At the end of “Extreme Measures,” Lola marries Narcisse—a man who, just last episode, arranged to put a rat in her bathtub, hoping to make her so terrified of Catherine she would run to him for protection. He gets a redemption arc this episode (reviving a near-dead young noblewoman from her drug overdose, because Reign is a show about young people, and sometimes the metaphors are couched neatly in the setting and sometimes it’s just a metaphor). It’s apparently enough to change Francis’ mind about Narcisse, to the degree that he blesses the union.

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It would in theory be an interesting and tricky redemption arc, but everything on Reign takes no longer than one episode, so the newlyweds are already starting their honeymoon in the hall when Catherine shows up, wearing her queenliest collar and draped in the noirest shadows that castle set can provide. She lets them know that she’s back in France’s—and her sons’—good graces; she wishes them a long and healthy life together. She smiles at them, and when they react like he’s just nudged them back over their own graves, she smiles harder.

It’s such a great moment; character comeuppance delivered at a straight-up Maleficent threat level. If the show had earned it, it might have been amazing.

But one of Reign’s biggest problems has always been that it can’t balance its arcs amid the demands of CW pacing; plots stall out, fold back in on themselves, or race past character work to a plot twist out of the fear of losing its audience. And in this case, it should be worried. Narcisse was the camp villain we needed when he showed up in the wake of Henry’s death, and he and Catherine were the sort of volatile couple that soap-opera dreams are made up. But his attraction to Lola has been a sour note since the moment she stopped using him for statecraft; his will-they-won’t-they with Catherine went in circles (and Catherine’s jealousy of Lola tanked a promising alliance that could have been the best power duo in the French court). And a laundry list of good reasons aside, Francis’ edict against Lola’s marrying Narcisse is so tied up with the pathos of his death that Lola looked like the bad guy for disobeying him. It’s gotten so strained that their whole plot this episode felt like a rubber band snapping more than the culmination of an arc, and yet here we are at the altar; the show trusts the rat-planter more than itself. Catherine’s return is better than this subplot deserves.

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It’s especially strange intertwined with the general heaviness of the royal family. Though there was a time when it gave me terrible glee to think about Francis actually dying of an ear infection in this show’s most historical plot point yet (that time was the beginning of this sentence), the ticking clock he’s operating under is the best thing that’s happened to Toby Regbo in a long time. If nothing else, the show is suddenly giving him more to do. I doubt that’s true on a minutes-per-episode level, but after being stuck for so long in one plot eddy or another, it’s refreshing watching Francis have scenes with Lola, Mary, and Catherine that carry real weight. Things have consequences, now that he’s going to die. His rapport with Megan Follows has always been particularly good, and their reconciliation is a highlight, but he’s doing solid work across the board as a king planning for a legacy decades ahead of time. Even his dance with Mary is sweeter than it has reason to be.

Even the political machinations that are this show’s bread and butter gain from the immediacy of this disaster; the talk of alliances—Charles with his promise to Mary that “I’ll give you an heir,” the King of Spain and his secretive bride hunt—becomes a lot more interesting when we know that sometime soon Mary will have to act on one of them, somehow. And for this episode, at least, she’s very good at it. She plays hardball with Antoine to get him to abdicate his claim to the throne in exchange for safe passage for Louis; for once, she seems to understand Elizabeth’s full measure; she even realizes the only way to fight a dragon is with a dragon, and advises Francis to let Catherine loose against Elizabeth’s agent in France to prevent Antoine from forming an alliance with Liz.

And as always, Catherine gets the job done; wrecked and with the glittering eyes of a seer, Megan Follows makes the English ambassador believe she’s a threat in ten seconds flat. She also makes good with Francis in ten seconds flat. Catherine doesn’t waste time—on her, at least, it works. She has always been the driving force of the show, a living royal consequence who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. After she politely dooms Lola and Narcisse, she glides into the throne room and tearfully takes the seat of power, looking equal parts grieving and grimly delighted, and singlehandedly re-establishing the stakes of power. She’s welcome back to the field of play…no matter how fast it’s going.

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Stray observations:

  • On being told that Catherine chewed out part of her own cheek and it was found the next day: “Good God, even the rats wouldn’t eat it?” Solid burn, Mary.
  • “You vampire bitch!” Catherine’s burn is better.
  • “I think you’ve done enough, Mary.” Antoine wins.
  • Greer and Lola smiling at the party without saying anything: A writers’-room move when you’re fairly sure two characters know each other but don’t want to risk it.
  • “What do you mean she might be dead?” I’m not a huge fan of Claude, and this week’s awkward Leith business doesn’t help anything, but Rose Williams bought a lot of credit elevating that line of exposition with every ounce of peevish camp that she possibly could.
  • “She took something you gave her because she trusted you.” Is this a PSA? There’s no other reason for this to be here. Stirrings of examined consent issues from the depths of the writers’ room at last?
  • “I inherited her network of spies.” I have to imagine Francis means he inherited her lowest-level, most obvious spies, because there is no way Catherine left anyone decent from her network for someone else to come along and scoop up.
  • Dress of the week: Mary’s gold coat, which actually earned the musical cue it got when she turned the corner into the throne room.

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