For all the time spent on romance in this show, Reign’s heart has always belonged to its women, and their hearts have always been most in love with power.

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Some of that romance was formative; Francis and Bash in particular were two facets of the sort of intense infatuation royal tragedies are made of. And the show has wisely used Francis’ death as a way to mark the shift from young love to adulthood, and all the courtship chess these characters play feels more weighty since his death. The show’s incremental steps into alternate history definitely took on a new energy after the death of the king, and have cleared the way for a show decidedly about three queens who are tied to one another whether they like it or not.

And wouldn’t you know it, Mary and Catherine (and more recently Elizabeth) are at their best when romance is just another angle of their politics. Such was “No Way Out,” when Elizabeth declared Mary her successor and immediately named Dudley as Mary’s new husband; the romance complicated the politics, and single-handedly made Dudley more interesting than he’s ever been. That only increases in “Strange Bedfellows,” where both Mary and Dudley prove themselves more layered with a little heartbreak behind them. At this point, we know enough about royal marriage politics that a suggestion of assistance with a rival queen and a promise to try to be congenial is about as good as it gets. It even makes Dudley’s reunion with Elizabeth more romantic—their protestations about never being able to be together feel more weighty now than just a few episodes ago, even though his engagement to Mary was one of the shortest this show’s ever managed. (Reign: Blink and you miss it.)

There’s a similarly autumnal air to most of this episode that serves it well, right down to the parallel blocking of women slowly adjusting trajectory to face a man they’re about to disappoint. Greer and Leith meet up with the long-suffering strain of a friendship that’s never quite recovered from the breakup. Catherine approaches Narcisse with the world-weariness of two vampires reconciling after two hundred years. (And it turns out the most heartfelt apology she can offer is the only one he’d believe: “You would never have betrayed France in that way.” A beautifully-aimed arrow that hits its mark.) And Mary and Gideon part ways with a maturity we’ve never had a chance to see from Mary before. Every other time she’s parted from a lover, it’s been with the desperation of love; this time, she wishes him a fond farewell, and makes the sacrifice she needs to make.

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Speaking of forward momentum, it was too much to hope that Mary’s succession would stay official for long. On the other hand, with Joseph Tudor and the Vatican’s dissatisfaction, things at least shifted in a way that can’t be easily put back. So many plot points on this show have moved in the self-solving circles of secret history that any direct motion stands out. This Mary, finally outpacing her historical inspiration, actually manages to conquer a political plot without endangering herself horribly, which feels like leveling up. And Elizabeth’s paranoia pays off yet again; that council chamber full of men and her brief scene with Lola remind us that while things are tricky for Mary and Catherine, Elizabeth’s handling her dangers alone. And sure, Archbishop Ridolfi’s (I see you, show) plan to put Mary on the English throne doesn’t last—nothing on Reign ever does—but both Elizabeth and Mary have to move pieces on the board to resolve it, and that’s all we need.

But when it comes to manipulating the game, no one on this show has ever wielded power like Catherine. At her worst, she’s a dark, heartless mirror that a younger Mary was loath to become. At her best, she’s the most canny ruler this show has to offer, looking out for the women around her. (“From where I sit, which is on the French throne as its Regent, I see the Vatican pushing around female monarchs, and I don’t appreciate it one bit.” ) Either way, she’s the woman most likely to get shit done. Only Catherine could congratulate Mary for opening her heart and use the situation to her advantage without even pausing for breath.

Since Mary is the heart of this show’s romantic yearnings, Catherine is, by default, the crystallized form of soap-opera nefariousness this show requires. And when it works, it’s delightful. Two episodes ago she was cowering from the man she’d realized was a serial killer; in “Strange Bedfellows,” she’s already figured out exactly how to put his talents to use torturing her enemies without remorse. (Catherine de’ Medici: HR Manager of the Damned.) This plot only works if you’re willing to believe she utterly conquered any sexual intimidation—and honestly, given this show’s track record in dealing with the topic, I’ll take this.

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And thanks to Megan Follows, there’s just enough going on under the surface of the soap that it feels more cohesive than it has any right to. Catherine chastising Christophe for killing that Red Knight too fast is a fascinating line between impossible archness and long-suffering pragmatism: she can tame him, but everybody has to be properly trained up before they can be useful. And though she seems able to take or leave the sex, we know there’s enough trouble lurking in the wings for her—the Red Knights, the Vatican, even a scorned Narcisse who could arise at any moment—that we understand her taking a sad sort of comfort that her personal psychopath is nearby. Weirdly, that means that he gets the most romantic line of the entire episode, curling up at the foot of her bed in an exile that doesn’t last long: “So many people want to cause you harm, and all I want is to protect you.”

The three queens have aligned themselves nicely in “Strange Bedfellows.” Each has done the others a favor; each has a tamed monster of one degree or another: onetime spy Gideon loyal to Mary at the last, Christophe locked and loaded for whoever Catherine needs killed, and Elizabeth with the Vatican brought to heel. While you need that bruising plot wheel to keep turning, it’s nice to have an episode where everyone’s more or less victorious, for once. The best part of autumnal ennui is that the worst of the horrors seem over. (Don’t worry, that won’t last—nothing on Reign ever does.)

Stray observations

  • “Perhaps through our marriage I can build a bridge between the two of you.” “That would be beneficial.” This is about as genuine as their feelings get, and I mean that in the best way. The more jaded this crew get, the more interesting they are.
  • Claude and Leith, the spring morning to counteract all this autumn. I do not care about them, and I am not sure the show can ever make me care, but these two are selling it as hard as they can. And Claude’s support of Greer is infinitely welcome; this show never gets as much traction from jealous women as it does from women scheming together. (It also prompts one of the most anachronistic lines this show’s ever delivered: “A favor? For your ex?”)
  • Archbishop Ridolfi: where ‘arch’ isn’t just a clerical ranking, it’s a stage direction.
  • Greer spent the first two seasons of this show watching exactly how blackmail plays out. I assume we can blame pregnancy brain for her decision to pay the blackmailer. (I keep waiting for an improvement here, but this entire plot is unimpressive so far. The show was already stretching its tolerance for fraught pregnancies with poor Lola; a pirate baby single-mother setup is stretching the premise.)
  • “Which is why I discreetly incentivized them with sex.”
  • “A reward for a job well done.” I didn’t know you could wink broadly enough that it made a sound, but this lady managed it!
  • As much as I’m cackling at the idea that Catherine tamed her own serial killer, I feel for Bash, who’s now sidelined out of even the muscle/procedural beats. This show truly has no idea what to do with him.
  • Elizabeth’s attempt to be Catherine of the week: “He’s more a male prostitute than a master of diplomacy.” Not bad!
  • “Have you even been to England?…Trust me when I say he will be in his own hell.” Ah, and Catherine takes back the lead.
  • “Are you—yes, you are sucking my toes.” Megan Follows, making me laugh out loud with her line delivery.
  • Dress of the week: Mary and Catherine plotting together with their hair down, in black and red gowns with similar lines, is maybe the most directly paralleled these two have ever been.

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