So here’s the thing: perhaps the best way for me today, to try and explain the extraordinary and unusual appeal of the TV show Reign is to liken it to the red carpet at the Met Gala. Some celebs will show up in a gorgeous but fairly run-of-the-mill gown, looking amazing and fun to look at. Others will show up wildly missing the mark, a commercial face dolled up editorial style, tm Tyra Banks. And then, rarest of all, is someone like Rihanna — arriving dressed in an outfit at once outrageous and beautiful, ridiculous and sublime, perfectly worn by the only person capable of pulling it off. By which I mean: every episode of Reign is great; the baseline is already high. Some episodes swing for the fences and may miss but are still fun to enjoy. And some episodes? Like tonight’s “Dead of Night” are as Rihanna is to the Met Ball: audacious, stunning, incomparable, and firing on all cylinders.
I know I’ve spoken before, and often, about how this show is unlike anything else on TV and this episode really captures just what I mean. Yes, its DNA is tied with the real events of the life of the real Mary Stuart; yes, it airs on The CW so the cast is filled with gorgeous adult teens, at least one actual teen, and sexy grown-ups, shot magnificently; but it’s where Reign plays around within these constraints that its sheer delightfulness shines through. The real Mary (as I wrote about a bit ago, here) was more-than-likely kidnapped by Lord Bothwell following the probably-murder of Lord Darnley, in which she may not have had a hand. Basically every fiction writer who’s ever adapted these events picks the perhaps less-accurate but far more dramatically interesting option of making Bothwell less kidnapper and more love interest, and crucially, by making Mary active in Darnley’s downfall.
Now, we haven’t gotten to the Darnley downfall bit just yet, which is part amazing because it means that the absolutely fascinating Will Kemp can continue to portray this odious yet likable (????) character, crafted to perfection by Reign‘s writers. But on a character level, I mean, we all just want to see him destroyed a la Joffrey Baratheon, right? But again, this show has fleshed out a role that is frequently portrayed as a sadistic twit (see: Timothy Dalton in the 1970s movie Mary, Queen of Scots for instance), and it’s the flashes of kindness and sympathy that makes him all the more unpredictable. By the time this episode ends, with Mary seemingly having bested him, Darnley vacillates on a dime between shattered heartbreak and savage cruelty; no wonder it’s taken so long for Mary to get a handle on him, and she still hasn’t, not really, because his brand is chaos.
Reign has built a loyal audience through four seasons of bonkers plot twists, both based in history and entirely invented, and it’s in this final act of Mary’s real story that real history needs little massaging. It now becomes clear that the previous roller coaster of Druids and Red Knights and auto-erotic asphyxiation-caused prophecies and ghost-no-wait-not-ghosts in burlap sack hats hiding under beds was laying track for this. If the previous three seasons had hewn closely to recorded history, these final plotlines would come across as unbelievable. Mary returns to Scotland and marries The Worst Man In The Universe, knowing that’s who he is, because his birthright mandates it. He is disloyal to her, despite her pregnancy with his child and… well, to those unfamiliar with Mary’s story, let’s just say the next few episodes will not be slowing down the drama.
But! This is no staid Starz-style historical epic (no shade on The White Princess, it looks lovely, it’s just not my thing) because not only do we watch the — perhaps final — dissolution of Mary’s relationship with Darnley, but we also see, in no particular order:
- a belly dancing number
- Catherine (Megan Follows) sitting in a pentagram casting a spell with a lock of her son’s hair
- That same son having his nose broken a la Marcia Brady by his Jan-esque sibling
- That same sibling trying to blackmail Lord Narcisse (Craig Parker), who then counter-blackmails him
- That same Narcisse schooling the King’s mistress in the art of topless wine tasting
- Did I mention Catherine literally casts a spell???? A MAGIC SPELL???
Last week’s episode was still bonkers and fun but mostly a sort of breather; the chill out music between club bangers. This episode is the high key remix that starts to play just when you’re thinking of leaving the club, giving everybody a second wind to dance through to dawn. But! The thing with Reign is that’s not all it is. Of course, it’s the same show whose plot twists twist around like tree roots, feeding and fuelling yet more twists until you come to realize about seventeen plots are sharing the same hour of television, but it wouldn’t mean anything without the rich character work grounding it all.
I focus a lot in these recaps on Mary herself because she’s the still point in the galaxy that is this show, and it’s for sure her story. But it’s also a story of Catherine and Elizabeth and Greer and Nicole, women of wildly differing life experiences and philosophies, all of whom are caught up in a patriarchal society that actively works to keep them down. If Narcisse (Craig Parker) or Henri (Nick Slater) are caught out for their scheming, we sense they’ll both be OK; whether Charles (Spencer MacPherson) or Henri are on the throne, the nobles will accept them. Whereas, if Nicole’s (Ann Pirvu) caught out for her affair with Narcisse or for making eyes at Henri, she’ll be shunned at best and killed at worst — see the fate of poor Emily Knox (Claire Hunter) or Lady Lola (Anna Popplewell) for reference.
In fact, it is this bone-deep knowledge of her own fallibility not only as Queen but as a woman that continues to allow Elizabeth (Rachel Skarsten) to maintain a leg up over her cousin. Elizabeth’s narrative has necessarily been sidelined this season because Mary’s busy with her harem of men and even the best TV writers can’t make suspense out of the question of Will Elizabeth get married?? All the same, Skarsten has been given a huge array of moments to play, each reminding us that inside of the chilly Queen she must appear to be, is the raging girl cast aside by the same father who then had her mother killed; she is a woman who knows, better than Mary, perhaps better than Catherine even, how quickly and decisively one can lose all control and power. This week was Mary’s big power play, leaving Elizabeth on the defensive; but the sudden inclusion of her lover Gideon (Ben Geurens), also Mary’s ex-fiancé, as a go-between the two countries seems to be setting things up for her final endgame, too.
Because in the episode’s cruelest twist, Mary finds her power play undone by Darnley’s evocation of the patriarchy they all live in. She may be the Queen, and she may have the power to deny him any more power than that of her consort, but the legitimacy of their child is her Achilles heel. Her power is still conditional, God-given as were all rulers in Europe at this time, but she’s still a woman surrounded by men all too happy to find a reason to replace her with a distant (male) relative or, perhaps, her spurned husband. We know, and she knows, and Darnley knows that there is no question as to the paternity of her unborn child, but one well-placed rumour could bring her whole house of cards tumbling down. She and Darnley have moved from companionship to loathing to an uneasy Cold War style detente — their mutually assured destruction the only thing keeping Darnley out of jail, and Mary on the throne… for now.
This threat is the despicable act of a truly horrible man and it stems from what I can only see as his privilege: he’s simply unable to admit defeat to any woman, and definitely not this woman. Mary speaks this week of her regret at marrying him, but she knew as she walked down that sad aisle that it was her best and only chance not just to retain her throne but to survive at all. Darnley is at once her saviour and her destroyer, and she (and we) come this week to see that she can’t have one without the other; she must keep him around for her own safety and keeping him around is surely going to ruin her. It’s an elegant and terrible and inevitable twist that is, yes, drawn wholly from history. And knowing the next unavoidable parts of her story are why I can’t wait for the next episode, but also why I’ll be watching partly from behind my hands.