In a recent talk, Hilary “Wolf Hall” Mantel stated frustration with historical fiction’s penchant for what she sees as falsely empowering female characters in times and places where this was highly implausible. And for the most part, I see where she’s coming from when she says things like, “If we write about the victims of history, are we reinforcing their status by detailing it? Or shall we rework history so victims are the winners?” (source) It’s not an issue that powerful, feminist women didn’t exist in history, it’s more that the more characters like this come to the forefront in historical fiction, it starts to seem like every historical woman was kickass. And the whole point of women’s history is that women had to squirm their way through stiflingly patriarchal societies, the ones who rose to prominence (the heroines discussed in non-fiction celebrations like Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, Bad Girls Throughout History, and Dead Feminists) were absolute exceptions, that’s why we know about them.
There are more ways for women to be than just stone-cold badasses or helpless wallflowers. I haven’t seen the new Wonder Woman film yet, but the reviews I’ve seen so far seem to indicate that the title character proves herself to have all the onion-y layers of all the best heroes. History has not been kind to Mary, Queen of Scots — a woman caught in a lose/lose situation, whose decisions only seem poor in retrospect because we have the benefit of knowing how they’ll turn out. Reign for sure hasn’t recast her as a Black Widow type, suffocating men between her athletic thighs between pithy one-liners. She has absolutely had a number of triumphant moments, and her pregnant, tartan-clad mission to reclaim her castle this week is definitely among them. There are two kinds of Queens that come to mind when you think of the technical definition of the word: the girlie Marie Antoinette types, and the cutthroat Boadicia types. What Reign manages, similar to Wonder Woman, is locating their heroine in an ever-changing grey area between these two extremes.
We’ve seen Mary kill before, mostly in self-defence other than her ruthless takedown of the man responsible for murdering her first husband, Francis. She’s a textbook introvert: opening herself only to confidantes she’s sure she can trust, careful with her heart, her quiet air sometimes mistaken for dullness when it’s really masking the fury that sits somewhere close to her heart. She’s passionate about her country, perhaps moreso about those she loves, maybe because she chooses to care for so few and of course she does: the track record for death of her friends and lovers is enough to scare anyone off of human interaction altogether. Time and again this season we’ve seen her rely on forgiveness over vengeance, notably over and over with her sometimes-odious-sometimes-okay second husband Darnley (Will Kemp). Her sense of optimism and faith is not borne of naivete but of experience. She knows a certain coldness is mandatory for any successful monarch, but she’s also seen enough cautionary tales to know not to let personal grudges get in the way of statecraft.
She says as much this week, when confronted by the season’s personification of the patriarchy, the eminently hate-able John Knox (Jonathan Goad). When presented with Narcisse’s (Craig Parker) offer to murder him, Mary pauses only briefly before turning him down. She has faith in the judicial process, and wants to be the kind of leader who follows the rules. This is in stark contrast to her counterpart back in France, where King Charles (Spencer MacPherson) is all id, and it’s only the continued machinations of his mother, Catherine (Megan Follows) preventing a civil war from breaking out. While Charles, along with the other Valois siblings who have been or remain on the show, is Catherine’s biological child, it’s Mary who is her truest descendant. Consider how many bonkers troubles Mary has encountered over four seasons of this show, multiply that across decades, and you still may not truly glean the extent to which Catherine is a true survivor. And the biggest lesson Mary has taken from her is that there is a time and a place for a badass speech or a pointed murder, and having just witnessed your BFF stabbed to death by a group of conspirators trying to steal your throne is absolutely one of these times.
She coolly kicks the stand out of the way to prompt the death by hanging of the one conspirator she was able to track down, causing GIFs of excitement across those live tweeting the episode, immediately followed with the thought wait, we aren’t even five minutes into this episode yet. A two-month time gap brigs us closer toward the events Wikipedia titles Imprisonment in Scotland and abdication (spoiler?), but again, we’re watching this with the benefit of hindsight. Returning to the castle after her friend’s death is part of Mary’s documented history, and it certainly could have lent her the same air of confidence we see in Reign‘s Mary this week. She spent much of the season not sure who to trust; the conspirators helpfully outed themselves, allowing everyone’s allegiances out in the open. It may seem like there are now less men loyal to her than when she first washed up on Scottish shores, but being able to differentiate ally from enemy is worth more than a few undecided Scotsmen.
This show doesn’t hide the fact that it’s a highly fictionalized version of events, and it’s commitment to making the tentpoles of the real story fit their constructed narrative are always exceedingly clever. Last week explained Mary’s escape with Darnley, the man who literally led a mob to murder her, as part Darnley’s mercurial nature, part Mary batting her eyes at him convincingly, and punctuated it with Darnley abandoning her in the woods. They got to the same locations as the real Mary and Darnley, but using more explicably character beats than historians have been able to glean from their brief reunion and almost immediate separation. Likewise, this week found infamous virgin Queen Elizabeth (Rachel Skarsten) to have secretly married the wholly invented character Gideon Blackburn (Ben Geurens). He dies, because this is Reign, and the moment any character seems happy you know someone’s about to die; given Gideon’s less-than-inconspicuous opening scene cough, and the writing’s on the wall who will fall victim.
Ever since Mary left France, the show has been doing a Game of Thrones style of split storytelling, following separate sets of characters in various parts of Western Europe. Gideon’s jaunt to France last week shook up the balance the same way as it did when Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) ran into Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) last season on GOT; reminding us that these three solitudes are really just pieces of one whole. The courts further intertwine this week as Narcisse lands in Scotland with his offer of vengeance murder, and we come to learn that it was him who poisoned Gideon as part of a connected plot targeting Elizabeth. That Gideon Blackburn, introduced early last season as a one-off plot device, would go on to become the centerpiece of not one but two major plotlines affecting the future of Europe is… well, that’s Reign, isn’t it?
And yet, it’s tidy to have the other wholly invented character, Narcisse, be the one to tie this knot. It’s like when you play those murder mystery games, there are two extra characters in case your party is bigger. But because those two are extraneous, their plotlines only connect to each other, and not to the larger mystery. It can be a fun party if they’re included, but you can still find out whodunnit without them. Gideon and Narcisse, another character who’s stayed long past what must have been the initial plan for his character, solidly fill out this week’s C-plot, but it’s Mary and Elizabeth driving the story — just as they did in real history. One is remembered as an unfortunate victim, the other as the Mother of England, and both legends have their root in fact but of course both women were also people, which is what this show has always been about.
Of course, this show has also always been about baffling, delightful, horrifying twists that emerge in the last two minutes of show time. The episode title is “A Bride. A Box. A Body.” and with minutes to spare we had seen two of these three things. No sooner had I tweeted out a question about if I’d missed some important box-revelation than Narcisse strode in those leather pants that are probably permanently bonded to his legs after wearing them so well for so long, carrying… a box. Now, it’s important to recognize that Knox’s whole thing on this show has been not just patriarchy, but active misogyny. He’s undercut Mary at every turn, mistreated his wife abominably, all under the guise of religion and what may be best referred to as the desire to Make Scotland Great Again.
He was also implicated in perhaps the back-up bonkers last-minute twist, last season’s beheading of Mary’s BFF and Narcisse’s wife, Lady Lola (Anna Popplewell). And if you were thinking that Narcisse, a man who on his best weeks nearly outmatches Catherine in scheming-per-minute, had benevolently moved on from that great loss — well, then you clearly forgot what show this is. Not only did he kill Gideon, apparently in a poisoned beverage from last week’s tete-a-tete, but he also captured and tortured Knox in the most Ramsay Bolton Snow manner possible, culminating with the removal, and presentation of, Knox’s testicles to Mary. Because, you see, the Reign writers were stuck with the fact that Knox lived years after these events, despite his fictitious dirty deeds. He had to get comeuppance on a show that’s never been shy about murder, so what else could they do, really?
And it is in that moment, gazing upon the dismembered body parts of a man who she hates, that Mary falls back into formation. Yes, she stormed her own castle and actively helped kill the man who turned against her, but that was a mixture of internal hand external vengeance. The person part of her hated him for killing her friend, and the Queen part of her knew he had to be killed publicly in order for her to scare off any others who dared to stand up against her. Mary does not shy from ruthless physical confrontation when it’s mandated, and perhaps the feeling of marching upon the castle in tweed and tartan was still a fond memory she’d like to duplicate. But Narcisse, who started on the show as the vengeance-obsessed father of a man Mary had a hand in murdering, shows himself to her here as the antithesis of everything she believes in. She was Knox jailed at least and put to death at most, but not in this pirate sort of way. Gazing upon the interior of that grisly box, she can’t stop herself from fleeing as hard as possible in the opposite direction. Which in this case means overcompensating with benevolence by releasing Darnley from prison.
And, here again, Reign has used its own store of characters and ability to delve into the contradictory sides of every human to explain another off-kilter beat in the historical narrative. Why wouldn’t Mary track down and kill Darnley after what he’d done? History assumes it’s because she was kind of a pushover… but what if it’s because she chose, at he worst possible time, to weaponize her superpower of kindness? We’ve watched her mature from a girl to a woman, and all the innocence lost and armour built that always involves. Her instincts are so often so right, it’s just to our hindsight we’re able to pinpoint the exact moment she chose the wrong thing. Catherine spent three years demonstrating that the best way to survive is 95% ambition, 5% squishy marshmallow centre. Mary is not that far from Catherine, maybe 80% ambition, 20% marshmallow at this point. But for her current situation, precarious even as she’s back on her throne, that instinct to forgive may just be what undoes her completely.