“It isn’t fair, the privileges we are given – and the price we must pay for them.” – Mary, Queen of Scots (and France)
When the CW was first trying to sell Reign to the public, it waffled between the idea of it being a prestigious-ish historical drama or high school soap set in a medieval court. This seems positively quaint now, after a string of illicit affairs, blood sacrifices, and impromptu stabbings, but there are many moments throughout this first season finale that remind me why Reign has been such an unexpected pleasure. It’s had as much fun as any other show on the CW with its dozens of romantic entanglements, but it’s never pretended that the French court equivalent of asking someone to prom is anything other than life-changing. As Sonia pointed out in her excellent season review, pairing people off so quickly is unheard of for any television series. As most shows and standup specials will tell you, marriage is often seen as a death knell for creativity. Stories so often place value on love triangles, unrequited love, and, most especially, will-they-won’t-they sexual tension. Marriage therefore becomes the destination rather than the journey. I wouldn’t have batted an eye if Reign had decided to do the same, especially once it became clear that historical accuracy would be a footnote. Instead, we’re ending the season with a whole mess of beautiful teenagers who are struggling less with their hormones than with the consequences of settling down—or just settling, period.
There’s Lola, going into labor with Francis’ illegitimate child after her impostor-husband fled into the night (bless this show). Her moment of passion became an albatross; her hasty marriage became a nightmare. Then there’s Greer, who’s wrestled with the practicalities of marriage more than anyone. It’s heartbreaking when Leith bounds into her room with all the enthusiasm of a proud golden retriever (“I’m the hero of Calais! Francis calls me a friend! I got the ball out from under the sofa!”), because as Greer tells him through tears, a new cottage still isn’t enough to make him an acceptable match. It makes sense that Leith’s disappointed, but it seems spectacularly unfair when he insists that she drop all sense of duty to be with him after she says that her sisters are her father’s property. True love is great and everything, but I’m pretty sure “I could guarantee mine and my sisters’ autonomy forever for always” trumps it. Leith certainly doesn’t help matters when he gives a Nice Guy speech that might as well have been transcribed from a bitter OK Cupid message (“When you’re alone and miserable, know that this is the moment you threw your happiness away, p.s. u suck”). Also, Castleroy has been nothing but great to Greer. While Greer and Leith have crazy chemistry, she knows it makes no sense to be with him. And so she settles down.
Then there’s the unlikely success story of Kenna and her scrappy bastard husband. After resenting their forced union, they decided they had no choice but to grin and bear it, and realize they both found each other crazy stupid hot. We unfortunately get just brief moments between the two of them, though, because there’s a Darkness that needs catching, and dammit if Bash isn’t the sorta-pagan for the job! In fact, Bash is so intense about finding The Darkness that I actually laughed when said Darkness took on Kenna instead.
The sad thing is, I used to be all in for the show’s vaguely supernatural threads. But when the “previously on” segment included a clip of Bash intensely asking someone if they’d seen The Darkness, I was less excited than resigned. The plot’s dragged on so inconsistently for so long that its conclusion in the finale is just crossing off another loose end on the checklist before re-setting for next season. In some ways, it’s fitting that The Darkness storyline died as it lived—in a rush of excitement followed by a completely confusing mess of weirdness. In a completely fun sequence, Kenna fends off 16th century Ghostface admirably—so admirably, in fact, that The Darkness gives up trying to get through the flimsy doors to wait patiently for Bashtradamus to come kill him. Out of all the choices this show has made—poison bath salts, asphyxiation-induced prophecies, Urban Outfitters couture—making the Darkness some random shark-teethed weasel has to be the strangest. On the one hand, it would have been difficult to justify that kind of reveal after all the inter-personal labyrinths these characters have been creating. On the other, wow, is it a letdown. Not even the music can muster up the strength to pretend Bash unmasking this guy is anything approaching a Big Moment. At the end of the day, though, I’m just relieved to be done with this dead-end plot so we can move on to the next thing. The Darkness is dead. Long live the plague.
This brings us to Francis and Mary, the new King and Queen of France. We knew it was going to happen, but the constant power plays and double-crossing between the two of them give the actual event much more weight than I could have anticipated at the beginning of the series. They started this journey as two kids that were giddier at the prospect of sneaking a first kiss than at the thought of what it might be like to rule. Now, they’re rulers. They’ve had to battle with each other, their friends, and their families. They’ve had to give up precious things, make hideous compromises, and fight as dirtily as the morally bankrupt people that surround them. As the episode’s title so helpfully points out, Mary and Francis have both had their innocence slaughtered—and in many cases, they were the ones holding the knife.
Alan Van Sprang gave it his absolute all, but narratively speaking, it was time for King Henry to die. His madness has long lost its luster, and it’s hard to know where the show would have gone with it after this week raised the ante with both an exploding ship and a midnight pajama party turned arbitrary murder. Henry also became basically impossible to sympathize with—even with the ghost of his brother following him around with consumptive eyes and a tennis racket. At the very least, though, “Slaughter of Innocence” does spectacularly by Henry’s last moments.
Henry’s death by eye splinter is so ridiculous that it’s easy to forget that it’s actually one of the few accurate historical details on this show. All season long, I’ve been wondering if the show would let King Henry IV of France die with a lance to the eye like he did in real life, or if it wouldn’t be enough of an exclamation point after the writers had re-imagined him as a total madman. So, I was thrilled when Henry volunteered to joust. I was so confident that I knew what was about to happen that I wandered away from my computer for a hot second, not wanting to get too close a look at a giant piece of wood jutting out of a dude’s eye. But I’ve been reviewing Reign for a while now—I really should have known better.
See, stabbing the king in the eye mid-joust is a fine twist, but making Francis his willful murderer is a great one in the context of this beautiful mess of a show. It’s a perfect example of how Reign can turn out some serious emotional stakes on top of all the soapy nonsense when it wants to, like Queen Catherine’s nefarious schemes to save her son. Francis gets so caught up in the playing dirty of it all that he takes matters into his own hands, and takes his father’s life. Francis has been all over the map since we met him, but he and Toby Regbo find some wonderful consistency here. He walks off the jousting field, stumbling in shock at his own actions, and can never quite shake the feeling that he’s become the monster he just killed. So while Henry’s benign deathbed demeanor is a little much after he just killed a hundred soldiers for funsies, Francis’ horrified reaction is just perfect. (And he couldn’t even see Henry’s dead brother put down his tennis racket and reach out his hand for Henry to join him in the pasty afterlife! Seriously, bless this show.) In the best scene of the episode, Francis leaves his dead father’s chambers in a daze and runs into Bash. His brother goes to kneel before the new king, but before he can even get a knee to the ground, Francis pulls him up and grabs him in a fierce, desperate hug. He doesn’t need Mary to tell him that they’re changing for the worse to know his soul is already blackening.
Francis therefore resolves to be a different king than his power-hungry father. The final few scenes where Francis tears off into the plague-infested elsewhere to see his child while Mary protests beautifully illustrate why they can never have the marriage they dreamed of once. Francis wants to rule by his heart; Mary knows it’s impossible. She closes the castle gates after him, protecting everyone inside from whatever horror’s coming their way, and the King and Queen look at each other through the gates with steely resolve. We’ve seen them realize that their marriage is a thinly veiled power struggle again and again, but I’ve been watching Reign for a while now. I know better than to guess whatever the hell might be coming next.
- Catherine Appreciation Corner might get more active next season now that Henry’s scene-chewing is at an end, but for now, we have Catherine saying she loves jousting because she gets to see “nobles knocked on their asses after a long war.”
- Today in perfect line reads: Adelaide Kane’s snippy, “I know what the plague does.”
- Lola. Girl. I know you’re distracted, what with being in labor and all, but dictating a letter to a plebe that includes the detail that your child is the new King’s is the dumbest thing you’ve ever done.
- Leith may be a Nice Guy, but he seriously turned on the moves for Castleroy’s daughter(!). “I wasn’t thirsty then. I am now.” Hot damn, dude.
- Historical note (i.e. spoilers?): Henry requesting that Catherine reach out to Diane might have been honored if he hadn’t called Diane her “equal in so many ways.” The real Catherine deMedici banished Diane to a far off castle to die of old age, so I doubt this is going to pan out quite like Henry hoped.
- Mary’s rah-rah red England dress.
- ….okay, enough is enough. Which one of you is hiding Clarissa??
- I never thought this assignment would become such a bizarre thrill ride when I took it. It’s been so much fun—thank you all for joining me along the way! Long may [Queen Catherine] reign [over my unworthy heart].