It’s fascinating to watch an episode of the show as momentous as this one in which so much hinges on the uncanny valley between choices and what’s ordained. It’s a line the show has played with a lot; everything from Aylee’s death to the definition of Catherine’s “first child” has been up for debate, and the fact that the show operated in a slightly alternate-universe timeline meant that those debates were uncertain enough that we, like the characters, were thrown into doubt. Francis died from an ear infection, historically, but that didn’t mean anything here…did it?
Now as it turns out, nearly everything Nostradamus foresaw has come to pass. That’s a deeply impressive track record, so most of the debates have only been those in which people second-guess whether the worst is over: whether Francis or Clarissa is the “first child,” for example, or whether Francis being resurrected by Delphine’s magic after technically dying is enough to fulfill the prophecy.
Wouldn’t you know it: it’s not. And wouldn’t you know it: “In a Clearing” calls back to some of the series’ earliest imagery in laying out Francis’ death—again. Nostradamus even risks announcing himself to Catherine because he’s so afraid Francis is still imminently doomed; the White Tree is still out there, and both Nostradamus and Catherine know exactly how often he’s been right. He’s actually the only person in the world Catherine implicitly trusts, which means that his warning about the white tree is something more than a choice. To her, it’s a certainty. She fails at warning Francis to be careful, but she seems to know even as she tries that it’s a losing proposition; when she sees the white petals on the road, she doesn’t try to run after him. No point—it’s already too late. All that’s left is to wait for the bad news.
And bad news doesn’t take long. There’s something deeply odd in bringing Francis back from death just to give him a chance to go out in a more heroic way (they had already used the late-stage euphoria excuse, I guess, which doesn’t make this roller coaster any smoother). At best, it’s the series staging a do-over of last year for Francis and Mary so that this time, he can protect her. At worst, it’s a show unwilling to let anything but heroism kill its male lead. Full marks to this show for being willing to kill him at all—they could have gotten away with the alternate-universe excuse—but the last couple of episodes mean that his death loses some of its impact. (Toby Regbo is exempted from any blame here; his second death scene is as earnest as his first one. It’s not his fault he’s spent most of the season nearly dying and then being fine.)
What we don’t lose is its impact on everyone else. It even brings Bash into the fold; it seems oddly fitting that the onetime rival for the throne be the person to deliver the news, which has leveled him so much there are no honorifics left: “Catherine, it’s Francis.” And Catherine, when she reaches the scene, draws on the best of all possible worlds, reaching to comfort Mary rather than go to her son. It’s a moment of choice in an episode of inevitable things, and reminds us what this show can do when it draws on continuity; the times Catherine sets animosity aside to support Mary always hit home. (And though it’s been nearly two years since we saw the White Tree, and it was a plot pretzel to get us back there, there was something tragic about Nostradamus standing in the clearing, looking at yet another thing nobody could prevent.)
The parallel to all that inevitability is choice, and Mary made two big ones in this episode. The first was to accept Nicholas’ formal peace agreement from Elizabeth, and relinquishes her claim to the English throne in exchange for an official end to the war on Scotland. It’s one of those crunchy political problems Reign tends to do well with: We understand the sacrifice, but we’ve seen enough about the drain of war that we also understand wanting it to be over. (Plus, as Nicholas points out, the second that Elizabeth gets a husband and kid—totally plausible to everyone currently hashing this out—Mary’s out of the succession discussion anyway, so she’s giving up a narrow shot in order to keep Elizabeth from trampling Scotland now that Mary’s mother is dead. Nicholas is an effective-as-hell diplomat.) The other choice, as so often on this show, negates the first one: In the wildness of her grief, Mary decides Elizabeth is responsible for the attack, and tears up the agreement—only to be informed by Narcisse that the killers were Scottish extremists. Elizabeth had nothing to do with it…and has no reason to extend the offer again. Impulsive decision making that turns out to be a bad idea? History is really starting to catch up to Mary.
The episode ends with a mixture of heartbreak and uncertainty. Catherine, the regent apparent, begs Nostradamus to stay, but he’s one of those “draw and quarter me once, shame on you, draw and quarter me twice, shame on me” guys, and he’s out. Bash is back at Mary’s side; dare we hope he’s back in the inner circle? Claude and Charles are weirdly absent, but we have to assume we’re staring down some politics back home. And Francis begged Mary to find another husband: Will all that back-and-forth with Charles be an alternate-universe plot that pans out? Mary declared she was no longer Queen, but if there’s one thing Reign is underscoring with this episode, it’s that choices will usually backfire on you, and nothing really lasts unless a prophecy ordains. It’s an interestingly bleak outlook; let’s see where it goes from here.
- Farewell to Toby Regbo; Francis was always more compelling than he had to be, and that’s not easy.
- I pre-miss Nostradamus. His brand of speculative history worked really well for the show’s sensibilities, and his intense friendship with Catherine was the most honest—and thus, the most interesting—she’s had so far.
- “Decorum would dictate that guests be announced.” Good idea! When did that start? Because as of last episode people were still expecting to just swan in whenever.
- “It’s a good job for someone who’s always right, to be sure, but as it turns out many people quite despise me.” There’s something great about any character who knows themselves and other people this well; almost all of them are somewhere on the Villain Continuum, but that might just be what happens when you face facts long enough.
- Bash was separated from most of the rest of this episode, but maybe the chances he’s had recently to interact with the main cast are a sign he’s returning to the main narrative. With the succession in doubt, he’s got to be coming back to the board, right? He can’t just stalk serial killers in the French countryside forever.
- This show is hard on people, props-wise. You can work on the empty-cup problem whenever, but this show runs such a gamut that you have to be prepared to make anything look natural on a moment’s notice. Some of this is because half this cast never quite knows what to do with their hands, but there’s “give them a sword belt to rest their free hand on” and then there’s squeezing fake octopus ink and handling pickled hearts.
- Dress of the week: Some of Catherine’s coats can skew Mother of the Bride, but her royal blue number was perfect for an episode where she’s loving, earnest, and not grasping for power.