There’s a particular rhythm to a typical episode of Game Of Thrones: the balance of plot twists and inevitable blows, a little character work, a broken heart or two. With Reign in the last big push to the season finale, tackling queens in three nations, and shuffling the ensemble cast into some unexpected combinations, it’s a smart move for episode writers Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts to borrow a little of that old Westeros pacing. And much like Game Of Thrones, how well it works depends almost entirely on the existing connection you feel for the characters, and how well these new threats translate amid the ongoing plot soup.
In terms of new threats, Mary’s unsteady and dangerous return to Scotland is the highlight of “Clans.” In some ways, dropping Mary into Scotland is a repilot. Visually, the metaphorically-apt rocky shore and misty hills are a contrast to the frilly French court (and episode director Fred Gerber puts real Outlander gusto into the landscapes). There’s an air of prestige to it, even amid the exposition. But even better—politically, Mary used to be the point-of-view character who was at the center of palace intrigue, and the transplant to Scotland’s murky civil conflicts might as well be a portal fantasy into another world for all she’s equipped to deal with them. It’s an instant set of stakes that we have to experience as it unfolds, rather than something easily explained, and it definitely works to stretch this episode into interesting places. Hell, she’s so desperate she looks to Narcisse for protection.
Craig Parker is the sort of actor who will archly smolder as much as you want, but his sweet spot halfway between dangerous and petulant. Good news for him, since once Narcisse and Mary are stranded on Scottish soil, the sniping never stops. It’s actually refreshing; people have hated Mary before, but there’s a particular energy in watching her being in close quarters with someone who knows her well enough and simply dislikes her. Parker sells the barb about “my constant foe” with appropriate venom—she killed his son, after all—but despite being resentful of her ability to overcome adversity with the good luck awarded the protagonist of an ongoing serial, there’s no real question about him helping her, either. It lends some weight to the very exposition-heavy introduction of the political situation in Scotland, but it also makes for some nice character shorthand. There’s a world of history and some character promise behind Narcisse’s incredulity that she’s still looking for someone to counsel her back to the throne: “I cannot help you be queen, or Scottish.”
Mary also ends in the best position to build suspense, as a semi-hostage of an enemy clan, and quickly getting her political bearings. She’s definitely aware that peacemakers don’t fare very well in civil wars (farewell, helpful Druids!), and is forming the sort of revenge plan that should fill up an episode until the finale. It’s actually fairly interesting, given that Mary’s still sifting through people she can trust one dude at a time, and the stakes are inherently higher now that Mary’s essentially powerless. But despite Bash’s staunch loyalty, we know Narcisse is the sort of ruthless jerk you want at your right hand when you’re planning to topple a few major political players (and given the look on her face, so does Mary). It’s a shame to lose him, even more so because Parker and Adelaide Kane play around with brittle honesty that gives both Narcisse and Mary some character work that will be hard to come by from someone else.
It’s also a shame because of the plots they’ve left in their wake, which attempt to churn up royal politics with decidedly less success. Charles’ attempt to build a spy network and oust Catherine from the Regency is seriously clunky—which is too bad, since there was potential to seed Charles’ rude awakening instead of just dropping quick setup for an obvious betrayal. (Also, treason and kidnapping aside, running a spy ring with your best French-nobility bros is probably going to last longer and be more effective if you aren’t also taking them on armed raids in public all the time.) And though it’s nice to see him in more solidarity with Claude, their scenes are almost ringingly hollow. Part of that is because the sheer speed of this subplot eats everything in its path. But part of that is that Claude—whose anger is totally legitimate—gets put in the position of delivering one of the show’s most interesting clunkers, declaring Catherine is “selfish, corrupt, and not worthy to rule.”
It goes by too quickly for a real reaction (Leith blanches, but it’s reflex rather than consideration). And it might just be an anguished outburst from Claude, who has every right to the grudge she bears her mother. But if the show expects us to believe that’s a valid platform about Catherine’s governmental acumen, it’s going to have to do a lot more work; even in an episode with hardly any Catherine in it, her approach to court politics is four times as effective as her children’s. If this is the show’s attempt to suggest generational growing pains, that was better handled during last season’s plague. If it’s attempting to pull a Cersei on Catherine’s tenuous position, it’s a miss. As the seed of next season’s chaos in the French court, though, this could be a fascinating stance; Claude and Charles forced to reckon with the same old pressures and compromises that molded Catherine into the viper she is.
And Elizabeth might know the most about those compromises. Though her disastrous courtship with Denmark is the comic relief subplot (and feels like it takes up more real estate than it does), it’s also the source of one of the bigger reveals this episode. Lola’s been strangely happy to stick her neck out—and from the POV of the show, that’s always been in earnest, so it was easy enough for Elizabeth to believe she was winning Lola over; she was. But the wrecked ship changes that, and now Lola, believing her queen is dead, might be on the verge of another inevitable mistake. (Of all the handmaidens who have been tossed around on the whims of the nobility, Lola’s always gotten the worst possible narrative deal. Her mistakes tend to be permanent.)
There’s a deliberate parallel in how Mary, Charles, and Elizabeth handle the threat of treason from within. Inexperienced Charles attempts to publicly quash the problem and reap the glory, and loses everything. Elizabeth soothes Lola’s guilty conscience and woos Lola’s favor harder than she ever tried to woo Denmark, begging for her friendship—in exchange, of course, for Lola becoming a subject of the Crown. It might even be a sincere offer of friendship. But in terms of ruling well, “Clans” respects only those who know how best to act among enemies.
And by Game Of Thrones standards, things are looking up! Sure, Charles is kidnapped, but he had it coming to a degree that we’re not meant to particularly care that he’s gone, only that Catherine will rise up like a dragon to defend him. Mary’s alive because she’s willing to bide her time, which is a welcome amount of tactical savvy from a woman whose historical inspiration was renowned for her impulsiveness. And best of all, Elizabeth survives because the best way to kill a spy is to turn them. The idea of three queens in parallel is a really exciting one (no matter where your period-piece flavor comes from); I can’t wait to see what Catherine does next, when she gets to handle a little treason of her own.
- Elizabeth dropping some DUFF strategy on Lola and then blithely promising “I don’t mean you!” was hilariously blatant.This show doesn’t always know how to balance teen drama and giant political stakes, but every so often it just stops caring and you get moments like this.
- “I will split hairs with you no longer.” Megan Follows got several hundred dollars a word this episode. She earns them.
- Bash has magic! It obviously won’t save him, but that’s nice!
- I wasn’t expecting Denmarksplaining, but thanks to Kyle Gatehouse, Prince Magnus is kind of glorious. Magnus for the major villain next season. (Not just on Reign, on every show. Think big.)
- Generally, Lola is interesting in inverse proportion to her proximity to a man she’s supposed to be wooing. I hope that the approach of Narcisse means she won’t have any more polite jawlines to navigate. (I still wouldn’t rule out Gideon getting a crush on her—he has a savior complex bubbling just below the surface right now and no one to use it on—but this cast has enough to navigate without extra hunks.)
- If TV has taught us anything about life, it’s that you never show anyone anything, because it will be used against you in a thematically-appropriate way in less than forty minutes. More specifically, why on earth are you storming out into the whisper gallery to talk shit about somebody? You have a giant palace!
- You know how sometimes a golden retriever will get incredibly excited about a really long stick and try to walk with it despite constantly getting it snagged on stuff? That’s Leith in this episode, right up until the disaster.
- Dress of the week: Obvious kudos to Mary’s travel gown, which managed to survive a shipwreck and the Scottish countryside. But the Magnus-matching blue on Elizabeth was a perfect touch for a state visit.