One of the essential issues in Reign has always been scope; unless it wants to commit to a full-on alternate history, there’s going to be a lot of treading water in this secret history: conspiracies that almost pan out, engagements to historical never-weres, a central relationship that ticks on and off trying to keep tension going.
But the show’s initial conceit—that Mary would be the death of Francis, perhaps assuming that in this universe Scots can cause ear infections— can only be put off for so long. Some interim themes have been worth exploring, dominoes have been set up, and some great moments in camp have occurred (most involving the sublime Megan Follows), but there’s been a feeling that the show’s been holding its full pulp potential in reserve, waiting.
Turns out it was waiting for “Fated,” an episode in which everything that could possibly happen happens, some amazing background meta comes to the fore, and Urban Outfitters says farewell to one of its own.
The dramatic engine this week is a piece of actual history, to everyone’s surprise including mine. The impending death of Mary Tudor throws everyone at court into turmoil. For Diane, it means the end of her claim to legitimacy for Bash, since the Church can’t risk supporting a bastard with Elizabeth hovering in the wings. For Henry, it means pushing up the wedding to secure the Catholic alliance against Elizabeth’s claim, and for Catherine, that wedding means that Nostradamus’ prophecy will rob her of her son.
It’s a smart backdrop. Having Elizabeth as invisible, unknowable antagonist crystallizes the external stakes, and the scene in which Catherine, Henry, Francis, and Mary stand around arguing politics is possibly the most interesting of the show so far: Catherine warns against Elizabeth, Mary warns against civil war in England, and Henry nails some history to the wall with, “She’ll come after you, whether you’ve reached for the crown or not,” and orders the marriage. Then he warns Catherine she’s a dead woman if she interferes, which is cute, considering how far out of his league she is at interfering.
Enter Kenna, who gets word of Diane’s legitimacy claim through the world’s most transparently pulpy mistaken-identity gambit, and takes the news to Catherine, who can barely summon faux-interest long enough to string Kenna along before she goes to Diane, because at least there it’s a conversation of two people close to equals.
The positioning of Diane against Catherine is the most natural antagonism going; though the show’s not afraid to be heavy-handed, their standoff this season has been solid, and this scene neatly demonstrates how both women managed to manipulate their way to their positions of power and their mirrored concerns for their sons. When Catherine, in a moment of meta-perfection, points out that Kenna’s too dull to live and offers Diane her terms for a truce, Follows gives Catherine a glimpse of what for her passes as camaraderie. She’d rather lose the chance to have Diane brought up on treason charges than be left with only Kenna as an adversary, which is touching in its own way. Diane seems to recognize it as such, and warns Bash to get out before Catherine changes her mind about being merciful, though the idea that Diane opts not to poison Kenna out of moral superiority seems a bit muddied by her hostage-arranging last week.
Catherine, of course, has no such compunction, being seemingly ready to poison half of France on a moment’s notice, starting with Mary. Even Nostradamus, who has clear hierarchies of who exactly he thinks is expendable, seems taken aback by her willingness to consider poisoning a fellow queen, though he should probably know better by now. It’s honestly more surprising that Catherine levels with Mary about the prophecy. It’s even more surprising that Mary believes Catherine enough to go to Nostradamus for confirmation, and then to fact-check his prior predictions (wow, did a lot of things happen this episode).
The mounting list of accurate-in-retrospect prophecies lacks only one—Aylee the Many-Braided was told she’d never go home again. (If you didn’t know she was a goner then, you did when she took out gifts to give her fellow handmaidens for Mary’s wedding; she was one photograph of her best girl back home away from telegraphing those goodbyes.) The show won’t miss her, honestly—her klepto double-blind was one of the weaker feints at subplot this show has made—but it does what it needed to do. Mary’s convinced Nostradamus is right, terrified for her safety even if he’s not, and unwilling to stake a claim that will make her a further target. Stuart out.
It probably says something about Mary and Francis that they appeared so little in this episode and were only nominally missed; Mary’s more interesting dealing with Catherine, and Francis is generally only interesting when he and Mary are at odds. A happy engagement was never going to happen. Sending her out with Bash was love-triangle gold (stew on that until January, ’shippers), and is almost enough to detract from the inevitable on-again that will happen as soon as the next episode gets going. If there’s one way this show is going in circles with diminishing returns, it’s trying to make Vampire Diaries relationship pacing work with a cast half as big.
The real pulp payoffs here are that Nostradamus’ vision was wrong about Francis—handy stuff if the series is going to draw out that prophetical will-he/won’t-he—and that despite courting Nostradamus’ rage, Clarissa the Burlap-Headed and Backstory-Laden isn’t afraid to poison a supporting player just to make Mary believe the worst of Nostradamus long enough to get a scrap of self-preservation together.
And actually, that’s pretty exciting news in an alternate-universe way, if only because that’s more self-preservation than the real Mary ever managed. Not that she’ll stay in the wind long, because of course not, that’s not how the show works. But the combination of fleeting historical backdrop, characterization payoff, and jam-packed plot points makes for the most compulsively watchable episode of the show yet; if they come back for the second half of the season this strong, this show is going to be pulp gold.
- Diane’s remark that Bash should want to be King because it will get him Mary gets the quickest one-two punch of characterization for them yet — Bash, aghast, says, “That’s no way to win a woman,” to which Diane coolly twists the knife with, “Worked for him.”
- “But she is a beautiful queen, and you are a monster!” Nostradamus, you’re a terrible dad/babysitter. I missed you, and you and Catherine should have scenes together every episode where you bitch about kids these days, but I’m just saying.
- Though Greer’s on top of the social hierarchies, this episode confirms Lola has the keenest tactical mind of the ladies. That might not mean much in this crowd, but still.
- Sometimes the production design of this show is its own reward; Aylee digging those plastic pearls out of her purse as everyone cooed at their extravagance was accidental-comedy gold.
- I enjoy the through-line of Catherine’s caged birds; every Bond villain needs an accessory.