"The Miller's Daughter" is not just one of Season 2's jewels in the crown, but also one of the best 'Once Upon a Time' episodes. It represents everything that 'Once Upon a Time' is all about in the first place, while being one of the strongest examples (perhaps the strongest of the show up to this point) of the stories and characters progressing in the right direction.
Quite rightly there is a focus on characters that were there since 'Once Upon a Time' first started, and is highly successful in making them and their dilemmas and feelings interesting and worth emotionally investing in. Similarly quite rightly, it focuses much less on adding and introducing new characters that Season 2 did with varied success. What stands out the most with "The Miller's Daughter" is the focus on Cora (introduced in Season 2 but was quickly established as one of the best new characters and one of the show's most interesting overall even up to this point) and the take on the 'Rumplestiltskin' story.
What could have been a conventional telling with nothing new instead felt fresh and was a story in context of the show that really advanced the characters and the stories. This can be seen by a lot of significant plot developments, that feel natural in how they're placed and given full depth, and already interesting characters made even more so with clearer motivations, more complexity and a stronger sense of how and why they became who they are.
Fairy-tale flashbacks and Storybrooke scenes are balanced adeptly, instead of being too much of one, and are equal in impact, with the connection/parallel between the two worlds that are so easy to get immersed in is stronger and handled far more seamlessly than any episode before. Also striking was the emotional impact, the flashbacks have a lot of heart and are full of some of the show's most emotional moments ever. The Storybrooke storyline has a real sense of urgency and builds upon what is already known and with new things introduced. "The Miller's Daughter" manages to achieve the impossible, making one feel sorry for Cora when we see how and why she came to be the way she was portrayed before.
All the acting is great, as good as Robert Carlyle and Barbara Herschey are it is Rose McGowan who comes out on top in a very emotionally charged and complex performance that has an icy exterior but pretty conflicted on the inside.
Furthermore, "The Miller's Daughter" is a very handsomely mounted episode visually, the settings and costumes are both colourful and atmospheric, not too dark or garish and never cookie-cutter. It is photographed beautifully too. The effects are not as sloppy here. The music is haunting, ethereal and cleverly used with a memorable main theme.
Writing has the right balance of humour, pathos, mystery and intrigue.
In summation, wonderful episode and a refreshing one.10/10 Bethany Cox