This post has massive spoilers for the latest episode. Spoilers and ranting and a huge huge trigger warning.
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?
How can Reign be so generally historically inaccurate, and yet capture the spirit of political life for women during the Tudor period so well? The characters march around the castle in modern couture dresses, plotting to fight for the English throne using historically non-existent bastard sons as leverage while sickly Dauphins become dishy blond dreamboats, but every time Catherine de Medici and Mary Stuart are stuck in a room together, the fundamental realities of court politics come crashing into reality. Throughout, we’ve heard about the importance of marriage alliances as political tools — even if the marriages themselves never take place. Several weeks ago, we saw a blunt look at the dangers that siege and capture present to court women. And now we see how easily these women can be destroyed and even killed, on no evidence at all, when the men around them no longer find them convenient.
I’ve written before about my (totally surprised and initially reluctant) love of the new CW show Reign. An interesting debate has emerged in one of my previous posts about whether Reign is a feminist or anti-feminist show, hinging in particular around its historical context and the presentation of Catherine de Medici and Mary’s ladies in waiting.
I stand by my claim that Reign is a pretty darn fun and feminist show. Mary is a badass political strategist, brave and intelligent and manipulative and flawed, and her rival/enemy Catherine de Medici is arguably the most interesting and well-developed character on the show. She certainly has all the best lines, and her ruthless allegiance to herself and her family line makes for compelling scenes. Every episode passes the Bechdel test. Every episode gives us examples of interesting, varied, compelling female characters struggling in the political area. It’s a show with lots of romance, yes, but also very much about court strategizing, and yet the majority of named regular characters are women. And although opinions differ on whether we’re supposed to support King Henri or find him utter reprehensible, if the show sticks to its history (which is admittedly a 50/50 chance at best), that problem won’t plague us for long.
But the characterizations of Mary’s ladies in waiting have been a major problem in the show. Four female characters who should be similarly compelling and interesting, who should form support for Mary while also pursuing their own plotlines. Yet, although the show has tried to develop them in the past, they’ve generally been rather flat and interchangeable, and only existed in relation to their romances. In Sacrifice, Catherine characterized them as “the spy, the forger and the seductress,” but I must admit I could only think of them as “the one trying to be the king’s mistress, the one with the cute romance with the kitchen boy, the one who was in the Narnia movies, and the one I always forgot existed who’s now dead.” At least, thanks to Catherine’s pointed efforts, I think I’ve finally learned all the living ones’ names.
But if Catherine’s speeches to the ladies were an unsubtle attempt to distinguish them on the writers’ part, I can only celebrate it. The ladies have been a weak link in the story, and we should see them doing more than we have. With Mary running around the woods and pretending she has chemistry with Bash, Sacrifice was the perfect time to introduce the idea that her ladies are capable and interesting without her. Without their queen, the three ladies in waiting were forced to watch Catherine de Medici, prevent her scheming, and act to protect Mary and Bash when things go awry. And, surprisingly, they lived up to the challenge, dealing with Catherine directly, playing her game of words and manipulation, and even punishing and controlling her without appearing to do any such thing to the outside world.
So now we see that Kenna has intelligence, an ability to scheme and an artistic forger’s hand, even if her dealings with the king have painted her as rather naive and foolish (Anne Boleyn, she is not). And we see that Lola has inner steel, able to face Catherine de Medici’s wrath without so much as a flinch. The ladies are able to play the political game too, to give orders and manipulate and even be ruthless when the game calls for it. Because who needs real evidence when you can create it yourself?
Unfortunately, Lola’s additional characterization has also created a problem. She is determined to destroy Catherine de Medici, because Catherine killed “the man she loved.” Yet the man she loved died because he was not only willing to work with Catherine but to rape Mary on her orders. The man Lola loved was hardly an innocent victim, and portraying him as such while placing all the blame on Catherine is problematic at best. Lola can be angry with Catherine for revealing her love’s true nature and tempting him into that situation, and there are plenty of good reasons to want Catherine’s political or literal destruction, but the fact that Lola’s boyfriend was executed after drugging Mary, breaking into her chambers and attacking her is not one of them. To suggest that his actions are somehow forgivable, that he was an innocent in Catherine’s schemings, is not just shallow writing but rather insulting.
Lola’s blandness in previous episodes means that the show basically had a blank slate to work with here. And yet she, like Kenna and Greer, has ultimately been defined by her relationship to male characters. Kenna is the naive one who thinks she can become the king’s mistress and use that to her political advantage, but who ultimately cannot (or at least has a lot to learn). Greer is the one who needs to marry well but has fallen for an adorable kitchen boy. And now Lola is the one who wants revenge for her reprehensible “true love”‘s death. With development, all three of these are potentially interesting court storylines, showing different ways that women try to navigate a world of male power to their best advantage, and how it can all fall apart. And I have to admit to a lot of fondness for Greer’s story so far. But these plotlines need development, and thought, and a careful hand to ensure that the storylines come down against the traditions of the court and the men who use their power to manipulate and crush these female characters. And that final category has to include Lola’s dead love. Otherwise, all of the show’s other achievements in creating a feminist Tudor-era show will be completely undermined.
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.
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.