Once Upon a Time: Sympathy for the De Vil Review

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By: Marianne Paluso (@Marianne_P81)

In one of the darkest and most unique episodes of the series, “Sympathy for the De Vil” provided anything but sympathy for this Queen of Darkness. What is interesting about Cruella is that between her, Ursula, and Maleficent, she has been the most enigmatic. She did seem like an unusual character to be a magical villain from the Enchanted Forest, and I always wondered if her constant talk about killing and violence was simply that – all talk. But the truth is that she was really from our world, and that in the same vein as Peter Pan, she is one of the darkest characters we’ve ever seen. We first see Cruella as a child in England chased down by her mother’s Dalmatians and locked away in the attic until she learns to do as she’s told, and she’s kept there by her seemingly heartless mother all her life, never allowed to leave. When the author (real name Isaac) shows up at the household, looking for an interesting story from her mother, she quickly tosses him out, angry at his callousness towards her three deceased husbands, telling him he should try living his own life instead of leeching off others. Cruella sees this as her opportunity to escape and calls down to him, asking for help and promising a great story. He manages to free her and whisks her away in his fancy car (which is now hers) to a jazz club where they dance, drink gin, and have a grand time. Isaac is completely taken with her and when she says that the reason she is locked away is that her mother fears she will tell her dark secret that she killed her three husbands, he reveals his true power. He can travel across realms collecting stories, and if he wishes, he has the power to change or manipulate things thanks to a magical quill and ink. Wanting to finally start living a life, he devises a plan for them to run away. He gives her magic and she says she must confront her mother before they leave. Sadly for him, Cruella is not what she seems to be. In actuality, she is a sadistic liar. She not only kills her mother, but also had poisoned all three of her father figures. A disturbed soul since childhood, she is like “The Bad Seed,” a sociopath, and a killer for no reason other than the pleasure of it. Isaac is so horrified and betrayed when he finds her manically sewing a coat made out of the Dalmatians she just killed, he makes sure she can never kill again by writing it down with his quill, the ink spilling when she tries to stop him and causing her drastic change in appearance. While it is still unclear how she got to the Enchanted Forest, this twisted backstory illuminated what her happy ending is – to be able to kill again. Like the famed song says, she is a like “a spider waiting for the kill,” lurking in the shadows, very still, waiting to strike. That is truly terrifying.

The flashbacks to Cruella’s history were thoroughly captivating, so much so that the episode just flew by. From an aesthetic perspective, these vignettes were the most unique we’ve seen given the nature of the show. I never thought we’d see the 1920s complete with jazz, flappers, and champagne straight of out The Great Gatsby on Once Upon a Time. But we did and it was fabulous. Moreover, not only because of the era it was depicting with glamorous costumes and elegant production design masterfully crafted by Eduardo Castro and Michael Joy, but also because of the way it was filmed, I felt like I was watching something from the 1930s or 1940s, reminiscent of a noir, suspense, and dramatic film that may have starred Bette Davis or Humphrey Bogart. Both director Romeo Tirone and cinematographer Stephen Jackson did a splendid job depicting characteristics of both the champagne-soaked, golden, and carefree jazz age, as well as the dark and chilling sense of impending doom with a brilliant use of interesting camera angles, shadows, and light. The performances of Victoria Smurfit and Patrick Fischler were also akin to that bygone dramatic tone from the past and were simply perfect. I felt such sympathy for the author and was thoroughly chilled by Cruella. The classic film lover in me was left in awe and delight.

In present day Storybrooke, not only did Cruella’s sociopathic tendencies come out in full force, but elements from the entire season began to fill in pieces of the puzzle and raise other questions. With Regina’s plan to head to New York to save Robin, she makes sure Gold can’t hurt him by taking Belle’s heart (supposedly with permission) and controlling her, but then threatening to harm her to ensure Robin’s safety. The most important part of the scene regards Gold’s heart. It’s almost completely black except for one tiny red spot. If that disappears, he will no longer be able to love, so that is the reason behind his whole scheme. He wants to darken Emma’s heart to save his own. But I really believe that if he instead tried to be a better man, he could heal his heart himself without having to sacrifice hers. But what was most intriguing, and also confusing, was considering how long this plan to darken the Savior has been in place. Snow and David find the author in Gold’s cabin and he reveals the he simply wanted to protect the world from Cruella; he had no idea what Gold had planned for Emma. He says he couldn’t even foresee the ending of the Savior turning dark. This begs the question – was the author’s manipulation of the Charmings in the past part of Gold’s plan too? Was this some sort of extra element he planned knowing that his heart may need to be saved one day? Or is his plan a new, last-ditch effort at saving himself? We should not be surprised since Gold is a master manipulator, and he chose these three villains specifically to push Emma down that dark path and separate her from those she loves the most. He knew the author had a past with Cruella and that she would act in the way she did. Kidnapping Henry, Cruella tells Emma and Regina that if they don’t kill the author she will kill Henry. Emma, who is still justifiably angry at her parents, heads out in pursuit of her son with Killian and Regina. She expresses an unwillingness to forgive because unlike the two of them, her parents always claimed to be virtuous. I was surprised by how much Regina was defending Snow, but not surprised that she was unable to get through to Emma. Telling her to “Get over it!” is not the best approach. Killian, who understands Emma better, is gentle with her and reminds her that even heroes make mistakes. This moment was a lovely example of how much he cares for her and knows how to help her open up. His urging of forgiveness was to help her frame of mind because he knows what anger can do to a person. This moment was also clear foreshadowing to the episode’s final scene.

For the past few episodes, we have observed the effect all of these events are having on Emma, seen in her demeanor and appearance. The specific makeup and flawless performance by Jennifer Morrison reflect just how exhausted, stressed, doubtful, and angry she is as she has reached the breaking point. Her luminous glow and bright smiles are replaced with a dull pallor and red circles under her eyes. When she, Killian, and Regina spilt up trying to find Henry, Emma finds her son on the edge of a cliff, Cruella holding a gun to him. Emma raises her hands, ready to use magic if Cruella doesn’t put down the gun. But Cruella taunts her that she won’t do it because heroes don’t kill. But then Emma does, blasting Cruella back with her magic, sending her over the cliff to her death. Dark as this is, any parent in her position would have acted the same way if their child were threatened. And Emma has reacted in similar ways every time Henry’s life was in danger, and understandably so. While the final look on her face was haunting, I don’t believe protecting her child from a sociopath has darkened her heart. Saving your child would never be construed that way. It rather is the act of taking someone’s life, no matter the circumstance, that is the dark act. After that happens, it will have a profound effect on you, and the ramifications will surely be deep on Emma’s psyche especially when she learns Cruella’s threats could not have been fulfilled. Emma is being pushed down a dark path, but her strength and capacity to love and forgive will prove vital. Since the beginning of the series, we have seen her reluctance to open herself up and be vulnerable in order to protect herself. As those walls slowly came down, so much happiness and love came into her life. But when you open yourself up so fully, you can let the bad in with the good sometimes. That is the nature of vulnerability. Although it is always worth letting love in, when bad things do happen, they can remind you why you were closed off to begin with. This is what Emma is struggling with now on this journey. As Killian told her, even heroes make mistakes, and while saving her son is certainly not a mistake, how she reacts after may lead to some. The vows that she and Killian made to see the best in each other now become even more significant as she treads this path. Emma brought Killian out of the darkness and back into the light with understanding and love, never condemning or judging his mistakes, but rather seeing the good man he is striving to be. If Killian will now do the same for Emma, truly seeing the best in her no matter what and helping keep her in the light through these dark times, that will be the kind of beautiful story that true love is made of.

After all, the struggle to overcome our demons and earn redemption, and the power of faith and love are what Once Upon a Time is about. It is a show that says no matter how bleak things seem, there is always hope. It is not so much about heroes and villains, but rather heroism and villainy. It is about what makes us human, even in a world filled with magic, dragons, and dark curses. I am reminded of other characters such as the Skywalkers or Frodo Baggins who faced such dark times. But as Samwise Gamgee said, in those stories that really matter, “Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.” With compassion, courage, strength, love, and hope, darkness can be overcome. We don’t know what will happen to Emma. Even if she ever embraces darkness, she has the ability to overcome it with the strength of her will and the unconditional love around her. What we know for certain is that no matter what, these stories are about hope. With only 3 weeks left in Season 4, I am completely enthralled and so excited to see how this story will continue to unfold and reach its poignant conclusion.

Favorite Moments:
The scenes depicting Cruella and the Author’s history were unique, stylish, and entertaining, so reminiscent of classic films of the 1930s and 1940s. From the costumes and jazzy rendition of the song “Cruella De Vil,’ to the fantastic performances of Smurfit and Fischler, these flashbacks were fabulous, darling. Although brief, the moment Killian reminded Emma that heroes can make mistakes was so touching as it demonstrated how deeply he cares for her well being during this difficult time.

Favorite Line:
Killian: Even heroes make mistakes, love.


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