Sympathy for the De Vil Review | Once Upon a Time Season 4, Episode 18

People always underestimate a girl in diamonds and furs, don’t they?


Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jennifer Morrison, Lana Parrilla, Josh Dallas, Emilie de Ravin, Colin O’Donoghue, Jared S. Gilmore, Michael Socha, and Robert Carlyle.

Season 4
Episode 18: Sympathy for the De Vil

By this point, late into the fourth season, when we come upon a villain backstory episode, it’s easy to anticipate how it’s going to go. So far, Once has crafted wonderfully tragic origin tales for all of these villains, often to put them in direct comparison with our heroes. It was surprising, therefore, the about turn that they have done for Cruella de Vil.

Cruella has always been delightfully evil. Just like Zelena, she actually enjoys and revels in her villainy, and the enjoyment of Victoria Smurfit practically oozes out of the screen while watching. It’s fitting, therefore, that Cruella’s tale doesn’t detail any tragic reasoning behind her actions, but rather that she’s just a psychopath who enjoys killing.

It’s admirable that the flashback manages to fool us for so long, however. Young Cruella is portrayed as being just innocent enough, and her mother scary and oppressive to convince us, in the same way as the Author is, that she is being cruelly and wrongfully imprisoned by her dastardly mother. The Dalmatians that her mother uses to subdue her are also enough to persuade the audience that perhaps this will be the reasoning behind Cruella’s favoured mode of dress.

The late in the game reveal of Cruella as the murder of her father, and her mother’s subsequent two husbands is a surprising turn towards the end of the episode, but one that makes sense. Unlike Zelena, and Regina, and lots of the other villains, whose brash and exaggerated exterior masks a damaged past, Cruella’s over dramatic, theatrical air just exudes her particular brand of evil. It was also fitting that her business with the Author this entire time has been to have him killed, as revenge for him taking away what she loves.

Not everything works about this flashback. Some things were slightly implausibly presented. Cruella’s mother’s demeanour is entirely inexplainable by the close of the episode, considering her attempts to reform Cruella. It’s also not quite explained how she trained those dogs, or why Cruella would desire to be able to control animals either. Having the ink spilling upon Cruella and causing her unusual hairstyle was an interesting turn in the plot, but I’m surprised that it didn’t have any other effects upon her.

As delightful as it is to have crammed as much of this episode as possible into Cruella, who is one of the most engaging new characters this show has introduced, it does take away quite considerably from Emma’s storyline here. Considering the programme is pushing us towards her turning evil, the most we see that explored here is her continuing to push away her parents, not to mention Regina and Hook, and insist that she cannot trust them anymore. Her actions against Cruella (RIP) seem to hint at her turning dark, but I feel like this is a significant contrivance.

First of all, it feels preachy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to go murder anybody and try to justify myself, but Emma only killed Cruella to protect Henry. She wasn’t to know that Cruella was unable to hurt anybody, and it’s not as if Cruella wanted this to be common knowledge – she knew it was a possibility when she tried to persuade Regina and Emma into killing the Author for her. Furthermore, we don’t even know that Emma intentionally threw Cruella off the edge with the view to kill her. It was more to push her away, and Cruella had the misfortune to have positioned herself on a cliff edge. If the confrontation had been in the middle of the forest, I doubt that it would have ended the same way.

To zoom in on Emma’s eyes to see her turning “evil” is so reductive. It’s just a very boring black-and-white “these actions are bad under any circumstances”, and I just don’t believe that anything is that simple. Emma was put in an extreme situation, and made a decision in the heat of the moment. Does that mean her soul is doomed forever? Absolutely not. She’s not going to go around murdering everybody now just because Cruella threatened to kill Henry.

Once Upon an Additional Brainthought

  • I’m sad that Cruella has gone. She will be missed.
  • The fact that Regina uses Belle against Rumple, but uses her heart, instead of just clueing Belle into the situation and relying upon her playing along is very frustrating. Is Belle ever going to be the maker of her own destiny, or just continually used and manipulated by those around her?
  • Cruella playing Angry Birds will never not be funny.
  • Would Maleficent really have made the mistake of turning into a dragon, knowing that Cruella can control animals?
  • Speaking of which, how did Cruella then carry on driving when Maleficent was literally napping in the way?
  • When will Will actually have something to do?
  • How did Cruella get from 1920s England to the Enchanted Forest? Was it real 1920s England or some sort of story realm?
  • I’m not sorry about Rumple’s blackened heart. Sounds like karma to me.
  • I’m surprised that Snow and Charming didn’t follow Emma to rescue Henry, if for nothing else then to look shocked after the event and go “EmMa?!”, or for Snow to dramatically push Cruella off the cliff before Emma can use her magic to do it. That would’ve been good. I should write this.

You can watch Once Upon a Time Seasons 1 – 7 on Netflix. It is also available on home media and other digital platforms for purchase or rent.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Serena says:

    What a shame to lose such an entertaining character. Smurfit was perfect in the role of Cruella, and the writers seemed to enjoy giving her dead funny lines to deliver (Angry Birds!). Too bad Cruella’s potential as a villain was wasted by making her Gold’s puppet.

    The enormous flaw in this episode is that it makes no sense how this trap was supposed to turn Emma “dark”. As you explained, Emma was protecting her son from a person who was threatening to kill him — there is nothing unjust about that.

    Maybe if the writers had concentrated on one plot instead of half a dozen, there would have been room to successfully develop a plausible emotional arc for Emma. Instead, we have a scrambled mess of abandoned plot threads (the wasted Queens of Darkness), forcibly re-inserted previous villains (Zelena), a contrived “dark secret” (Charmings), and what could have been an interesting mythology (the Author and the Storybook) deflated by having everything circle back to Gold.

    As a viewer, I feel that Gold has become a liability. First of all, the writers won’t allow his character any lasting growth or change (which also results in the ongoing abusive relationship with Belle). Second, without a humanizing motive (such as his search to reunite with Baelfire), Gold’s villainy comes across as two-dimensional, which is insufficient to maintain interest and sympathy for a main character. Finally, as a plot device, making Gold the “mastermind” behind everything has become repetitive, and makes the heroes look pretty stupid for constantly trusting him. If I wanted to watch stupid people, I would watch reality television, not scripted programs!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mark Goodwin says:

      Cruella really did have more to offer as a villain, and I love that her backstory is, in fact, just her being a bit of a psycho. Acting under Rumple did demean her, but god she was funny.

      I feel like they lean slightly into the whole “turn her evil” thing, but didn’t stop to come up with an actually compelling descent into being dark, and as a result we get this muddled and confused idea instead.

      Agreed – I’ve never been on board with Gold. The redemption arc they try and pull later in the series is even worse.


  2. Serena says:

    Such wasted potential in exploring how Emma could have been driven to making expedient rather than heroic choices…

    I am stunned to learn that the writers can actually make Gold even worse! Can’t we replace him with Cruella as the main villain? I would be glued to my TV set if that happened!


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