Who would have thought that Reign would turn out to be one of the most enjoyable shows of the year?
Sure, it’s not perfect. It’s certainly not historically accurate. But it is a fun fantastical drama about female friendship, political machinations, and the difficulties of being queen. Over the course of the season, we’ve seen Mary develop from an intelligent but rather idealistic and naive girl to a Catherine de Medici-esque schemer who plays situations to her advantage and is willing to do what needs to be done. Hidden in this “16th century Gossip Girl”-esque CW drama, with couture dresses and really pretty headbands and monsters in the woods, is a genuinely compelling story of different women’s struggles for power and security in a time when they have none.
Sure, Mary and Francis are True Love OTP (at least, until history gets in the way), and every one of Mary’s surviving ladies in waiting has had a marriage plot this season, but it’s the female characters’ relationships with each other that really matter. Lola’s pregnancy subplot is more about her relationship with Mary than with Francis, and ended not in bitter rivalry (as many shows might have done) but in the two young women protecting one another. Greer’s story with Lord Peppercorn is partly about her finding someone who will respect her (as Leith sadly does not in the finale), but also about her protecting her younger sisters. The Gothic subplot of Clarissa is ultimately about her protective relationship with Mary on one side, and her twisted relationship with her mother Catherine on the other. And then, of course, front and center to every moment of the series is the relationship between Mary and Catherine. The jostling for power. The attempts to outwit one another. The attempted murder, the framing for treason, the orchestrated kidnappings… and ultimately, the fact that, despite all their dislike for one another, Catherine has a lot to teach Mary, and in the end may prove her greatest ally for survival. Sure, they’ve schemed each other’s deaths a few times in the pursuit of their own interests, but when they are united, they are a force to be reckoned with, and you’d better hope you don’t stand in their way. The conflict between Mary’s idealism and mercy with Catherine’s ruthlessness and jaded experience makes for compelling drama, and once we add in the ladies in waiting (who are, in turns, sweet, patience, caring, ambitious, ruthless, overconfident, naive, witty, sharp-tongued, intelligent, indecisive and occasionally even cruel), we end up with a show driven by and focused on very different women attempting to survive in a world that thinks of them as nothing.
And despite being a “historical” drama, despite being CW-soap-esque, Reign also has the refreshing bonus of never so much as making me nervous about sexism lurking around the corner. So far, Mary and Francis have struggled for power and betrayed one-another’s trust for the sake of their own countries, but Mary has never been presented as the “bad wife” for doing so. Kenna becomes the King’s mistress, but she isn’t treated as the “slutty one,” and Lola hooks up with Francis without any hint that she’s the one in the wrong or that she betrayed Mary. There’s certainly no sense that she deserves her pitiful situation at the end of the season. Heck, Catherine de Medici is a ruthless murderer, and she’s still treated with a lot of depth and even sympathy. And that’s far more than most critically acclaimed, “serious” shows these days can offer. It’s like Game of Thrones, with a greater sense of fun, and without the constant nudity, disrespect of female characters, casual rape, or (sadly) dragons. So I guess it’s not like Game of Thrones. It’s what I wish Game of Thrones would be.
This was originally meant to be a review of the season and the season finale, but it turns out I still have a lot of really enthusiastic feelings about the show just as a concept, never mind going into the details. A feminist show about queens in a faux-16th century world? With great music and pretty dresses and a touch of gothic? Where everyone is a schemer and the drama never stops? Who cares about historical accuracy when that’s on the cards?
So if you haven’t been watching this show, and can forgive its lack of history (which is so blatant that it’s fairly easy to forgive), it’s a great choice to fill the TV void over the summer. It’s certainly refreshing. Addictive drama, pretty to look at, and a show that treats its female characters with integrity and respect. With all that on offer, how I supposed to wait for Season 2?