Well, if there were any doubts that Reign is deliberately giving us a season all about how power travels through generations and slowly compromises the young, look no further than “Coronation.” It’s an episode where everyone’s out to solidify their power, and despite some neater victories then we’ve had so far this season, it’s almost impossible for anyone to win the day without stepping down a little from their moral high horse. (This bothers everyone except Catherine, who spends most of this episode sitting at carefully-tableaued fancy picnics and raising judgey eyebrows at the young.)
This through-line of inheritance has crushed a lot in its wake (the handmaidens are an afterthought, Nostradamus is gone, and Catherine’s been very reactive), but as a central tenet, it’s been great for the show. Last season had every promise of cheeseball TV glory, but often seemed at a loss as to how to make it all come together. The freshman nerves are gone now, as the series settles in to the politics of royalty with renewed confidence. This episode, while trying to handle more domestic concerns, Francis and Mary are also dealing with enormous debts and countrywide famine in the face of a lavish coronation celebration that’s nonetheless necessary to provide a show of strength. In their attempts to solve the problem before the coronation itself, they run up against issues of international diplomacy (a German noble who offers grain in exchange for Protestant prisoners), religious politics (Rome and its coffers won’t like the idea of Protestant tolerance), and the increasing power struggle between Francis and Mary (he’s upset she conducts business without him, and is concerned how to craft his reputation among the nobles). It’s enough to make you forget there was ever an entire subplot devoted to the S&M Queen of the Bean.
Most unfortunate in their power struggles this week are Bash and Kenna. They emerged from the rubble of the first season love triangle as a slightly rushed pairing whose getting-to-know-you period got buried in more pressing subplots, and in general have just seemed happy to have someone to hang on to, so it’s great to see some tension re-enter their relationship. It’s also great to see a return to the Kenna who doesn’t quite know how to navigate court, and wholeheartedly accepts enormous gifts out of the blue without thinking there will be any strings attached. She’s mortified that the lady who promised her a swanky estate is actually trying to bribe Bash on behalf of her murdering husband. She’s so on top of things, in fact, that when the bribe doesn’t work, she just threatens Bash’s life instead. (Lady Barnard doesn’t miss a trick.)
Turns out the series continuity did remember all the time Bash spent last season in line for the throne, and so do the nobles, who apparently still view Bash as a usurper and let him live only by the grace of the King. It’s almost touching how Kenna reacts, burning the incriminating page as if that will solve the problem forever rather than just demonstrating she’s susceptible to threats. Of the three remaining handmaids, she’s the most romantically stable but the most emotionally unprepared for statecraft, and Caitlin Stasey and Torrance Coombs nicely tackle the growing divide the scene where she’s trying to defend what she thinks is a lifesaving gesture, and he can see all the subsequent problems rolling out ahead of him: “I should love you for it,” he says, and even though he corrects himself that he does love her, the problem still remains for both of them. Kenna’s concern about her reputation has waxed and waned as the plot required, but at this point her priority is building a life with Bash…whose role as King’s Deputy means that on some level, he’ll have to care more about the position than about Kenna.
Catherine spends a lot of time this week hanging out on the edge of the festivities, waiting for Narcisse to show up so she can run circles around him in terms of both statecraft and eye contact. (Without a throne on which she has to keep up appearances, Megan Follows is turning up the glances to full-on femme fatale levels.) It’s as delightful as it sounds, even if the biggest thing it establishes is that Catherine’s using her retirement to give strategic presents and get peasants to worship her, which sounds just about right. I’m honestly not sure what the show’s trying to do with these two—she and Craig Parker have done a fine job establishing one of those old friendships TV so often tries to sell you with a new character, and I’d be more than happy for Catherine to wreck his life by taking him to bed and then ditching him cold, but I assume that Narcisse accusing starving peasants of laziness and threatening to kill Ducasse’s young son takes him out of the running until he redeems himself a little. Then again, maybe there’s nothing here except mean banter that brings the point home about the old ways vs. the new, given Catherine’s warning to Narcisse about leaning too hard on the new royals: “Francis and Mary see the world differently. They are moral. They care about the people more than they care about money or power or men like you.” (Narcisse, taking the view that Catherine more often holds about the inevitability of compromise: “Time will teach Francis to think like his father.”)
Speaking of Francis and his father, Francis spends the episode chasing ghosts—specifically his father’s, though Henry’s haunting last season suggests this is also a habit that’s passing from father to son. The nurse from last week is back this week with her killer Henry impersonation (and impersonation of this show: “Plots and plans and plots and plans”), and Francis the skeptic is so creeped out he can’t tell anyone about it—not used-to-be-a-real-character-and-now-just-holds-a-baby Lola, and not his wife. She’s been handling the German duke behind the scenes, and while Francis has a point about needing to look powerful in front of the nobles—”This is not about my vanity, it’s about my legitimacy!”—it’s interesting to see how his effectiveness has been curtailed this season, while Mary’s been busy shoring up the royal power and getting very little credit for her efforts. (It’s also interesting how many mistakes she’s made in the process. It’s particularly interesting given how the show has backed away from politics across the channel; since her red-and-gold English dress, we haven’t heard about her plans for ruling the homeland. One assumes that with the new focus on international maneuvering, and the pressing plague and grain issues more or less sorted, we’ll be turning back to this.)
But after two episodes of big mistakes that have big consequences, “Coronation” is most interested in letting Francis and Mary stand together in triumph. The prisoner snafu is resolved, grain pours in from abroad and from a chastised Narcisse, and Francis publicly affirms Mary’s authority to Narcisse and the assembled royal company. I actually hope it’s just a momentary respite—the show’s done so well with interlocking issues of state that I’d hate to shift too quickly away from that web of politics. (Unless they plan to give Lola a personality back; in that case, they’re welcome to.) Still, that’s a problem for next week, and finally being able to clean up a mess she’s made is a nice victory for Mary before they head up the aisle to formally accept their crowns, and then head to bed to conceive an heir. I’m sure nothing will go at all dramatically wrong with that!
- Dress of the week: I know it’s useless to talk about the costuming on this show with any seriousness, and I genuinely respect its decision to just not care. (I respect that more than I respect the half-assed costuming of The Tudors; if you’re not going to care, just don’t-care all the way!) However, the one time the costuming ever nodded at history last season was Mary’s extremely political getup, wearing the English red emblazoned with gold lions to stake her claim to Mary Tudor’s throne. Given that this show is canonically aware of at least that much in terms of color symbology, Francis is looking seriously red for a French king, right?
- Related: Why weren’t Kenna and Greer behind Mary at the coronation?
- Eye-rolling, slightly resentful Kenna is my favorite Kenna.
- Second-favorite Kenna is “gamely doing this dance choreography” Kenna.
- “Is that judgment in your tone?” I mean, it’s Greer, so yes.
- “This Mesmeric Elixir” was a nice reminder that this show still has absolutely no problem sweeping plot machinations under the rug when necessary. If only Nostradamus was here to help translate the dead!
- Mary and Francis with the sort of conversation that’s really cute when you’re not fighting and gets markedly less cute as soon as things are at stake: “Are all powerful men so insecure?” “A few. Many. Most.”
- And the most foreshadowy conversation of the week, between Louis and Mary: “What kind of man wouldn’t do everything in his power to bring back the woman he loved?” “The kind of man who puts country before love.”