[Welcome to season two! I’ll be keeping track of how many people Catherine has poisoned every week until Caroline returns.]
Oh, Reign. After churning through so many subplots last season that characterizations were replaced wholesale, several characters were dispatched, and we somehow managed a love hexagon even amid all the time-consuming political machinations, we’re back for another season of a youthful court, their questionable clothes, and Queen Catherine gazing longingly at any goblet that’s somehow, inexplicably, still poisonless.
Not every show tries to gleefully set up seven subplots in the new season before the first commercial, but Reign is one of those. It’s also a show unafraid to have its lead start the episode’s expositional address by telling a roomful of nobles, with a straight face, “The Black Death has returned once more to plague our lands.” The episode that follows uses the plague as an enormous bottle episode that sets up new conflicts. It also has the distinct feeling of trying to reestablish status quo after a hiatus, so even though the episode follows on the heels of the season finale, everyone acts several months along: Kenna and Bash are established marrieds, and Francis and Lola are world-weary in a way that seems much…longer.
But this is also a show that’s unafraid to directly examine power, which is one of the reasons it’s succeeded as more than a compendium of ridiculous moments. Early last season, it realized the benefit of pitting established power (Henry) against naïve power (Francis and Mary), with an amoral villain lurking in the shadows (Catherine, light of my life), interfering as each episode’s subplot dictated. However, it also became the show’s most resonant arc, if a show this determinedly bonkers can be said to aim for resonance: Catherine as world-weary political veteran pitted against Mary’s youthful but often narrow-minded ideals. Their ongoing battle of wills became its most consistent thread, positioning two generations of women at the center of the drama.
Naturally, then, the most interesting subplot this week was the one in which Catherine and Mary get trapped together and are presented with a life-for-goods moral dilemma. It’s the sort of problem Catherine dealt with all last season, and by which Mary often gets stymied. (One of the few ways the show consistently holds to history is by having Mary make shortsighted tactical decisions.) Catherine, of course, sees a numbers game in killing one man already at risk from illness to assure food for the survivors: “If one life saves more, you have your answer.” Mary’s aghast; every life matters. When Catherine informs her, “Your position is given by birth, but your power is a negotiation with the nobles,” Mary revolts against the idea, and their argument gives both Megan Follows and Adelaide Kane something to chew on. It’s deepened by the genuine advice Catherine gives, in the moments she thinks she’s dying, about her own bitterness as Henry’s unloved wife, and how Mary has to prevent that same dynamic from taking hold in her own marriage. It speaks directly to the real inheritance Mary’s facing, and it certainly shakes Mary more than all Catherine’s anger did.
In the end, Mary’s success—sidelining Catherine, and throwing Edward in the dungeons after he poisons the offending family anyway—reinforces the idealism and luck that have been her operating trademark. Edward was allowing the grain out of the goodness of his heart, so though she tried to save one life and lost a dozen, she didn’t have to condone any of it, and she doesn’t have to answer to a household starving under siege. However, this is clearly setting up a season about the ways the young inherit systems of power, and this feels like a victory that won’t last long. (Interestingly, Bash gets reinforced as a ruthless soldier of the greater good; he stabs an infected woman who attempts to flee quarantine, making him the only person who directly kills anyone this episode. That puts him on Catherine’s side of things, and not for the first time: this power game isn’t going to get any cleaner.)
Greer spends this episode in the background, save her scene with Leith as she begs him not to date Castleroy’s daughter. (I know Caroline is fond of these two, but here we part ways. And after losing the last of my sympathy for Leith in his high-dudgeon finale Gatsby, I continued not to care as he frowned his way through possibly dating his ex’s prospective daughter-in-law.) If we’re being honest, I’m surprised Castleroy, who spent last season transforming from the butt of the joke into the most handsomely grizzled feminist at court, didn’t fall victim to the plague that removed so many plot obstacles. Instead, it his daughter’s swift end resets this subplot neatly. (There are always one or two subplots in a Reign episode that spin their wheels and then reset to leave options open; this show’s a game of Twister.)
Kenna, who spent last season as either a savvy social climber or the most clueless maiden in town, depending on what the week’s plot required, has been sweet but unremarkable since marrying Bash. (Though I suspect that with courtiers snarling “You were the King’s whore” at her, she’s not done outrunning her past.) She spends this episode touchingly saying goodbye to Pascal, one of the doomed loose ends from last season’s Vague Bad. But even this actually suggests more about other people than about her (poor Kenna). Because it’s Lola who spent much of last season being the sweet one amid everyone else’s romantic upheaval. She showed bursts of savvy when required, but aside from flirting with Bash and then sleeping with Francis and the resulting, deeply unnecessary pregnancy subplot that follows, she spent last season on the fringes.
That’s about to change. In another of those reset plots, it was so obvious that Lola and the baby would end up at court I didn’t even bother taking notes about Louis the hunky new introduction, or Francis’s attempts to let Lola and the baby live a free life. Louis can advise wisely all he wants against bringing a bastard child to an unsteady court; Francis and Mary are united in their ability to ignore solid advice, and Francis is going to do just as he pleases. (If looks could kill, Francis would never have finished telling Lola, “That child is whoever I say he is.”) That said, anger brings out the best in Anna Popplewell, who can be a little vague during chirpy moments, and she and Toby Regbo sell their mix of resentfulness and regret far better than they sold their infatuation. In a season that’s clearly going to be about the patterns of power and how heavily they weigh on the new generation, this has a lot of potential. Bring that kid home, set up the triangle of power games, and let the Twister begin.
- Nostradamus shaved! Biggest plot twist of the episode? I mean, not as big as him helping Mary poison Catherine into thinking she has the plague, but pretty big. (He’d better hope Catherine never finds out about that one.)
- Dress of the Week: Catherine’s Joan Collins-in-mourning black-and-gold turtleneck kirtle the first day of the plague.
- Megan Follows has spent the hiatus working on her royal dismissive hand gestures. It’s paid off.
- I like that Greer levels with Castleroy about things that would otherwise be episodes worth of misunderstandings; we’ll see how long it lasts.
- “The airs near us will be burned clean. It worked for the Pope.”
- And if this show was lacking anything to fulfill its full camp potential, Craig Parker has joined the cast as mustache-twisting noble Stefan Narcisse, who I hope survives the plague and comes back to court to fight with Catherine.
- Even dying of plague, Catherine would rather die alone than have Mary near her.
- There’s a casual use of fantasy elements on this show that felt underutilized last season, but given that Bash has just hallucinated a prophetic child, that might change.
- “Welcome to your rule, my Queen. And welcome to the real France.” And we have a seasonal theme!