“I had no choice.”

It’s sometimes tricky to champion Reign. It burns plot at an incredible and sometimes exhausting rate; its handling of serious character beats has been uneven; its cast rotates perhaps more often than is wise. However, when it’s firing on all cylinders, this show is fun as hell, and “With Friends Like These” is Reign at its best—a checklist of murders, some broken engagements, some convenient lapses of institutional memory, a little camp, and some earnest reworking of history that draws the new playing field for its queens.

The episode crackles with politics; there’s so much discussion of murder and marriages that things like the kidnapping are clearly trying to make up the slack and end up a bit shortchanged. Honestly, though, no chase through the Scottish forests is as interesting as two people casually threatening one another as countries hang in the balance. Catherine, surrounded by family, is scrambling to hold power; Mary’s trying to make any foothold of power at all, even in her own family; Elizabeth’s got all the power she needs so long as she continues not to treat anyone like family, ever. And everywhere, men try to back them into corners.

I appreciate any episode of Reign that understands how much of politics is leaving one’s options open, and how many ‘choices’ are reactions forced by circumstance. Mary needs to marry a jerk to consolidate Catholic loyalists into a campaign for the throne—without alienating powerful Protestant enemies or her half-brother—and ends up kidnapped for marriage against her will. (Depending on how this show handles Bothwell, I guess it’s something Mary should get used to.) Elizabeth accepts Mary’s innocence, and it makes no difference in her quest to decimate Mary. And despite Catherine doing her best to keep France autonomous, Spain steps in. Each of them handles the most immediate problems; none of them gets anything they want.

We do, though! Particularly, we get a glimpse of Mary’s solo rule. Historically, her time in Scotland reads like a door-slamming farce except that everything about it was tragic. I suspect we can’t avoid that—unless this show goes more alternate-universe than it’s dared before, it’s all downhill for her from here—but for the moment, Reign is done with making Mary a fool for love: “Elizabeth executed my friend. I’m not looking for a man to love. I’m looking for a weapon to use against her.” I still expect her to fall for Darnley the instant he shows up, but she might as well start out using people before the tables turn.

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It’s a pointed approach to Mary’s disastrous second marriage, made even more tangled because Elizabeth is in on it with Darnley. (We even get one of those Reign feints at full-on breaks with history when Darnley suggests Elizabeth just let him marry the woman he loves; “Queen Mary and I will never meet, and without me, Mary Stuart will be powerless against you,” he explains, while outside a time traveler races to undo whatever their tiny mistake was before it’s too late and Reign actually has to commit to such a drastic and potentially awesome alternate history.) All Elizabeth has to do is be willing to strike first against someone who hasn’t actually done anything yet, and though she hesitates, it isn’t for long.

That feels like the sort of advice Catherine would give, even though she tries the same thing and ends up snapping the trap shut on herself. Despite being a living reminder to Mary and Elizabeth of the sort of person you have to become sometimes to hold power, even Catherine’s hemmed in by two bad choices, a promise to her daughter to get her out of her engagement, and no escape from the consequences. It’s not nearly as engaging a plot, but that’s because France is more or less our comic relief right now while Mary’s Scottish stakes are established. (Change is daunting; sometimes you just want to watch everyone sneer at family and then kill a guest star.) And as one would hope, Megan Follows leaves no stone unturned as Catherine. Every silence is fuming, every smile is calculating. Forced to give precedence to her daughter the reigning queen, Catherine manages to weaponize sitting.

And I was prepared to consign Leeza’s presence on the show to a stopgap against the loss of a semi-antagonist (that torture bower scene was…something), but by the time we got to her offhand delivery of “As a corpse he’s hardly a viable husband, or a Catholic presence” clarified a lot. Plenty of people have plotted against Catherine, but Catherine’s never had someone who can out-pragmatic her before. I’m excited to see where it goes…if it goes anywhere.

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That’s Reign‘s biggest problem: any given plot setup is always up in the air. This show is deeply concerned with the things it’s concerned with, and willing to sacrifice anything that’s keeping it from doing what some other plot twist could handle just as well. (Remember the Red Knights? Well, don’t bother. We just needed to beleaguer Catherine. Now we have Spain!)

But in “With Friends Like These,” Reign’s biggest strength is also on display. This show has stumbled in trying to map these machinations for contemporary audiences, but when it works, it’s refreshingly cynical. Being a queen means you do whatever it takes to hold on to the power you have; ambition comes before happiness. (Not just romance, either, since family ties and the occasional friendly hostage are equal sources of agony here.) Catherine realizes she’s in the twilight of her power, but even that just becomes fierce protection of the French legacy. And Elizabeth and Mary both recognize they’re trying to commit slow-motion murder in a zero-sum situation; for them, it’s a race to the bottom. They’re off to a great start.

Stray observations

  • “You’re not a tolerant queen. You’re a sheep surrounded by wolves.” Thesis of the season?
  • Every time this show finds a strummy anthem it can gleefully play under a vaguely-historical moment, a TV angel gets its wings.
  • The poisoning is a good plot reason to have such a distinctly Catholic funeral, but it’s also a nice reminder of the particulars of a religion that’s about to be Mary’s downfall.
  • I liked the agonized fanning from the heir of Clan Gordon just enough to hope we see him again.
  • “Specifically?” Every time I worry I might be overestimating Meg Follows, she reminds us such a thing is impossible. She will make a meal out of a single word.
  • “Mother is always on your side.” Except when she’s trying to poison you because her ghost children are taunting her to. Or when she’s arranging your marriage to stage your physical assault to galvanize the folks back home. Or—
  • “Killing to avenge a wrong isn’t murder, it’s justice.” Thesis of the season?
  • Both Mary and Catherine kill men who betrayed the family line, but the difference in execution (sorry) is telling. James is going to come to resent Mary in a hurry; meanwhile, with one well-placed “It’s better the debt be mine,” Catherine locks in Claude’s loyalty and plants the seeds of future guilt. What a pro.
  • Gideon is the only man standing who has the genuine affection of a queen; given how this season is set up to go, one can only imagine the horrors that await him.
  • Hopefully he’s also going to end up in another stance-off with Narcisse before the season’s over.
  • Speaking of affection: James, maybe don’t look at your half-sister like that.
  • “I know one man in Scotland with that kind of influence. A man who preaches hatred when it suits him.” Too soon, sixteenth-century Scotland!
  • The handmaidens have gotten the short end of every stick Reign could think of to beat them with, but some characterization has survived; Greer the former madam pauses only long enough for a head count before she announces her business is more urgent than whatever they’re doing.
  • Dress of the week: Claude’s sacrificial-virgin white and gold in the episode’s last scene was stunning, and frankly she should have been wearing it the entire episode.
  • This season, we’ll be covering most of the episodes with discussion posts rather than more formal recaps. I’m thrilled the season’s off to such a strong start; I’ll be back with Megan Follows bullet points!

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