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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Reign keeps secrets from its secret history

Illustration for article titled Reign keeps secrets from its secret history
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A secret history is a tricky thing. The best secret histories, no matter how satirical, have a keen sense of the import of the events; they’re interesting because they change the way we think about those events—and, hopefully, more widely about how histories are presented. That doesn’t mean that a secret history can’t tear down sacred things; it just means that it brings together its pieces in a way that shifts our perspectives.

It’s this last, crucial thing that Reign is missing. And maybe that’s why the show’s glittering rollercoaster of a first season has stretched and pulled into the unease that hangs over it now. It could be that Mary’s rape storyline felt so awkward, as it hamfistedly introduced the second drawn-out Mary love triangle. It could be that as history catches up with the narrative (though God knows that narrative has done its best to outpace anything history has to offer) the plot machinations take on a grim pall. It could be that the series’ many feints at the supernatural have leached the color from Bash and anyone who enters his subplot’s orbit, leaving us with a segment so disconnected you get quietly thrilled when he shows up at Greer’s brothel tavern, because at least he’s talking to someone he knows from the old days.


But wherever the show might be ineffective, disregard for history actually isn’t it. Sure, viewers who don’t like the series’ approach to costuming (and/or have a low tolerance for string-quartet covers of Top 40 hits, for which I have sympathy) have criticized the show’s lax approach to its era, it’s actually kind of remarkable the number of historical events Reign has quietly included. (Everything from the Bourbon claim renouncement to the Queen of the Bean celebration are, at least obliquely, drawn from history.) Its biggest historical misstep has actually been making one character the romantic center of sweeping events; so many things on this show have been driven by someone’s love of Mary that at this point it’s losing effectiveness as a plot point. (In 2008, The Devil’s Whore tried something similar; though undoubtedly more cinematic, it had the same problems juggling that arc.) Its biggest overall problem is its rollicking plot coupled with its remarkably short and selective memory, which means that characterizations and thematic underpinnings come and go at times when they really need to matter.

And if there has ever been an episode of Reign that brings home this series’ attitude to all of this, it’s “The Hound And The Hare.” That doesn’t mean it’s a terrible episode structurally—it’s fairly solid, with its theme of hunger and hunting (for sex, for power, for murder). It even parallels the women of the court hunting their men in the forest with Greer and Bash laying a trap for the serial killer, which may be the closest those two plots have ever come. But it’s also an episode that hopes we’re forgetting about an awful lot of stuff.

Mary and Carlos have a refreshing conversation about the obvious upcoming marriage and how they’re pleasantly surprised they sort of like each other, only for Carlos’ sexual tastes to somehow be playing a part in a monogamous royal marriage as if King Henry’s example never existed. The Privy Council (which I dearly wish had been introduced when Francis was still ruling) ousts Catherine as regent, which seems fairly bold when you set it alongside the other Privy Council the show has introduced—Elizabeth’s—and imagine any attempt from that Council to pull similar power plays. (It really is remarkable how much more confidently that political arena got introduced.) And it’s being treated with a more modern American eye toward political process than the show treats, say, political marriages between countries. Still, such is the state of the show that Catherine’s ousting seems far less ludicrous than Catherine’s outrage at being suspected of poisoning her own child. Catherine, do you not remember poisoning Claude deliberately and over several episodes, not very long ago?

Even more baffling, by the end of “The Hound And The Hare,” Catherine has participated in yet another accidental sex-related disaster, standing in for Mary to flog Carlos until he realizes the betrayal and knocks his chair backwards in his rage, which kill him…momentarily. As of the last beats of the episode, he’s dragging his chains along a busy hallway, out of last-ditch spite to keep Catherine from being able to quietly bury his body.


And the thing is, this scene is hilarious. Mary and Catherine working together is almost always a great time, and this is no different; Catherine’s disgust that Mary can’t come up with any dirty talk is one of the season’s best moments so far. But this last-second twist, clearly designed to be funny and pique your interest about coming back after the fall hiatus, is thematically pretty wretched. Mary and Catherine sexually violated a guy without his consent; a show that spent half a season on the aftermath of Mary’s rape should know that. There are plenty of other ways this show can get its camp jollies in: Look no further than Catherine cooing “It’s amazing how you take me with no regard for my station” as her handsome servant-fling slides off her gown. The rapport between Adelaide Kane and Megan Follows is so good, and the dynamic between Mary and Catherine in this scene so funny, that the fact the show seems to hope we find nothing wrong with the circumstances is honestly painful. (Catherine couldn’t have demonstrated all this on a chair to give Mary courage, before Mary had a mishap alone with him? That’s equally damning, and avoids sexual assault! Win-win!)

It’s a symptom of a problem Reign keeps running into. At heart, it’s the same problem we’re seeing as Lola turns from a morally-staunch but canny courtier into an exposition wife, and the reason Mary’s decisions can feel so forced, and the reason Bash is stalling out on the sidelines, and the reason Narcisse has gone from a sometimes-sympathetic villain to a punchline: Having a character do something different than usual is only growth if you can tell that somehow they changed in between. In trying to be a secret history—and even as a narrative on its own terms—Reign is willing to contort its characters to fit the line of events. (The character who’s suffered the most from it is Mary; contrast some of her decisions with some of Catherine’s, and it’s quickly clear who gets the complex characterization and who has to eat plotcakes.)


The show has other challenges, certainly. It’s trying to balance a show about a teenage girl with a complex political landscape that requires a lot of explanation for contemporary ears. I understand that. It’s trying to balance the fate of nations with the fact that every time you let Megan Follows sneer near a corpse an angel gets its wings. I understand that. (Do I ever.) But this show keeps moving the goalposts and hopes nobody notices. It keeps Reign falling just short of making its characters as compelling as its cliffhangers and its camp; it’s the sort of tension that never resolves; it’s a secret history keeping secrets from itself.

Stray observations

  • I honestly loved the central game of this episode; everyone gleefully kicking off their gorgeous shoes to wear sturdy peasant boots and run through the forest in a reversal of gender roles has that perfect “toss our cares away” courtier veneer.
  • This episode also gives us the arrival of Gideon Blackburn from the English court. Since his name is Gideon Blackburn, hopefully you had already assumed he’ll be moving into the rakish antihero territory vacated by Narcisse when the show tacitly admitted a few episodes back that he’s an irredeemable jerk they just redeem at intervals because they need it. But even you couldn’t have expected Blackburn’s first move to be carrying Mary through the woods while negging her about her weight, I bet! (I don’t dislike this guy—I actually want to see where this goes when he inevitably ends up Emotionally Over His Head About Mary—but every time Mary shot him a stinkface, I understood.)
  • It’s becoming the show’s most hilarious accidental running joke that people keep pointing out how awful Narcisse is. “It was your betrayal that sent her into exile and then prison,” Lola casually points out, because Narcisse has done so many terrible things that by now his betrayal of Catherine is just a footnote in a long, long list. (See also Catherine’s delectably smug: “Or are you in my bedroom to tell me again how much you love your wife?”)
  • Related: Unless this marriage ends with her stabbing him and assuming the mantle of Dowager Prime Minister, I’m going to have a lot of Lola-related questions.
  • A woman ruler “makes an excellent scapegoat.” Catherine has always exhibited the best of this show’s actual statecraft; this was golden.
  • Adelaide Kane had such a great, small moment in the scene where Carlos announces he’s leaving; that pasted-on smile rising as she stands up is a great beat for a queen being forced back into courtship for all the right reasons except the personal one.
  • Bash acknowledged losing Francis! It doesn’t affect anything else, but I guess with the speed of this show, that’s as good as it gets.
  • I’m eternally indebted to Delphine for finally tipping this show over the edge from “Is it a fantastical element? Tee hee, not quite!” to “Yes, it sure is.” That said, this supernatural-procedural business is not going anywhere, I am rapidly hitting a ceiling on it.
  • After so long using pregnancy as a subplot for women, a pregnancy storyline is always going to have to really work to make me care. This one is probably not going to do that work.
  • That said, it was really nice to see Greer in Full Pragmatist mode. (A killer’s coming? Let’s catch his ass! Am I happy? I don’t know if I’m happy, but I like what I do and my independence! You’re seeing someone? That’s good, I told you to see other people!) Given this show’s characterization approach, I don’t’ expect it to last, but I like it while it’s here.
  • Dress of the week: Both Lola and Mary’s gowns for The Hound and the Hare hunt are beautiful, but my favorite costuming touch this episode is that Mary and Catherine’s crowns are so harmonious they look like two members of a 16th-century girl group.

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