A lot of what made the early arc of the season so successful was the ways it tried to take the intricacies of power seriously without quite taking itself seriously: You were surrounded by plague, but there was time to snipe at your successor in a throne room, pull up the sheets for a chaste love scene, and/or be Craig Parker. It also highlighted how everyone’s positions are complicated by the outside world amid claustrophobic court life. It can be difficult to manage all those at once (which is how you get episodes like “Blood For Blood”), but this show is very capable of smartly spinning one or two of those plates at a time.
Both as a departure from the seriousness of the rest of the season and as a reminder of the benefits of focus, “Three Queens” is pretty fun. It’s a distinctly Xena A-plot, with some of the best comedy this show’s seen since Catherine and Henry cleaned up a crime scene. (It’s also equally at odds with the trend of the season, but if you’re going to have a filler, make it one like this.) The parallels of women needing backup plans and quick wits works neatly enough to avoid the patchwork effect of busier episodes. And though Catherine has understandably been adrift without a throne to hold on to or Nostradamus to help her poison people, this episode feels like a promise from writer Doris Egan to Megan Follows that she’d get to have a ball.
Putting Mary and Catherine on the run is a stretch, and requires one of the strangest twists this show’s ever pulled (we’ll get there). But as they talk their way through the hostile countryside, we get to see them out of their element and on equal footing, thinking quickly and true to character—Mary to pacify via helpful compromise, and Catherine to latch on to weakness. It’s especially hilarious stuff from Megan Follows, who relishes every moment, and if its playfulness is a bit out of place, well, so are they. The reason they have to flee—violent discontent stirred up by imposters to the throne—is a more serious reminder that Mary and Francis are still fair game for upheaval, and the claustrophobia of royal life means the Queen can sit in the same room with her imposter and not be noticed. (Catherine’s less offended than intrigued by it all; Catherine respects hustle.) And the imposter queen is just charming enough that we enjoy the three queens’ multi-layered conversations about playing parts.
But Megan Follows is adept at navigating the tonal shifts here, so as funny as it is to watch her using her ankle as an excuse to get out of milking goats, she’s also more than capable of selling harsher moments, and one of the best scenes in the episode is Catherine’s discussion with Mary about the unwanted inheritance of royal-marriage baggage. No matter how much Mary insists “Francis is not his father,” Catherine has spent far longer among princes; since Mary will have to play a part sooner or later, it’s better for her to drop expectations of romance and start lying now (notable in an episode about how effective it can be to be an imposter). It might be a little on-the-nose that Mary and Francis discuss that very thing in the cold open, but it’s worth it just to watch Mary recognize a rare instance of Catherine being sincere, and its implications. Mary’s surprised Catherine’s being so earnest (we’re all surprised!), but clearly Catherine’s recognition of a good hustle extends to her daughter-in-law.
In fact, this might be the most impressed Catherine’s ever been by Mary. She even approaches Francis—who’s increasingly tuning her out—to warn him not to lose Mary’s trust, which Francis treats (understandably) like a trap, and thus will slowly doom him to disregard Mary and turn into his father. It’s nicely dark; one of the things this show does very well is show us ways in which people in similar situations get similarly trapped, whether that’s financial straits or the pressures of royal life. And though Francis brushes Catherine’s advice aside, still unable to confide in his wife, this episode gives us our first hints that Mary, at least, is beginning to understand Catherine’s methods. (When they’re being led astray by Captain NeverSeenHim BadGuy, and Catherine pulls out a hair comb, Mary positively perks up: “Poisoned?” Catherine, in one of Megan Follows’ best-ever deliveries: “Oh, you say that so hopefully now.”)
The big reveal about who was behind the imposters’ rabble-rousing (Elizabeth!) jogs everyone’s memory about the claims Mary made to the British throne. However, even given the show’s awfully loose historical context, we know from last season that no one’s happier to have Mary firmly ensconced in far-away France than Elizabeth. Elizabeth wants Mary to live in France forever, far, far away from English shores, and rocking the boat on Mary’s accession is more likely to make France look to England as an enemy. However, we needed a reason behind this road-trip caper, and Elizabeth it is. We’ll see where that leads; this is enough of an alternate universe that Elizabeth might well have another universe of reasons, and she’d make one hell of an opponent.
Taking the claustrophobic angle back home is Lola, whose family disowns her, and who becomes determined to find independence. Her sudden, utter loneliness feels like it should be a bigger deal emotionally, but since it’s treated like the plot grist it is, we’ll be generous and assume she knew it was coming. Lola’s attempt to escape this patriarchal limbo, though getting her dowry money back is, of course, a no-go. Luckily Narcisse offers to help, in an attempt to convince her he’s just a nice, normal, sexy guy who didn’t starve the peasantry during the plague and marry a woman against her will and who is definitely primo dating material.
How it happens—sexy teatime, 50 Shades of Archery, and a bath—is pure romance novel, but Popplewell and Parker seem in on the joke, which helps sell a pairing that’s come out of left field. (Hats off to the in-joke of teaching Anna Popplewell how to shoot a bow and arrow.) And Lola outmaneuvering Narcisse’s sexy-bath suggestion is the smartest thing she could have done. It keeps him from having the upper hand in a situation that’s pretty creepy, and is a reminder of the handmaiden who blackmailed Catherine and has spent a long time treading water in a baby subplot with a side of fake-identity husband. (Her subplot list might be soapier than Kenna’s, which seems a lot to ask of a character who often seems barely able to believe her own problems.)
She wraps up the evening by calling back to his archery neg, ensuring his love forever: “The beginning is often promising. The trick is to go on that way.” I still see zero reason this should be the chosen subplot in the wake of Megan Follows and Craig Parker hurling every possible glad eye at one another in the season’s first arc, but if this must happen, let it happen this way: with Lola deciding what she wants and playing that game on her terms. She’s spent long enough in her tedious subplot. Give her something wicked to do.
- Did Torrance Coombs do something terrible we don’t know about? He got shut out of his job for the second week in a row by Louis and had to stay behind in the palace. In theory that’s a big move—casually making your bastard brother regent after some notable power struggles suggests the sort of casual comfort the nobles are keen to dismantle. And yet they never once cut back there to show how he was handling the strain of possibly losing two generations of queens. What’s going on here?
- Relatedly, I’m baffled about Louis. Not that he’s terrible, but after six episodes of being substitute Bash, he has yet to do more than…be substitute Bash. He needs to get more interesting in a hurry.
- Dress of the week: Among some oddly tufted skirts (poor Megan Follows, carrying ten pounds of tufted taffeta!), Mary’s blue lace gown is lovely.
- Line of the week: Honestly, anything from the mouth of Megan Follows was pure gold, but for sheer economy of language, let’s go with, “Ah, Mary,” in which she makes a meal of two syllables. (Close second: “Alas, my poor ankle.” Third: “Perhaps not right now.” Fourth: “I may not care about peasants individually, but in general, I care a great deal.”)
- I find it sweet, if often misguided, that Kenna’s become the mother hen. “I once thought I could play a powerful man and I lived to regret it.” Yes, but Kenna, you were dreadful at it. Lola demonstrates more game in this episode alone than you did for the entire first half of last season.
- I really appreciate that Lola was very clear her handmaiden knew the score before she went to Peeping Tom Tower for that bath. Ditto that Narcisse helped Lola before he ever went to the tower. Likely? Nah. But it’s the little things that keep me from recoiling from my TV sometimes.
- I’m not a PR professional, but surely when confronted with a bitter and destitute farmer who was burned out by your imposters, a king might want to give them a little money? No? Guess not.
- Francis and Mary’s slowly crumbling marriage is so much more rewarding than their happy days. Every time Francis lies to Mary or Mary shuts him out, a character-beat angel gets its angsty, angsty wings.