The thing about a show that specializes in twisted fairy tales is that sooner or later, those watching it will learn to expect the twists. Which meant that, halfway through tonight’s episode, it was only natural to grow suspicious. The backstory we’d been given so far about Cruella de Vil—that once upon a time, she was an innocent, wide-eyed blonde completely at the mercy of her wicked, ultra-controlling mother—just seemed a little, well, familiar. Give or take a flapper dress and a pair of Dalmatians, her past looked remarkably like Regina’s… and Ursula’s, for that matter. (Once does love its daddy/mommy issue stories, doesn’t it?) Which meant that one of two things was happening: Either the show was really repeating itself almost to the letter, or things were about to take a right turn into Crazy Town. (Not that one.)
Thankfully for everything, Once went with Option 2.
The episode’s first batch of fairybacks establish Young Cruella as a ’20s-era Cinderella. Her mother, a storied dog trainer, locks her in the attic when she’s just a child, declaring that Cru will stay inside until the day she learned to obey dear old Mum. Cruella subsequently grows up within its walls, with nothing but a few books and a stolen radio to keep her company. (Hey, it coulda been worse; she could have had a brother.) But everything changes for the De Vil women when a stranger comes to town—a stranger armed with a magical pen and an impressive pair of eyebrows.
Yep: It’s The Author, whose name (as we learn tonight) is actually Isaac. (Wanna bet he has a fraught relationship with his own dad?) He randomly appears at Mrs. De Vil’s house one day, calling himself a newspaper writer who walks door to door looking for interesting stories. Because, as we all know, that’s how newspapers work. Cruella’s mom, whose name (as we can see here, though it isn’t actually spoken aloud in the episode), is Madeline, shoos the Author away as soon as he starts asking questions about her three ex-husbands—all of whom died under mysterious circumstances. He finds what he’s looking for, though, as soon as he leaves the house: Cruella, in her Rapunzel tower, has somehow overheard everything that just happened in the foyer. (Does she have dog-like hearing, too?). And man, does she have a story for Isaac.
Isaac busts Cru out, then takes her to a Gatsby theme party (er, a bar), where she spills: Her mother’s been keeping her locked up because Cruella knows that Madeline murdered every one of her exes. Isaac is taken with the tale, but he’s even more taken with Cruella herself—especially when she urges him to stop being a story-recording wallflower and start living, man. So, in return for her candor, Isaac tells her the truth about his job: He’s actually a magical storyteller armed with the ability to make things happen just by writing about them. Cruella is skeptical only until he gives her jewelry.
And so Cruella and Isaac form a plan: They’re going to run away together, to a realm where Mommy Dearest will never be able to find them. To assist his newfound ladylove, Isaac conjures up a power for her: Cruella can now control animals with her halitosis. Overjoyed, Cruella tells him that she wants to tell off her mother before they leave—and that it’s something she has to do alone. Which, of course, is when everything goes spectacularly wrong.
Because you know that story about how Madeline killed three husbands? Yeah, that’s not true. The actual murderess in the family… is Cruella. Dun dun duuuuuun!! (Don’t act so shocked; her name is Cruella.) She’s not a fragile bird being kept in a gilded cage by a sadistic mistress; she’s actually a born sociopath being kept prisoner by a desperate woman who knows that the world is a safer place without Cruella in it.
There are three legitimately shocking things that happen in “Sympathy for the de Vil.” The first is that upon arriving home, Cruella uses her magic Doolittle breath to force her mother’s prized dogs to tear the poor woman to pieces in her very own foyer. The second is that Cruella then skins said dogs, transforming them into her prized Dalmatian fur coat. Implied-violence-wise, this could be the bloodiest ep of Once since that time Regina slaughtered an entire village. Yeah, that happened.
We’ll wait a beat to talk about the third shocking thing. For now: The Author arrives at Casa de Vil too late to save poor Madeline. He can, however, try to make up for the horrible evil he’s loosed by writing another rule for Cruella: She “can no longer take away the life of another.” Keep that one in mind; it’s gonna be on the midterm.
NEXT: Heroes don’t kill people. Until they do…