“And as a lady to the Queen of Scots, you’re nothing but a pawn in this. You poor fool.”
Among Reign’s priorities: Plot. Then trading on long memory or amnesia for its emotional beats. Then, time permitting, history. Consistent characterization is sort of at the bottom of the list for anyone who isn’t a royal. This means that Catherine contains multitudes, with a rich inner life that can justify any number of in-character decisions. It also means that we have Lola.
Lola is far from the only character who’s suffered at the hands of the Reign machine. (This episode alone, Bash has to go from zero to sixty on his surprise lingering feelings for Mary.) But Lola’s one of the few who consistently got plots that suggest that she was suited to become a player in this game of political chess. (Remember when she got the better of Catherine herself? Remember when she was incredibly pregnant and still stage-managed how to save her husband’s fake identity using the corpse of the man she’d just accidentally killed?) Sadly, she was one of the primary victims of Reign’s character amnesia, and her savvy came and went on a case-by-case basis. There are only so many character beats in an episode of Reign, and they’re distributed as plot demands. Occasionally that court-savvy calculation went to Kenna, or to Mary. And “To The Death” requires Lola to be bad enough at subterfuge that she’d try to shove pearls out of her sheer sleeve into someone’s reticule, and fail.
Lola’s actually in a much more interesting position than the show has played out so far. As a political hostage, she’s expected to stay loyal to Mary, but her life is daily in Elizabeth’s hands. That’s mostly manifested in some arch conversation about Lola’s missing family, and has moved into erstwhile friendship as the show has tried to move Elizabeth from antagonist to protagonist by humanizing her. And Lola’s political intelligence varies wildly scene to scene. She’s bad enough to get caught; she’s clever enough to spin a gorgeous alibi while trapped in the dungeons with Lady Somerset. (Lady Somerset delivers an accidental backhanded compliment for the ages.) But before the episode’s over Lola’s back in everyone’s good graces and advising Elizabeth on romance—fairly poorly, for someone who’s seen Mary’s love life. If this is a long con, more power to her; if this is that erstwhile friendship we’re supposed to be buying into, reminding us that Elizabeth’s been keeping Lola from seeing her son was maybe not the best way to cap this subplot. (Memory loss was working in your favor there, show.)
Then again, Lola’s hardly alone in her troubles. This episode brings back Castleroy—gone for a full season—simply to shuttle him offstage again. (That’s the long memory.) And Bash, after spending most of this season chasing serial killers and life-force mediums in the French woods, comes back roaring as he decides after a few awkward minutes in Mary’s company that he loves her and always has, though he’s apparently been fighting it all this time. (That’s the amnesia.)
Still, by now things like this are no surprise; anything else on this show moves in service to the plot. And there is a method at work underneath all these shenanigans; this is an episode about loyalty. Lola’s loyal to Elizabeth; Elizabeth’s loyal to her mother’s memory; the chambermaid who saw Anne and her brother was loyal to her mistress until she was tortured. Catherine, Narcisse, and Charles are united in their loyalty to France. Bash is loyal to Mary. The Red Knights are even loyal to the dead. And Castleroy gets out of plot prison expressly so he can be loyal to Greer. (What Reign does not lack, ever, is plot. Amid all these subplots, France has, solves, loses, regains, and fatally bungles a budget crisis.)
And that ongoing attempt to keep plot and theme moving at the same speed mean you end up with an episode in which a marriage is quietly strained by the ways life changes people, and also Craig Parker yanks off his shirt and goes to town with some Wolverine brass knuckles, and you’re expected to balance those tones yourself. The episode definitely can’t; despite the actors giving every disparate scene their all, there’s just too much going on. The poisoning of all of France’s major generals happens so fast, and shifts so quickly to the building-to-the-finale implications, that we lose any impact of the moment in its own instant aftermath.
It’s to the credit of the actors (and, let’s be honest, the modern-ballad music direction) that even in an episode where so much happens, you get a tug on the heartstrings. Greer has been narratively treading water since even before this paper-thin pregnancy subplot—too bad, since at her best she’s a ruthless new-money pragmatist. But at worst, she’s hanging around the tavern negotiating a pregnancy even more tedious than the show’s last pregnancy, and slowly being smothered in her story isolation. (Greer and Mary have been on disparate paths for so long that when Mary asks her, “Why didn’t you tell me?”, the only real answer is: At this point, why would she?) And yet, as Greer and Mary awkwardly say goodbye, there’s just enough weight to the moment that we realize they must know that, too. They understand this awkwardness, and still it’s the goodbye of two people who recognize loss.
Losing someone who’s been through hardship with you, even when it makes sense for them to leave, can sting, and for all its royal chess and soapy stage business, this is still a show starring young women trying to make their way in the world under pressure. The same way some scenes with Francis in season one had the visceral draw of first infatuation, scenes like this are reminders of saying goodbye to someone after you know what that really means. Greer was the last of Mary’s handmaidens standing, and while they might well meet again, it doesn’t feel like that when you’re young.
“To The Death” was top-heavy on plot, and it leaned awfully hard on us remembering a lot of things, and forgiving what it hoped we wouldn’t remember. (Bash has been sitting out this entire season; there’s no use putting the full-court press on us now!) But beats like this are a reminder that Reign can occasionally recognize the heart of things. It just expects you to do most of the remembering.
- Lola was seriously to hand for the Queen’s nightmare. Where exactly is she being held hostage? Does she have a cot set up in the dressing room?
- What alternate universe Reign inhabits officially endorses the idea that Anne Boleyn tried to sleep with her brother…just for the baby, of course.
- “Sexual mishap,” let us never forget, refers to the time that the priest having sex with Catherine’s doppelganger in a mill was de-penised by a freak pre-industrial accident. It is, to date, maybe the third weirdest sex thing to happen on this show.
- Catherine’s corporate strategy is impeccable. Why anyone ever goes against her advice is beyond me. (Megan Follows delivery of the week: “Remind him we killed the last group of soldiers we couldn’t afford to pay? No.”)
- Most Game Of Thrones retort of the episode: “I will be taking an enormous risk.” “We’re talking about war, aren’t we?”
- I literally cannot believe this show followed through with Castleroy after all this time. One of my favorite out-of-nowhere subplots that vanished just like it appeared.
- Do you think the show regrets naming Castleroy Aloysius when he was first introduced? Sure, back then he was intended for comic relief and looked like a law clerk in a Dickens miniseries and not the grizzled rogue he would become as Protestantism and feminist love for Greer overtook him. But once that was his name, that was what Greer had to call him mid-seduction scene. Based on nothing but the way she tries to give the name tender intimacy this episode, you get the sense that if they could do it over again, they’d have given him something slightly hunkier.
- Dress of the week: Elizabeth’s formal couture was one of those examples of modern-day finery that speak for themselves as to why the show uses them at all. But this week, I’m going to give it to Lola, for having the guts to shove three feet of giant fake pearls into the sleeve of her sheer blouse and hope for the best.