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Reign gets caught in its own soapy coattails

Illustration for article titled Reign gets caught in its own soapy coattails
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Reign is such over-the-top fun to watch and such a bear to recap; some episodes you end up feeling like the show’s designated driver. (Particularly if the show drove to the party in a rocket car that’s always going three times as fast as it seems to be.)

“Wedlocked” manages to be watchable while feeling strangely out of control in ways that the show struggles with in a much larger way. Mary’s difficult choices last episode set up such potential for interesting character work; this week, naturally, it turns out Don Carlos was faking most of it, and is now scheming for Mary’s crown in revenge. He’s upset that Mary betrayed his trust (and she did!), and that she lied about being on the scene of his almost-manslaughter (and she was!). While I understand that no one wanted to sit with this cringey subplot any longer than they had to, it was at least a suggestion—bolstered by the bench that’s still floating around the castle like a portable crime scene—that Mary was going to be in danger and have to face some awkward consequences before she could triumph.


Of course, the sheer speed of any given episode of this show means we didn’t have to wait that long. Mary didn’t have to live with consequences for more than a single episode! She didn’t even have to stay oblivious to Don Carlos’ condition for more than one act within the episode before she caught on and exposed him, by laying a trap for a shortsighted blow-up from Don Carlos the likes of which even Reign has never seen before and scuttled that marriage definitively in front of a dozen witnesses.

My issue with any of this is not its soapiness; if one has an issue with soapiness, one has probably not made it to the third season of Reign. And “Our Undoing” found the show’s sweet spot by leaning in and having everything happening all the time. But it becomes hard to get invested in these story lines when their speed is matched by a sense of the careening arbitrary in the characters. The fit Don Carlos pitches at the wedding means nothing. He was never even a two-dimensional character; that would have required another dimension. He was a dutiful prince, then a romantic who showed up at the wrong time, then he was a naughty punchline, then a living reminder of Mary’s mistake, then a moustache-twirling villain lusting for a throne, then a thwarted megalomaniac straight out of a Jem cartoon. He’s been in France for three episodes.

Sure, the occasional character will show up and need to be all subplots to all people (just look at Narcisse). But this is getting to be a pattern on this show that makes it hard to take any suggested themes seriously, or even guess at the shape of character arcs; foreshadowing gets tripped by its own denouement racing ahead of it. We’re halfway through the season—and where are we going now? Mary could end up engaged to Don Carlos again in two episodes, and he could be a completely different personality by then. This show ruthlessly feed even its leads to the plot wolves; guest princes don’t stand a chance.

And that’s too bad! Because this season offers plenty to work with, on paper—the death of Mary’s beloved husband, a kingdom in crisis, a mirror image across the sea intent on bringing her down. A little character consistency would make all the difference amid these dialed-to-11 plots. I would love if there was something nuanced lurking behind Gideon Blackburn’s angsty but valuable assertion, “One can receive good advice from a bad person.” The previouslies were very careful to remind us that his orders are to make Mary fall in love with him (a historically-accurate strategy for anyone wishing to derail the Queen of Scots), and his low-key warnings about Don Carlos are as close to a slow burn as this show is capable of. We’re left wondering how much of his straits back home will influence his behavior to Mary, and to what degree he was protecting Mary’s best interests when he brought her that last-minute warning. That those two things aren’t mutually exclusive means Blackburn is positioned to be a real character, if the show allows it. But honestly, who can say, at this point? (Cut to two episodes from now when they’re getting married in secret, maybe. Who knows? It’s Reign!)


The other plots of this episode echo Mary’s kingdom woes: Elizabeth’s pregnancy endangers her reign as decisively as Mary’s matrimonial crown does hers, and Claude’s freedom gets trumped by Narcisse to pay off the Crown’s martial debt. But they echo each other more than Mary’s plot, because if there’s one theme this show can reliably draw on, it’s womens’ struggle for agency. Elizabeth runs into the fact that even divine right can’t overcome a dose of good old-fashioned misogyny, Rachel Skarsten plays Elizabeth as slightly stunned by it, as if the patriarchy has physically slapped her. She’s one of the most powerful women in Christendom, and a mere rumor is enough to prevent her marrying Dudley, queen or not. Claude fares no better, her expression dropping as the regent drives home the reminder that her freedom was always conditional on powerful men agreeing she should be free: “Be grateful for the fun you had. You must have known this day would come.”

Does this make demons out of William Cecil and Narcisse? Nope. The episode opens with a reminder that William is a conscientious and thorough courtier devoted to the well-being of the Crown; marrying princesses into political alliances was so historically commonplace that it’s the premise on which the entire show is predicated. Obviously the unfairness of it all isn’t lost on the women involved (one could even argue the unfairness isn’t lost on William), but I appreciate the sense of outside historical pressure coming to bear, like water pressure on a rhinestone submarine. If it plays out, I’ll be interested to see how the show negotiates the tension between contemporary expectations and modern audiences; if not, I guess it’ll all go to the wolves.


Stray observations

  • I presume the ongoing secrecy about the serial killer means that one of our regulars is supposed to be among the list of suspects. (This is one of those moments where any sense of character consistency would come in handy. Right now you could tell me it was literally anyone on the show and I’d believe you, except maybe Catherine, only because she’s too short…and because she’s strangled so many people by now that we recognize her M.O.) That said, the show will have to work a lot harder to make me care who it is; Bash in the thick of things last episode was so nice that the reminder this is where he’s stuck right now is disheartening.
  • “I got the…precautions.” Listen up, kids who are home watching Reign on a Friday night! Take precautions for all that sex you’re having!
  • Celina Sinden is determined to lend Greer a beat of bone-dry sense of humor whenever possible, and she and Rose Williams had fun with their scene. “We were about to…you know.” “I do know. Easy on the wine.”
  • Rose Williams actually got several nice moments this episode! (I assume the show wanted you to like her when Narcisse announced she’d be married off.) She’s at her best when she’s her mother’s daughter rather than a little girl lost, and her grit-teeth courtship was a perfect illustration.
  • Speaking of Catherine, Megan Follows made up for minimal screen time with making sure you’d never forget she was there: “Really, Christophe, is there anywhere in the castle you have not spilt your seed?”
  • Amy staging a crime scene before she leapt to her death was brilliantly soapy; the forced shorthand of an English court that only gets a few minutes every episode means that everybody there is a lot more decisive.
  • Dress of the week: Queen Elizabeth’s green outfit. We’ve only ever seen her in queenly golds; sure, green’s a bit on the nose for an envious queen, but it also makes her look young and slightly tentative, which was a nice character beat to echo in her wardrobe this episode.

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