I have an on-again, off-again relationship with Once Upon a Time. I don’t always worry if I miss some of it, but I keep coming back because folklore re-working is one of my wonks (Obviously). I’m in a catch-up phase with the show at present, and found myself pleasantly surprised by the recent episode “Sympathy for the De Vil.” Spoilers follow, since I don’t have a way to talk about this without giving away the primary twist in the plot. You’ve been warned.
I tend to think of it as “the Wicked effect,” myself (TV Tropes prefers Cry for the Devil), as it seemed to surge on the heels of that particular Broadway adaptation’s success, but the narrative for just about any villain in Once Upon a Time generally follows the same formula: after introducing us to the latest in the line of Most Evil Person We’ve Ever Faced characters, flashbacks reveal that once, our cold-hearted villain was a loving, caring soul who was ruined by someone else’s evil. Usually, by someone else he or she (usually she) cared for.
Regina’s evil is from the horror which was her mother, Cora, enacted on the love of her life. Cora’s evil is originally from having her love exploited by a callous, lying lover. Rumpelstiltskin’s father abandoned him and his wife left him. Captain Hook lost his love to Rumpel’s magic. And so it goes.
Given that one of the show’s primary themes is redemption, it’s not a surprising trend. And the recent trio of new villains seem to be following the pattern. Maleficent, we find, has suffered the loss of a child. Ursula, too, found her villainy in the face of betrayal.
The episode focusing on Cruella De Vil started by holding to form. A stern mother and her not-remotely-lovable Dalmatians harrow a poor little Cruella, then Mommy locks her away in the attic. See? Of course she’d have hard feelings about spotted dogs. She was horribly treated by them as a child!
An older Cruella finds a means of escaping from her prison, though, and of gaining new powers (because on OUAT, every villain has magic) thanks to a brave suitor after telling him about how her mother killed all three of her previous husbands (Cruella’s previous fathers). Cruella hurries off, telling her suitor they’ll meet soon and run away together.
Bad Mommy shows up, and I may have yawned, because we’ve seen this before. Repeatedly. If redemption is a central theme of OUAT, another puzzlingly seems to be “family does really messed up stuff in the name of taking care of you.”
And then they went and surprised me. Because, you see, despite all the same trappings every other of these little flashbacks has had, despite a title telling me about the sympathy I’d feel, it turns out Cruella lived up to her name without any external influences.
Yup. Cruella killed her own father. Then did it to her mother’s next two husbands. It wasn’t even revenge, really. Cruella, it seems, was just plain old evil. She killed because she liked it. So far as I can tell, Cruella is your standard issue psychopath.
Which, given the normal direction of the show, was oddly refreshing. That, finally, UOAT for a brief moment offered up the idea that some people really are just plain evil.
And I got excited, because what would all these “you can be good if you really want to be” heroes do in the face of someone who would never, ever make that choice? Who wasn’t corrupted by a nasty history, couldn’t be restored to the love and light from which he or she originally sprang. Who was fully, unarguably, irredeemably evil? Oh, this could be really delicious.
Mind you, it seems the writers didn’t think there was quite so much potential in that particular moral quandry. I suspect the real reason for Cruella’s “born evil” origin was due to what happens in the “present” of the episode immediately afterward. Cruella’s thrown off a cliff, and while we’re shocked and all, we did just find out she’s evil to the core.
And just when I started to love her. Hopefully this heartache doesn’t send me on the path to villainy.