There are so many things about Reign that are good and smart in theory. Historical drama about a teenage girl for the CW, whose audience is almost entirely teenage girls: good! Power struggles, female friendships, love, sex, and chiseled jaws for a network whose audience is almost entirely teenage girls: smart! But as I watched this first episode, I realized that watching Reign feels like watching several shows at once, each superimposed on the other so that none makes a true impression.
The first and most obvious show is a straight-up historical drama about Mary Stuart (Adelaide Kane, Teen Wolf, The Purge), the naïve teen who’s been the Queen of Scotland since she was six days old. This is, for the most part, where the historical accuracy ends. In reality, Mary grew up in France at court. In the CW version, she’s been sequestered away in a convent until the nun assigned to taste her porridge chokes on her own blood and dies in a horrifying burst of mouth foam. Mary then goes to court to join her French betrothed Francis (Toby Regbo), as is her destiny slash mandatory life sentence. Francis may be the most immediate, glaring example of historical accuracy taking a backseat to sitting pretty, as the real Francis was a short, anemic prince who barely made it to sixteen in one piece (spoilers?). As a CW character, he is a Raphaelite dreamboat whose slim figure is more sprightly than sickly. Still, he’s less of an exaggeration than his bastard half-brother, Sebastian “Bash” de Poitiers (Torrance Combs), who has a steel-gray gaze, a soft spot for Mary, and absolutely no precedent in historical fact. But it would be far less fun to give Mary a love triangle without a pair of jealous brothers, so welcome to the show, Bash! You can practically hear the CW wishing, hoping, praying that if it worked for The Vampire Diaries, there’s no reason why it can’t work for Reign. Unfortunately, Regbo and Combs show little sign of the easy chemistry Paul Wesley and Ian Somerhalder have, so in the meantime, Adelaide Kane picks up the slack by imbuing the wide-eyed Mary with much needed vitality and warmth.
Then there’s the second, most intriguing, and totally nonsensical layer of the show: the supernatural drama. Okay, so there are no vampires or werewolves or Tomorrow People (yet), but for a period piece, the CW is taking seriously enough to find an actual Irish castle, there is a surprising amount of otherworldly happenings around the edges, and it's not entirely clear yet whether they're serious or self-aware. According to Mary’s child of the corn friend, there may or may not be ghosts at the French court. This may or may not include the mysterious owner of the silhouetted hand that warns Mary not to drink the wine at court and subsequently saves her virtue. The secret passageway implies that this is an actual flesh and blood person, but that doesn’t quite explain the final shot of Mary standing on the windy edge of the grounds, thanking the night air for the warning. Then, as Bash tries to avoid telling Mary, there may or may not be bloodthirsty monsters in the forest. Now, both ghosts and monsters could be explained away as the characters just being superstitious, which is a very real part of European history, were it not for the cold open starring the misty forest, drops of symbolic blood, and incredibly (and possibly beautifully), Nostradamus.
Confusion is understandable at this point, since the legendary apothecary and psychic who would have been at least 50 (and a sixteenth-century era 50 at that) is reimagined here as the strapping Rossif Sutherland, who wouldn’t look out of place setting up the amps at a music festival. But since casting young is nothing new for Hollywood, the most egregious thing about including Nostradamus is that he’s been reduced to a personal lapdog, doomed to give constant updates on Francis’ future well-being with the resignation of a sitcom boyfriend who’s lost the right to pick the restaurant. Unfortunately for Mary, Nostradamus is less than hopeful about how she might affect the prince’s prospects. Therefore, Francis’ mother Queen Catherine de Medici (Megan Follows of Anne of Green Gables! Exclamation point!) has “no choice” but to destroy her. Word on the street (read: internet) is that Reign is going for a Gossip Girl meets Game of Thrones vibe, but I’m not encouraged that the Game of Thrones inspiration seems to have been those endless scenes with the Red Priestess throwing somber visions at her regal sponsor.
While the otherworldly elements have the most potential to make Reign appointment “who cares, let’s drink!” watching, there is also potential for a strong coming of age show buried underneath. We’re constantly reminded that while Mary is beautiful and headstrong, she is also, in the words of someone who similarly struggled with too much power too soon, not a girl, not yet a woman. In theory, shifting a historical drama into a female-driven bildungsroman is exactly the right tack for the CW to take. Mary’s ladies-in-waiting aren’t her minions, as Blair’s were on Gossip Girl, but childhood friends she desperately wants to please. There are two naive blondes who have yet to distinguish themselves from each other (Jenessa Grant and Celina Sinden), and Kenna (Caitlin Stasey), whose smirk and faintly rebellious across-the-forehead hairband are meant to tell us that she will be the one making friends in all the wrong places (i.e. bedrooms before marriage). Anna Popplewell (The Chronicles of Narnia) does particularly well with Lola, a lovesick teen who just wants to marry her floppy-haired servant beau. The girls have some real chemistry together, especially in familiar scenes like the makeup montage and adorably messy barefoot dancing sequence. At these moments, Reign depicts a high school where, “we look hot” is replaced by, “we look of age.” But this all takes a backseat once the girls spy on Francis’ sister and her new husband on their wedding night, and the pilot takes a sharp, inescapable turn into, “what the fuck is actually happening?” territory.
Somehow, the sight of Francis' sister tentatively losing her virginity through a drawn curtain is so titillating to Mary and her sheltered group of ladies that each has to scamper off to get off as soon as humanly possible. For Kenna, this means strutting past an appreciative line of gentlemen and into a secluded stairway for some alone time. Apparently the original pilot had this as a proper masturbation scene, but the new cut has it down to the mere suggestion of her hand going south before King Phillip interrupts for some satisfaction of his own. It's a weird move for a network whose Gossip Girl ads proudly flaunted the Parent Television Council's disapproval, not to mention that Blair Waldorf spent the first season season with the vapors over Chuck Bass going down on her in the back of a limo which, yes, led to a masturbation scene. More importantly, choosing to trim this scene is an incredibly disappointing move for a show that is ostensibly about the coming of age of young women in an irrevocably male-dominated society. And, at the very least, Reign should realize that if it wants to be at all “racy” like its advertising suggests, I’m not sure letting Francis’ sister have half an orgasm at her deflowering really counts.
But the most troubling part of this already packed pilot happens after the ladies have scampered off to their respective corners: Mary wakes up to find Colin pulling down his pants over her. She screams, and his eyes go wider than his entire face as he’s dragged out of the room. It's horrible, but not nearly as disturbing as the next scene, in which Lola insists that he's a good man that was forced by "powerful people in the castle," so Mary can just stop being so upset about that whole assault thing now, please. From where I’m standing, Colin still went ahead with trying to drug and rape Mary. Sure, larger powers are at play, but Mary’s abrupt 180 into believing that Colin had the best of intentions even as he put a hand over her mouth is unconvincing. The subsequent scenes of Mary asking Queen Catherine to see him, Colin being executed, Lola spitting at Mary that this was all her fault, and Catherine revealing that she was behind it all along happen so quickly that it’s dizzying. The next day, Francis lectures her on not being able to "behave like this,” which goes something like, “blah blah stop being such a crazy Scottish slut because maybe things won't go the way we want them to blah,” and somehow, our supposedly whipsmart and unpredictable heroine only hears, "we." Hope for a marriage restored, they come thisclose to sharing a kiss, and I come thisclose to searching my apartment for a tomato so I can throw it at Francis’ face. Catherine’s attempt to eliminate Mary by assassinating her character is a huge plot point, not to mention one that could have been fascinating given an episode, or even half an episode, to fully play out. As is, it’s maddeningly basic.
There’s an intriguing show hidden somewhere in Reign, but the pilot is bogged down with so much expository dialogue and paint-by-numbers characterization that it barely has room to breathe. There’s also the distinct possibility that it could turn into a spectacularly fun show, what with the aforementioned monsters, ghost girls, and—say it with me—ruggedly handsome Nostradamus. Like its Mary Stuart, Reign has the potential to be great. They both just have to take a step back, breathe, and figure out where they belong before rushing headlong into obscurity.
- Hello, and welcome to The A.V. Club’s weekly Reign reviews! I’ll be sticking with Mary Stuart as long as the CW lets me, because a) I’m hopeful that this show will be the soapy drama we all deserve, and b) I’m a lifelong Tudor-era history fanatic and am genuinely interested in seeing how the series tackles Mary Queen of Scots, who was not actually that interesting herself, and could do well as a blank slate for televised crazy. Let’s do this thing.
- There are sadly are no Scottish accents, terrible or otherwise.
- I took copious (copious!) notes on every flirtatious moment Francis and Mary had, but until Francis gives me a reason to like him beyond making swords and being a pretty chill kid once, I’m just not invested yet.
- As is befitting a European royal teen, Francis is hooking up with an anonymous noble girl whom we know is slutty because she likes to show off her shoulder. So far, this is her entire character.
- I don’t mind the modern soundtrack, and I really loved the feather sequence at the wedding. I do mind hearing the same hook from the same song every other scene, but since this is a fairly common pilot problem, I’ll let it slide and cross my fingers for Charli XCX’s “SuperLove” to make an appearance at the next ball.
- “I may not have been born with a crown, but this country relies on my money.” Queen Catherine to her son, whom she’s presumably known all his life.
- Mary: “I didn't see any ghosts." Child of the Corn: "But what if they saw you?" [knife being sharpened sound effect] [Mary recoils] Apparently, this is an excellent point.
- Francis, making the case that Mary was once Ramona Quimby: "She had skinny legs, a missing front tooth, and strong opinions."