Wednesday, March 13, 2013

ONCE UPON A TIME: "The Miller's Daughter" S2E16 (review)

By Laura Akers
I will not fangirl out…

I will not fangirl out…

Okay, maybe just a little.

One of the great joys about Once Upon a Time is that at the very moment when you start thinking, “Hey, they’ve forgotten about X…” or “How the hell did Y happen in the first place?” the very next episode seems written just for you.

Of course, this is an illusion. After all, it’s the writers who set those questions up in the first place. They’ve been manipulating you to have that exact reaction at that exact moment.

That’s the nature of good writing.

Two things specifically had been bothering me going into this week’s episode, one directly relating to Rumplestiltskin/Mr. Gold and the other…hmmm…a little less so. The first one has to do with Rumple’s backstory. Sure we’ve seen his life before the Ogre War, his loss of his wife and son, and his machinations around the Curse. But while he’s played the Beast to Belle’s Beauty, he’s never really been the Rumplestiltskin of the fairy tale. In that story, he spins straw into gold for the Miller’s Daughter (she’s rarely named in the story) whose father has been boasting that she possesses this skill (which, of course, she does not). So how does that storyline fit within the OUaT universe?

I was beginning to believe they’d forgotten it completely, when voila! we finally get to see Mr. Gold as the actual Rumplestiltskin.


In OUaT, the Miller’s Daughter/Rumplestiltskin tale takes place after he’s become the Dark One and likely before he meets Belle. And it broadly follows the traditional story, with two important differences. The first is that the Miller’s Daughter is Cora. This immediately sets us up to believe that what we’re about to see is how the young Cora was twisted into the terrible and evil creature who slays entire villages just to cover her tracks. I mean, we’ve seen this with Regina, Tiny, and even Rumple. We’ve grown used to discovering that whatever evil a character represents is not created via pathogenesis. In the world of OUaT, it has an origin, and likely is the result of love lost or betrayed.

So it’s surprising when we see Cora, forced by the king to bend knee and apologize for something she didn’t do, seethe with such venom for what, let’s be fair, is actually a pretty commonplace occurrence in a feudal society. Cora is defiant from the beginning, and it is her own threatening boast to the king that lands her in hot water. Once in her prison, where she must spin straw into gold for the king or die, she is visited by Rumple who offers to accomplish this task in exchange for her firstborn child. Cora takes advantage of his offer, but ups the ante, insisting he teach her to do it herself.

Which brings me to the second thing that’s been bothering me about OUaT lately: where is the sex? In a show that is all about find everlasting love with your prince/princess/wolf/fairy, where is the sex? In an adult show so much about parenthood, where is the sex?

This week answered that question as well, and did it in one of the creepiest but ultimately erotic ways possible. By pairing Cora and Rumple. When Cora is trying to spin gold and is failing, Rumple tells her that she must use her feelings of anger and bile…some memory of a moment when she was ready to kill…to focus the magic, recounting the story of his own moment of blind rage and describing what he’d like to do to the man who humiliated him in front of his son.  Cora (played with such beautiful menace by Rose McGowan), sizes him up and murmurs in a throaty voice, “Bloodlust…” “I like that phrase,” he whispers back.


What follows is like a perverse redux of the pottery wheel scene from Ghost (1990): Rumple sits down behind Cora at the spinning wheel, wraps his arms around her as though to help her with the spinning, kissing her shoulders and stroking her as she recounts her moment. He whispers in her ear seductively, encouraging her, and we see her own desire rising as she recounts what she’d like to do to those who humiliated her. Gold begins to flow from the wheel and he tells her, in a voice heavy with malice and sex, not to stop until she’s brought her enemies to their knees. When she replies, “Let’s keep going,” there’s little doubt that she’s not really talking about the spinning.

(fans herself)

It’s a really interesting choice. I mean, it’s hardly a secret that Robert Carlyle’s Rumple has a much larger fangirl following than Josh Dallas’ Charming, so the idea of playing up his eroticism makes sense from that standpoint. But really, let’s face it: seduction has been Rumple’s wheelhouse since he became the Dark One. Considering how many people he’s lured into using magic merely by talking to them, is it any surprise that he’s just as capable of luring someone into bed? And watching him do it is delicious fun.

Still something bothers me about the way actual sex has been introduced into OUaT. One is that by further sexualizing Rumple (beyond what his legions of fangirls have already done), the show is sending a couple of problematic messages.


The first is the way the episode binds evil and sex together.  This is Rumple at his worst: he has lost Baelfire and has not yet found Belle. He has no reason to strive to be good (as he does in Storybrooke). And Cora, we’ve learned, has been a bit of a bad apple from the very beginning. It could just be bad timing on the part of the writers--though given the quality of the show’s writers, I doubt it—but bringing sex into OUaT and all but equating it with evil (under a very thin layer of murderous love) is particularly disturbing when you’re working with the adult form of Disney princesses.  Young girls and old identify with these women. What damage then is done by all but saying that only bad girls have sex? How ironic it is to go to great lengths to turn such

one-dimensional female characters into strong and self-reliant individuals worthy of emulation only to imply that good girls don’t want sex and only really have sex for reproductive purposes. And the fact that they used the Death by Sex trope only seems to reify the idea that good girls shouldn’t like sex for their own safety.

What century is this again?

Even if we assume that this is only the first peek we’re going to get into the erotic life of the people of Storybrooke, there’s still a problem, because it would be hard to bring Charming, for instance, to the level of raw sexuality to which they’ve now elevated Rumple (especially with Rumple already winning this race).  To put it in plain terms, they’ve all but guaranteed that Rumple is and will remain the sexiest MF on the show. They’ve also spent the last season clearly outlining a classic abusive relationship between him and Belle. One could argue that Belle’s feelings for him are little more than Stockholm Syndrome, considering their relationship before the curse. To make the captor the sexiest character on the show? Aren’t the women on the show at precisely the age when a lot of women figure that that the bad boy is, well, bad for them? And isn’t this already a powder keg, considering the degree of romanticizing that fans are already doing with the Belle/Rumple relationship?


But as always, perhaps this is precisely what they want me to think and feel at this moment. Certainly, I don’t put it past the episode’s writer, the marvelous and thoroughly feminist Jane Espenson, to have brought me to exactly this place. I can’t see a way out though…a way to rewrite the lessons of this episode into something more positive. Luckily, as OUaT has repeatedly shown, they know exactly what they are doing and have from the beginning. I can’t wait to see where they take us next.

And if there’s more seduction in Rumple’s future, I’ll do my best to keep the squeeing to a tolerable level.

You’re welcome.

1 comment :

The Rush Blog said...

The first is the way the episode binds evil and sex together. This is Rumple at his worst: he has lost Baelfire and has not yet found Belle. He has no reason to strive to be good (as he does in Storybrooke). And Cora, we’ve learned, has been a bit of a bad apple from the very beginning. It could just be bad timing on the part of the writers--though given the quality of the show’s writers, I doubt it—but bringing sex into OUaT and all but equating it with evil (under a very thin layer of murderous love) is particularly disturbing when you’re working with the adult form of Disney princesses.


Have you forgotten Snow White and Charming's sex scene in "The Cricket Game"?