"Leopold was never even implied to be vile."
You’re right, the narrative never presents him as anything less than the good king.
Except that’s the entire thing that is so wrong with his character.
That’s what makes him all the more fucked up.
OUAT does this thing where it boasts about how its characters are so morally ~complex~ but the problem is that even when characters are written as morally gray, the narrative itself does not treat them as such.
On OUAT, where a character supposedly falls on the morality scale is almost completely, if not entirely, based on how the narrative presents them. It’s all about how we’re supposed to see them, because good and evil is somehow tied to their very beings.
The very issue with Leopold is that he does all of these fucked up things, and yet none of the characters ever consider these actions of his and determine his character based on them. Rather, the very first thing he is seen doing (freeing the genie) is perhaps the one genuinely good and selfless thing he actually does, and this one good action, simply because of its placement, is seen as the determining factor for who he is – a kind, fair king – and thus we are meant to overlook his awful actions that follow because the narrative already told us he was supposed to be one of the “good guys”. People continue to tell us this, and yet what we are shown is a different story.
Truly, one does not even have to look at “The Stable Boy” or “Bleeding Through” to make this argument, because Leopold’s problematic nature as a character can be traced all the way back to “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree”.
What is Leopold seen doing in that episode? After the genie scene, he ignores his now-wife at his daughter’s birthday party, instead singing praise to his late wife, not so much as glancing at Regina. He later reads her diary, discovering that Regina is perhaps gaining feels for a man because he actually pays her the time of day. Leopold’s response is to summon the genie (evidently, freeing him from his bottle is enough to expect Sidney to, what? Repay the favor? Even that one kind/selfless act leads Leopold to later employ the genie for his own benefit) and ask him to find the man who has “stolen his wife’s heart”, as if she is a possession without agency. He admits he knows she is unhappy (which also makes his neglect all the worse, for he is making no attempt to rectify this), but overall seems less concerned with her feelings than the fact that, by her displaying a sense of emotional independence, she is less his. While the genie is, to his knowledge, “investigating” the matter, he places Regina under house arrest. She has not even committed any sort of adultery, only privately expressed the stirrings of for someone who might be able to love her in the way Leopold admits he cannot, and his response is to lock her away and ban anyone from seeing her, including her father.
"But this was all part of Regina’s plan!" you might say, but this only makes Leopold look worse. Regina did not force him to do any of these things – they were his own actions. For her to know he’d read her diary, or that his reaction to her expressing agency would be so extreme?
Regina wouldn’t have formed such an important plan based on hunches, which means these are things that have probably happened before.
That’s not something we’re supposed to think about, though, not something we’re supposed to ponder on, as it violates the “good king” image the narrative wants to believe in.
So the story does not address it.
Meanwhile, what does Regina do in this episode?
During the birthday party, her look is forlorn, tearful, lonely – and more than likely fully genuine, for who would even be watching her in this moment? She has no audience, no point to prove. Which is why she gets up and leaves. The genie follows her, and you know how the episode goes. In the end, she uses his feelings for her to her advantage (in order to eliminate her abuser), and sure, it was wrong of her to manipulate and frame him in the way she did. But, besides the fact that she actually organized him an escape plan, she seemed legitimately upset and conflicted over letting him take the fall. She didn’t do it just to screw him over; she saw her Leopold’s demise as an end that justified the means. It is only Sidney’s objectifying wish, to gaze upon her face (reducing her to her appearance, showing that he was primarily attracted to her beauty, not her personhood), and the result of his own wish that she becomes truly victorious.
It is interesting how Regina shows inner conflict over her actions in this episode, and Leopold does not.
But, anyway, guess which one of these two the episode presents as the big bad villain, and which one is shown to be the poor innocent victim.
Because the narrative has already established that Regina is badbadbad and that Leopold is goodgoodgood, and this is the more important than their actions in this particular episode. The hero and villain were decided before the battle had even begun.
(A semi-related sidenote: I find it interested that people will argue that Regina is responsible for all of her actions because she made a choice – which is absolutely true, even if this is often used as an excuse to handwave Rumple’s, Cora’s, and yes, even Leopold’s immense influence on how she became the way she is, but yes, Regina’s choices were her own – and yet frequently say that Regina murdered Leopold, with no mention of Sidney, as if Sidney himself did not suggest they use the snakes to kill Leopold, as if he did not offer to do the act himself, as if he did not go and stick those snakes in Leopold’s bed all on his own, as if he is not, y’know, Leopold’s murderer, as if Sidney’s choices were not also his own. But that’s an argument for another day.)
I really, really should not have to go into how The Stable Boy and Bleeding Through only make Leopold look even more disgusting, and I already feel like I’m losing my original point, so I’ll leave you to think about those two episodes yourself.
The important thing: none of Leopold’s actions are outright called into question by the characters. Never are we, as an audience, formally prompted to consider his actions and determine him to be anything less than the good man we are supposed to see him as.
Leopold is one of the best examples of OUAT’s twisted way of morally defining its characters, of the toxic idea that people are innately “good” or “evil” and that this is defined by something they just are, rather than their actual actions.
And he is an example of how harmful this narrative method is, because, while fandom may take it upon itself to analyze characters and plotlines think about them on a deeper level, many casual viewers do not.
And for every casual watcher you have who calls out Leopold on how gross he is, you have people who swallow him just as he is served.
I have a friend who I once mentioned my hatred of Leopold to, and she seemed confused, like she couldn’t think of why I could possibly hate him. I brought up his actions in “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree”, as well as reminded her of the details of his proposal to Regina, and the expression on her face was one I will not forget: one of vague horror, of suddenly seeing what the narrative did not mean for us to see.
"Bleeding Through" is the nail in the coffin. Leopold’s relationship with Cora ultimately solidifies his later proposal to Regina as, yes, vile (and it was really not that much less even beforehand; it’s only now more so), except this entire situation was done for plot purposes. To give Cora a reason to give up Zelena, to further explore the Cora/Eva blood feud (and, surprise surprise, root it in a rivalry over a man), and perhaps to make the family tree that much more fucked up.
Leopold is never called out by anyone for proposing to the young daughter of his old flame. Regardless of audience reaction (because the writers frequently underestimate the intelligence and attentiveness of their watchers). The narrative does not even attempt to address this. In fact, it all but states him to be the only innocent party in the mess…
…Because, ridiculously so, Leopold’s vileness is fully overlooked in favor of framing Eva as the one with “darkness in her past”.
Goodness gracious. At least Eva outgrew her classism, yes? After all, when young Snow shows signs of being a classist, Eva quickly calls her out on this behavior and attempts to correct it.
Obviously, Eva did not tolerate this type of thinking anymore. So I wonder which parent Snow learned it from.
I understand that I’m reaching into subtext and probably headcanon now, but the point is that this is undoubtedly another thing we were never supposed to actually think about.
Leopold was never even implied to be vile.
That’s the problem. That is the proof of my point.
Not once – not once – has the narrative encouraged us to actually think about Leopold’s actions, the harm they have caused. Not once were we ever meant to think of him as anything than what we were told he was.
Leopold is a character who displays possessive tendencies, who grossly puts a ring on a girl maybe a third his age despite the horror on her face because her mother’s consent meant more to him than her own, a girl he later ignores once she’s under his ownership, a girl whose probable depression he handwaves, a girl he locks up for displaying agency.
And he is never actually presented as anything less than a victim. He is not held responsible for his actions because people are too busy babbling about how he’s such a “fair king”. As if his awful actions are excused or a non-issue because of who he fundamentally is.
Add in the fact that he’s a rich white man in a position of high power, and the fact that there are so many people out there, on tumblr and off, who do not even regard his actions as anything problematic, and the fact that he is not the only character this line of thinking applies to, and this narrative becomes toxic. It is harmful.
That is what makes him so vile.