By the time I finished “The Darkness,” I realized that I had really finished two entirely separate episodes of Reign. The first episode is a perfectly charming, if a little bland hour of teen melodrama. The second, however, is a head-spinning lurch into whispers and wickedness that very well might change this show forever. Neither so much as bump into each other, which is weird considering that the episode title of “The Darkness” implies some overarching feeling that’s supposed to be infecting everyone. Still, each side of the coin is interesting in its own right, so I just hope they get to dovetail more next week.
First, let’s talk about the teen soap episode. Lola is still determined to keep her royal pregnancy a secret so that, by proxy, she can keep some semblance of autonomy. As she less and less patiently tells Mary, admitting that Francis got her pregnant would mean giving up the chance at having her own life. Following up from last week, then, Lola and Mary decide that the only course of action is to get Lola wed before her pregnancy becomes a real, visible problem. Pregnancy storylines have been done to death and back again, so it’s smart to throw the additional ticking clock of a marriage into the mix. It also unifies Mary and Lola in a shared goal right when neither wants to face the other at all. The only interesting scene to come out of this conflict, though, is when Mary commands Lola to marry Phillippe, even if he’s gay—or she’ll tell Francis about Lola’s baby. Either way, Lola would be trapped, and Mary knows it. Mary’s been stuck dealing with romantic entanglements for some time now, but at this moment, it’s absolutely clear that she is Lola’s queen, and Lola is her subject. It doesn’t matter that Mary goes back on her command once she “remembers what it’s like to feel like a maid” (which, ick). It doesn’t change the fact that Mary and Lola will never be equals.
Speaking of which, this week also marks the return of Greer and her beautiful baker boy (the show says “Leith,” but I like my nickname better). We also get to see Greer resemble something approaching an actual character again, so it’s exciting stuff all around. There hasn’t been a whole lot of room for Greer’s desire to find a noble husband what with all the prophecies and women getting thrusted out a window, but she finds a place in “The Darkness” alongside Lola’s similar quest. While Lola’s gone back to her pilot-era characterization of prizing love above all else, though, Greer gets to bear the brunt of being the pragmatic one. She’s had fun with her baker boy—who wouldn’t?—but she knew their flirtation would be short-lived even before her parents informed her that they found a match. And so Greer slyly gets her eager suitor to offer baker boy a peppercorn internship in Spain (my alternative life plan), thus sending him away before he had to serve a man who will be technically good enough to marry her. Their relationship has gotten the least screen time of any couple on the show thus far, but their breakup still manages to be heartbreaking because Celina Sinden and Jonathan Keltz have the best couple chemistry on the show by a mile. There’s not much more story to tell there, but if Spanish peppercorn doesn’t turn out to be all it’s cracked up to be (pun absolutely intended), I won’t complain if Leith makes a return.
And then there’s The Darkness.
Now, I could talk about Bash’s woods misadventure, and how he’s apparently stumbled into some Crucible-esque parable about naïve townsfolk and the monster that haunts them, but next week looks to be devoted to that entire wild goose chase, so I’ll dive into it then. I wasn’t interested in tonight’s episode because of this so-called Darkness monster that feeds on souls and claws at babies or whatever. No—this episode was fascinating because the most devastating “darkness” on display tonight came from within ordinary people.
“But Caroline,” you might be saying while a gif of the claw monster dragging a girl across the snow plays on another open tab, “the entire point of The Darkness is that it’s some unknowable, unbeatable supernatural being that infects people with its evil. How is that not the most devastating darkness?” Well, okay, that sounds bad. But the most chilling moments of tonight’s episode are not the obvious thriller moments, like said claw monster, or even when Kenna wakes up next to a purpled corpse. The truly terrifying Darkness, as it turns out, is in the everyday evil of people.
Olivia’s story is horrifying long before she’s fed to a monster. After screaming at Clarissa and fleeing the castle, Olivia finds herself in the woods, where she appeals to some hunters for help. Then, as she says with a shudder that speaks volumes, “they said I could help them more.” She lets our imaginations fill in the blank when she tells Nostradamus that they held her for days, but the message is clear: Olivia was kidnapped, and she was raped. She further tells Nostradamus with wide eyes full of fear that “the Darkness” is inside her, but by the time the monster got a hold of her, she had already been ritually brutalized. There’s an argument to be made here that a little too much happens to poor Olivia, but at the same time, I had to admire the show’s choice to be blunt about what was actually likely to have happened to Olivia if she had run into a group of men in the woods. At the same time, it was devastating when I realized I wasn’t actually that surprised. Then and always, women face the risk of some brutal shit happening to them for no reason other than, “you can help me [get off] more.” Olivia’s ordeal is vile, heart-wrenching, and ultimately, believable. I was glad that the episode gave her as much time to reflect as it did, but I hope that the show won’t fall into the familiar trap of swapping out a female character’s personality for a traumatic background.
The most exciting thing about “The Darkness,” though, is how it handles King Henry’s transformation. In the blink of an eye, Henry goes from a frustrated figurehead to a terrifying, power-tripping tyrant. The leap is admittedly jarring after the slapstick stylings of “Dirty Laundry,” which made us comfortable with the idea that Henry might actually respect and come to depend on Catherine as his right hand. In “The Darkness,” he makes it clear that the only lesson he took away from killing a woman mid-sex is that he got away with it. (Unless I messed up the timeline—his confession wasn’t very linear.) Alan Van Sprang and Megan Follows prove just as good at playing intensity together as they did last week with comedy; it’s hard to beat the moment when a manic Henry slams down his sceptre and the usually indomitable Catherine jumps about a foot.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen him justify a decision with, “because I’m the king, that’s why!” After all, it wasn’t actually that long ago that Henry picked up a sword, hacked a guard in the neck, and left his wife covered in blood and sputtering behind him. Dude’s always had a temper problem. Still, Henry embracing his overlord status is the first time Reign is really addressing that power imbalance I alluded to last week. Kenna’s now realized that Henry’s not playing the kinds of games she likes anymore; she also knows that there’s nothing she can do about it. Both Kenna and Caitlin Stasey make impressive adjustments here, shifting from playful flirtation to a rehearsed sexiness that just barely covers tense terror. It doesn’t actually matter that Henry found a religious justification for abusing his power. At the time, that power was absolutely his to abuse. There’s a very good chance the show will blame his sudden mood shift on the growing Darkness, but I honestly hope it doesn’t. It was a bold choice to show just how ugly absolute power can be (like Game of Thrones did with its maniacal teen king, Joffrey), and it would be far more interesting to see the court try to bring him back from a brink of his own making rather than try to make him throw up some shadow demon.
- One way the Darkness will lose me forever: if the gore continues to focus on graphically murdered women. There are more than enough brutalized women on my television, thank you.
- I know I promised the comments that I’d change the name of Bash’s archery partner from Elizabethan Katniss to Ygritte, but then this week happened and, well… I think I’m just going to stick with “Rowan.”
- If Lola’s going to insist that no one will ever know about her bearing Francis’ child, why do she and Mary insist on having conversations about it in hallways with audible echoes?
- Francis was a bit too much of a saint this episode, no? Still, I always enjoy a vague allusion to a guy going down on a girl in primetime teen television, so I’ll call it a wash.
- Nostradamus’ rasp has gotten to the point where I’m convinced Rossif Sutherland is just auditioning for the rebooted Emperor Palpatine.
- Greer on courtship: "It sounds so cold!" (Suitor whips off cape) "It needn't be!" Aw. It’s hard out there for a pepper baron, you guys.