The oddest thing about Reign, at the end of the day, is just how much it gets right. The teen soap is delightfully, deliberately, ahistorical—in one particularly tongue-in-cheek scene, a band of hired minstrels started playing a cover of Lorde’s “Royals.” This, while the main characters plotted and schemed wearing dresses that looked more like prom dresses than Renaissance gowns. It is televisual fanfiction of France’s aristocracy in 1557.
And yet despite these set pieces, which seem like the show is offering a constant sense of suppressed laughter, Reign offers moments of realism. The king of France is currently being haunted by his older brother’s death, which was at the time rumored to be the result of poison. Mary, Queen of Scots’ major rivals in life are all blood relatives—her mother being the most vicious. And on the eve of the season finale, almost everyone who could get married in this teen soap opera is now hitched. (Any remaining single people were conveniently murdered.)
None of this speaks to a recipe for success. Reign sounds scattered and trashy, a soap opera about to careen off the rails. But like successful nighttime soaps that have preceded it—Scandal and The O.C., for example—Reign has perfected a tone that hovers between “taking itself seriously” and “taking nothing seriously.” It’s an instinctive and confident show.
The marriage plots of Reign, in particular, are just weird for television—TV isn’t the medium of “everyone gets married”; television is the medium of the will-they/won’t-they romance. Conventional wisdom would suggest that Reign’s viewership would get bored, as the stories flatlined into mundane domestic drama.
The reality is quite the opposite—and speaks once again to Reign’s uncanny ability to get the important parts of the history down. In Reign, women get married because that’s literally all they can do in 1557 France, short of taking vows and becoming a nun. And Reign knows better than to fudge the personal melodrama of the characters. Maybe it’ll gloss over exactly who France is fighting its wars against, and the known medical details of King Henry II’s madness. But it can’t possibly gloss over the rules about marriage—it’s a show on The CW. The romance is the most interesting part.
Reign works by getting into the nitty-gritty of the fairy tale—to a target audience a scant few years beyond dressing up as Disney princesses. Here is a story about some actual royals and how they will not actually be saved by a prince, or transformed by a godmother, or live happily ever after. The story instead takes us to the prolonged, unending second act of soap-operatic drama. The ladies in Reign get married through coercion, political alliances, money, and desperation; so far, not one has gotten married for love, though love has flourished in unlikely corners. Marriage doesn’t solve the problem—it is a problem, from consummation and reproduction to in-laws and inheritances. And lord, does that problem make for wonderful television.
The show’s deconstruction of the marriage plot is just one of its charms, but it’s a useful one for demonstrating Reign’s appeal. Take, for example, the primary romantic story of the first season—the royal engagement and wedding. For a while at the beginning, Mary, Queen of Scots wavered in between her betrothed, the Dauphin of France, and his entirely unsuitable bastard brother, the prince of nothing at all. At first the show seemed interested in playing Francis and Bash off of Mary to create a tried-and-true love triangle; but after a few adventures in mild kissing, the writers of the show doubled down on marital bliss. Mary wedded Francis, just as the real Mary of Scots did, largely to cement a political alliance. And as befits a royal wedding in 1557, the couple consummated their union in full sight of everyone in court—including Bash, of course. Other hurdles for our heroes: Mary has tried to kill both of Francis’ parents; Francis stole Mary’s hired mercenaries for France’s defense instead of Scotland’s aid; and Francis knocked up one of Mary’s ladies-in-waiting, but doesn’t know about it. Mary does know about it, and is anxious to conceive for that very reason. Also, Nostradamus keeps declaring their union cursed. So there’s that.
Meanwhile, Bash gets wrapped up in his own forced march towards matrimony. His father the king sets him up with another of Mary’s ladies, Kenna, and has them wed right on the spot, above both of their protestations. The rub? Kenna was the king’s own mistress until a few short weeks before marrying the king’s bastard son. And Lola, the lady-in-waiting who is carrying a royal baby to term, desperately throws herself at a lord who seems to accept her fallen state—until it’s revealed that he’s a servant masquerading as a courtier, and he has no money of his own to speak of.
Yes; it’s a soap opera. The code is clear: drama first, history second. Except when the history makes for even better drama. It’s easy to dismiss a show like Reign as silly—but buried in the melodrama are moments of reckoning for these young women about their own romantic and sexual choices.
Reign is determinedly fun—no show that plays The Lumineers over picturesque scenes from a Renaissance court can take itself too seriously. What it does take seriously is its own brand of fun, which delights in personal intrigue—much like teenage high schoolers do. It’s a self-conscious, smart little princess drama, unafraid to marry off its characters, or send them to the woods hunting beasts, or have them plot to kill each other and/or their insane parents. Why not? It’s sort of what really happened, and anyway, now the real story can start.
Created by: Laurie McCarthy and Stephanie SenGupta
Starring: Adelaide Kane, Toby Regbo, Torrance Coombs, Megan Follows, Caitlin Stasey
Finale airs Thursday at 9 p.m. Eastern on The CW
Format: Hour-long period drama
Full season to date watched for review