Reign is always laboring under a peculiar tension with history. It’s delightfully obvious from the “Royals” instrumentals and the parade of wispy frocks that on a fundamental level, history is the least of this show’s concerns. At the same time, there are strange pockets of historical accuracy lying in wait for unsuspecting subplots—never forget the time Nostradamus saw Francis getting an ear infection, because that was the greatest. Of course, it’s all done with a warm embrace of soapy camp, making it compulsively watchable even at its most uneven. But in trying to carry it all, the show sometimes risks tipping sideways, leaving one of its wheels spinning wildly but not really moving forward.
Historically, “Toy Soldiers” tackles the struggle to take Calais from the English, including Mary’s uncle the Duke of Guise blackmailing Francis into a high position at court in return for martial support. Thematically, this is a week of family betrayal and unexpected compromises that ends up feeling a bit at loose ends.
One of the things this show still can’t always do is balance necessary plot and steady characterization. That, too, happens in pockets—last week, Francis showed a knack for torture and bribery that would make Mom proud—but often there’s some selective amnesia that affects any given subplot. As major characters most often affected by the big arcs, a lot of this falls unfairly on Francis and Mary. We left Mary shouting in fury as Francis locked her in the tower; this week opens with all the girls in a snowball fight. There’s passing mention of Mary’s imprisonment, but in the next scene, Francis and Mary are working together in seemingly perfect faith to get Mary’s uncle to lend his troops to Mary’s besieged mother. Later, Francis tells Mary earnestly, “You’re safe in this castle. Not even my mother—”, as if they hadn’t dealt with Catherine’s suspicious marriage contract and mass murder of Mary’s countrymen two weeks ago. (Across the castle, Catherine lifted her head and made a “You’re kidding” expression without quite knowing why.)
I do enjoy that their marriage has such high-stakes external pressures. They can never be happy so long as either of their countries is in need, and Mary’s concern for her mother is mirrored by Francis’ concern about his father’s fitness to rule. But the cycle’s familiar: Francis acting with good intentions, but events essentially leaving Mary helpless. This week, he makes deals behind Mary’s back, and later takes the troops he’d promised Scotland to help his father’s attack on Calais. (One of the problems of historical accuracy is balancing outcomes of events like Calais with the dramatic constraints they create. Historically, Mary is not renowned for her ability to get things done, and now that we’re edging out of secret histories into real ones, I wonder how Reign will make Mary as determined and effective as she was in early episodes.) Though they make up before he rides to battle, Mary’s anger is right on the nose: “You make it sound like every promise I make is an empty one,” he accuses, and she shoots back, “What other promise can you make?”
Henry’s taken a step back from Sex-Fiend to James-Bond-Lair this week, blustering with maps and troop markers. Alan Van Sprang could not be more game about it—last week’s tearful breakdown was great, and here, he bellows at Mary with great aplomb. However, I’m honestly a bit stuck on what the show’s doing with him. Is it the Darkness creeping in? Syphilis? Religious mania? The mystery builds without any real hints. It’s clear that giving absolute power to someone of questionable decision-making skills is terrifying—even this week as he deploys armies—but that message was delivered equally well when he was interrupting due process in fits of pique. And while it’s telling to see Catherine treading so carefully around him, and interesting to watch Francis get his first taste of what it might feel like to make history as king, I’m not sure which thematic arc is being served when the king bellows, “You think I’m delusional?” and marches around his map table to reveal a lack of pants.
Not at all thematically relevant but definitely noteworthy, Bash and Kenna also spend most of this week without pants, in an episode-long romantic counterpoint to Francis and Mary’s fragile relationship, their sweet nothings hinting at real communication. It’s a little awkward, however, that Kenna’s opening line notes Bash has been combing the woods for the Darkness “for weeks,” which asks more questions than it answers. (Any word from Rowan, Bash’s last girlfriend, who vanished a few weeks back in the clutches of the Darkness? How hard have you been looking if you went by your estate to check it out? Are there still blood cultists? Is Nostradamus helping with any of this, or is he in his room listening to string quartet breakup songs?) We won’t know until later; except for Bash’s jealous glimpse of Francis and Mary, this week is a closed loop for them. Torrance Coombs and Caitlin Stasey have enough friendly chemistry that even though it’s a little drawn-out and static, they make it fun. And though Kenna might have suffered most from characterization ping-pong—alternately a babe in the woods and a seasoned pro at court, depending—she’s been steadily unhappy, and Bash’s feelings for Mary are clearly still trouble; it’s good to have any suggestion that this marriage could be an actual partnership.
But the episode’s most interesting suggestion of partnership might come courtesy of Greer, after a few weeks on the back burner. Her visiting father is lying to Castleroy about the family finances and he insults her intelligence (family betrayals of varying sizes). Castleroy not only shuts down Greer’s father, but passes out generous dowries to her sisters and makes Greer’s involvement in their marriages a condition of the arrangement. He even gives her their own contract to approve, a level of control that for a 16th-century woman in dire financial straits sounds like the ultimate aphrodisiac. Leith is doubtless due back any day, and given that Greer’s the only single lady left, I suspect this engagement is doomed. However, they’re not making things easy for her; above and beyond Castleroy being a courtly feminist, this episode establishes he’s a decent kisser. There are still occasional reminders that both Lola and Kenna’s marriages have been exercises in falling up (unless Julien’s a murderer, in which case Lola’s in a tough spot), and Greer has a twinge of jealousy that everyone’s married someone young, handsome, and affectionate. But Greer began as the most pragmatic handmaiden; Castleroy’s getting such romantic treatment I’m wondering if they’re trying to make him seem like she’s not compromising after all.
Underscored by the big goodbye as Francis rides out to face the enemy and Mary recommits to Scotland, this is definitely an episode that’s trying to get its ducks in a row for some end-of-season showstoppers. But it also points to something that feels like it will be especially important: with Francis gone to war, Bash routinely on the hunt for the Darkness, and Henry largely checked out, “Toy Soldiers” leaves us with two countries being led by women whose agendas have often been at odds, which has provided some of the most interesting and entertaining conflict the show’s had to offer. Let’s see what happens when the queens stand alone.
- Thanks to Caroline for letting me fill in on an episode that was so serious we didn’t have a single party.
- “Define ‘utterly,’ because this is a man who’s ridden a pig through the throne room in nothing but his underthings.” Megan Follows is a gift.
- Last week suggested that Lola has quite possibly married a serial killer; I guess we’ll get back to it later.
- Did the castle get a new room this week, or is that wishful thinking?
- Catherine’s fake high dudgeon about Penelope’s kitchen suitor was priceless, and her guess that the pregnancy was a fake was delightfully old-hand. And while Penelope clearly thinks that the Flying Squadron Academy for Ladies is a rough deal, it’s a timely reminder that Catherine’s smart enough to try to turn a problem into an asset. Either Penelope will be an unparalleled general in Catherine’s makeout army, or she’ll come back for blood and Catherine will have to deliver the killing blow. I look forward to pretty much whatever!