Sometimes there’s an episode of Reign that makes you think about the architecture underneath the show. And then sometimes there’s an episode of Reign that fires on all cylinders and ends up being very much itself and not quite like anything else on TV. The result, when it works, is pulp perfection. That’s pretty much what we get with “No Way Out.”
Are there this show’s trademark hairpin turns of characterization? Naturally, and hilariously. In last episode’s big reveal, Catherine was cowering in fear from her serial-killer boyfriend Christophe, in a way that looked very loaded for a show that has not handled threats of sexual violence very well in the past. Tonight, her attitude’s already changed, with such devil-may-care pragmatism that only Megan Follows could deliver both the comedy and the steel of it. (Despite some really discomfiting undertones in the situation, the actual text is absolutely comedy: She’d afraid of him, sure, but really she just wishes Christophe wouldn’t kill so close to the house.) And Catherine “Any Port In A Storm” de’Medici knows how to make use of an ally. Judging from her last look off the parapet as her new enemies retreat, she’s going to point her pet serial killer at the Thirteen Knights like he’s one of those newfangled pistols the British keep going on about. On one level, such a sudden dynamic shift is ridiculous; on another, it’s kind of fearless. Christophe was smoldering window dressing for quite a while. As the serial-killer boyfriend Catherine’s negotiating for her own purposes, he’s a hundred times more interesting than he was three episodes ago. Is it still unsettling? Very. But after “No Way Out,” I’m at least curious about where the show plans to take this, which is more than I can say even an episode ago.
Those enemies Catherine’s up against: A long-dormant, vaguely-supernatural subplot rising suddenly from the past. This show is happy to veer into alternate-history territory; it’s a lot cagier about its supernatural elements. Enter a creepy Baphomet mummer and those thirteen knights who seem otherworldly but, given what this show has done in the past, will likely come down on the side of flesh and blood. (Unless they’re ambassadors of Catherine’s ghost husband—still one of the most delightfully bizarre subplots they’ve ever managed.) Is it late in the season to be introducing a new, mysterious enemy? It sure is, but there’s got to be some mystery, and Catherine’s already solved the hell out of that serial-killer thing! The hint of Devil worship that Bash brings up even circles back to his Pagan roots, which Reign seemingly forgot about a season ago. It’s a veritable banquet of supernatural-soap delights.
And that’s before we get to the actual politics, which are the standout of this episode. Ever since the introduction of the English court, there’s been a sense of inevitability. Despite all the alternate-history sidesteps, this is still a show that killed off its King Francis to cement Mary’s trajectory as a widowed queen. Until the last episode, the English court had been a cheat sheet of Elizabethan hallmarks with a little secret history on the side. Dismissing William in “Succession” suggested the English court was finally going to join the alternate-history party. And in“No Way Out,” episode writer Wendy Riss makes Elizabeth’s big move: Elizabeth names Mary her successor.
This is a definite sidestep of history: Elizabeth deliberately dithered over officially naming a successor to keep herself the best and most stable choice for a monarch. It’s still secret-history territory if things fall apart, but simply having it feels like such a decisive move, for however long it lasts, that it opens a new window on the queens. Elizabeth doesn’t want to give the Council an excuse to put a male heir on the throne, and if Mary accepted the offer, it would shake her position in Scotland and cement her claim to the English throne as lesser than Elizabeth’s. It’s a masterful political move; Reign‘s feminist aspirations have always come into sharpest focus around issues of governing power. (Even Elizabeth’s relationship with Dudley is only interesting through a lens of political influence.) Elizabeth wins because she can think fast and act first, and heartlessly. In “No Way Out” she recognizes her love for Dudley, and instantly sends him out of the country to marry Mary; harsh, but clever as hell. (Will he act as a spy for his beloved Queen? Will he sympathize with Mary? Will he help her merely to get closer to home? Whatever new world this episode is building, for however long it lasts, it’s an interesting one. Amazing what a little uncertainty will do.)
Mary, who’s less ruthless, has had a harder time, since Scotland is an ideal and she still dreams of being a beloved monarch, or at least a welcome one. That sort of idealism has tripped her up endlessly. But not in “No Way Out!” In “No Way Out” she lies to Gideon, raises a Vatican army in secret, and plans the first step in a subterfuge designed to get her back on Scottish soil before anyone’s the wiser. How? Well, the plan’s still nebulous, but it definitely involves seducing Gideon.
Gideon fairly quickly went from brooding antihero to beleaguered single dad, which was our first hint that he was going to be next in line for Mary’s heart. Of course, the only real way to Mary’s heart has been for a man to support her rule hard enough for her to believe him. (Over the course of the show, that requisite level of support starts at “Can Barely Pretend.”) What surprises us about Gideon is that Mary has apparently, finally, learned from the past. She’s fond of Gideon, fond enough to want to be honest with him; she’s also happy to use him for whatever will help her take back Scotland. This is, by Reign standards, a fascinating turn of events. Historically, Mary’s legacy is how chronically bad she was at making these ruthless decisions; pressed on both sides, she crumbled, and made the sort of terrible romantic choices that a monarch in rebellion just can’t afford. Her pride preserved her campaign. She was outmatched by The Virgin Queen. The boldest alternate history Reign has ever suggested is that Mary might actually have what it takes to rule.
Reign is such an uneven show that it’s hard to say how this will go. There’s so much joyful payoff in this episode, with such fascinating setup, and no promise whatsoever that any of it will stick. (This show can reverse or peel out of a seemingly-crucial plot point faster than nearly any other series on TV.) But I desperately want to hope that this feint into is going to play out for a little while longer. Dudley in the French court? Mary double-crossing Queen Elizabeth? Elizabeth’s adviser warns her about Mary, “That’s not a successor. That’s a replacement.” Imagine that.
- Director Fred Gerber made the most of the psychological chewiness of the queens this week; even with so much plot to get through, there were some welcome lingering shots of Mary, Elizabeth, and Catherine facing off—both against the men in their lives, and against the future itself.
- Bash hasn’t had a real personality to speak of since the downward spiral of his marriage to Kenna; arguably he’s been without a real personality since his brief time as heir to the throne when he and Mary were in love. (There was a distinct air of Love Triangle Panic after that, and since then, he and Mary might as well inhabit parallel universes that only meet during an equinox.) Having him team up with Catherine is a great start, and this episode even lets him get a flicker of personality in, when he points out the Crown’s dirty work isn’t the same as Catherine’s dirty work, and he resents the latter. He’s always been markedly close to Catherine in terms of method and motive: Do anything for those you love, and let God sort it out. If the show remembers that, these two could make a really interesting team.
- Related: Craig Parker is clearly treading water until it’s time for him to burst back onto the scene just in time to be heroic/awful, and is doing yeoman’s work in the meantime making us wonder which it will be. Continuity of characterization has never been a strength of this show, which will bend whoever it has to in order to get pieces set up for the next plot twist, and it takes sheer force of will for actors to hang on to a sense of a character through such wide swings.
- Related: Lola, confiding in Elizabeth about her personal situation with Narcisse: “They remain unopened in a pile because he lied to me and I deplore him.” It’s true, and sounds like a confession, but it’s also a reminder that she has powerful people at home, just in case Elizabeth was thinking Lola was friendless. When she’s written with a spine, Lola’s one of the savviest characters on this show. It’s everything you could hope for from a political hostage: actual politicking.
- Of the many deaths this show has given us, slamming a trunk lid on someone’s head until their skull caves in might be the strangest.
- One of the most deliciously ambiguous lines Megan Follows has ever delivered, to Mary: “Sadly, I believe your thinking is right.”
- Catherine grabbing the wine glass out of Narcisse’s hand and downing it in one go, mid-dramatic exit: Megan Follows is a treasure.
- This show’s romance beats can often feel like a slightly self-conscious prom photo. When Gideon clutches her close and whispers, “We must find a way to save you both,” it graduates into unabashed romance. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing—in an episode that has its own stage play, why not get a little theatrical with everything?)
- “Guns are terribly unreliable. They often misfire.” :everyone looks into the audience for a second awkwardly:
- “Honestly, Catherine, I don’t know.” Mary’s able to keep secrets even from herself (nice beat from Adelaide Kane), and Catherine couldn’t be more ambiguously proud/wary of her morally-muddled protege.
- Dress of the week: It’s got to go to the masked theatricals. Somehow that brief play-within-a-play felt like a bigger-budget move than one of their giant party scenes; slightly stylized, and one of those hat-tips to history, in which monarchs were knee-deep in flattering performance art.