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Reign perfects its pulp formula amid “Our Undoing”

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Reign is always trying to dance on lightbulbs. Secret history, actual history, romance, fantasy, court intrigue; it’s a lot to balance, and any element has the potential to trip any of the others. When it falters, Reign‘s short memory and the pick-and-choose elements work against it: promising things get set up and never pan out, entire subplots are devoured by a single episode only to recur half a season later, the tone swings from maudlin romance to high-camp nonsense minute by minute, and characterizations fall prey to plot expedience. When it works, though – solid character beats, wild energy that maintains enough focus to push the narrative forward, and a glorious self-awareness of its own ridiculousness—Reign works like magic.

And wouldn’t you know it, “Our Undoing” is just such an episode! And not just because it does some welcome work and finally brings together several subplots that have required strange avoidance or obtuseness while they waited their turn: Claude pointing out as gently as possible that it will be hard to testify on her mother’s behalf, what with being poisoned by Catherine herself; Bash having something to do with the royal fmaily again; Lola finally figuring out her husband planted the rat; even, by episode’s end, the dismissal of the charges being brought against Catherine like that was a thing 16th-century monarchs routinely had to face.


But this isn’t just an episode that churns a decent plot (though it’s definitely more satisfying when any episode of Reign ends with the characters in a different position than they started—this show tends to have people come full circle on something in forty minutes). This is an episode that churns absolutely everything; its energy is almost manic, particularly in the first act, as Catherine and Mary establish their alibi, Mary deals with a grain shortage and a hostage situation, and Carlos’ life hangs in the balance while the Duke of Alba rattles cages about it. It’s ridiculous, and the show knows it; it happily hurls characters into the frame just to watch Catherine and Mary dodge them. And that sporadic, self-aware ridiculousness means “Our Undoing” carries one of the soapiest twists this show’s ever managed: Carlos is alive after his accident with the bondage bench, but the brain damage has left him an unworthy ruler, unless Mary agrees to marry him, and thus protects herself from her enemies at the French court, and from Elizabeth.

On one hand, giving a character brain damage to make them a benign trap for Mary is some seriously eyebrow-raising business—coming fast on the heels of another obliviously eyebrow-raising Don Carlos subplot. On the other hand, this is all so explicitly, shamelessly soapy that the Duke of Alba is basically pulling a Rogelio. Obviously, this is all designed to manipulate Mary into a pity engagement with someone who no longer presents any competition for Francis in her heart, and it leaves her guilt-stricken even as she does what she believes is right both for Scotland and for Spain. It’s one of the more interesting conundrums she’s faced lately, not lease because she actually does the smart thing (on Catherine’s advice) and keeps her qualms to herself. Adelaide Kane does particularly well with beats that require her to be outwardly dutiful and inwardly torn, which works well here, and now all we have to do is cool our heels for one, maybe two episodes until his memory suddenly returns at the worst possible moment and see how that falls out, right?

In some ways, “Our Undoing” succeeds because of that sense of fearlessness that seems to be missing a lot for a show that does ridiculous so well. (Serious romantic episodes in which your husband gets raised from the dead just long enough for you to say another protracted goodbye one episode later are always going to be a harder sell than Catherine ordering Mary to dispose of her poisons without breathing in.) And it is, if nothing else, a clearing of the decks, setting the stage for new and potentially interesting subplots for almost everyone.

Mary is now in a new alliance that makes everyone perfectly happy but herself—which her angsty stare into the mirror suggests will continue to trouble her. We can only imagine Claude’s inevitable clash with her mother as soon as she names the object of her affection. Bash, after landing in the A-plot so hard it seems to have stunned him, might find himself growing closer to Catherine in the wake of doing her a good deed? Even Narcisse, who spent most of this episode standing in the Valois equivalent of a Death Star garbage compacter as everything slowly crushed him, emerges with a new awareness that he’s a human disaster. Then again, in a normal show, having to face Catherine after his railroading forced her to exhume her own son would give him a pang of conscience that would last past the credits. Given that this is Narcisse, and this is Reign, I’m doubtful.


But that’s not so for everything! Lola being across the sea in Catherine’s court suggests the awaited bridge between these queens that will introduce a familiar face to the new court, and drag them into direct conflict rather than fraught parallel. Plus, now that she’s apparently smart enough to do her own detective work again, there’s a lot of potential for her to prove herself an operator among the English. (I am honestly not hopeful about this either—she’s been painted as deliberately obtuse for a weirdly long time, and that could return at any moment as soon as the plot requires—but just imagine if the show maintains her cleverness for a while!)

And let’s be honest—the best thing to come out of this episode is that Catherine has once again proved herself to be a character so glorious the show can barely contain her. For whatever reason, beats that seem slightly too wild for anyone else fit her perfectly well. Her comic timing in this episode is as sharp as it’s ever been, without losing that breathless momentum in the show’s conspiratorial opening minutes. That she exhumes her own son’s body in order to prove her innocence is stone-cold ruthlessness; that she struggles to maintain that triumph in the face of a man she still has feelings for is Megan Follows lending this character the same depth as as she has breadth. With her murder charges behind her (again), Catherine is able to start freely circling that regency like a shark, tearing apart anyone in her way. Good luck, Narcisse; you’ll need it.


Stray observations

  • “Don’t inhale the smoke. I can’t have another dead monarch on my hands.” Catherine is the best part of this show, and probably the best part of several other shows chosen at random. Her list of quotables ends up being an episode transcript.
  • “That sock just moved.”
  • “That is not a strategy.”
  • “Here’s enough gold for three months.” “It’s more like one.” (See?)
  • Narcisse, gasping self-pityingly about his love for the lost Lola as he pushes his scribe off the parapets in the middle of a High Gothic rainstorm is one of the best images this show has pulled out, possibly ever. Thanks to director Lee Rose for the Universal Classic monster-movie lighting, and congrats to Craig Parker (no stranger to rainy parapets) for somehow selling it all.
  • Dress of the week: I mean, you’d think it would be Catherine’s pageboy escapee, wouldn’t you? But honestly, my favorite getup this week was the inquest, where Lola and Narcisse have never been more color coordinated. That purpley-grey and bronze business is like the Barbie and Ken of palace intrigue; the second you saw it you knew she was going to get the hell out of there before the episode was over.
  • Stage business on this show can be hit or miss, but Catherine and Mary frantically trying to change out of their incriminating garments was a stroke of genius from episode writers Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts. The hasty changing shoehorned some note-perfect tension into a scene that on the surface was laughable and/or horrifying, and their wordless cooperation was the most effective possible illustration that Mary and Catherine are united after Francis’ death; it worked better than any lengthy promises of loyalty could.