The narrative question in Reign splitting up its queens is how it would balance their stories. “Intruders” tackles it head-on, putting each queen in crisis, making her fight her way through, and leaving it to us to decide who wins.
Catherine’s subplot is the simplest: the Red Knights want Catherine dead, and Charles is the price. It’s honestly too simple, particularly once we add Charles’ friend having a sudden change of heart. Naturally, Catherine’s infiltration gambit is smarter than any of the Red Knights gives her credit for, and the ambush takes care of a handful of her tormentors without her even breaking a sweat. (It doesn’t resolve Charles’ flight, though I’m not sure any of us were riddled with suspense as to whether the only reigning monarch left in France was going to perish.) This was meant purely to be Catherine’s playground, and existed largely so she could terrify a dying man into giving up his intelligence. It works.
Intelligence makes up the entirety of this episode’s meatiest subplot. Elizabeth has gotten word that Mary is dead. Since that’s awfully lovely news for her, she chooses to believe it, and asks Lola for her support in raising an army to take the Scottish throne and unify the isle. Lola agrees, for perfectly logical reasons: Knox will come for Elizabeth next and start another war, Elizabeth promises religious freedom. Naturally, it isn’t very long before Narcisse shows up and the plotting begins anew.
It’s a very smartly laid out set of intelligences; this show’s spycraft tends to have loopholes big enough to drive a truck through, but Elizabeth’s position is eminently defensible at every turn—a reason, the episode subtly suggests, she’s the queen that came out on top. We’re never entirely sure if Elizabeth believes Mary’s dead or is using plausible deniability to shore up support; Elizabeth refuses to trust new rumors of Mary’s progress toward Edinburgh, which seems coldhearted to Lola, who naturally ends up with an obviously-false directive to kill Elizabeth in her hands. It’s exciting to watch Lola have the power to sway nations, and with so much being made of her loyalty to Mary against all odds, we’re left wondering what, in fact, Lola plans to do. (Is that letter a missive from Knox? A trap set by Gideon? A plant from Elizabeth? The last one’s where my money is. If Lola decides to obey, she’s in for some season-finale cliffhanger consequences, I expect.)
And that leaves us with Mary, and a subplot that might be accidentally spot-on.
Of all the historical traits assigned to Mary, Queen of Scots, the one generally considered the crux of her downfall was that she was too emotional. One should always be wary of that claim leveled against female leaders. Monarchies, by definition, put the state at the whim of its throne. (Plus, it’s hard to think of a reign more destabilized by emotion than Henry VIII and the convenient divorce that netted him a new wife and shook the riches of the Catholic Church right into England’s coffers, for example.) But in “Intruders,” Mary’s on a mission to avenge her husband against clan leader Munro, and her imperiled throne is just an afterthought until she gets what she wants.
That’s not to diminish the visceral thrill of watching Mary plan a stabbing-by-jewelry in advance and get away clean; obviously that’s the kind of thing you write Catherine about later so she’s just barely praise you and you can feel happy for weeks. But the episode itself seems ambivalent about this side quest; Bash can hardly stop pointing out what a bad idea it is to risk the throne over a personal vendetta, and even Munro’s anger at Mary isn’t blind hatred. She’s been “whoring this country to Rome, to the French, to whoever will keep you in power,” he accuses, and sure, the man’s a murderer, but he’s also not wrong. That’s been the ongoing trap of leadership; navigating those impossible trade-offs is what the show’s political subplots have always been about. And Mary gets to kill her husband’s killer, but it solves no problem except to soothe her anger for a little while. We know that won’t last.
By Reign‘s reckoning, the winner of this episode is Mary, who storms into the throne room covered in the blood of the enemy and announces her return in no uncertain terms. It’s meant to be a triumph—the first proclamation from a queen who’s learned from the best how to make an entrance. (Her half-brother’s adoring look as he sinks to his knees is a beat right out of Elizabeth, but director Fred Gerber sells the moment well.) But the amount of serendipity required to give her this victory and a smooth reclaiming of the throne feels a little neat in comparison to Catherine’s dirty fighting and Elizabeth’s careful maneuvers. Mary risked her crown to satisfy her personal feelings; one imagines that will come back to haunt her.
- It’s worth noting that an ongoing leitmotif of this show is that a room full of men talking politics is usually a harbinger of chaos, and a room full of women talking politics is almost always an attempt to restore order. (Sure, that order often involves Catherine poisoning eight people before breakfast, but in the name of restoring order!)
- “Stupid as you may be, at least you’re loyal.” Leith’s expression made me laugh. When it comes to Catherine, I guess you take your compliments where you can.
- Lola and Narcisse’s first meeting was a delightfully Thorn Birds bit of spycraft, but if you’re hoping to maintain a pristine cover story for your priest Mass usually goes longer than that.
- The specter of Lord Darnley hangs over this episode the way Elizabeth used to hang over discussions of Mary’s Scottish concerns. That’s probably not a coincidence.
- I found it deeply personally satisfying that Lola hardly notices Narcisse is back. He got one kiss, and then he became her lieutenant as she decides whether or not to bring down a country. Nice one, Lola.
- Sometimes you wonder what goes into an actor deciding to take a particular guest role. Sometimes you reach lines like, “I’ve only heard tales of her raven-haired beauty” and “Even a warrior’s touch can be gentle,” and you realize exactly why John Barrowman wanted the gig. (Sure, it’s no “You have yet to feel my tyranny. Tell me, or I will peel the flesh off of your bones!”, but it’s something.)
- “Please tell me [that murder] wasn’t you.” Catherine, after a sublime pause: “It’s complicated.”
- James’ dalliance has to be the most perfunctory sex scene this show has ever had.
- Were we too long without a love triangle, that we needed Martel de Guise to pitch woo to Claude?
- The score to the Scottish council was not unlike the protracted voting-off of Bachelorette contestants. (I suspect they’ll send Bash home.)
- Do you think the French palace guards are constantly taking stock of what’s been happening around court and which of them are marked for death in unbelievable circumstances?
- Dress of the week: Catherine’s gunmetal and knit chain-mail wardrobe, custom made for times when you have to address a council of nobles about a missing king. And it’s no mistake that the shape of Catherine’s silver-and-black war gowns is echoed in Elizabeth’s own gold-and-black as she plots her takeover of the Scottish throne. I’ll be interested to see how Mary dresses now that she’s come home.