I’m having a very hard time figuring out how to feel about “Acts Of War” just yet. So much of my reaction to Mary’s rape will depend on how and if Reign handles it from this point forward. Shows too often use sexual assault as a shortcut, as a means to a character development end. I’ve seen too many instances of rape written in just to engender sympathy for characters, or worst of all, to throw everything into chaos for a hot minute before the story is dropped completely without real consequences. Shows from procedurals to period pieces to Game Of Thrones use rape to emphasize how brutal the world can be without bothering to acknowledge any lingering ramifications for the victim. It just happens, and it doesn’t matter if it does so in the background or the foreground of the action. It just happens, and it only ever comes up again if the character needs to be vulnerable. It just happens, over and over and over again, and it’s exhausting.
And I resent that. I resent that I’ve become exhausted by something that should be freshly horrifying every single time. I resent that sexual assault without tangible consequences happens so often in pop culture that when I hear about such a plot, I preemptively prepare myself for disappointment. It’s a complicated, painful topic that is rarely afforded the room or time it deserves, so it’s hard to trust now that anything will treat it fairly.
It’s important to note that I don’t have a problem with the fact of a rape storyline existing. Being that rape is all about exerting power and forcing one’s will, it certainly has a place in a drama that hinges on power plays. And while Reign has taken dozens of liberties with its historical roots, sexual assault is a very real and ugly part of history that should not be ignored. Sexual violence was used to intimidate and degrade women of all standings—as it still is today. It is one of the most brutal and effective weapons of war that exists. It makes sense to acknowledge that fact while portraying the potential horrors of war. But again, if I see an act of sexual violence on my television, I am more prepared for it to be an asterisk to the action rather than a real chapter of someone’s story.
So to its credit, this episode does at least spend real time reacting to the rape. Showrunner Laurie McCarthy promises in post-episode interviews that the rape will define much of the remaining season instead of being swept aside. She also emphasized that she didn’t want to end “Acts Of War” on the rape, which I appreciate. Using it as a cliffhanger would have been cheap. It would have immediately rendered Mary’s rape as nothing more than shock value. It was a relief, then, to have such an emotionally resonant scene as the one with Catherine and Mary after the assault. Watching Catherine reach out to Mary (both figuratively and literally) also made me realize with a start that this is not the first time we’ve seen her take rape seriously. When the castle was taken hostage early last season, the villains threatened Mary and her ladies with virtue-ruining rape, and Catherine revealed that she had survived gang rape. Weapons of war, wielded to intimidate and degrade.
Catherine knows the acute horror and pain of sexual violation. She also knows the tightrope walk that is ruling a country, and how important it is that Mary finds a way to project confidence with every step. So even as Catherine takes care to comfort Mary, she urges her to get off the floor and forget it happened long enough show the people that she is not broken. It’s a tough moment to watch; advising a rape victim to just go ahead and forget it happened is skin-crawling. It’s reassuring, then, to have Catherine tell Francis straight out that Mary’s healing will take time and care. Just as she knows the rules are different for royals who must always look powerful, she knows a rape is impossible to forget.
Adelaide Kane and Megan Follows cash in on a season and a half’s worth of fleshing out Mary and Catherine’s relationship to deliver astounding performances here. Follows’ careful balance of compassion and urgency sells Catherine’s simultaneous rage and concern, while Kane’s shattered shock is a devastating counter to Mary’s increasingly steel-jawed court presence. It was startling to see Mary so shaken after she’s spent this season more self-assured than ever. So, too, was it deeply affecting to see Catherine treat Mary’s trauma with such gravitas. Catherine’s devotion to her family has defined her every action in this series, and though she has been gaining respect for Mary throughout this second season, this moment marks the first time she’s truly treated Mary as part of the family she would do anything to protect. Catherine’s insistence on treating Mary with care and dignity makes me hope beyond hope that the show will, too.
There are, however, a few warning flags. In those same post-episode interviews, McCarthy admits that the motivation for including a rape in Mary’s story was to flesh out Francis’ story. Talking to Entertainment Weekly about Francis’ struggles to keep his control, McCarthy says that they asked themselves, “what could be one of the worst things that could happen that would really affect the person he loves the most?” The most troubling part comes when she says they “looked at it originally through the prism of Francis.” Now, the interview goes on to be reassuring about how carefully considered this is, and how she wanted the rape to be filmed in such a way that it was clear that it was about “powerlessness and rage.” These are important points. But if the show decides to look at Mary’s rape “through the prism of Francis,” all these reassurances would be for nothing. Framing a rape through the experience of a bystander is a terrible diversion that strips the victim of any agency. It would be massively disappointing if Reign decides that the most relevant part of Mary’s rape is Francis’ reaction.
Like I said: it’s hard to judge at this point. I can say that the filming of the rape scene and the swelling music at the end of Catherine’s pep talk were perhaps cheesier than the moments called for, and that Mary’s defiant “they altered nothing, and now they will die for nothing” speech was equal parts chilling and heartbreaking. But for all intents and purposes, “Acts Of War” is essentially the first half of a two-parter. It will have to be considered as part of a greater whole. There will be much more to say next week.
- So yes, other things happened in this episode. Greer and Castleroy’s accidental assassination funding could be their most interesting subplot since…well, I just spent five solid minutes trying to think of one and I failed, so the competition’s not very stiff.
- Conde and Claude’s meeting was exactly as naughty and smoldering as I hoped it would be. Narcisse’s weirdo power plays had no chance in the face of Louis’ leather pants.
- If this show’s going to keep the soundtrack modern, I can’t understand why Claude’s scenes keep playing out to strummy guitar music instead of some no shit-taking Rihanna.
- Here’s a fun brainteaser: Why is Leith a regular?
- Many thanks to Genevieve for filling in while I was away (I knew I could trust her because she may be the only person on this earth who loves Catherine as much as I do)!