I was thinking this week about the pacing of Reign, which came out of the gate in its first season like so many amazing freshmen series — Gossip Girl, The O.C., Revenge, Riverdale, Veronica Mars — each episode filled with OMG moments and surprise twists to keep you coming back for more. The sophomore slump is a real thing for a good reason, and it’s the same reason when you go to the club it’s not one banger after another: we all require a rest period in order to fully appreciate the faster songs. Without some chill out songs between the dance mixes, it would be the dancing version of a marathon; and without some thoughtful episodes between the amazing cliffhangers, our adrenaline couldn’t handle it.
So what to make of an episode like this week’s Reign? Titled “A Better Man” — based on a C-plotline about Mary’s (Adelaide Kane) still ongoing hope that her odious husband, Darnley (Will Kemp), will actually improve himself — it features delightful plot twists in all three countries, maybe comprises 30% important exposition, and yet still gives its characters room for some thoughtful, quiet moments. This show is pedal to the metal as it plunges towards the series finale, and perhaps this dancefloor pace is what we can expect from here on out. There’s too much plot to burn through to take it slowly, but still enough room to really pay attention to everyone’s journey here.
As per ever, my primary interest is in Mary’s story — both what the show’s character is up to, but also at the hundred tiny ways the Reign writers have massaged real historical events to fit with the narrative and characters they’re playing with. The real Mary, Queen of Scots (about whom I wrote this piece earlier this week) spent the early part of her life mostly between the lines of history; the only real things we know about her are from the time period the show is currently dramatizing. The reason behind this is, of course, that from the minute she returned to Scotland her story becomes bonkers. But the lack of historical record about her earlier years in France allowed this show to invent basically anything they wanted to happen to her to happen, provided the major events — marriage, death, young widowhood — transpired in roughly the correct order.
And so it was we enjoyed three seasons filled with castle ghosts who turned out to be surgically scarred royal bastard daughters; an army of invading Neopolitans felled by a Queen with a well-aimed fork; a woman falling out of a window to her death mid-coitus; and so many more of the fabulous happenings that I feel a rewatch of season 1 coming on right now. But basically, this pace was set early and remained in place for the rest of the show. So the sheer amount of things happening to TV Mary now she’s in Scotland feel mostly in line with what we’ve seen her life to be up to now, which is why so much could happen in one episode and yet it feels like mostly any other week.
So far this season, we’ve seen Mary’s brother James (Dan Jeannotte), despite the occasional tantrum, demonstrate nothing buy loyalty towards her. History demands that he be sent in disgrace from Scotland, which is why I was reading into every side-eye and argument, waiting for him to eventually break bad. But that’s not giving this show enough credit, because of course it’s more dramatic for him to never waver in his devotion to her, because that means when he offers to take the fall for something that was only sort of his fault, lands with so much more gravitas. The image above, of Mary and Greer (Celina Sinden) weeping while watching someone leave, was distributed days in advance of the episode by the CW, leading me to wonder what could possibly have them both so upset. Of course it’s not James’s betrayal: it’s his sacrifice.
Greer — somewhat unfairly but I’ll allow it because girl just started to think something may happen between her and James — throws out a mention of just how many peoples’ lives have been ruined due to their association with Mary, more specifically, with her ambition. But Mary’s never been that single-minded; unlike Catherine (Megan Follows) or Elizabeth (Rachel Skarsten), her ambitions have always been less of a driving force that her own loyalty to her country, to her lineage, and to her station. Elizabeth is already by this point scheming to control the New World, while Catherine’s never without a scheme to elevate one or another of her children, but Mary is still mostly driven just to keep herself on the throne of Scotland. Yes, marriage to Darnley helps pave the way for a hostile takeover of England, but that’s a long game to her at this point. James didn’t take the fall so Mary could widen her empire, but so that she could keep the tenuous grip she has on her own country.
As ever, of course, the Reign writers are able to play with the fact that we all know more or less how this is all going to end. She and Darnley have gone back and forth between attraction and hatred and frustration and acceptance, and it strikes an interesting and optimistic note this week as we see Darnley for once able to control his temper; and his reaction to news of Mary’s pregnancy is legitimately sweet. He is a fascinating character to watch because, on a show where mostly everyone sticks to what we expect of them (Catherine = badass scheming, Elizabeth = vulnerability disguised with aloofness, Narcisse (Craig Parker) = high camp villainy punctuated with some light Dangerous Liaisons-flavoured pangs of regret), Kemp’s Darnley is predictable only in his unpredictability. On another show, his declaration of unending hatred of Mary for causing the death of his lover would have meant more than just a week’s pouting; last episde, he was so drunk he had to be physically dragged to his wedding ceremony, and passed out before they could consummate the marriage.
This week, two weeks after that same wedding, he’s all puppydog eyes and wondering when he could spend some time with Mary, please, to start a family. Mary, for her part, is clearly learning how to lean into her husband’s mercurial nature, choosing to keep him away from a visiting delegation of people who hate his family rather than risking his mere presence upend a delicate alliance. He hates that she knows this about him, but rather than lashing out at her or his enemies, swallows his distaste and plays the role he now knows he must — a supporting character to his wife’s protagonist.
This is the thing with this show, with seeing this plotline through the eyes of a Queen Mary who continues to learn from her mistakes but who is never without an ultimately optimistic view of what’s to come: these baby steps mean that perhaps, she can strengthen her claim to the thrones of both Scotland and England, that perhaps Darnley will become if not good, then better. It’s this faith in her own strength and in the future that has gotten her this far, and it’s the reason that TV James would rather destroy his own life rather than risk any harm coming to her. More than her crown and throne and skill at giving speeches, it is this inherent, indefinable leadership ability that is perhaps Mary’s strongest asset as Queen. And yet, as her longtime confidante Greer points out, the more Mary leans into the Queen side, the more she loses the person side (it’s been seasons since she battled between girlhood vs Queendom; sometime around the day she stabbed the Neopolitan in the eye, girlhood was a lost dream).
The cruel twist is, of course, that James was such a good ally that he took on the role of scapegoat, which helps her — but in losing him, she loses perhaps her strongest ally at court. Greer is a badass former madam/co-parent of a Pirate Baby and David Rizzio (Andrew Shaver) is a fabulous GBF, but neither of them can provide the statecraft and political assistance James has been helping her with since her arrival. For now, James’s sacrifice allows to maintain basically the status quo — Mary’s position not worse-off in a macro sense, and, with the mildly-reformed Darnley by her side, the micro level is not terrible for the time being. But then we remember what show we’re watching, realizing the slow song we’ve been listening to is beginning to fade away, something faster-paced, more adrenaline-pumping, more dangerous and unexpected and heart-pounding, waiting for us just around the corner.