Somehow in all of my interest with the Tudor period in general, and Mary, Queen of Scots in particular, I had forgotten or simply not realized the significance of the Queen’s age. She was 16 when she married for the first time, 23 for the second and (spoiler) 24 for the third. She was a young woman, albeit one who had been on the throne of Scotland since her infancy. I do not at all mean that thing where it’s like, “Oh, she’s young, cut her a break for participating in a questionable soft drink commercial.” No, I mean the other thing we’re reminded her of in all three plotlines this week: no matter how intelligent and capable you may consider yourself, if you’re young and successful, you’re seen as a threat to the older generation. We see this in Mary’s plotline in her interactions with John Knox (Jonathan Goad) and other advisors; in Elizabeth’s, as she drives herself to madness with worry what her own Privy Council will think of her; and in Charles’s, where he’s the tiniest and least powerful person in a room full of much older men.
The time and place of this show, Western Europe in the late 1600s, is notable for being the sort of in-between time we now remember the 1920s as. Western Europe was well out of the middle ages, though many of the same dynasties still ruled, and many peasants’ lives hadn’t improved that much since then. Scientific and medical discoveries were on the horizon, but they weren’t yet at the enlightenment. No, this is the tail end of the Renaissance, a time when a focus on art and culture and beauty dovetailed with widespread religious wars; every country on the precipice of what it was soon to become. Mary and Elizabeth were women both of this age and retroactively representative of it: Mary, a young woman but part of the old Guard; Elizabeth, a fresh new voice and face for the incoming era.
So no wonder Mary spends so much of her time pushing boulders up hills and banging her head against the same walls. She wants to lead Scotland through all of these changes, providing them with a stable Catholic monarchy to serve as the foundation for their ascent to even greater power in the continent. But young as she may be, she took the throne in 1542; Elizabeth, in 1558. Those 16 years may not look like much, but both England and Scotland went through seismic shifts in the interim and by the time Mary returned to her country, they had moved on without her — in a direction diametrically opposed to the one she is heading.
Darnley (Will Kemp) continues to be a live wire, constantly reinventing himself to be the type of antagonist most able to dissemble his wife. He’s morphed from raging blackmailer to this week’s casual cruelty, living in a separate household and spending time with sex workers he dresses in Mary’s jewels. His return to court, however, shows that his personal popularity is as great as it’s been since that time she fixed a boxing match and kissed him: like today’s tabloid regulars, Darnley recognizes the power of good PR. While his partnership with the odious Knox was perhaps a given (it’s at around this time in every season of Reign that someone’s enemies tend to join forces), his end goal is not retribution against Mary, but power for himself. He spends his portion of their shared fortune on land in order to strengthen his personal power, only agreeing to lend her some money to help their needy subjects when she agrees he’ll get credit for the move. Vainglorious to the end, this one.
Mary on the show, as Mary was in real history, is a woman with few allies. We see her here relying on Greer (Celina Sinden) and the increasingly indispensable Rizzio (Andrew Shaver), who are both sassy and wildly intelligent, but not capable of balancing the scales against the nobles now loyal to Darnley or the Protestants led by Knox. She’s got Bothwell (Adam Croasdell) in her corner too, of course, but his romantic love for her makes him as much a liability as an asset. With Darnley continuing to threaten he’ll claim their child is not his, Mary’s relationship with Bothwell must remain chaste… not unlike the trap Elizabeth’s set for herself vis-a-vis Gideon, who she loves but cannot be with if she wants to avoid knocking errant housemaids unconscious in fishing shacks (#ThisShowYouGuys).
Each of this show’s royals are always forced to choose when to be proactive and when to be reactive. Charles (Spencer MacPherson), under the thrall of last week’s spell, is more confident than we’ve ever seen him — sort of like that time in one of the Harry Potter books that Ron thinks he’s taken a confidence charm but he hasn’t really. When Henri (Nick Slater) is called upon for advice in a military strategy meeting, he meta-suggests that it’s best to wait for someone else’s weakness to become apparent before acting. Charles, high on his single success thus far as King (and also likely wanting to only do the opposite of what Henri says, because that’s what brothers are like), opts to move right in. Now, this is the boy King who went from emo vampire to farm work volunteer to Protestant sex fiend, so his new persona of Take Charge Dude is obviously not going to last. But raise your hand if you thought it would wind up with his fear of failure merging with his low self-esteem causing him to behead his enemies?
In a fascinating coda, Charles explains all of the above to Catherine (Megan Follows). He may be a 16th century King, but his anxiety at how letting others guess at his fear caused him to lash out is heartbreakingly familiar to many of us. It’s not, of course, familiar to Catherine — a woman who apparently emerged from the womb entirely badass, but who has been too busy ensuring her family’s survival to waste a thought on doubting herself. This new twist on Charles’s ever-evolving character is reminscent of that time on Game of Thrones that Theon (Alfie Allen) took over Winterfell and had to behead someone in order to look tough. Reign has been so clear in its depiction of the struggles of women against the patriarchy; here is its closest equivalent to show the harm the same system does to young men.
As ever, the difference between Charles and Mary is that he is surrounded by a family dynasty willing to murder to protect him (and a few actively working to supplant him, but stay with me for a moment). Mary has no family ties, helpful or otherwise, and is sticking with her deeply-seeded optimistic belief in the decency of humanity to see her through. When Bothwell, gruesomely beated by Darnley and his minions, notes that she may need to murder her husband, she demurs. There must be another option, and she will work hard to determine what it may be. It is this optimism that yet again sets her apart from her cousin. Elizabeth has faced more than one assassination attempt and numerous traitors in her midst, and has reacted by becoming justifiably paranoid and unfortunately jumpy. Elizabeth’s first instinct when she and Gideon’s rendezvous was discovered was to murder the witness; her character growth here is to forgive (and of course, because: Reign, it turns out that very same witness is a spy for someone else, so she maybe should have been killed). Where Elizabeth must twist herself into the sort of person who can offer a second chance, to Mary it comes as second nature.
These different views again show these two women as the opposing faces of the very time they were living in. Elizabeth’s most contemporary view was one of pragmatism; Mary’s, that of faith. Making it perhaps inevitable which of these two would win in their ongoing battle for supremacy, but also explaining why they both stuck with it for so long.