow and Regina are not so different on some level, linked by their attitudes and past experiences. Now, the two share something else in common – the fact that they’ve both lost a mother at the hand of each other’s actions. In truth, preying on Regina’s weakness and manipulating the former queen into believing she genuinely cared about her well being was possibly the worst thing Mary Margaret could have done. It’s often emotional distress that causes the most pain, and by urging Regina to put her heart back into her mother’s body while knowing full well that doing so would cause Cora to die, the exchange is almost more appalling than the actual crime of murder.
For all that Regina has experienced, we finally begin to see a breakthrough that signals perhaps she realizes that her mother’s intentions have been for all the wrong reasons. But who can deny the actions of someone who just wants to take care of you? At the end of the day, in the same way that Regina cares for Henry, it's truly believable that Cora did want the best for her daughter - however misguided her actions were. Cora’s death isn’t something that Regina is going to let go of and it wouldn't be surprising to see her to go some dark places, both emotionally and physically.
Before this episode, we knew little of Cora’s backstory save for the fact that there must have been something in her past that contributed to her present day actions. Indeed, as a young girl, both Princess Eva and the King humiliated Cora to the point where her determination to never let anyone push her around led her to boast that she could spin straw into gold. The King accepted this challenge on the grounds that she follow through with her promise in 24 hours – if she succeeded, she could marry the King’s son, becoming royalty. If Cora failed, she would die.
Enter Rumplestiltskin. It’s with an execution on the horizon that the first meeting between these two takes place, as Rumple promises to help Cora on the condition that she help him by giving up her first born daughter. It’s an easy choice for someone who thrives on the thought of power and who would selfishly take any life over her own, and Rumple finds this so endearing that it causes him to invest himself even more fully into Cora’s life than he had initially planned.
Is it believable that Cora really loved Rumple when he was the Dark One? Yes. Aside from the fact that Cora admitted that she had to rip her own heart out to avoid being taken down by her own feelings, Rumple represented the danger and power Cora couldn’t achieve without the help of someone stronger. Though that was where the initial interest started, their relationship happened at a time when Cora – not loved by her father or even her prince fiancée - needed to feel loved. Rose McGowan was delightfully spot-on in this episode, not just in her strikingly similar looks but also in terms of the emotional depth that she brought to the role. McGowan and Carlyle sold a believable (if not a little uneasy) “young love” romance, while Carlyle had a few emotional scenes of his own during the course of the hour, the exchange with Belle being the most poignant given their history and what’s to come with her character. But it was also nice to see Bae finally watch his father express a genuine sentiment of love. Might it be time for Neal/Bae to get to know his father again?
Rumple tells his protégée “magic is emotion,” and gives the same advice to Emma in the present day when she’s forced to do a real spell for the first time. Yet while Cora’s emotion is born out of hate, Emma’s is born (we can assume) out of love. It’s another small gesture of how in the end, good will always win out – at least, that’s what Once wants us to believe.