Reign this season has ad habit of backloading its big moments and filling much of the first two acts with what amounts to complex busy work. (Greer and the pirate, anyone? Some of that has paid off just in things like eliminating options for French succession, so that we understand Charles’ panic attack when he runs into the woods to find Delphine to save a dying Francis. But when Francis falls off his horse with only ten minutes to go, we’re fairly sure he’s not going to pass beyond the mortal coil without some strummy ballads and more tearful dialogue than ten minutes can provide. (The advertising for “The Price” knew, too—TV spots showed Francis’s gasping back-to-life breath as if to reassure us that this isn’t the week that ear infection is going to get His Majesty.) And really, the point isn’t Francis, whose death is real but momentary—the point is the last-second twist that Francis’ new lease on life comes at the cost of the one person nobody can afford to lose: Mary’s mother.

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The good news is, that’s a genuinely exciting twist that had just enough hints to be relevant but still kept the element of surprise. The problem is, the episode has been pulled so thin that nothing quite holds up. (This makes grading difficult; the excitement of the last thirty seconds couldn’t save the episode, but if they follow through on thee implications—never a given on a show that just resurrected a king with magic—do I preemptively reward a bold move?) The English court gets us back to square one with Elizabeth for the second time, and the French intrigue loops back on itself so much that even the “aha” doesn’t work. She lets Nicholas into her chambers without being announced, where he sees her using her cipher. He manages to snag it when she briefly leaves him alone. But oh ho! It was all a ruse! Mary designed it all so Nicholas would send misinformation to England and help French troops reopen their supply line in Scotland.

But that setup didn’t seem like a trap because so much of that level of behavior has become the norm (it’s honestly laughable how often people on this show just swan into a royal’s unattended chambers), and it’s believable enough based on Mary’s past implosive attempts at statecraft. That kind of track record makes it hard to feel much satisfaction about Mary’s gotcha; either we’re supposed to pay attention to those details or we aren’t, and using them for a heist setup doesn’t gain much ground.

That’s unfortunate, because now we know that the maneuvering in this episode might really matter. That throne is up for grabs at the worst possible moment; it’s honestly too bad that the busy nothings that surround it keep our attention away from the real stakes—this feels like another 360-degree status quo episode until the final minutes. But we know Francis is doomed eventually, so his illness and near-death experiences are just someone yo-yoing while walking down a hill—there’s no real surprise there. Another succession debacle gives the season a sudden sense of uncertainty, frigates or otherwise.

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Speaking of frigates, it’s actually fascinating to see how quickly Elizabeth has snapped into focus as a character. None of it has been particularly resonant—it’s all moving too fast and Rachel Skarsten is playing to the cheap seats—but the sheer ubiquity of her legacy means the Elizabethan court comes pre-seeded with recognizable beats. Don Carlos’ rumormongering has historical basis, like Elizabeth’s ability to string suitors along, her pragmatism (“There is one God” and the rest is details), and her private conviction never to marry. Dudley and Elizabeth’s tortured affair, consummated or not, is instantly understood.

The English court, while sucking oxygen away from a French court that can’t really afford it, isn’t operating under the same burdens as the French side, which constantly has to reestablish stakes and circumstances. Alternate timelines, secret histories, and fantasy witches work even harder when they’re up against one of the most famous rulers of all time in a situation that’s being played totally straight so far. It’s worth noting that Elizabeth also employs some offhand, offscreen spycraft in this episode; it seems so much more natural there both because we’re more inclined to trust her competence than Mary’s, given the historical record, and because that spycraft doesn’t really matter. It’s a strange dichotomy, and I’m not sure how long it can go on before something gives way; it will be interesting to find out.

But the reason that a season that’s had so much uneven material (and this is only the fourth episode!) keeps getting decent grades is because Reign is getting smart enough to put its big moments where they sting. The rest of this episode was so disjointed that the only real thematic thread to take away from it is that men tend to be kind of awful and the women in this show would be better off without them. (Queen Elizabeth, wanting to make sure nobody misses the point, opens negotiations with “As a woman in a patriarchal society,” which is on the nose even for this show, but made me laugh out loud, so it was good for something.) But maybe in spending an as-per-usual episode on precarious politics that come out in the wash, and then using the stinger for such a huge shakeup, the setup was for us all along.

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Stray observations:

  • There has perhaps never been more apt a metaphor for Mary’s statecraft than that correspondence cipher.
  • How many times will this show give us sappy farewells in an attempt to backfill Francis and Mary’s relationship before he finally succumbs?
  • Narcisse and Lola’s honeymoon in Ye Olde Wine Country comes to a fizzly conclusion. (Lola knew he was an opportunistic jerk from moment one; her anger is understandable considering how hard Narcisse has leaned on the turned-over-a-new-leaf thing but her pearl-clutching seems a bit naĂŻve for someone who knows so much about the things he’s pulled.) It’s always a shame when someone’s intelligence is in flux at the whim of the plots; in this same episode, she points out that “Catherine is fearless about taking credit for the pain she inflicts.” Please let Ratgate come to something soon, if only because that means more screen time with Catherine! (Or, given Lola’s ability to notice muddy boots, she’ll start that detective agency I keep hoping for.)
  • Speaking of screen time, Megan Follows and Craig Parker had more fun in that one scene than anything the Narcisse and Lola subplot has deliver this entire season.
  • That visitor from the privy council existed largely to set up Narcisse’s next arc and give Catherine something to do for a week, but I genuinely enjoyed the moment of Claude and Catherine’s matching shit-eating grins and Catherine slowly deciding that when backed into a corner, sometimes it’s better to cut your losses and be an honest asshole than a good politician.
  • Can Megan Follows’ masterfully insincere “How unfortunate” be played on a loop somewhere? (Also “Of course she is.”)
  • Dudley, amid some casual chatter about maybe killing his wife: “Thoughts are not deeds, Elizabeth.” Girl, run. This applies to both Elizabeth and his wife.
  • For someone who’s never really guilty of anything, Delphine is a menace, isn’t she?
  • Elizabeth’s makeup in this episode swung from Outdoor Zombie to Peasant Tan, and I’m not sure why, but if her makeup glows golden when she’s feeling powerful, that’s as good a magic power as any.
  • Dress of the week: Let’s be honest, the moustache-twirling bishop’s Party City velvet vestments were kind of amazing.

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