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…
And so we return to Storybrooke, where present-day Cruella has big plans. First, she goads Maleficent into going full dragon specifically so that she can Doolittle the fairy into a deep sleep. (You’d think, given how much time they’ve spent around each other, Mal would know not to face Cruella in a non-human form… but I guess grieving parents aren’t always the most rational thinkers.) Then, after paying a brief visit to Isaac and delivering a few empty threats, Cruella uses poor Pongo to lure Henry into Storybrooke’s only alley. Little does Cruella know that the magic part was hardly necessary; I wouldn’t be surprised to see Henry eagerly jump into a van marked “free hot chocolate, and absolutely no kidnapping!!!”
Regina is about to skip town—she’s going to New York to save Robin from her verdant sister—when she and Emma get simultaneous Facetimes from Cruella. The message: The dog-killer has Henry, and she won’t give him up unless the queen and the savior ax the Author.
Which means it’s time for the Magical Breakfast Club to enter familiar territory: Save Henry Mode. Emma, still upset with her parents about that time they sucked all her evil out and implanted it into an unborn baby, orders Charming and Snow to find the Author and see if he knows how to defeat Cruella. Meanwhile, she, Hook, and Regina head into the woods to track down Henry. What the trio doesn’t know is that they’re playing right into Rumple’s evil, gnarled hands—and that he’s planted conch shells (gifts from Ursula?) in the forest, ones designed to split up the Clue Crew and force Emma to face Cruella alone.
The savior finds her son and Cruella on the edge of a gorge. Cruella warns Emma that if she comes any closer, she’ll kill the boy; Emma approaches cautiously, completely unaware that Cruella’s as full of it as the area between her lash line and her brows are filled with eyeshadow. Just as Snow and Charming learn that Cruella can’t kill anyone, Emma does the unthinkable: She magically blasts Cruella off the cliff, leaving the bad seed apparently dead as those dogs she skinned. (I say “apparently” only because in this post-“Zelena’s alive!” world, I don’t know what to believe anymore.) Looks like Emma might just become the Black Swan after all.
- Okay—can we talk about how, exactly, Regina was planning to go to New York City? Is this the show’s way of acknowledging that Storybrooke’s Wonka rules (nobody comes in, nobody goes out out) are actually about as air-tight as a leaky balloon?
- We must also mention that as a precaution, Regina’s taken the liberty of ripping out Belle’s heart; if Rump tries to warn Zelena that she’s on her way, the queen will 86 the librarian. Gotta say that Belle sounded pretty awesome when she was sneering about how pathetic Rumple was; I only wish her heart-full version could have that much spine.
- So, like, why can’t the Author just write away Cruella’s powers of persuasion after he learns how evil she is? Did the pot that spilled all over Cru—giving her that signature yin-yang hairdo and Drag Race-style makeup—contain the very last of his enchanted ink?
- We do, at least, learn the answers to two other mysteries tonight: Cruella and Ursula left Maleficent’s daughter, baby Lily, “in the woods to die” simply because they’re really awful human beings/merpeople, and they used Mal’s dragon egg to stay young after traveling to our world, because the Land Without Magic is really the Land Without Magic Unless You Are a Character on Once Upon a Time.
- Oh, also, Cruella isn’t from our world—she’s from some sort of Land of Perpetual Midnight in Paris, which may be why the Author spends much of the episode reading The Great Gatsby. Does this mean there are “realms out of time” corresponding to every notable period in human history? If so, how do I get to the one that’s stuck forever in the ’90s?
- Why, exactly, is Emma turning dark so key to Rumplestiltskin’s plan? Because… some reason we’ll learn in the next four episodes, I guess. Does it have something to do with getting magic ink? Is… is Rumple going to turn Emma into a squid?!