My initial enjoyment of Reign, despite its complete lack of any vague historical accuracy, has grown into a full-level obsession. The show has been criticized as a 16th century Gossip Girl, and although it clearly falls into the “pure fun” category of relationship drama and pretty dresses, I think a description like that sells the series short. Reign might not be a show about the real Mary Stuart and her time at the French court, but it is a show about compelling, intelligent women and their relationships with one another. And that’s pretty awesome too.
In the latest episode of Reign, King Henri and his soldiers left the French court behind to deal with an uprising. During his absence, an Italian nobleman visits and then captures the castle, demanding either Mary or Francis and his brothers as a hostage. It’s clear that their captor plans to kill whoever he takes back to Italy, and so it falls to Mary and her often-enemy Catherine de Medici to outsmart him and save them all.
Until this episode, Mary and Catherine’s interactions have mostly been restricted to talking about Francis, since he was their one point of connection (or, more accurately, murderous rivalry). Now, however, they’re forced to connect on a more personal level, in part to save Francis and his brothers (a rather reverse damsel-in-distress story) and in part to save themselves and everyone else in the castle. The episode does not flinch away from the realities of being a woman, even a noblewoman, in a captured castle, and the threat of rape loomed heavy over every scene… but unlike other shows, like Game of Thrones, this wasn’t presented as part of the thrilling excitement of the episode. We saw everything through the female characters’ eyes, and so what could have been problematic drama was instead tense and compelling.
Most compellingly, these female characters orchestrated everything. While King Henri was off fighting with soldiers and weapons and the other men were locked up, the female characters used their “weak, feminine skills,” like diplomacy and manipulation, to save themselves. Politeness and flattery rescued Mary’s ladies from the soldiers. An ability to scheme with subtlety created a mostly successful escape plan, and a willingness to play nice with their threatening hosts allowed everyone else in the castle to escape. Catherine saved the day using a “woman’s weapon,” poison, using the psychology of her enemies to kill them while protecting herself by putting it on gold instead of food. And, shock twist, the entire attack was orchestrated by another woman, Bash’s mother Diane, who needs an indirect way to rid the court of Francis and his brothers in order to make Bash the heir to the French throne. Partly because she’s cruel and ruthless, of course, but also partly because she sees the precarious position she and her son are in, and sees that once the King dies, they’ll lose everything if things stay as they currently are.
Of course, she and Bash would be killed for treason if she did anything obvious, so she plays a subtle role manipulating others into acting for her instead.
And this contrast between strong and weak is really interesting. In personality and ambition, the female characters are all strong and compelling, but in terms of their position in the world, they’re incredibly vulnerable — including even Mary, who is the Queen of Scotland herself. They can rarely act with overt strength, so they learn to survive and protect themselves in other ways. For Mary, that means using her eloquence and political savvy, especially as she’s unwilling to harm anyone else in her struggles to protect herself and her country. Catherine, on the other hand, has an incredibly ruthless mind, and values protecting Francis over anything else. She’s not necessarily likeable, in the traditional sense, but she is incredibly compelling, especially as the show reveals more about her past. She’s brave and determined, in her own way, but she’s not unwilling to crush anyone who poses a threat to her interests. And so, interestingly, she echoes the personality of her greatest rival, Diane, who is similarly willing to use ruthless means to protect herself and her son. Mary’s ladies in waiting didn’t have much to do this week, other than one sweet romance, but even they play a refreshing role as Mary’s friends. Female friendship in a historical drama? Between a group of girls with varying personalities and ambitions? C’est impossible!
All in all, it’s fantastic. After the frustration of watching compelling, complex female characters be reduced and diminished in Game of Thrones, I’ve been desperate for a historical/fantasy-esque show that could show women in court and war and respect rather than mock the strengths and skills that they have. I wasn’t expecting Reign to be that show. Yet turns out the “trashy teen” network does a much better job of respecting its female characters and giving them interesting plotlines than the serious grown up cable network. And that’s even without an already compelling book (or, you know, history…) to follow. How about that.