Reign: “Higher Ground”
C+

Reign: “Higher Ground”

The devil’s in the details, and there are a LOT of details.

Reign’s willingness to burn through plot has been one of its major selling points. It would’ve been perfectly understandable if it had stretched out Mary’s decision between Francis and Bash until the season finale, but it would also have been incredibly boring, and so the show wisely gave us a surprise midseason wedding (midseason is such a lovely time of year, after all). The same goes for the mystery of the shadow lurking in the walls of the castle. The writers could have easily played the “who’s underneath the burlap sack mask?” for two seasons, and no one would have thought anything of it. Instead, the show’s gleefully upended our expectations not only of what could happen, but of what should happen next. Reign can look a lot like early Vampire Diaries that way. Just when I think I’m looking at an arc that’ll last all season, everything happens, and I’m left staring at the screen wondering what in the hell else the show has left to do. Much attention has been rightly paid to shows like Mad Men and Game of Thrones that have mastered the slow burn, but there’s something to be said for a show like Reign that is absolutely fearless about tearing through story after story without blinking.

Now that we’re nearing the season finale, though, Reign’s looking more exhausted than anything else. As Genevieve noted last week, Reign is least sure of itself when tackling actual history. Sure, it can send Queen Catherine to the tower, break her out, and send her to Mary’s bathroom for a bath salt assassination attempt in twenty minutes or less, but when it comes to sieges and continental loyalties, it tends to flail. I’ve been largely forgiving of Reign’s weakness in historical affairs because, again, it usually pairs such political nonsense with poison bath salts. But the sheer amount of set-ups “Higher Ground” has to get through means there’s very little room for fun. Just in the A plot, there are King Henry’s schemes to take England, Catherine’s schemes to keep him the hell away from England, Mary’s schemes to stop Protestants from storming her mother’s castle, and Francis’ schemes to reclaim Calais with his ragtag group of French army re-enactors. It’s… a lot. The most frustrating thing is that we’ve seen Reign juggle an incredible amount of scheming with relative ease, and yet “Higher Ground” gives into the show’s most annoying impulse to make characters recite what seems like pages of exposition in between just about every move. Blazing through plot can be a whole lot of fun when done right, but we’re now watching Reign discover that blazing through history is quite a different story. There’s just too much background to explain for the show to move at its signature gallop.

These info-dump monologues also mean that any intrigue these plots might have had largely happen offscreen, like Mary telling us she already asked a spy to look into the men who killed her countrymen, and boy, did he find some interesting stuff! They even bleed over into this week’s other plots, like when Bash agrees to look into Julian’s affairs. We spend enough time with Kenna asking Bash to do her this favor that it feels like a cheat when Bash comes strolling through the door saying he already did it, and boy, did he find out some interesting stuff! How fun would it have been to see Bash play detective? No seriously, I’m asking. We may never know.

Where so much of Reign has felt like it delighted in throwing out the rulebook, “Higher Ground” is one of the first episodes since the series’ beginning that’s feels preoccupied with checking off the boxes. Leith and Francis’ surprise friendship could have been one of the delightful left-turn twists I mentioned earlier, but just like the French army, we can see each of their scenes coming from a mile away. Check, Leith saves Francis’ life. Check, Francis saves Leith’s life. Check, Leith rouses himself with the almighty power of true love. Hopefully, his new titles will make his reunion with Greer more interesting than the events that get him there.

There’s still some good stuff hidden amongst the details. After weeks of muddled attempts, “Higher Ground” finally succeeds at questioning how effective Mary is as a queen. There’s no doubt that Mary trading her life for that of Catherine’s unpleasant cousin will come back to haunt her. Mary’s always been in over her head, and there is a beautiful irony in her believing she’s got it all figured out now that all the plates she’s spinning seemed poised to crash. (Note to Mary: When a band of bloodthirsty assassins think you’re making weird decisions, you should at least consider reconsidering.) 

But the best parts of “Higher Ground” are when it focuses on Catherine and Mary’s merciless hired hand (Tahmoh Penikett, playing fast and loose with some kind of Northern-ish British accent). They’re also the most frustrating, because these scenes show how good Reign can be when it’s not sagging under the weight of its own details. There’s the perfectly chilling visual of Catherine, blindfolded and handcuffed to the floor, shaking with fear and rage under a single shaft of light. Penikett, clearly relishing the opportunity to be a villain, punctuates the tension with bemused glances at Catherine as she negotiates into the ether. This plot could have been gratuitously creepy—just another kidnapped woman on television—but the script keeps these scenes tantalizingly brief. And then we get to see Catherine’s righteous fury as she storms down the castle halls post-kidnapping, every inch the queen we’ve come to know and love. This is where Reign excels. As it heads into a second season, Reign should keep an eye on all the history it needs to get through, so it can leave enough room for what it does best.

Stray observations:

  • The most unfair criticism I have this week is that the CW budget has never looked so small as it does in this episode. Game of Thrones has set an impossible standard for medieval-style battles, but that slow-mo fight in the woods was rough.
  • I really hope for Lola’s sake that Julian is just your average, everyday grifter and not The Darkness. That would be kind of a bummer.
  • Speaking of which: Is the Darkness still a thing? More importantly: Should it still be a thing?
  • Still no sign of Clarissa. Currently considering the possibility the show just forgot it let her live.
  • Someone needs to tell me I wasn’t the only one who wanted the siege of Calais to end with Francis taunting the British, “your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!”

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