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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Just this once, Reign grants everybody’s wishes

Illustration for article titled Just this once, Reign grants everybody’s wishes
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Of all the unconquerable odds Reign goes up against every week in terms of balancing its disparate elements, this week reminded me of another: the tension between “historical accuracy” (usually through a lens of suitably dramatic unhappiness rather than any actual historical accuracy), and wish fulfillment. For events to matter, our characters must suffer; for us to enjoy the show, they must triumph. Given how things historically turn out for nearly everyone except Elizabeth, there’s a certain amount of wish fulfillment involved nearly any time anything goes well.

“Bruises That Lie” (written by P.K. Simonds) is a veritable feast of wish fulfillment. Even when things are unhappy, there’s a sense that the characters are fully present and feeling the moment. It gives the usual whip-crack plot twists a pleasant momentum, and even the more ridiculous plot twists seem nimble.

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And really, though I’m often pining for this show to be more serious about its characters, I don’t think that taking characters seriously means the plots can’t be ridiculous. Frankly, this show is at its best when things are a little bit nonsense. Was it a hilariously lucky turn of events that after that single slap from her husband, Claude broke out her fisticuffs, made a clean getaway, and then bolted to Paris, just in time to be brought home while her bruising was still visible and her brother just worried enough to be contrite? Of course. But did I want to see this show tackle yet another rape story given the way this show has handled rape in the past? God, no. Claude’s at her best when she’s the Blair of the 16th century, in the bitchiest highs and the instrumental-indie-rock-est lows. Let the show fulfill the wishes of its audience that rape is only a momentary threat to you before you lay him flat, declare your nobility, and march the hell out of there; let the show reassure its audience by having the potential rapist in on the plot all along—alongside one’s loving mother, no less—so the threat was never as real as it seemed. Fulfill that wish. Give Claude a pony.

But as it turns out, this episode was wish fulfillment for me, too, as director Megan Follows brought exactly what I hoped she’d bring: a chance for the characters to breathe. (You know it’s an episode that was designed to rely on performances when ADR is shoved into every reverse shot to add in exposition.) It happens in tiny increments—a camera that lingers on an actor one or two seconds longer than usual—but it’s surprising how much of a difference it makes to the tone and pacing to have those small moments; Mary and Catherine’s growing connection in the face of what Narcisse is doing, Greer and Leith trying to have a conversation without tripping over their own painful history, Claude’s wedding-day misery, and Mary and Gideon’s Ye Olde John Hughes movie.

In fact, of all the plots this week that click much better than they have any right to, theirs must have been the trickiest to structure. It’s a quintessential teenage plot, and regresses them appropriately (leaving no “Oh, I spilled my wine!” unturned), but since everyone’s aware of the stakes, it avoids the taint of lying and can skip right to first fake date, fake kisses that turn real, and a real kiss that becomes a Forbidden Feelings—an advantage of a show that moves as fast as this one. It somehow even manages to sit easily alongside the near-slapstick of Mary discovering that Catherine halfheartedly framed her for stealing Narcisse’s gold, which is no small order.

It’s the sort of episode that gets you lines like, “You used to be such a realist. What happened to you?” between old friends. This is a show in which a cipher we never heard about gets solved offscreen by Greer and her courtesans; Reign waves its hands awfully hard at an awful lot of stuff. That it drew attention to a character’s slow shift in outlook is so rare as to be remarkable. Greer has changed recently—her pragmatism buoyed by good fortune of the sort that tends to turn a lot of practical people into idealists—and for once, Leith’s presence in a scene was contrarian to good effect. (And not just that: Greer had to defend her choices to her sister later, with more pragmatism she stubbornly shot through with idealism just to sell her point!)

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Similarly, the Lola that’s been absently twiddling her thumbs in Narcisse’s marriage bed is back at the top of her form when facing off against a hostile queen. Their first quick scene establishes a queen that kept the throne by continually shifting the goalposts, and a woman who knows exactly the kind of game she’s a part of. When Elizabeth sweetly refuses to release Lola’s family just yet but hopes Lola will report to Mary of Elizabeth’s kindness, Lola pins her with the politely pointed, “I would like to report that, Your Majesty…and that you are a woman of your word.” Even William looks vaguely impressed that Lola remains so staunchly underwhelmed by the Queen.

Their later scene is equally brief, but it’s Rachel Skarsten’s turn to have a moment, as her sincere bitterness about royal families is unexpectedly undercut by Lola’s blend of self-defense and optimism for her son. It’s a protective, motherly love it’s safe to say Elizabeth has barely experienced, and for a second we see her considering the possibilities. It doesn’t last, of course. That’s just as well, since both Greer and Elizabeth hiding ambivalent pregnancies was going to be stretching the parallels. But it does give us a nice moment to see Elizabeth considering something besides power, even just for that one fragile moment. It’s nicely balanced—it’s a beat that makes her a character and not just an impression of Queen Elizabeth.

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And that’s important. Her heartbroken speech about having forgotten her country in her quest to be happy is as close as she’s come to a parallel with Mary, and the lingering, sympathetic camera puts us in the position to want her to succeed, rather than just knowing she will. It makes all the diference, With more of those little moments to balance the shenanigans, this show could become the campy, ridiculous gem it’s always had the potential to be.

Stray observations

  • The weather-related cable glitch I had tonight resulted in tiny audio blips means I occasionally missed a crucial noun; however, it also made it sound like the show could barely censor Catherine’s filthy, heathen cursing, so it evens out.
  • Making Mary’s liaison a deliberately staged diplomatic ploy is honestly a sublime touch of meta. It’s not that she was historically romantically foolish, it’s that she was pretending to be!
  • The opening shot of Elizabeth’s hands wasn’t subtle, but it was definitely memorable, and lent suspense to Elizabeth’s menstrual fake-out. (That was a nice moment, too; the show keeps trying to sell the idea that royals don’t have private lives, but since they’re always sneaking into one another’s bedrooms, the idea can get lost. It’s good to have the occasional reminder that the body of a female monarch was considered, in some ways, a ward of the state.)
  • I’ve never given much thought to the geography of Greer’s tavern, but it cannot have been what I assumed it was, given that I was surprised both times people came downstairs from “outside.” Let’s hope it’s the Three Broomsticks of the Reign world and its makeup is always changing; only the lustful who really believe in themselves can find it.
  • Let’s play the “Is This Because The Show’s On the CW?” game: Is there some reason neither the queen nor the madam ever considered Ye Olde Abortifacients for their arguably-unwanted and definitely-risky pregnancies?
  • I’m sure there are people who survive dealing with Catherine, but certainly not people who have to earnestly promise they’ll definitely never say anything about all this.
  • Dress of the week: Claude’s wedding dress. That is the most opulent pre-grieving wedding dress I’ve seen in a while. (Bonus, it still features the somewhat obnoxious florals that Claude carries through her wardrobe—they’re just immeasurably sadder.)
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