The whole review is after the cut, because spoilers!
So. After a dramatic but somewhat poorly written episode last week, everything has started happening in Storybrooke. Back in Fairytale Land, we finally find Rumplestiltskin in his own story (sort of), when he teaches a young Cora how to spin straw into gold in return for her first born child. After she seduces him, he changes the contract to apply to their child, and Cora rips out her own heart to protect herself from any feelings that might get in the way of her rise to power. Meanwhile, in Storybrooke, a dying Rumplestiltskin has a tender moment with his son and a heartbreaking last phone call with amnesiac Belle, while Snow curses Cora, causing her to die in Rumplestiltskin's place.
Although I didn't really buy the Cora/Rumple love story, I'm glad that the show decided to give Cora more depth and purpose before it killed her off. As a young woman, she was strong and defiant and ruthless and spiteful, like a young Cersei Lannister, and she was willing to manipulate The Dark One himself to guarantee that her rise to power would go unhindered. Yet she wasn't quite cold and ruthless enough to succeed, and so she did the most ruthless thing possible -- she took out her own heart, and all her soft emotions along with it, so that she could not jeopardize her own success. She became quite literally heartless, because she realized that emotions, that caring for others, would get in the way of her desire for power and revenge. The tragedy, of course, is that after years and years of feeling unloved by her mother, Regina restores Cora's heart, and finds that her mother does love her, when all her own emotions are returned. With her heart back, Cora learns that she didn't need to destroy herself, and everyone around her, in her bid for power. The "roadblock" she gave away would have been enough to make her happy.
Meanwhile, sweet, always-good, always-hoping-for-the-best Snow White finally did something that Regina can honestly, understandably despise her for. The smarts and strength of character that have served to help her survive Regina up until this point also allowed her to manipulate Regina into killing her own mother, a ruthlessly genius move that I at least would never have expected from her. Yet the move made sense, and is going to set Snow on a very interesting emotional path for the future. "Goodness," it suggests, cannot be purely good all the time. It cannot forgive and hope and forgive and hope, when someone has killed your mother, AND your mother figure, and tried to kill you and your family, and is bent on destroying everything if given half a chance. By saving Rumplestiltskin and killing Cora, Snow arguably did the right thing for everyone. It is certainly somewhat poetic that she killed Cora with the candle that Cora gave her, years and years ago, in a manipulative move that led to Snow's own mother's death. Yet tricking Regina into taking the final step in Cora's murder, and even making the decision to save one life over another in the first place, is cruel to say the least, and she's bound to have a fair bit of a guilt as a result (not to mention a stepmother bent on revenge). Since Snow has spent most of the series so far stuck in the background, being sweet but not really doing much of anything, it's exciting that she's getting a "present day" emotional plotline of her own, one that gets right to the heart of what being a "good" person like Snow White really means, and how even she must eventually exist in that murky grey between "good" and "evil."
I'm also intrigued by the difference between Cora's magic and Emma's. When Rumplestiltskin taught Cora how to use magic, he focussed on her all negative emotions, on bringing out that hate and bloodlust. Yet when he taught Emma how to use it, he told her to focus on good emotions. Surely turning straw into gold isn't an "evil" act that requires evil emotions, so why the difference? Is it about a person's nature, about the emotions they feel strongest? Or is there something else going on here?
All in all, a great episode. Can't wait for next week!