Last week, I said that the primary way to judge Reign’s rape storyline would be once we saw some of the fallout from it. This week, having seen some of said fallout, I’m prepared to say…it’s still confusing.
Writers Wendy Riss Gatsiounis and Drew Lindo had a difficult task. They had to give Mary’s trauma appropriate space as well as incorporate the season’s several dozen side stories in a way that would make sense. Given all the political complications and personal tragedies that have already happened this season (remember the plague?), this midseason finale was always going to be crowded. Gatsiounis and Lindo do their best to keep everything connected in an organic way, but by the end of “Mercy,” it’s clear that the show is dangerously close to collapsing under its own ambitious weight.
The one enduring bright spot in the midst of several confused stories is Adelaide Kane. Kane embodies Mary’s pain, confusion, and determination with the confidence of an actor that has lived with and understands her character. There’s not a single scene when I didn’t believe her performance, which has grown to include subtleties that solidify Mary presence on this show far more than a showy monologue could. There’s Mary’s eyes widening as Louis steps towards her, signaling her new instinct to fear. There’s her purposeful formality with her ladies when she tells them what happens; Mary deliberately keeps as an interaction with her “ladies” rather than her friends as a defense mechanism, and Kane sells it with the grim jawline she’s adopted for all of the young queen’s tough interactions as a ruling monarch. There’s her dual anger and anguish as Mary looks down at her rapist, culminating in a desperate cry of pain as she douses him in fire. And finally, there’s her heartbreak as she realizes that killing her rapist, hunting him down and making him suffer, did nothing to ease her own suffering. “Mercy” shows none for our heroine, who undergoes significant trauma even as she’s dealing with previously existing trauma, and it’s a testament to Kane’s growth on this show that she handles every challenge with such precision. So at the very least, “Mercy” takes great pains to show that it takes Mary’s trauma seriously, and for the most part, does a good job.
And then there’s Francis.
First, “Mercy” makes explicit what the entirety of this second season has been implying all along: this season is about Mary and Francis resisting the shadows of Catherine and Henry before they realize exactly why Catherine and Henry ruled in the way they did. Mary and Francis have been realizing all season long that their ideals don’t matter worth a damn if they don’t have a handle on their power. “Mercy” is the point at which Francis stops running from his father and takes another step towards becoming him.
On a macro level, the season’s been building up to Francis making a cruel blanket order such as the one to round up and “question” all known Protestants on his own terms. One of the most convincing things Reign has done with Francis has made him feel like he’s in a corner, where he has to throw everyone into prison even if they pose no obvious threat (like Greer’s doomed husband Castleroy), because to do otherwise would make him look weak. On a micro level, it’s been building up a moment like the one where Francis leans down towards a shackled Narcisse, looks into his eyes with a venomous hatred that rival’s his late father’s, and informs the shaken noble that a single wrong move will get him “slaughtered in the dead of night.” Toby Regbo has been giving his all for every one of Francis’ passionate outbursts and shortsighted moves, and he does do right by this vicious turning point in the king’s rule. There’s nothing Regbo can do, however, for the incredibly frustrating scene when Mary tells Francis she can’t help it; she blames him for her rape.
This would have set off alarm bells even if showrunner Laurie McCarthy hadn’t said that the rape itself happened primarily so they could flesh out Francis’ troubles, but knowing that he was the impetus for the rape makes this moment so much more troubling. As detailed above, “Mercy” handles most everything else about Mary’s trauma so well that this moment rings particularly false. It’s not that Mary should be thrilled about Francis’ consistent lying. It’s not that she should let him off the hook just because he vows to hunt down and kill the men responsible, like that would magically erase the painful past. It’s that despite the writers’ having Mary inoculate the moment with an acknowledgement that “it’s irrational,” her blaming Francis feels like a shoehorned moment. It’s a shortcut to finalizing the gulf between them when Mary herself admits that she doesn’t know yet how to feel, so that when Louis finally admits that he’s in love with her, she can be tempted. Most importantly, her blaming Francis makes her assault about Francis—and that’s the most irrational choice of all.
As mentioned earlier, though, there is a whole mess of other stories to get through in this hour, and so we turn to Catherine de Medici, who just may be losing her goddamn mind. Or is she? To be frank, the show’s teetering between exploring madness and embracing full-on supernatural specters of death is getting frustrating. I was burned by the disappointing conclusion of The Darkness—burned bad—and I refuse to be burned again. Between Nostradamus being sort of kind of right about things versus schemes like the Darkness and Caroline the Non-Possessed Nanny, I just don’t know what to make of Catherine’s dead twins manipulating her into poisoning Claude. There was always mystical speculation around the real Catherine de Medici, as there was around any women with a perceived amount of power, and Reign’s Catherine certainly believes in the otherworldly enough to employ Nostradamus as a trusted advisor. But the show itself has not taken a firm stance either way on whether that trust is misplaced and Catherine is a hysteric, or whether she’s perceptive in a world of nonbelievers. Is there something wrong with her, as Claude says? Is her seeing Henry—not to mention feeling Henry, hot damn, Reign—a side effect of watching Francis’ steady transformation into her deceased husband? (Though now that I’ve typed that out, it seems like a problematic comparison to draw.) It’s hard to say, and harder to understand quite where Catherine’s story is going. Also, it seems like bad form for a woman who’s been accused of murder several thousand times not to confront poor Claude about whether she actually killed her sisters, anyway. Lots of question marks around these vengeful twins and Henry insisting she say she wants him back, whatever “back” means, and so we once again have to wait and see what kind of roundabout explanation accompanies them after the break.
- There’s no conclusion regarding whether Claude’s dead, which leads me to believe she’s not. And I hope she isn’t! I’ve come to love our lewd, unapologetic, semi-incestuous interloper. Also, in real life she had nine children, so it would be a rather large deviation to kill her off now (she also had a hunchback and club foot, but this is still the CW).
- Welcome back(?) to King Henry/King Henry’s perpetually out of frame hand!
- Pleasantly surprised the show didn’t kill off Castleroy, and let Greer say with all honesty that she “feels more for him than gratitude.”
- Still: the show barely has time for Leith, so I can’t buy that Francis does in the middle of a crisis does, either.
- I did have a hesitation during the otherwise excellent ladies-in-waiting scene, as many commenters pointed out that Mary was the target of a failed rape plot involving Lola’s boyfriend at the beginning of the series, and Lola was less than sympathetic. Also, Catherine planned it. It was the pilot, so I doubt the show will address it, but it is jarring in the face of their unequivocal sympathy here.
- Narcisse, desperate: “I won’t fight you, but know that I deeply regret the pressure I put you under…” / Francis, unamused: “Shut. Up.”
- Mary: “I’m not ashamed of what happened to me. I was wronged by evil men. It was an act of war.”
- Thank you for your feedback and debate these past couple weeks, everyone. See you in January.