Well, that escalated approximately at the rate it was supposed to! In “Terror Of The Faithful,” the brewing conflict between Protestants and Catholics heads to the streets, as Francis reaps all the possible rewards of being easily blackmail-able because of secrets he kept for no reason from people he knew would be both sympathetic and helpful. And while that painfully avoidable circumstance keeps this episode from having the dramatic heft it could have, there are enough subplots churning to keep things busy,and occasionally very interesting, as the season’s thesis inches ever closer to the hard truth that when it comes to the nature of power, Catherine’s been right all along.

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In fact, in order to maximize those subplots, this is more or less an episode defined by decisions that backfire. Louis agrees to help the Protestant faction that kidnaps him, which I thought was just a ruse to free himself but turned out to be a thing he actually thinks will go well (really?), only to realize the preacher he’s pleading for is actually part of a plot against the throne. Mary keenly realizes they can’t create a Protestant martyr for fear of a general uprising, but when they send the tortured Preacher to the doctor, the Protestants make a martyr of him anyway, to his surprise. (Also to Mary’s surprise, somehow; she suffers from a late-onset case of Plot Stupids when it comes time to decide why the Protestants would kill one of their own leaders, and it isn’t until she sees the upside-down crucifixion that the penny drops.)

But Francis continues to take the cake on poorly considered mid-range tactics, from slapping the preacher on the rack to keeping Mary and Catherine in the dark to tipping his hand with Narcisse when it’s already far too late for one execution to clean up the mess. Why the show is dragging this out is beginning to seem beyond defense even given how stubborn Francis is; though the show’s done a fairly good job showing the ways Mary’s affected by it, it’s an immensely messy situation that feels like it’s being unnaturally sustained. Maybe the only real point of this is to really drive home that in an attempt to avoid becoming as ruthless as his parents, Francis is more ineffective than they were, and yet equally wracked with loathing and guilt.

This show can get lost trying to balance its lighter subplots with the historical sweep, and suffers regularly from thematic and character amnesia, but when it examines the nature of power, it’s actually kind of fascinating to see things circling back more and more strongly to the idea that Catherine, its first villain, was right the whole time. Being a ruler will always mean you can barely live with yourself; the only question is whether that makes you effective. Francis, surrounded by the no-win scenarios he’s backed himself into, is a bad king precisely because he followed his conscience. Lola might think he’s a good man—and that might even mean enough to him right now to draw them back together and put the final nail in the coffin of his marriage—but as this season is making clear, no one cares for good intentions. You rule through results.

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And as always in Reign, the women have a much cannier grasp of power than the men. In particular, Lola is rising from the swamp of her pregnancy storyline into some chewy court politics, and she’s handling them just well enough to demonstrate how easy it is for everything to fall apart. Lola leveled with Francis, but not so much as a gesture of loyalty to Francis as one to Mary (and frankly, if Francis doesn’t tell Mary, I hope Lola does, just to move this along). And when she does drop the dime on Narcisse, it’s a warning to him: threaten her child and face the consequences. He’s correct that the world’s a dangerous place, but Lola made all the moves she could—allying with the party in power, tipping her hand when it will make the biggest impression, and refusing to back down in front of Narcisse’s anger. She and we know that Narcisse makes a slimy enemy, but since she never seemed overly enthused about a relationship, she would have ended up on his bad side eventually—he doesn’t strike me as a guy who takes rejection well. And all this is in defense of her child, which is so direct a line to Catherine that I have to assume it’s intentional.

Speaking of Catherin, her behind-the-scenes machinations continue as she tries to marry off Claude to get her out of the extremely Gothic clutches of the two dead daughters only she can see. I’m still not entirely sold on Claude, who’s been thrown into the cast at a time when the show’s struggling to find a place for everyone, but since it gives Catherine more to do, she gets a grace period. They even counter their sniping with touching moments, where Catherine offers the closest she gets to maternal support during and after the Vatican’s invasive purity exam. It’s deep sympathy for someone who only showed up last week, and sowed just enough seeds of doubt that when we see the flashback to Catherine’s suffocated twin girls, we can’t be certain it’s Claude, even if Catherine seems pretty sure. But she’s never been honest with Claude, and as this episode makes starkly clear, lying to people for their own good never works. Claude ends the episode on Narcisse’s lap, determined to stir up trouble in an attempt to keep the maternal attention coming, negative or not.

But honestly, the biggest problem Catherine will face in the wake of all this isn’t Claude at all. In an unexpected but terribly fun scene with Bash, she can’t keep her eyes off her ghostly daughters, and ends up leveling with Bash in ways she hasn’t been honest with anyone since Nostradamus left. She admits it’s a moment of distraction (and the scene suggests it’s also a moment of Way Too Much Red Wine), but Bash can’t help but notice her lovingly tucking empty air into bed. It’s a very interesting beat: if anyone’s going to believe that she’s seeing ghosts, it’s Bash, who’s seen one of his own. On the other hand, they’re nowhere near close enough to actually admit to such an alienating experience. Even worse, in that moment, Catherine may have damned herself: she looks remarkably like Henry. I suspect that’s going to haunt her as much as any ghost.

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Stray observations:

  • Dress of the week: Catherine’s flashback getup was lovely. That over-the-shoulder mega-braid was exactly what you’d want to briefly visit your children and then swan off to look fabulous somewhere.
  • Catherine line of the week: “Well, the rack it is, then.”
  • Things are getting serious in France: lip-chopping, two murdered babies, and a non-consensual vaginal exam. (This show isn’t always consistent about touching on the idea of royal bodies as public property, but this was an interesting scene; it neatly drove home the humiliating awkwardness and quiet violence of a bunch of men of the cloth standing around while you’re prodded to determine that your body’s acceptably pure.)
  • I know Greer burned out her subplot minutes getting married, but it seems increasingly odd that Castleroy has not appeared in the middle of this Protestant turmoil yet.
  • Following a woman into the forest and running off her horse so she has to ride home with you is so sketchy I’m not sure where to begin. I’ve rarely been so relieved as by Lola’s tepid reaction to the entire thing. Lola: Marry a Creepy Probably-Murderer Once, Shame On You. Marry One Twice, Shame On Me.
  • There isn’t much made of the presence of the Vatican army, which seems like something Francis should object to—they’re an invading army on French soil without cause, isn’t that a problem?—but had Francis handled it, I’m sure that would have backfired, too.
  • I’ve watched enough media featuring pre-industrial travel that I thought if you’re transporting precious cargo and run across a log across the path, you pretty much assume it’s a trap and move quickly to secure everything. Is that not standard procedure?
  • Toby Regbo nailed that brief scene as Mary declares him a lost cause; you could see the last light of hope going out.
  • When Reign returns in December, Caroline will be back on the royal beat. Thanks to Caroline for giving me the chance to sift through the first part of the season, and thanks to everybody for reading!

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