Prior to the airing of the CW show Reign, Mary, Queen of Scots was best remembered for her poor romantic choices, years of imprisonment and ultimate beheading by her cousin Elizabeth I. Bearing in mind that, as with anyone who’s ever lived and died, there was surely more to her story than what was recorded, showrunner Laurie McCarthy cannily chose to begin their retelling with the poorly documented early part of her life spent in France. For historical accuracy as long as they included her marriage to Prince, then King Francis, and his subsequent young death, they had the freedom to invent basically anything else they wanted to include. And what they chose to include was unabashed, breathtaking melodrama.
Choosing this time period freed them from both the restrictions of a show like The Tudors or Versailles, which always had some real historical event to include. It makes sense, then, to also free themselves from the conventions of costume drama — namely, that the wardrobe, styling, and even dialogue needed to be painstakingly correct to the period. The first reviews of the show noted both its raunchy-for-The-CW sexual content as well as its intentionally anachronistic sartorial choices. Mary and her ladies wore a mixture of runway couture and Anthropologie, their long hems and fitted waists the slightest of nods to the fashion of the time. As in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, the focus of the series is on imagining the lived experience of this singular teenage girl in a world wholly unlike our own. The teen girl characters twirl and slouch and mope, their hair in loose curls rather than stiff wigs. This aesthetic immediately set the show apart from other, more staid costume dramas — a visual cue for what they were doing in their storytelling as well.
It’s not just the intentionally anachronistic stylistic flourishes that work to provide a contemporary understanding of the past events. Reign also leaned into the ways in which 16th century characters, both educated and not, would react to seemingly paranormal occurrences. In this pre-Scientific Revolution time of religious wars, persecution, and witch burning, to be told your new castle-home may be haunted would be greeted with a little fear but no doubt.
The first episode established a precedent the breakneck plotting, throwing in three to five huge moments per week — the kind of breathtaking pace that made the first seasons of Gossip Girl and Revenge so addicting. So it was in short order that the ghost turned out to be the all-too-real human girl Clarissa (Katie Boland), who lives in the castle walls and wears a burlap sack over her head to hide her disfigurement. In a later twist, we learn that said disfigurement was from a botched attempt at porto-plastic surgery to remove a telltale mole that would out her as the secret illegitimate daughter of Catherine de’Medici.
Of course there is no record of Catherine bearing an out-of-wedlock daughter, but… why would there be? Any child born prior to her marriage would have been hidden away by her family, and any born during her marriage would have been ascribed to belong to her husband. And yet, of the ten children birthed by the real Catherine, all but one had health problems including some malformed limbs, and half died young. Clarissa’s appearance may be a nod to the reality of the Valois children; the show itself name-checks this sickly reputation when the dreamy Prince Francis, on the run after being briefly forced from the throne, is able to hide his identity because everyone assumes the Crown Prince is a bedridden weakling.
Because for all its gloriously improbably tangents, this show has held firm to its commitment to include all of the real-life marriages and deaths of its characters. This thesis is made text in a season one episode when, following Mary’s engagement to a Portuguese Prince, he is banished from court, being told that “The matter will be forgotten by all of us… and history, no doubt.” The show’s more far-fetched plot lines aren’t anachronisms, we are told; merely things nobody happened to record occurring.
The show reached a moment of truth when, according to its internal timeline, fan favourite Francis was marked for death by mid-season two. Some fans hoped for Reign to fully lean into an alternate reality, which seemed briefly the case when the ear infection that felled IRL Francis was fought off (by a witch’s spell, sorta; you had to be there). But of course the show wouldn’t let their male lead be felled by earache; this last-minute salvation only made his death an episode later by an assassin all the more shocking. History records Francis died of illness, but more importantly, that his death left Mary a helpless widow far from home.
The show reliably hits all of the major historical events of this time — births and deaths, sieges and battles — while including enough extra of each to keep things moving along. It’s not the day by day accuracy one may find in Wolf Hall or The Crown, but the unexpected plot twists and constant threats of peril do approximate what it may have felt like to live, and reign, in that world at that time. We know in hindsight that Catherine’s children will die without heirs, that Mary’s eventual son will unite England and Scotland; but the people on this show don’t know that right now. To be a woman, especially a royal, is to find oneself entirely at the whim of whatever men are trying to rule you.
This is brought home again early in season one when the palace, all of its men away for battle-related reasons, is sieged by a gang of Catherine’s Neapolitan enemies. Mary, still in that “not yet a girl not yet a woman” stage, takes her first step toward this show’s version of Queenliness when she dispatches of a would-be rapist via fork stabbing. The gore of the attack — and Mary’s perfectly chosen blood red lace gown — showcase one side of this show, but the other, equally important part, is shown when Catherine confides in Mary about how her own past assaults helped harden her into the ruthless survivor she became.
And oh, what a glorious character Catherine has been. Her characterization has benefitted both from Follows’s constantly delightful performance but also from being part of a show where parents aren’t trapped in their own purgatory of PTA-related plotlines. 16th century France was a place when you became an adult early and you died young, and Reign is a show where having Catherine feuding with teenage Lola (Anna Popplewell) over the same man is no big thing. That the feud hinged at one point on who put a dead rat in Lola’s bathtub is yet another example of how this show is perfect.
As previously discussed here, the documented doings of the real life Catherine de’Medici read as a dossier of badassness. The show makes much of her recorded hobby of playing with poisons, as well as her Lifetime Movie Of The Week level devotion to her children. You know a show’s got a lot of plot when things like Catherine’s squad of sexy lady spies, The Flying Squadron, get only cursory mentions. Was the real Catherine ever jailed only to redecorate her cell into what can only be described as bordello chic? Well, we don’t know that she didn’t. The real life Catherine’s scheming may have been held in back rooms and whispers, but on the show she is writ large, her survivor’s instinct and bloodthirsty nature shown as enjoyable; admirable, especially once she stopped trying to constantly murder Mary.
It would be impossible, or at least inadvisable, to script a series based in 16th century France that didn’t touch upon the religious wars that fuelled basically all of politics at the time. Reign being Reign, McCarthy and her team of writers avoided touching upon these topics for almost all of season one, preferring to portray the imagined battles between Pagans and Christians. The show’s token Pagan was Sebastian “Bash” de Poitiers (Torrance Coombs), illegitimate son of Henry (Alan van Strang) and his favourite mistress. As Francis’s half-brother, and a character on a CW show, naturally his first plot line was a love triangle with Mary. His character is an amalgam of the three recognized bastards of Henry II and, like them, was raised at court and ultimately given a Lordship. (One of whom, Henry de Saint-Rémy, was an ancestor of the notorious Jeanne de la Motte). Did Saint-Rémy spend time solving supernatural mysteries with a ghost he shared a psychic bond with? I mean, history doesn’t say he didn’t, but again, verisimilitude isn’t the point here; or perhaps, the freewheeling approach to historical fact is the point.
When Mary first arrives at court in the pilot, she is dewy-eyed and naive, dancing like nobody’s watching and scandalizing French society with her Scottish joie de vivre. It took the unspooling events of the first season — Mary’s loss of innocence, her growing understanding of what she must become in order to survive — to see what they had been setting up with the pilot’s goofy makeover montage or twirl-filled dance party. The life of Mary, Queen of Scots was partly that of a monarch, her comings and goings carefully monitored and recorded. But it was also the life of a girl who was also a Queen living apart from her country, who lost her first husband young, who was never truly able to win over the people she was supposed to rule. Reign was never about how this happened: it was about the visceral sense of what was that like, really? A question they answered every week, ludicous plot twists, ostentatious costumes and all.
The series finale of Reign airs on Friday, June 16 at 9/8c on The CW.
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter