Let’s say someone is going to punch you sometime today. In the first instance, you have time to worry and plan to try and wriggle out of it; in the second, you must deal with the shock and surprise of it actually occurring. Whether you know where and when it’s going to happen, or if it comes as a surprise, the injury is the same. Ever since Mary (Adelaide Kane) has been in Scotland, she’s known something terrible was going to happen. To be fair, that’s just playing the odds at this point because: Reign. And also: history. What feels like a lifetime ago, she thought her panic was leftover grief from losing Francis (Toby Regbo), or maybe PTSD from seeing him stabbed in front of her. Unexpected pregnancy has tethered her to the mostly odious Darnley (Will Kemp), and her own schemes contributed to the loss of her brother’s company. Her life has obviously hardened her, but she’s still too kind to be able to accurately predict what people more venomous than her may do to unseat her.
So, when the episode opens with her warm conversation with the lovely Rizzio (Andrew Shaver), she’s too busy being grateful for the respite from drama to realize that the terrible thing she’s been dreading is just around the corner. It’s the dramatic fallacy: Juliet greeting the new morning happily only to learn that Romeo’s been killed. Mary is clearly enjoying sneaking around the badass secret castle tunnels to meet up with Rizzio and Bothwell (Adam Croasdell), and she beams with genuine glee when she manages to neuter Darnley’s scheming with her pregnancy announcement. Using his thirst for PR and need to be wanted against him was truly a masterstroke — in one fell swoop, removing his main weapon against her while simultaneously making him stop hating her.
Part of what’s been so fascinating this season is, as ever, the mercurial nature of Darnley’s characterization. Last week’s secret meeting with John Knox (Jonathan Goad) felt like crossing a Rubicon, Darnley putting on his Darth Vader mask, absolutely lost to the Dark Side. But here we see Darnley (in a sequence mirroring Mary’s refusal to have him killed last week) refusing to play along with any strategy that would mean his wife’s death. He wants power, to be her equal, but not to destroy her. At least, not this week, and not yet. Knox’s M.O. has been consistent since he first arrived on the show: hating women in general and Mary in particular, desiring nothing more than to blow up the monarchical system altogether. Darnley may on-again/off-again detest his wife, and he’s absolutely used at least two gender-based nuclear options to attempt to overtake her, but at his core there’s no true hatred.
What there is, though, radiating so bright that Knox is easily able to manipulate him, is endless desire to matter. He agrees to a plot that will strip Mary of her power, but not her life, by catching her in flagrante with the ever-smoldery Bothwell. The writers here hit all the main plot points, but twist events to make each fateful decision land a bit harder, colouring shades of grey into what history has recorded as a series of seemingly random alliances. Basically, Rizzio — who’s never made his homosexuality a secret from anyone at Court, nor to the viewers at home — steps up to one of the Lords in league with Darnley and Knox. Rizzio’s threat to expose the Lord’s own predilections for male company is unsanctioned by his Queen, but is an act out of utter fealty to her. This quick backstory lends more layers to the final confrontation, at once making the Lord’s insistence on killing Rizzio have personal motivation, while also allowing Rizzio to have had some hand in his own undoing — not to victim blame, obviously, but having his actions lead to his final death gives his character more power than if he were merely (as history records it) in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The brutality of his murder is absolutely the most gruesome death to be shown on this show, and perhaps on the CW in general. Mary, having only recently begun to overcome the trauma of witnessing Francis’s death is now forced to witness a far more grisly deed — Rizzio dying of 56 stab wounds, each more vicious than the last, as Mary — pregnant, screaming — can do nothing to intervene. This is a woman who started the season terrified to open her heart to love, her lived experience constantly reminding her that to care for anyone is to open up to future grief. When she was forced to banish her brother James (Dan Jeannotte) from court, she is warned by Greer (Celina Sinden) that everyone she gets close to winds up being ruined. But to a woman as naturally warm as Mary, refusing friendship is practically impossible. And when a new friend, like Rizzio, comes with undying loyalty and the astral-plane approval of Bash (Torrance Coombs)? How could she refuse?
And yet, it’s this same sense of unwavering optimism that gets her up off the floor and plotting her escape. Even in the midst of the brutality, she saw and remembered that Darnley opposed the actions of the mob. It took her awhile, but she’s figured out that for all his bluster, her husband is simply not capable of the level of villainy of John Knox. And so she takes a safe risk: Darnley, after all, wants to survive and even he knows that to remain in a palace with Knox’s men isn’t safe for an Englishman — and King — like him. Mary’s biography does tell that she reconciled with Darnley after the death of Rizzio, a twist that out of context makes her seem flighty and indecisive. Here, in the context of the woman we know her to be and all we’ve seen her life through, the decision makes absolute sense. In a stunning sequence (the episode was directed by Catherine herself, Megan Follows), the visuals a dark mirror of earlier this season when Mary and Darnley first began to care for one another via horseback riding, the King and Queen escape under cover of night.
The best and worst part of writing historical fiction is surely the list of non-negotiable events that must be included in a work. It would be easy to do, as in part Mary Queen of Scots filmic treatments, to launch Darnley on the scene as a moustache-twirling villain and keep him in that role through to the end of his story. Reign, of course, has always existed between the lines of written history and has never taken the easy way out of any mandatory plot twist. History, after all, says that Francis died of an ear infection, not of a post-picnic stabbing by Scottish loyalists. His death produces the same effects either way to his loved ones and to the country he served; twisting the specific facts of his demise allowed the show to retain a sense of suspense for its audience, allowing the rug to be pulled out from under us by feinting that maybe this death wouldn’t occur.
Mary has been playing defence most of this season, but ends the episode finally taking offence: strutting into a meeting of those loyal to her cause, preparing to lead them in a castle siege to take back what is rightly hers. She does so alone, though — in a twist upon a twist, Darnley helps her to escape only to abandon her, pregnant in the woods, because while he may not be 100% villain, he’s certainly not a hero. They part on as positive terms as possible for these two, once more tipping what we know from history just enough to leave an audience unprepared for what’s to come. Darnley’s end is a fixed point in this saga; the way he exits the canvas seals what’s to come for Mary, Bothwell, James, and Mary’s unborn child.
This leaves the Reign audience on tenterhooks to see how the endgame is going to play out. We know, inarguably, where Mary’s path is going to lead her. To make her the heroine of her own story means putting her in the driver’s seat for the decisions that will eventually be her undoing; but to do so means we’re going to spend some time off-road in what’s been written about this time in her life. We know the final destination she’s headed for, but the way this chess board has been set, there are a thousand ways for her to wind up there. Whether you know where and when it’s going to happen, or if it comes as a surprise, the injury is the same. But sometimes, the journey itself is more important than how it ends up.