At the high point of this episode—or, quite possibly, the high point of any episode this show will ever present to us—Catherine’s sexy decoy is in the middle of sexy sex with a hot monk in an abandoned lumber mill, when a saw detaches from above them and neatly slices off his…well, you know.
Reign is no stranger to hilarious back-pocket twists and turns that fall so headlong into the soap tradition they often feel like they’ve been spliced in from a different show. However, this is a notable degree more pearl-clutchy than any before it (except perhaps the abrupt demise of poor Aylee, what seems like a hundred years ago now). It suggests that if nothing else, Reign is determined to make its third season more thrilling than its second, which began with a round of nicely crunchy politics and interesting examinations of power, and ditched them halfway through the season for a half-baked rape plot and a quarter-baked love triangle. Not this season, the severed monk penis promises! This season’s going to be a rollercoaster!
And sure, it probably will be. The question is, is that really a good thing?
Don’t get me wrong—you might as well make things snappy, since nobody’s watching this show for hard-hitting historical edification. But at its best, Reign has brought home the gravity of 16th-century champagne problems by demonstrating the larger cycles of power young people get trapped in, part of a legacy of an older generation; for the millenials in its audience, it hits home to be cleaning up their parents’ messes. But sometimes the show seems so afraid of losing viewers to a quiet week that it would rather race past ten plots instead. “Three Queens, Two Tigers” has an added burden of being a season opener after a sea-change finale, so it’s scrambling to set up a new status quo. But apparently, a main lesson it learned from last season’s love-triangle mud pit was to move through everything so fast you can’t possibly be bored.
It’s a shame, since a pace like that is bound to bury whatever’s working in the chaos, and what’s working is Queen Catherine pulling off a one-woman Game of Thrones sleight of hand for her share of the forty minutes. It’s great work, both by Megan Follows and by showrunner Laurie McCarthy, who wrote this episode. The show’s most historically-accurate thread has always been that Mary doesn’t have the strategic ruthlessness to play this game long-term, and the fact that Elizabeth takes Catherine’s advice seriously does more to characterize Elizabeth than any of the English court politics and romance they cram in. Elizabeth agreeing to maaaybe marry Catherin’s son Charles, but only after seeing him in the flesh, is both a safeguard and a stall; it’s swallowed by the pace, but I’m excited about the potential of a clever Elizabeth. (Honestly, I still can’t quite believe that Francis and Mary sent Catherine away—by this point everyone who has more brain power than a waffle would know better than to humiliate a woman like Catherine and then send her out of sight.)
And though Reign enjoys these machinations when it can get them, the show tends to run along two thematic tracks that hardly ever overlap. One is the political intrigue of their alternate history, which is executed well here until the final moments. (Mary, you really think dragging Catherine back in disgrace is going to go well for you when Catherine gnaws through her chains and makes it back to her poison stash? Good luck.) At its best, this show combines the emotional and political stakes for beats that have weight; the fact that Mary and Francis are reconciling in the twilight of Francis’ life is some of the best material Toby Regbo’s had in a long time. When the tone tilts the other way, we get that sex in the mill: straight-up soap opera as PG-13 and pearl-clutchy as they can possibly make a CW show with a family-friendly time slot. And while I love the show’s go-for-broke aspect—let us never forget the time Lola semi-accidentally shoved someone into a well-placed axe and then calmly ran down the particulars of framing the corpse to solve her husband’s problems—in this episode, it often happens too quickly for us to actually invest in it.
Take Lola. Narcisse’s flirtation with her, which seemed odd even before he started dating Catherine and love-triangling himself and dealing with horse steaks, is back, which…fine. And there’s something satisfying about her cutting through his big promises by pointing out some home truths and asking him, “And who will protect me from you?” Thinking ahead! Being circumspect! And there’s some characterization here even with this breakneck speed; she picks up in a single conversation with Francis the hidden wrongness that Mary hasn’t picked up during their entire second honeymoon, so she’s definitely still the sharpest knife in this drawer. But this episode’s hairpin turns mean that she completely changes her mind for no real reason, to the point of staging a (failed) seduction for Narcisse. Pining? Reflection? Relationship development? No time! Anna Popplewell’s “I don’t know why either” affect comes close to saving it all, but it can’t quite. (Greer gets an even shorter end of the stick; negotiating with Mary to offer sex and a potential engagement for Lambert, sexy pirate to the crown, and then getting dumped with feisty-flounce high dudgeon that means we’ll be seeing him again? That seems farcically rushed for something that’s potentially so significant to the show’s happy spinster—but hey, no time!)
Some of this is an ongoing Reign problem. Unless it has the confidence to slow down a little when it counts, this season is going to lose a lot of resonance, and given that Francis could earbleed his last at any moment, it feels like a season with enough potential for real emotional fallout to be worth slowing down for. But enough of this premiere has promise—Catherine spreading her shadowy fingers across the Channel, Elizabeth and Mary pitted against each other on the suitably historical issues of national sovereignty and religion, Lola coming into her own as a political observer whenever the plot isn’t making her take baths—that we can hope, as amazing as the moment was, this season’s plan to hook us isn’t just monks losing their penises in mid-sex mill disasters. You only get one of those.
- Bash is now textually chained to his supernatural subplot. I would be more concerned for him if I weren’t so excited that we might finally be committed to a fantasy element. This show has always flirted with the supernatural without crossing the line (the ghosts could be handwaved away, and Nostradamus has been two seasons of is-he-isn’t-he). Even here we’re getting a lot of Gothic markers with natural-world explanations (a terrace covered with dead birds, drugs in his wine), but magical markings that follow her whereabouts is straight-up fantasy. Bash, who spent most of last season in a different show than everyone else anyway, is in a whole separate genre now. May it do him good.
- I want to acknowledge that first-scene Elizabeth reference without further commentary until things play out more.
- I get the feeling Prince Charles is going to join Claude in struggling uphill against a Dawn Summers situation.
- “Catherine? Guilt-stricken?” might be the most fun line delivery Adelaide Kane has had in a while.
- Elizabeth: “I will not kill her, and neither would you.” Catherine: :shrug emoji:
- Gown of the week: Sometimes this will be sarcastic, but not this time. Mary’s Marchesa court dress, in the sort of mint green that suggests a sexual reconciliation with one’s husband, is a stunner.
- Welcome to the third season of Reign! I will be taking up the recaps of this, the most glorious quasi-fantasy-historic-soap that happens every week in the background of the Queen Catherine Hour. Long may she reign.