Reign: All it cost her

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I do my makeup in somebody else’s car
We order different drinks at the same bars

The advertising campaign for the first season of Reign coincided with the sudden ubiquity of Lorde’s debut single, “Royals.” By title alone, the song was a perfect fit to connect with this new historical drama that happened to star a young woman (Adelaide Kane) whose pale skin and dark curls made her seem like perhaps a distant ancestor of the singer herself. Lorde’s whole preternaturally mature teen witch vibe, the slithery delivery of her clever-yet-simple lyrics, married itself so perfectly to the series that her song was used — in a string quartet quasi-Renaissance reimagining — as diagetic music in the series itself.

The song was a battle cry for a new generation, sung by a teenager both condescending and jealous of the successes of those who’d already achieved fame and power. The first season of Reign introduced us to this same theme in the form of Mary and Francis, teen royals baffled by the cruelty and inefficiency of their elders, idealistically prepared to rule a different way, kinder, more forward-thinking. The series has hewn to this trajectory’s inevitable unravelling, as Mary learns through a series of hard lessons just how and why people like Catherine (Megan Follows) survived by developing a thick skin and keen survival instincts; how good intentions are meaningless against people driven to protect their own interests.

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Both Lorde, and Reign, find themselves today in new places — the singer, riding the wave of popularity of “Green Light,” the first single from her just-released sophomore effort; the show, airing the final episode of its truncated run, its former ingenue now battle-worn, depleted, in an increasingly precarious position. Where “Royals,” four-year-ago Lorde, and the first season of Reign were all about taking your breath away with their unexpected twist on the familiar, the show and singer have matured, moving on, as Lorde has described to, to “what comes next.”

I know about what you did and I wanna scream the truth
She thinks you love the beach, you’re such a damn liar

Like most biographical movies, Reign chose not to share the entire life story of Mary, Queen of Scots, but rather to delve into the relatively short time period that proved to define her role in history. As I’ve written about before, Mary is often remembered for the second half of her life — decades in captivity, betrayed by every man she trusted other than those who died, a rat in a cage, defeated by life, waiting to die. It’s regrettable that this series ended before they had time to fully bridge the gap between the death of Darnley (Will Kemp) and Mary’s eventual imprisonment, but in a way to be spared a sequence of desperate, failed attempts to resuscitate her influence and power — and the betrayal of two more men (Bothwell and her brother, James) — is perhaps a small mercy. We’ve come to care for Mary, watching her grow from wide-eyed teen to hardened woman without losing her instinctive kindness and optimism. To watch her fall in slow motion, while certainly engaging TV (especially as done by this production team), would be difficult to experience.

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Those great whites, they have big teeth
Oh, they bite you
Thought you said that you would always be in love
But you’re not in love no more

Similar to the final episodes of Pretty Little Liars, the Reign finale spent an equal amount of time wrapping up its plotlines while offering up sequences aimed to satiate its varying fanbases — we have Catherine (Megan Follows) laying down the law to her useless kids, we have a spectacularly bonkers threesome sequence with (possibly) the Devil, and ultimately an afterlife reunion between Mary and her late first husband, Francis (Toby Regbo). It was Francis’s death, mandated by history and necessary to explore Mary’s later activities in Scotland, that served as a Rubicon for may Reign fans. In an emotional response not unlike when Shonda Rhimes chose to kill McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey) off of Grey’s Anatomy, it was a jarring reminder that, despite the respective popularity of Frary and MerDer, both shows were about their protagonists, not their couples.

That said, the electric chemistry between Kane and Regbo lent a visceral sense of passion to their scenes together. Of course we mourned his loss, as Mary did too, and perhaps seeing such a convincing and moving portrayal of first love helped us to further empathize with Mary — watching her cautiously end her mourning, to overcome her anxieties to open herself to love with others, to see how the memory of Francis helped fuel her as a woman and as a monarch. Of course he’s who she thought of upon her passing, because the time she spent with him in France, especially as man and wife, were understandably the happiest of her life. Not only did she have a partnership of equals, but through him she earned a surrogate family, a place to finally belong for a half-orphan raised on a separate continent from her mother.

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Reign was a coming-of-age story writ large, the progression from youth to experience we all go through, overlaid against a historically fraught time and place and focusing on the experiences of a notoriously pitiable woman. Myself and other fans returned time and again to Wikipedia and other quick historical references (the fan site Reigned Us In maintains a great collection of brief history bites on the various characters and events referenced on the show), looking for spoilers or a hint or anything to understand how this vivacious, determined, unstoppable woman became the historically pitiable figure, doomed to die. And the thing is, as this show reminded us time and again, none of us are just the things that happened to us. Mary had a sequence of extraordinarily bad luck, partly due to her own decision-making, but the tragedy of her life depends on when you begin and end her story.

But I hear sounds in my mind
Brand new sounds in my mind
But honey I’ll be seein’ you, ever, I go
But honey I’ll be seein’ you down every road

I’ve always wanted to write a story about Katherine of Aragon, ending with her marriage to Henry VIII because to her and everyone at that time, it seemed like both of their happy ending. Treatments of her story inevitably extend into her better-known troubles; miscarriages, aging out of her role as wife and mother, cast aside for a younger woman her husband chose to change the country’s religion just to be with. Reign has had a few possible interesting endings to Mary’s story — her marriage to Francis, for instance, was a triumph at the time. Francis’s death could also have been the end of her story; her return to Scotland could have been an evocative ending. Enough happened in her life, one could make a narrative out of many of these experiences, and how lucky are we that Reign was able to share so much of her life with us.

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Had there been a fifth season, it would have allowed an exploration of the fallout of her complicity in Darnley’s death, and her series of attempts to come back to power (including not one but two daring escapes in disguise, once as a boy and once as a servant, that you know this show would have costumed wonderfully). And I like to imagine how this show could have re-centered Mary in this last act of her story — not the passive victim recounted in so many contemporaneous accounts, but as a woman determined to persevere in the face of great odds. That’s the thing with Mary on this show. It was a show clearly aimed at young woman, and as such, reinterpreted a famous historical victim of circumstance as the driver of her own fate. Time and again, we saw Kane-as-Mary suffer, often hugely, yet rally herself and land back on her feet.

Mary’s story, on the show and in life, ends with her death. So, too, did the story of everyone who ever lived, and so will end all of our stories — apart from this episode’s guest star Emmanuelle (Catherine Bérubé) but that’s more of a discussion for another time. That Mary was ultimately put to death doesn’t mean that her whole life, retroactively, becomes a tragedy. Elizabeth didn’t just happen to succeed where Mary didn’t, but it wasn’t necessarily implicit in either of their characters that they’d wind up in the lives they had. Each were born into lives of both great privilege and great challenges; Elizabeth was fortunate to outlive a childless older sister who alienated most of the populace and died before being able to do away with her; once seated in a position of authority, Elizabeth’s character allowed her to rally allies to her side, and her lack of marriage meant that she was never beholden to one particular family — or man. Mary was unfortunate enough to lose her father when she was six days old, becoming Queen in infancy, supported by an unstable regency that meant by the time she came of age — in France, not Scotland — most of the populous was predisposed against her. She also, in both life and on the show, led with her heart and not her head — not the most helpful disposition for a ruling monarch in a time of great strife, when women were generally underestimated and easily dismissed. Yet, much of what became of her is due to the random hand of fate.

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‘Cause honey I’ll come get my things, but I can’t let go
I’m waiting for it, that green light, I want it
Oh, I wish I could get my things and just let go

This is brought to the fore in the graceful, extended coda, in which we watch the major events of Mary’s life unspool like a short film. We see again, how her upward momentum came to a halt upon Francis’s death, one which she was never able to quick get to again once she became a widow — though not for lack of trying. The Sliding Doors moment of her life was that Francis died without an heir, stranding her — much as Katharine of Aragon had been, years earlier in England — as the childless, foreign-born wife to a dead King. In Katherine’s case, Henry VIII fought ceaselessly against his advisors to be able to marry her; by all accounts, the early years of their marriage were happy. And perhaps, had Francis lived, Mary’s life could have been stricken by a different tragedy — his potential infertility, foreign invasions, anything. He died young, allowing her — and us —  to remember him as her ideal first love.

Was her final vision of an afterlife with Francis her own recognition of this defining schism of her life — how things were before, and after, he died? Potentially also, she may remember him fondly both for their great love, as well as for his being the only man in her life who never betrayed and mistreated her her as cruelly as Darnley, Bothwell, and James all eventually would. Part of the hand she was dealt was this cruel sequence of terrible men, in addition to a country predisposed against her for religious and xenophobic reasons, a rival cousin bent on overtaking her, and an aristocracy all too eager to dismiss her. This is an unwinnable hand for most people, least of all a kindhearted woman desperate for love and security.

Which brings us back to “Green Light,” again. Lorde has explained that this song was her way of working through her first big breakup, wanting to be over it, wanting to move on, but trapped in alternating swings of jealousy and anger and sadness and hope. She’s explained this isn’t the green light of The Great Gatsby, that of unreachable hope and aspiration, but the much more straightforward street light. Wanting it to change from red to green, to be able to move along from where you’re stuck, waiting for the next chapter of your life to begin, but knowing it’s outside of your control. So, too, did Mary spend so much of her time — wrestling for control over her emotions, her circumstances, knowing each choice she makes could turn out wonderfully or terribly, and often watching as they wound up being both.

Both on the show and in life, she met her death graciously, knowing the fickle hand of fate had brought her here, that there was no reason to fight against this anymore. This doesn’t mean that everything she did to this point was wrong, nor that it was right; her death came quickly, once it was decided upon by outside forces, just like death comes to us all. Everyone’s life comprises choices we’re constantly making, hoping for the best, riding out whatever consequences appear. And the legacy of Reign‘s Mary is not as a victim, but as a woman always prepared to move onto whatever life would present her with next. The end of her life isn’t a context to view what got her there, and it is a strength of this show to make the forward trajectory of her story feel so real — causing fans to hope that maybe, for this version of Mary, it won’t work out as badly as it did in real life: Francis could survive, or Darnley wouldn’t be terrible, or Catherine or Bash would come to her rescue in the nick of time.

But the point of this story, and everyone’s life, isn’t where it ends up, it’s how it feels to be there in that moment, pausing while a new chapter opens up in front of us, forging ahead, hoping for the best.

I’m waiting for it, that green light, I want it
I’m waiting for it, that green light, I want it
I’m waiting for it, that green light, I want it
I’m waiting for it, that green light, I want it
I’m waiting for it, that green light, I want it
I’m waiting for it, that green light, I want it
I’m waiting for it, that green light, I want it

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2 Comments

  1. Hi, Ann! I’ve been reading your reviews for quite some time now and I just absolutely love your passionate way of writing about history 🙂 you’re such a great writer and I’ve never read pieces as good as yours about the historical subjects you often write about. I thought it was super cool the parallel you used of Reign and Lorde.
    I’m an 18-year-old college student who’s also a writer like yourself, and I too am obsessed with Reign (I’m still not over that it’s finished) and very fond of 16th-century European monarchy. I would be EAGER to get some writing advice from you! Coincidentally, a while ago I wrote a full series review on Reign and it would mean the world to me if you read it and gave me your advice not only on my writing but also on what you think about my ideas and opinions about the show; I love debating and exchanging ideas. On a final note, I don’t know if you’ve ever considered writing a piece about Mary’s execution but I would be SO happy if you wrote one, maybe comparing the real execution with how it was depicted in films. Just food for thought. My email is vitorbourguignon@icloud.com. Feel free to reach out. Thanks for taking the time to write such great pieces.
    Warmly,
    Vitor Bourguignon
    An avid reader

    Like

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