“Let us hope he inherits a better world than we do.”
Reign has always been two shows. The ideal is a history-adjacent drama with Mary Queen of Scots, about the nature of women in power: how to get there, who will stop you, what it costs you, how easy it is to lose. The reality tended to be a no-holds-barred collection of gonzo nonsense that picked up speed the longer we went. Each of these could be entertaining separately. When forced together, the imbalance could make Reign hard to watch.
This finale was ostensibly part of a design to give the series closure, even though the coda feels more like someone was shoving set pieces into place the last day they had studio rental so they could cover everything before wrap. In all its abrupted subplots, baffling story beats, and unnecessary asides (thank god James settled that land dispute in the Hebrides!), Reign was less determined to end with dignity than it was to go out swinging.
And really, why not? The French court was collapsing under the inertia of Henry and Charles’ tug-of-war over a throne when they didn’t have any real personalities to leverage. Why not have Nicole (the rope) be murdered by a witch, via nut allergy? Claude’s wet-blanket romances had tested the limits of circular conversation. Why not have her casually sniding with her ex-boyfriend/father-in-law/casual stepdad instead? (Better yet, drop Claude and bring in fresh blood. “Your daughter, Margot.” Margot! You remember her! Margot?)
Honestly, this tends to be the show’s best approach to plot. Previous attempts at closure were iffy; offhand, I can think of only a handful of stories that played out with lingering ramifications rather than being dropped into the Plot Pit out back. Dirtbag Elizabeth hoisting the scepter of her rule and cracking Jane’s skull mid-revolutionary rant is as much closure as anyone gets, really. Sometimes you’ve written yourself into a corner and stately proceedings won’t avail you; what’s more royal than ignoring whatever doesn’t suit you, and picking the wildest possible exit?
In a lot of ways, Reign had hit the limits of its narrative. It lingered for three seasons in France, partially because the romance was thickest there, and partially because everything that came after it was the beginning of a downward spiral; by the time Mary was in Scotland, it was a narrative sonic boom. Its combination of overclocked pacing and weird plot eddies meant it was hard to get a bead on the stakes for more than a few episodes at a time, and the rotating cast (and weird neglect of the old-timers) made it hard to get people too interested in new folks. The show began to develop systemic amnesia. (Nothing’s too big for the Plot Pit out back.)
But any show that would have its two most poison-savvy characters show up in a witch’s bedroom and drink wine for hours, no questions asked, leading to a Questionable-Consent Sex Wine Threesome that nearly summons the Devil before Catherine stabs that witch several times—only to let bygones be bygones because if a witch isn’t going to die when you stab her then you might as well be friends—is a show that still knows how to enjoy itself.
It was often better at enjoying itself than it was at being good; the show’s memorable moments tend to be more ‘Lola killing a man with the mantel hatchet’ or ‘Catherine’s ghost husband wants her to kill Claude’ than moments of deep emotional resonance. A lot of that was due to an overload of subplots, expeditious dialogue, and obligatory twists; moments meant to hit home sometimes couldn’t find the room. Lola’s death was meant to be devastating commentary on the cost of being a woman in power, on all sides; you just got the sense Lola was relieved she’d never have to talk about her illegitimate royal baby again. (That baby, like so many, has vanished from this story.)
But in the broad strokes, there was something almost admirable in its ambition: To tell a story about young women and power using a woman whose entire legacy was her mistakes. Flanking Mary were a queen from one of Italy’s most notorious families, and Elizabeth I, whose rule has Mary’s death like an inkblot in its center. Beside Mary was a husband chosen for her, a disastrous match she made for herself, and a man who may or may not have kidnapped her. Around her were her ladies—historically the Four Marys, CW-ified into Greer, Aylee, Lola, and Kenna (one of many “Fuck it, and fuck you” executive decisions the show made about its historical source material).
But hovering above Reign is the knowledge she’s going to fail. Modernizing her story—and in a show that often sidestepped historical costumes in favor of Valentino, McQueen, and Anthropologie, modernizing was absolutely the goal—meant accepting that no matter how many times Mary got a sidelong victory, it was futile. She was going to lose Scotland. She was going to lose her son. She was going to lose her life.
It’s a burden; it’s no surprise the show rarely knew what to do with it. At first, it leaned hard on the built-in tensions of a love triangle—Mary betrothed to Francis but seeking comfort from his bastard brother Bash—as the entry point for the high-stakes power brokering going on amid the monarchies. (The occult sorcery was its own problem.) In the sweet spot, Mary was learning how to rule beside a man she loved who she couldn’t always trust, and trying to be part of a dynasty without getting tainted by it. After Francis died, Mary slowly became unmoored, returning home to political unrest and the inevitability that Elizabeth was better at statecraft than Mary was. Mary’s biggest victory was being able to flummox Elizabeth, to the last, merely by existing.
That Mary was, by many accounts, led by her heart ended up being her downfall—either the love, or those accounts—and Reign seems aware that that’s a sub-optimal message for the Young Women of Today. (Some of its historical fudging was trying to ameliorate this: how much older and impassioned she and Francis were, how much more pragmatic she was with Darnley. Downfall is one thing; foolishness, no.)
At its best, Reign used all this to tackle legacy, and the complications of power and responsibility. Catherine was obsessed with legacy; Mary was trying to use it to advantage without vanishing inside it. Mary didn’t want to rule as Catherine had—she was better than subterfuge and compromise—but as soon as she entered the fray, compromise and subterfuge began, and the more she found herself caught in the patterns she’d hoped to break. The show’s smartest arc was turning Catherine from mustache-twirling, poison-dispensing antagonist into mustache-twirling, poison-dispensing ally; Adelaide Kane and Megan Follows played Mary and Catherine so well that putting them together almost automatically gave the story stakes.
But this sort of plot worked best with genuinely thorny problems—say, plague in the countryside preventing the movement of grain supplies, and trying to fix it so the fewest people died. With more sensationalist plot twists, things could go sideways in a hurry. (Mary’s rape-recovery storyline remains one of its most poorly handled.) And every time Mary triumphed—particularly in moments where history was slightly askew already—there was always the question: Will this be what saves her?
Nope. Elizabeth was always going to have that much more foresight, that much less compunction; she was out to make a legacy for herself. In the end, Mary’s only lasting legacy was that letter to Elizabeth. But Mary’s hope for baby James is, as much as anything, the show’s thesis. Reign may have tripped too often on its own brocade hem, but it was a story curious about what power does to you, and what it changes about the things you’re able to leave behind. (This thesis was not to be left to chance: Elizabeth announces Mary is “besieged on all sides by a world of men who seek to tear her down because they cannot control her.” Thanks, Reign; otherwise we might have missed it!)
News of Reign‘s cancellation wasn’t a surprise; ratings were never stellar. Still, the sense of “fuck it, and fuck you” is hard to ignore when the finale sets up three major new plots and then cuts to “February 8, 1587 – 21 years later.” (I laughed out loud.) This is not something given gentle shape over the season; it’s not even a segment designed to let you know briefly what happens to anyone else. Greer, Bothwell, the Valois line: Plot Pit. This coda is just a grim stamp on the proceedings.
Yet, in true Reign style, the show doesn’t care what you wanted. It cares what Mary wants, and that’s Francis (shushing her one last time in the afterlife), a logistically awkward afterlife (Lola and her mother are absent), and the most Reign closing you could have ever hoped for: a fanvid of its most self-consciously Mary moments.
It’s sort of remarkable, actually, how dark this show’s been. It threw itself utterly into the travails of someone we knew was going to come to a sorry end. Though Catherine quickly became the most interesting character, and Elizabeth became a parallel presence, we were never meant to sympathize with them as we did with Mary. It makes that 21-year overclock feel more like a twisted magic trick than closure—watch the rest of Mary’s story disappear! (Full marks to the mournful strings, though, which momentarily make her execution feel more earned than it is.)
As the final song rises—the Lumineers, of course—the show reaches a bizarre poignancy. It gave us a young woman with good intentions, and showed us how that’s not enough. Sometimes you take calculated risks and temper your expectations and give up things that matter, and still lose. This is a closing beat almost impressively disinterested in making you feel better about it. (You know what feels better? Death. Life is a sea of men telling you what to do.) That coda is almost impressive in its bleakness; Mary smiling at Francis in an empty afterlife can’t change a thing about that.
That’s Mary—and Reign—all over: Ambitious in concept but faltering in execution, painfully sincere amid the sort of camp intrigue that sounded like sweeps week even in 1566, and occasionally sublime, for one reason or another. Let the strum play you out one last time, Reign; somehow, I guess you earned it.
- I’m so glad they got one last Mandatory Party in. Even better that it was a dance party/strategy meeting with maps. Even better than the witch was quartered close enough to the ballroom Catherine and Narcisse could get there in time to stagger around and judge everybody else, one last time.
- Boy, how about Elizabeth’s rousing address to the troops at :looks at smudged writing on hand: Pillsbury?
- “[Murder]’s a sin I’ve been unwilling to commit.” You mean just husband-murdering, right, Mary? Because if not, I have news about a lot of things, starting with the guy you hurled into the dungeon full of plague victims and moving out in concentric circles.
- Adelaide Kane has been almost invisibly good at playing Mary; unless the dialogue is truly wooden, she’s sold more changes of heart, misguided efforts, ridiculous machinations, overdramatic pronouncements, and heartbroken stares than should ever have been asked of her. Full marks.
- Dress of the week: Mary’s Gothic-black to Gothic-white switch is effective, but honestly, it’s got to be Catherine, hauling a gigantic skirt and drapey sleeves down the hall at 15 miles an hour in pursuit of what she wants.
- “And poor…………..good-hearted Nicole” is a sublime pause. (That ellipsis might not be long enough.) Megan Follows was shortchanged in this finale—and, largely, by the post-Francis story—but she made the most of every moment, which is maybe what Reign is all about.
- This show has been a Wild Ride. Thank you so much for reading.