“The Miller’s Daughter” begins in Fairy Tale Land with a young woman finding her father sleeping on his sacks of flour instead of working. The young woman scolds her father and takes the flour to the market. Upon arriving in the market, a young princess trips the woman, which breaks several bags of flour. The miller’s daughter does her best to maintain her dignity but is forced to apologize to the princess. We learn that the princess is Eva, the woman who will become Snow White’s mother, and the miller’s daughter is Cora, who is angered by the way she was treated.
Flash forward to Storybrooke, where Captain Hook’s ship, The Jolly Roger, arrives with the dying Mr. Gold, Emma, Neal and Henry aboard. They meet up with Emma, Mary Margaret, and David and come up with a plan to stop Cora and Regina from getting to Mr. Gold (Rumplestiltskin). Mr. Gold tells the group that the only thing that can save him in his shop, which is where they decide to make their stand against Cora and Regina.
Meanwhile, Cora decides that the only way to ensure that The Dark One survives is for her to kill Rumplestiltskin. This would mean that she takes his power and becomes The Dark One. Regina appears to be suspicious of her mother’s motives, but she goes along with Cora’s plan.
Back in Mr. Gold’s shop, Emma uses invisible chalk to mark boundaries and even casts a protection spell to keep Cora and Regina out. The heroes put Mr. Gold in the back of the shop and go to the entrance, but Gold stops Mary Margaret before she leaves. He asks her to grab a warmer blanket from his closet where she finds the magic candle from the last episode.
Mr. Gold explains that the only way he can be saved is if Mary Margaret uses the candle and whisper’s Cora’s name over her heart. Then Mary Margaret would need to put Cora’s heart back in her body, which would transfer Mr. Gold’s poisoned wound to her. Mary Margaret initially refuses to do it, but Gold tells her that if she doesn’t, Cora would become The Dark One, and she would be letting Henry’s grandfather die.
In Fairy Tale Land, Cora arrives at a masquerade ball being thrown for Prince Henry. The King recognizes Cora and insults her again. In her defiance, she claims that she could spin straw into gold, a claim that the King scoffs at. He tells Cora that if she can indeed spin straw into gold, she will be given to Henry as a bride. If she fails, Cora will be executed. The King locks her in a tower with a spinning wheel and a room full of straw for the night.
That evening, Rumplestiltskin arrives and offers Cora a deal. He’ll spin the straw into gold if she agrees to give him her first-born child. Cora counters by saying she’ll only agree if he teaches her how to spin the gold. He agrees, and the two bond as she learns how to do it. The following morning, she spins the straw into gold in front of the King, who lives up to his end of the deal and offers her to Harry for marriage.
However, despite her changing fortunes, Cora continues to see Rumplestiltskin behind her fiance’s back. Cora decides that she doesn’t want the life that royalty has to offer, but she does want vengeance against the King. The two agree to run away together after she takes the King’s heart. Rumplestiltskin is so much in love with Cora that he agrees to teach her how to do it, and he even amends their deal so that Cora promises to give him his child.
Later, Cora meets the King, who tells her that he knows about her seeing “the Imp” and that she has a choice. She can be a princess with power or she can run away for love. She returns to Rumplestiltskin with a heart, but it’s not the King’s; it’s hers. She tells him that she removed her own heart to keep herself from choosing love over power. Cora also reminds him that since their deal was amended, she owes him nothing.
In Storybrooke, Regina and Cora break the magical barrier protecting Mr. Gold’s shop. They deal with David, Neal, and Emma while Mary Margaret sneaks out of the shop. As the two women advance into the store, Cora realizes something is wrong and sends Regina after her heart.
Meanwhile, Mr. Gold begins saying his final goodbyes. He calls Belle and tells her about who she really is. His words touch Neal, and the father and son bond in what might be their last time together.
In Regina’s chambers, Mary Margaret finds the heart, lights the candle, and whisper’s Cora’s name. She then meets up with Regina as she begins her journey back to the shop. When questioned about the heart, Mary Margaret fools Regina into putting her mother’s heart back in her body. She tells Regina that it’s the only way for Cora to truly love her. After all, you can’t love somebody if you don’t have a heart.
Back in Mr. Gold’s shop, Cora finally gets to him. However, just as Cora is about to stab Mr. Gold with the dagger, Regina shoves her heart back into her mother’s body. Cora turns and smiles at her daughter with true love in her eyes. She laughs and hugs Regina, but then she collapses in her daughter’s arms. Cora dies just as she realizes that her love was enough; she didn’t need power after all.
Mr. Gold looks down at his chest to see his wound healed. He tells Regina that he didn’t kill her mother, and moments later, Mary Margaret rushes in telling her not to put Cora’s heart back. The episode ends with Regina realizing that Snow White caused her mother’s death.
This was one of the best episodes of the entire series. The entire story was well-plotted from beginning to end. The episode featured this battle within Cora between love and power, and it was only at the end, at the cost of her life, that love won the fight.
Furthermore, the end of “The Miller’s Daughter” proved a couple of things about the show’s characters. First, no character in this show is perfect. There are heroes and villains in this story, but none of them are completely good or evil. They are complex and flawed characters, who defy the fairy tale ideals that most of us grew up with. Snow White is responsible for Cora’s death; she has blood on her hands now. She will never be able to erase that from her life, and we’ll likely see the ramifications of her actions throughout the rest of the season, and possibly, the series.
The second thing we learned is that everyone is redeemable. Cora was about as big a villain as you could find when the episode started. However, once we learned her story and saw how she beamed with love for her daughter, it was clear that she was a victim of her own choices. Cora was capable of love, and it’s unfortunate for her that she wasn’t able to give it until the end. It’s becoming clear that “Once Upon a Time” is a story more about the journey to the end than about the end itself.