Long Live the Murderous Despot
The Evil Queen on Leadership and Rulership
The Evil Queen was, without any shadow of a doubt, a terrifying figure. She came to power in the wake of good King Leopold’s suspicious death, immediately charged his daughter the Princess Snow White with crimes against the throne, and was personally responsible for hundreds and probably thousands of deaths. Walking away from a personal encounter with the Queen with your life was something to be celebrated.
But the question remains… what was she like as a ruler? Because none of the above is tells you either what the people actually thought of her or she was like as a Queen. Let us first consider her predecessor. Leopold was a man described by himself and those of his immediate circle as a good man. The king is only concerned with the happiness of his subjects. We imagine, in stories, that these are the traits of a fine ruler.
Except historically speaking it’s not.
Kings worried about the happiness of their subjects tend to spend extravagantly in order to buy popularity and tax inadequately. That kind of imperial largess can destabilize by pushing too much gold or silver into circulation and causing a rise in prices as the value of money decreases. King Midas must have been a nightmare for all the other Enchanted Forest rulers even if he was in fact very stingy. Rumple as well. And there is no telling how much gold Cora was spinning to maintain her family’s lifestyle and influence following the apparent fall of Henry’s family from grace.
The other thing that monarchs like Leopold have historically done is underfunded the army, leaving their homelands vulnerable to attack as they chose to spend their money on extravagances or courting popularity. It does not seem an unreasonable headcanon given what we saw of both Leopold (a man who wore his crown in his own bed chambers) and the way he treated Snow that Leopold was such a ruler and that Regina discovered a significant mess in the treasury when she came to power.
We already know that Regina had started filling the ranks of the royal army with her own men before Leopold’s death, and while we know those men weren’t all loyal to her given what we saw in 2.20 The Evil Queen, I do believe we can assume that a significant number were. She took a personal interest in them. She knew their names. She paid them well. And while she may not have tolerated failure a significant number of them remained loyal to her even after the Charming’s claimed to have deposed her. I counted at least 25 Black Knights in the force that stormed the Charming’s castle and there were likely more. Enough to take the castle of a supposedly ruling family easily.
This is the problem of relying on fairy air power to win your wars. If you don’t actually defeat the enemy on the battlefield they rise again bitter and with a vengeance.
One other important detail about the Black Knights, aside from knowing their names and personally hiring them, we are told that Regina often gave these men second chances in their lives. The Charmings may have been prepared to dismiss them as thugs and mercenaries, but the fact that second chances were something Regina valued is an incredibly appealing quality in a leader. As was her tendency to place herself in danger. Fighting behind a terrifying sorceress with magic and fire in her eyes would have been a very powerful force multiplier in a marshal culture like the Enchanted Forest.
But let’s take a step back from the immediate contact with the Queen. Her kingdom is apparently stable and peaceful. The economy strong enough that she could easily withstand cutting off trade with King George while that action virtually crippled him. We are never shown her kingdom to be plagued by warlords terrorizing the peasantry as we are shown with Bo Peep in George’s kingdom. Both George and Midas, arrogant men, and shown to be militarily aggressive (at least George was) were deferential to Regina. She and her knights walked freely and without challenge into their castles.
This deference may have been related to personal fear of her as a murderous sociopath, but it does have the larger effect of meaning that her kingdom was free of external threat. That certainly doesn’t mean you don’t have to worry about dying violently, but Regina’s violence appears to be relatively predictable. Yes, she will rip out the heart of a bridegroom on his wedding day for violating royal lands, and yes she’ll massacre a village or rip the heart out of every villager in the north woods, but those are actions directly relating to her fight with Snow White. Don’t aide Snow White and don’t violate the clearly posted law, and you likely would not have a problem with the Queen. No matter how murderous she was in general. Believe it or not, lots of monarchs that history has judged as good rulers have a great deal of blood on their hands. Frederick the Great of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia were both very dangerous to their political opposition, and Elizabeth I of England, celebrated selfless ruler ran one of the first modern police states.
Which of course brings us to the topic of Snow White.
The Charmings and their allies will tell you the peasantry loved her, but it’s fairly clear that she went through much of the bandit years without much help. She might have been robbing royal carriages but she was also breaking into people’s houses and even her presence in an area could attract the attention of the Queen’s forces. It is highly unlikely that the peasants really cared about a royal dispute. Historically they rarely do. And neither David, nor Kathryn or Midas seemed to question Regina’s right to hunt Snow, nor the charges against her. David aside, that suggests the power dynamics had shifted. The only people that attached to Snow’s cause were her immediate allies. The fact that she and David needed magical assistance to defeat King George and then used David’s false claim to his thrown to gain control of his forces to challenge Regina suggests this was not seen as a great crusade outside of the circle of a deposed princess, some rogue dwarfs, and fairies with dubious motives… All one needs to know to show that is how little peasant support there appeared to be to challenge Regina in 3.02 Lost Girl.
Now the political theater of Lost Girl is itself interesting. Regina’s encounters with Snow are designed to show herself as reasonable, and Snow as only interested in power. She can have peace and a life away from power with her friends, something the peasant crowd would probably consider a good deal, or she can push for the throne and get other people killed. The fact that David is publicly pushing for the latter at the same time he’s fighting in the name of Prince James a cruel playboy certainly would not have played into Snow’s case. We are told that second encounter, where Snow nicks Regina’s cheek with a sword is politically damaging to Regina (especially in front of her knights) because she was seen as invincible. But I would argue that it was probably a zero sum game for both of them. Because word of the encounter would have spread and not everyone would have been so impressed with the Prince and Princess bringing a war down on the kingdom.
Wars are good for royals and bad for peasants. It really doesn’t matter if Regina intended to keep her promise (I’m sure she didn’t), the act of declining the offer damages Snow’s image as the good disinterested royal outside of her inner circle. And let me point out for the moment, that Snow and Charming’s idea of a court of advisers when they are ruling a kingdom are 7 miners, a cricket, a carpenter, an old widow and a werewolf. I really can’t see the merchant or noble classes being that thrilled.
So how could a villain be a better leader than a pair of heroes? Well, the answer to that question is that being a good leader and being a good person are not the same thing. Leadership is not simply a natural talent, no matter what people might have told you, it’s learned. The military spends a lot of time teaching leadership and Regina displays a lot of those traits no doubt taught to her in lessons ordered by her mother. No one can tell me that Cora Mills did not spend her entire life maneuvering her daughter so she cold be a queen without preparing her with the best education possible in how to rule. Knowing names, being mindful of image, of the conditions of soldiers lives, being willing to risk your own personal safety, and placing the value of the whole over the value of the individual are just some of those commonly taught traits that Regina displays.
The good of an entire town (kingdom) should outweigh the interest of one person. A hero tries to save everyone, a leader knows that you can’t and that trying to may cost even more lives. Ironically when Regina says this it would mean that she would argue for her own execution in 2.10 The Cricket Game and against attempting to save her life in 2.22 And Straight on Till Morning, the latter of which she did try to protest on the grounds that they did not know their plan would work.
Which of course brings us to the topic of Mayor Mills. Here is a woman who goes from being a tyrannical absolute despot to a small town bureaucrat who describes her work to Snow in a season 4 deleted scene as “public service”. She is frequently seen in season 1 working late into the evening in the mayor’s office, and doing town paperwork in late season 2 after the majority of the town has dismissed her as an irredeemable villain. She tells Henry that she traveled to many worlds, and this was the fairest. She voices repeated concern when first Emma and then the Charmings start treating the sheriff’s department like a family business (a concern only highlighted when Snow is mayor and pardons Will Scarlet simply on the assumption that David let him escape to make her feel better). I have no doubt that she used her power to torment some people with parking tickets and town ordinance violations, but I also have no doubt that the streets were in good repair and the town budget balanced. She’s even concerned about property values when monsters show up.
Regina claims to have designed Storybrooke and many of it’s features, and I think now that we know that Rumple did not in fact write the dark curse, but simply stole it for his own ends, we should take her word for it. She came from a world and a place where she had no control and no choice and where she saw the harsh realities of the world. The Enchanted Forest was not, in fact, some idealized version of the middle ages. It was, as Issac tells us, a place with dysentery and a short life expectancy. We’ve seen poverty so crushing that parents sold their children, and violence so random be it from an Evil Queen or an ogre attack. Yet Storybrooke has full employment, no poverty, no homelessness, universal education and a fully staffed and equipped hospital (with yes more doctors than just Whale).
The Evil Queen gifted the people she hated with an idealized society at the same time she was attempting to deny their happiness. In some ways she was an incredibly inept villain. She worked hard to maintain that society even after she lost power. And she verbally protested when the Charmings attempted to run Storybrooke as if it were an extension of an Enchanted Forest kingdom. All of this speaks to a deep sense of fairness and justice, even in the heart of a woman capable of great cruelty and injustice.
All of this may read like a hit piece against the Charmings, but I actually think it’s not. Let’s go back to what I said earlier. Leadership is learned not a natural trait. David was a shepherd and while a good man has never had any of the training a man of princely station would have had. He’s behaving how he imagines a leader behaves. Getting by with bluster, good looks, and confidence, and frankly reacting rashly when he is out of his depth. Snow was probably given some lessons in leadership as a princess, but they would have come from her Leopold’s school of emphasizing goodness and happiness not security and order. If Regina had not gone evil she likely could have taught her better when she was her stepmother, but that was not the kind of relationship they had. One does get the impression though, as Snow looks to Regina as an adviser and a friend, that she is learning those lessons now. And that alone should tell the audience a lot about what kind of leader Regina was and is.
The Evil Queen was a good leader. And a good Queen. And a terrifying monster. And a vindictive bureaucrat. And a dedicated public servant.
Because those are not actually incompatible things.