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Reign

THE CW UPFRONTS 2013

By all logic, I should hate Reign. Instead, I seem to have found a new addiction.

The new CW show is about the young Mary Queen of Scots, when she goes to the French court to marry the Dauphin. In theory. A character called Mary does go to a country called France, and is betrothed to the heir to the throne. She comes from Scotland, and England is her enemy. But in all other areas, the show is so historically inaccurate that using words like “history” and “accuracy” in the same sentence as it seems ridiculous. A couple of the characters wear clothes that appear vaguely pre-19th century, but most of the protagonists float around in dresses ranging from prom wear to modern couture. They wear pretty floral headbands and crazy braids and dance with no shoes on and have names like Lola and Aylee.

To be honest, this is all in the show’s favor. Any apparent attempt at historical accuracy would make the whole thing collapse as the historical failure that it is. But with such blatant disregard for even the appearance of accuracy, it’s easy to think of it as some kind of fantasy alternate history, as real as steampunk vampire hunters, and just go with it.

And when you go with it, there’s a lot to enjoy. Every detail is gorgeous, from those modern dresses and hairstyles to the lush scenery and the rich coloring of the shots. There’s a wonderfully Gothic element, with disused hidden tunnels and murder in the woods and a girl who whispers warnings and hides her face. And Mary is a pretty kickass queen so far. She’s intelligent and resourceful, determined and brave. She has people trying to kill or sabotage her at every turn and cannot be sure who to trust, and she faces this with steely resolve and a fighting spirit. While many shows might keep their heroine in the dark about the source of her troubles (in Mary’s case, her potential mother-in-law is scheming against her), Mary has got it all figured out midway through episode two. She has no evidence, of course, but she is quick-witted and observant enough to know precisely what is going on. She might not be like the historical Mary, but she’s a great character to see on screen.

Mary’s character is supported by an array of secondary female characters, including her strangely-named ladies in waiting (mostly there, so far, for romance and giggles), the scheming Catherine de Medici, and the mysterious girl who hides in tunnels and is the show’s most intriguing prospect so far. While it is all rather silly and fun, it’s also an easy Bechdel pass and Mako Mori test pass and general “here are female characters being interesting and individual and playing important roles in the plot” pass.

Of course, there are still things to irritate. Despite the fact that “historical accuracy” has been abandoned for pretty much everything else, Reign still has an all-white cast, a problem that could easily have been fixed. Shows about the Western European courts in the 16th century may have some justification for a lack of diversity, but Reign has more than lost that excuse. There’s also a plotline with a would-be rapist where he receives far more sympathy from Mary than he could possibly deserve. And of course, as a history nerd, there is the irritation that the CW felt it necessary to change so much about Mary’s story, instead of either being accurate or calling it fantasy from the beginning, especially when Mary’s life was such a drama-fest anyway.

But if you shove history aside and are looking for something a little bit silly, a little bit romantic, a little bit Gothic and very pretty, Reign is definitely worth a shot. The first episode is on Hulu now.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

12 thoughts on “Reign

  1. I would’ve preferred if it was all fiction or alternate history. If they are going to change Mary’s story, then just make it all fiction about a different young queen named Mary, in other words just make a historical fantasy. Forget about trying to make anything historically accurate. At this point Mary Queen of Scots is a burden to the writers. There are checkpoints in Mary’s life that they want to hit, so the story always has to move in a certain direction. With an AU Mary or an original character they would’ve been free to do anything they wanted and the nitpickers wouldnt be able to complain about historcal accuracy. I suppose a tv executive would be more willing to green light a project about a young mary queen of scots than a fictional young queen (despite the fact that the name “Reign” could work for both)

    1. I agree with you. The vague historical links are frankly distracting at this point, and it does disappoint me that the *actual* life of Mary Queen of Scots (or even just her actual dresses) wasn’t considered exciting enough for a show, when it was full of drama.

      And yet I find myself loving the show despite myself.

  2. I suspect ‘Aylee’ might be spelt ‘Eilidh’, which is a good Scottish name. Kenna and Greer sound vaguely Scottish, too. :)

    I’m only one episode in so far and I love it for all the reasons you’ve mentioned here — I really enjoyed your review and it’s persuaded me to stick with it a little longer.

    However (and it’s a big however), my biggest sticking point so far, and the one which will determine whether I stick with this series long-term, is the ENORMITY of the double standard that was just brushed over so very quickly. Early on, we see Francis being pretty awful to Mary when she interrupts his time with his secret lover and has the temerity to call him out on it. Then, later, Francis is — again — pretty awful to Mary after Colin attacks her, telling her she can’t behave in such a manner and that basically, it’s all her fault and how dare she.

    Fine, I get it — women were treated that way in the 1500s. But what REALLY bugs me is that Francis is obviously going to be held up to be Mary’s main love interest. Again, fine, they were betrothed, whatever. But we’re supposed to actually *like* him after he behaves this way? Count me out!!

    One episode in and I’m already rooting for Bash. No, scratch that, I’m rooting for Mary.

    Anyway. Please forgive the rant, but I’ve had it brewing in my head all day and I happened upon your post after a Google search and agree with a lot of what you said. I don’t have a problem with the historical inaccuracies because I think it’s fun to be artistic with the facts and it’s not meant to be taken terribly seriously, anyway.

    I shall continue watching, for now. :)

  3. It’s interesting to read your opinion since I see the women in reign as so HORRIDLY anti-feminist. Mary’s character has some degree of intelligence and strength, but other than that her ladies in waiting are completely flat characters. They are motivated ONLY by love and romance, and are entirely defined by their sexuality.

    Kenna literally doesn’t ever have a conversation with the king when he starts completely taking advantage of her. He continues to bribe and pressure her to have sex with him for four episodes, which is something she’s okay with because her horniness is her defining feature. Then, when they finally begin seeing each other, she is jealous, untrusting, and competitive with the females around her. So basically her qualities are horny, jealous, and presumptuous. She’s not a strong female character. She’s a typical archetype written by a man who clearly doesn’t understand the emotions of women.

    The ONLY conversations Mary and her ladies have together are about romance and sex. When Nostradamus offers to tell their fortunes they ALL (except Aylee) ask romantically related questions. Besides Mary, none of them have any ambitions other than to be married. I understand that this is partially because of the time period, but at the same time I completely agree that there was NO attempt made at historical accuracy. Why couldn’t they given them other hobbies and interests? Even if it was really simple, like if Lola really liked to read or something. The worst part is that they all prize their relationships with men so much higher than their friendships. A prime example is when Thomas was a total DICK to Greer and started pursuing Mary. Greer didn’t get mad at Thomas for being a DICK, she got mad at Mary, who really did nothing wrong. Olivia, too, is willing to forsake Mary’s kindness because she’ll stop at nothing to “reclaim her man”. The relations between the women are backstabbing, jealous, untrusting, and completely defined by their relationships to the men.

    Basically, Reign has two types of women: the horny maidens who only think about sex, and the vicious, vindictive mothers who will stop at nothing to get power for their sons. They’re really standard, overused female archetypes. There is some depth to Catherine de Medici’s character (as revealed in the episode where she saves Mary and her Ladies) but she still fits the wicked queen archetype pretty perfectly. In my opinion, the most interesting characters in Reign are Francis and Sebastian: the men. Unlike the ladies in waiting, they have motives other than getting laid. Bash, for example, has to deal with being moral and loyal to his family in spite of his power-hungry mother.

    The feminist inside me cringes when I watch Reign. I so badly want there to be strong female characters, and although Mary has shown more strength in recent episodes, her and Catherine are pretty much the only girls with any depth. Still, I can complain forever and it literally means nothing, because I’m addicted to the show. It’s so beautifully made. The art direction is so great, and even though the costumes are SOO far from accurate, they’re stunning. It’s such a guilty pleasure.

    1. I definitely agree about Mary’s ladies. They’re basically interchangeable in my eyes, except for who each one has a relationship with. The show could definitely do a LOT better there. When one of them was killed off in the last episode, it was a complete shrug and move on moment, because I couldn’t have said a single thing about her, not her name, not her interests, not even her love interest. Nothing. But I do think that Mary is a wonderful character, and I find Catherine de Medici fascinating too. On the one hand, she does fulfil the “evil stepmother” role, but I think the show has taken her beyond that as her relationship with Mary has gotten more complicated, and she’s created some good Bechdel passing moments where she and Mary can talk about the struggles they face as court women, rather than just about Francis. The show is definitely pure guilty pleasure fun, and I have to shove my historical brain far far away when I watch it, but it definitely has its strengths, I think. As far as how feminist it is… I guess we’ll see how it handles Mary and her ladies when it comes back!

    2. Exactly, exactly, exactly! *Everything* Samantha said. And then some!

      Like the way they show that the King is so much nicer than the Queen. Coz men who all but browbeat women barely old enough to be their daughters into sleeping with them are ‘nice’. And what’s with all the mansplaining about why women’s virtue (ugh) being more important is ‘reasonable’. Are they serious? They have to believe that crap for them to have their –female!–characters say it, don’t they?!

      I’m not as taken with the show (I find the writing, dialogue weak. But the cinematography is nice!), even if the hadn’t been so anti-woman, so I can imagine how much more frustrating it must be for people who like it. My heartfelt sympathies!

      1. I have a very different impression of the King and Queen than you. I always felt that the King was presented as the creepy, skeevy man that he is, and that although Catherine de Medici is a more overt antagonist for Mary, she’s also given a lot more depth and is quite a compelling character, especially in later episodes. I didn’t get that mansplaining sense from it, either. To me, it seemed more an exploration of a very true reality for women at court, but one that could be used to gain some form of political power (at least, in the Tudor English court). And Mary certainly seemed outraged that this was the reality she was supposed to deal with.

        1. Sorry, Rhiannon, I forgot to check back for a reply here.

          I think yours is a generous interpretation –and I wish most others would receive their two characterizations like you have– but the writing, and therefore the writers, suggest that the King is more reasonable. Heck, in the context we live, misogyny –and internalized misogyny– is so deep-rooted that even when a creators/writers don’t intend the character to be a primary antagonist or at all, people seem keen on hating the women (recent example: Breaking Bad – I don’t know if you watched this show, but I found, quite late in the game, that fans think and vocally declare that Syklar is the bad ‘guy’!! Some say she should die. It’s so ridiculous, it should be guffawing but it’s just super depressing, you know?), so I have very little doubt that the masses, the ones who aren’t media-literate (unlike you and others who have commented here) to deflect these messages, will unfortunately accept that the King, ‘for all his faults, is still kinder’ and what not. I re-watched the parts where I originally felt the writers were doing that, and I feel they most definitely are suggesting that.

          Anyway, I did end up watching the rest of the season, and as you said, the Queen’s character is fleshed out more, so I’m glad for that, but first impressions, as they say, seem to be quite lasting for most, so I worry. Clearly, media has everyone convinced we live in a post-racist, post-sexist world and that “women are the worst” [bosses/best-friends/what-have-you], sot I’m always thinking in the back of my mind –good thing I compartmentalize easily otherwise I’ll never be able enjoy media!– about how sexist/racist/heteronormative/ableist/etc. messages in media will be received.

          Re: mansplaining – I caught it in a couple of specific dialogues, like in the one I referred to in my first comment. They have the girl (woman? I think they say they’re 16, right?) –Kenna, I think– tell the King that the reason why her [/women’s] virginity is important to maintain is because people can’t know for sure whose children she’ll be procreating. She says this in a way of explanation, like she accepts it, like it’s fine to have to forgo the sexual freedom that men have, because she had the arbitrary luck to be born a woman, because nature decided human zygotes should have n:1 relationship, not n:n (BTW how did they know this then, BTW? :D) so of course the logical decision is for men to decide they can’t not know whose children their ‘loved’ ones are procreating, so of course women shouldn’t have sex before a man owns them. As opposed to something more reasonable like, I don’t know, waiting not to have sex for the first year after they wed, so as to make sure any zygotes formed after the wedding will only be from the couple’s gametes.

          This strikes me as a way to discount/dismiss the sexism and power dynamics involved in restricting women’s sexual freedom and choices. Coz while the reasons given might be technically true, it clearly ignores the context of sexism and misogyny, not to mention the utter atrocity in penalizing someone for what they cannot do anything about. What’s your take on this?

          1. I think it’s a complicated issue, because Reign is at least ostensibly set in a 16th century court where women were used as pawns and where misogyny was far more ingrained. I think it’s realistic that characters like Kenna would have internalized the things they’re told about themselves and their sexuality pretty much from birth, and in some ways, an explorations of these expectations is a lot more interesting than characters who completely rebel and act like they don’t matter. Of course, this would be a much better defence if the rest of the show were even vaguely historically accurate! And as it’s a show that I think is primarily aimed at teenagers, they have to achieve a very delicate balance, where Kenna’s words aren’t taken as the truth of the matter. I’m not sure they achieved that. Reign is quite a complicated show for me, because I find it incredibly fun to watch, and love the characters of Mary and Catherine, and enjoy the insane twisty drama of it, but the character of the King and those of the ladies maids do need more consideration.

      2. Sorry, I meant to elaborate why I said this: “but the writing, and therefore the writers, suggest that the King is more reasonable” and not leave at a dogmatic statement in the lines of I-am-right-you’re-wrong!

        Some of instances where I feel they do this are when the King and Queen are discussing their youngest(?) son’s engagement and they have him expressing some concern for the kids but she insists it is a good business decision. Also, when they have her telling him not to change his mind (or was it hesitate), lest he appear weak. These are classic conditioning messages of patriarchal ‘masculinity’ taught my men to men, not of ‘femininity’. What the writers are doing –and I don’t think it’s out of malicious intent, so they actually believe it!– is passing off his –which extrapolates to men in general– choices/decisions to be manipulated or strongly influenced by her –all women. (Either way, from what I read, Henry gave Catherine almost no opportunity to be involved in politics, but they’re not being historically accurate anyway, so it doesn’t amount to much)

        BTW, and quite interestingly, these writers did something a little more unusually anti-woman than I’ve seen in media with respect to motherhood (which generally involves a bunch of benevolent sexism): in the finale (or one preceding that), they have Bash be disapproving of his mother when he finds she was the reason he wasn’t being killed –this was before he knew she was responsible for the entire attack. That seems especially anti-woman. I have no way to prove this, but I don’t think the writers would have been so quick to have her condemned if it were man who had bribed to keep him alive.

        UK show-runners seem to be able to write with considerably less sexism, or at the very least, with more empathy and rounded-ness. Of course they seem to completely gloss over what actually happened in the past, but I suppose that’s not unique to them. I’ve been watching a couple of Australian shows lately and the shows written by this specific group of creators seem quite devoid of a lot of overt sexism. And all women seem to have careers by default, not just the lead or selective few. I recommend Love my Way (the writing is dark like Six feet Under, so brace yourself), Spirited, and Offspring and pass Bechdel often. I made the mistake of thinking that maybe Australian shows in general are more evolved, but turns out that’s not the case: all these shows that are not sexist are written by the same writers. Unfortunately, they’re all lily-white casts, with exception of a token POC in one of them. Being WOC myself, I find it very discouraging. Which reminds me that I should recommend Rebel: it has a strong, yet flawed, WOC lead and is written rather well.

        Sorry that these comments are this long!!

        1. I guess it is a complicated matter of perspective. I enjoy the trope of the steely queen character, and I think presenting her as someone who puts politics before emotion defies a lot of stereotypes of mothers and women in power… but at the same time, it DOES play into other negative stereotypes that women in power are cold-hearted, unfeeling harpies who put ambition for anything and nag their husbands half to death. By avoiding the traditional “weak, feminine” stereotype for Catherine, they walk straight into another set of problems. But it has the potential to be a subversion, since the “weak feminine” stereotype is supposed to be *good* and the strong queen caricature is supposed to be very negative. But how well the subversion works depends on the skill of the writers and on the preconceptions of the audience. Considering people’s reactions to characters like Skylar, as you said, a character that I want to see as dynamic and interesting might just appear as “horrible villain bitch” to most others.

          Thanks for the recs! I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Australian show, so I’ll have to seek them out!

  4. Sorry, I meant to elaborate why I said this: “but the writing, and therefore the writers, suggest that the King is more reasonable” and not leave at a dogmatic statement in the lines of I-am-right-you’re-wrong!

    Some of instances where I feel they do this are when the King and Queen are discussing their youngest(?) son’s engagement and they have him expressing some concern for the kids but she insists it is a good business decision. Also, when they have her telling him not to change his mind (or was it hesitate), lest he appear weak. These are classic conditioning messages of patriarchal ‘masculinity’ taught my men to men, not of ‘femininity’. What the writers are doing –and I don’t think it’s out of malicious intent, so they actually believe it!– is passing off his –which extrapolates to men in general– choices/decisions to be manipulated or strongly influenced by her –all women. (Either way, from what I read, Henry gave Catherine almost no opportunity to be involved in politics, but they’re not being historically accurate anyway, so it doesn’t amount to much)

    BTW, and quite interestingly, these writers did something a little more unusually anti-woman than I’ve seen in media with respect to motherhood (which generally involves a bunch of benevolent sexism): in the finale (or one preceding that), they have Bash be disapproving of his mother when he finds she was the reason he wasn’t being killed –this was before he knew she was responsible for the entire attack. That seems especially anti-woman. I have no way to prove this, but I don’t think the writers would have been so quick to have her condemned if it were man who had bribed to keep him alive.

    UK show-runners seem to be able to write with considerably less sexism, or at the very least, with more empathy and rounded-ness. Of course they seem to completely gloss over what actually happened in the past, but I suppose that’s not unique to them. I’ve been watching a couple of Australian shows lately and the shows written by this specific group of creators seem quite devoid of a lot of overt sexism. And all women seem to have careers by default, not just the lead or selective few. I recommend Love my Way (the writing is dark like Six feet Under, so brace yourself), Spirited, and Offspring and pass Bechdel often. I made the mistake of thinking that maybe Australian shows in general are more evolved, but turns out that’s not the case: all these shows that are not sexist are written by the same writers. Unfortunately, they’re all lily-white casts, with exception of a token POC in one of them. Being WOC myself, I find it very discouraging. Which reminds me that I should recommend Rebel: it has a strong, yet flawed, WOC lead and is written rather well.

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