The weakest part of “The Miller’s Daughter,” by far, is the story which gives the episode its name. A young Cora, the titular miller’s daughter, is set on her path to darkness and power because some royals humiliated her, specifically Princess Eva. Cora wasn’t particularly innocent in this, spending much of her time yelling that Eva is but a “child” and flat-out telling the king to “have fun whoring [his] son.” It’s especially hypocritical since she ends up buying said son’s hand in marriage by spinning straw into gold. Along the way, Cora seduces Rumpelstiltskin into teaching her how to spin straw into gold and rip still beating hearts out of people’s chests. Supposedly, Cora and Rumpelstiltskin genuinely loved each other, but it doesn’t come across at all.
Over in Storybrooke, the actors do a fairly good job reaching for the emotional depths the storyline demands. Snow’s struggle in exchanging Cora’s life for Rumpelstiltskin’s, and her instant regret at making the wrong decision is downright heartbreaking to watch. Equally heartbreaking is the moment when Regina finds out that she was tricked into killing her own mother. And downright heart-wrenching is the very small scene where Rumpelstiltskin calls Belle to say good-bye, and to remind her of who she is: a hero who once loved an ugly man and saw the good in him even when he could not. There’s even some catharsis when Neal finally lets himself forgive Rumpelstiltskin, at least a little.
The problem is that the centerpiece to all this is still Cora’s death, and it’s hard to muster up the care. She tells Regina that this was all she needed with her last breath, and it’s supposed to be a redemption by death moment. It really would’ve worked if it hadn’t been paired with the backstory. As it is, all the audience knows so far is that Cora outright ruined Regina’s life to enact petty revenge on a brat of a princess who tripped her. Even when she had her heart, it’s hard to believe Cora ever loved anyone but herself and so telling Regina she could have loved her rings false. As does her insistence that she loved Rumpelstiltskin, especially compared to the scene he had with Belle who doesn’t even remember she loved him.
Ultimately, this episode is just dragged down by the dismal backstory. The only reason to care that Cora is dead is that Snow crossed the line towards evil. Cora herself was not sympathetic. And it’s nearly impossible to buy that there was ever a chance that Regina and Cora could have had a loving relationship. After all, the woman refused to love her daughter all to go on a petty vendetta against royals. Because Eva tripped that one time.