“There can only be one queen.”
This show has always been unpredictable. It leaps blithely into and out of the historical timeline; it carries incisive commentary on the perils of trying to wield power as a woman in a system designed for men, and also the Queen of France once cleaned up the corpse of a woman her husband sexed to death. For better or for worse, I put absolutely nothing past this show.
And “Spiders In A Jar” is about as perfect an episode of Reign as one could ask for. So many things happen that a list of plot points would beggar belief, but they all work together, mounting evidence that war is so much more robust than peace that the latter is impossible. The three queens run into immovable forces, accept their losses, and try to come to grips with their loneliness; also, Catherine invites an entire townful of people to the palace under the pretense of thanking them for their onion crop. What more can you ask from television?
It’s the losses, however, that make this episode work. The endless, endless list of them. (Show co-creator Laurie McCarthy authoritatively mows down the glimmers of hope with this script.)
In Scotland, Mary suffers a line of losses it takes most of the episode to even deliver to her. She loses her diplomat to the Protestants when John Knox turns out to be insufferable; she loses her religious certainty after a Catholic priest helps instigate violence against Protestants; she loses her cultural certainty as everyone assumes that her time as Catherine de’ Medici’s student has made her ruthless. In gaining the support of some of her nobles and sending the British packing, she loses Gideon, again. Unknown to her, she loses James’ true fealty, since he learns about John Knox’s duplicity and doesn’t tell her. She even loses Bash; he realizes his future does lie in Scotland, but as a seer-in-training rather than at Mary’s side.
In France, Leith gets stabbed and left for dead by traitorous advisors. Catherine loses her last connection to Charles—and the regency. Charles loses his will to rule—and his mother’s loyalty. He’ll come to regret that one; the biggest sign someone hasn’t been hanging around the show long enough is that they try to cross Catherine thinking that can make it stick. By the end of this episode alone, he’s also lost his confidence, as Catherine starts trotting out a possible replacement for whenever Charles should happen to accidentally perish.
In England, Elizabeth loses the Scottish annexation after Mary’s decisive bid for the hearts of her people. Dudley as a romantic prospect and confidant. Lola loses it all.
I’ll admit it: I didn’t think they’d go through with it—especially since we know the order doesn’t come from Mary. She’d cave at the last second and have to examine her loyalties, maybe; maybe she’d discover a flaw in the code and hold off; maybe she’d flee. However, though Lola’s death was a surprise, I’m impressed that they gave her the courage of her convictions. You can’t be a hostage in the house of the enemy without eventually having to pick a side, and she picks the side she always promised to. (Anna Popplewell gives Lola admirable determination in, “Elizabeth must die.” You don’t believe it even in the moment, but Lola does.)
Her prison farewell with Elizabeth is one of Popplewell’s best scenes of the entire run of the show; their frankness with each other is both Lola’s own personality and the openness of someone who doesn’t have long to live anyway. Even Elizabeth is historically pitch-perfect in her high dudgeon that Lola could do this to her. (“I welcomed you into my court,” she gasps as if she hasn’t been holding Lola hostage this entire time.) But the hurt between them feels genuine, and their goals so at odds that the only solution is Lola’s head on the block.
Reign‘s used to treating history like a playground, and this movie turns out to be a canny one. Adding another assassination attempt to Elizabeth’s laundry list of grievances is a minor move; adding Lola’s execution to Mary‘s laundry list of grievances is going to propel her right over the border to bring this fight for the throne to England, for once. Mary’s trying to prove she’s a capable queen (putting some hard-won lessons to use and accepting some of those hard truths Catherine tried so hard to get her to understand), but things are already on a precipice. Lola died as she lived—a pawn—and sure, it’s an ugly way to go, but this show has never slowed down the plot wheels, and there’s a war to mount now. Lola’s a loss; Mary and Elizabeth have lost even the barest faith in each other. Peace between the kingdoms is all that’s left to lose.
The question next season will be which of them has learned more from the queen who practically invented bringing war right to someone’s doorstep. Though even Catherine’s struggling, now. She’s obviously got a backup plan running around the palace and is probably perfectly willing to make however many more are necessary to teach Charles a lesson, she still ends the season with her status stripped from her. Stripped of her regency, she’s a defunct queen. The three-queen parallel has, temporarily, removed one from the board. That leaves Mary and Elizabeth, each of whom was played against one another with a single note from John Knox, and each of whom watches their loves ones drop away around them.
Lola’s parting monologue to the Queen had a moment of depressing empathy: “Because you value power above all else, you will always be alone.” It’s what tips Elizabeth into tears; that same truth hangs over Mary’s own tears, a country away, after it’s all over. Lola hit the nail on the head: if Reign has a through-line, it’s that being a woman in power requires the entirety of your will, and you will discover the strength of your will in a sea of compromises, losses, and farewells.
Most of this episode was frankly too busy to be cinematic, but that stunning landscape shot in the final minutes is almost enough to make up for it. After an hour that reminds us being a royal is a cruel business, Mary stands at the edge of that misty cliff, looking across something beautiful and wild that she’s never seen before. She can’t reach it, and there’s no one behind her she can rely on. It’s as handy a metaphor for being on the throne as anything, and it’s a gauntlet thrown down to next season.
Still, though it’s tellingly precarious, it’s not framed as a defeat. One of the major challenges that’s always faced Reign was how closely it would follow Mary’s historical downfall, and so far, at least, there’s no sense of that here. Mary and Elizabeth are living in parallel loneliness, but they’re determined to pursue power, and being lonely has never stopped either of them before. I can’t imagine where the show goes from here; bring on next season.
- Mary and Catheirne are the only characters who appeared in the pilot that are still on the show. It lends a certain meta weight to the beats when everyone calculates their losses.
- Gideon’s position is probably the most interesting one a man on this show has ever been in: caught between two queens in their ascendancy. I’ll be curious to see where he ends up, morally, as next season progresses.
- When Claude and Leith got engaged, I wrote in my notes, “Countdown to something terrible happening to them!” At the time, I thought it was scheduled for early next season. I forgot I was watching Reign.
- I could have really done without the lingering shot of Lola’s headless body. We get that things are Increasingly Serious, show; I promise I didn’t need a corpse as proof Lola was dead. I believe you.
- The smartest thing to come out of Charles’ mouth so far is his realization that being king has its downsides. He has no idea.
- The other Most Elizabeth Line this episode was her plea to Dudley to marry her, more like a job offer than a proposal. “What is love if not sacrifice?” she asks him, and it’s clear she genuinely doesn’t know. It does more to crystallize Elizabeth’s heart than all their romantic back-and-forth earlier this season, and sets her up to be a tragic victor. (She hopes.)
- Reign: Where Political Assessment Sounds Like a High School Cafeteria. Mary, asking after John Knox’s hatred of women rulers: “What is his issue?” The consensus: his mom. Somewhere, John Knox twists the ends of that cavalier moustache, but sadly.
- “The monarchy’s a system that works. Someone must rule.” I mean, when you put it that way.
- Dress of the week: Mary’s suitably Scottish plaid is obviously a smart sartorial move, but her billowing cloak as she stood nobly on that Scottish cliff was always going to be hard to beat.
- Thanks so much to everyone who’s followed these recaps this season; this show is a wild ride, and I’m so happy to have been on it with you.