It always feels like too soon to tell what a Reign season intends to do; it blows through plot with such vigor that it essentially goes through about four seasons every season. When it’s lost for direction, things spiral out in a hurry—there are just too many places to get lost, and indecision shows. (Narcisse and Lola might be the biggest casualties of this, a will-they-won’t-they pairing that’s paddled around so many plot eddies by now it’s less an arc and more just silt.) But the show has a real sweet spot when it drops the filler and cuts to the heart of its power struggles. The season opener was overfull, but it hit on two points that could shape this into a promising season: the infinite politics surrounding the succession, and the poignant realization that Mary has begun her slow slide into losing it all.
Well, slow by Reign standards. A single episode is still plenty of time to plan to betroth Charles to Mary, have Charles break it off, and then reinstate the bethrothal, because it’s not an episode of Reign unless there have been full turns on a major plot point. At least this episode plays it better than some; Charles realizes quickly that he’s politically out of his depth and agrees to marry Mary to avoid having Catherine as regent, because in the one conversation he’s had with Catherine since he got back, she tricks him into starting up an assassination of the Bourbon family to ensure his succession, so his track record is not great. (In the meantime, there’s a certain dark glee involved watching Charles alterately bristle under the yoke of responsibility and throw his royal weight around, since three years ago we were watching Francis do the same thing, for the same reason.) Francis’ slow going is actually more poignant than I would have expected for someone who’s dying from something that could be either an ear infection or an evil curse; Mary’s having to prepare for a dismal widowhood, and Francis to face handing over a kingdom he’s barely hanging on to, and hope Charles can do better.
As is becoming more evident, though, Catherine has a point. Of course, Catherine’s pretenses may have been false, but she has always meant what she said about protecting her family and paying the price. (The scene in which Francis tells her he’s dying is great for both Toby Regbo and Megan Follows, and her long reach to touch him a reminder of how power has, by necessity, driven them apart.) I mean, her last move before going into exile was setting up a Bourbon assassination with a keyword that could be delivered even from prison. Francis and Mary can gloat all they want about spying on Catherine through a loose brick, but Catherine’s ability to make next-level contingency plans is the kind of thing these kids can only dream of managing. Some of that is just their youth and those pesky ideals still getting in the way, the new generation trying to toss off the old. Some of that is just knowing that when Francis assures Charles, “Mary is an experienced ruler,” given the last two seasons, that is not necessarily an endorsement.
The young ruler on this show who actually understands that? Elizabeth. When faced with disaster for allowing Catherine sanctuary, she convinces a childhood friend to take the fall. When the friend protests at being stripped of her title and lands by the Council? Elizabeth arrests her for treason. It’s a level of ruthlesness she needs, since she has to navigate her court alone, and it sets her up nicely as a rising sun now that Francis is fading.
The rest of the Englsh court? Well, the good news is, if you thought the pace at the French court was too leisurely, the English court will take care of that. The bad news is, it’s happening so fast that some of the best political machinations available are going to waste. The show is leaning fairly hard on the assumption that you’ve got the Elizabeth life story on lock to sell us the Dudley relationship (it’s not working, but that’s what they’re leaning on). However, just as Mary’s point of historical accurary comes to bear whenever she screws up her statecraft, our point of historical accuracy for Elizabeth is also holding strong: private life a disaster, public life a careful success with a body count behind it. Catherine would be proud.
Or Catherine will be, if the cycle of power ever favors her enough that she gets out of prison. Megan Follows uses the prison cell like a stage set, somehow filling it with sheer force of will even when she isn’t moving, and she has no vanity about this momentary downfall; Catherine shrieking until she bangs her head into the door is a shocking loss of dignity, not because it’s unbecoming (she doesn’t really have a need to look becoming), but because she’s always fought so hard against being cornered. For her, desperation is next to death; the last time we saw her this terrified Henry was about to have her murdered for treason. Gotta love a family that repeats its own greatest hits.
- Oh my God, this Lola and Narcisse thing has passed strained and entered some whole new realm of unwelcome bullshit. Isn’t bad enough that Lola, the world’s biggest also-ran, has had to lose her fiance, bear the king’s plot child, marry a man who was impersonating his dead boss, court Louis at Mary’s request, and deal with Narcisse as a mildly-interested dilettante? Must he now be running a long con? She needs to take a page from Greer and get the hell out of town. There were detective agencies in the 16th century, right?
- That said, the fact that Lola was wandering the woods so much that Mary had to make an appointment in between Lola meeting with Narcisse al frersco to tell her that Francis is dying really highlights 1) the weird developments in the plot that have dragged them so far apart and 2) how none of these handmaidens was good for any actual handmaidening much past the midpoint of season one (exceptions made for Reign’s equivalent of prom, of course).
- I really dug Catherine falling back on prayer as soon as she was alone. Her list of crimes can border on the wretched, but she has good reasons and considers them all either in the service of the throne (and so, God), or the kind of sins only God can forgive.
- I can’t believe they stuck with Papyrus as their font for England. That is harsh.
- They are never going to sell me on any relationship involving Leith, so all the Claude real estate feels like the drive to the dentist; it is going very slowly and leading to something I am not going to enjoy. However, Leith’s “you are shitting me” approach to Bash’s defending Delphine nearly redeemed his presence in a single scene.
- Speaking of a single scene, that’s what Bash got! Think of those Claude/Lieth minutes and how they could have been used to show Francis’ siblings reactions to him dying. Claude was more interesting when begging for her independence than during anything with Lieth; Francis and Bash reuniting to mourn their father was one of their few moments together last season, but it still worked. Won’t we see Bash mourning his brother? Wouldn’t Francis confide? What on earth could have happened on set or the writer’s room to banish Torrance Coombs from the A-plot forever?
- I understand that she was clearly negotiating sexual favors to get ahead at court, but that coucilman groping Lady Dudley was both hilariously efficient exposition and weirdly upsetting for a show that has sucked on every possible level when it comes to sexuality and consent.
- Gown of the week: Catherine wears that prison shift like it’s couture.