Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Reign warms its hands in the glow of a garbage fire

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Some shows are easy to grade; they make their own rubric from the available resources, and reach their potential to a generally-obvious degree episode to episode. Reign is a more difficult prospect; how do I rate ”Fight Or Flight,” an episode in which the narrative was a garbage fire of hasty nothings trying to restart half-forgotten subplots in the wake of a Francis vacuum, but I laughed out loud three times because Megan Follows can sell literally anything?

I erred on the side of narrative, though it was a tough call. How does one judge this episode’s political plot, egregious even for a show that plays as fast and loose with history as Reign? There’s not even enough internal continuity to support the A-plot on its own terms: In the wake of Francis’ death, the privy council is gathering to cast a vote about who will be the next French regent. I understand the back-and-forth that’s been played with the privy council so far and how their disapproval would make life hard for an unpopular regent, but by the time they’re openly discussing votes and following the will of the people as the primary qualifier of office, we’re reaching the That’s Not How Any of This Works plateau.

The good news about the politics is that it gives Catherine and Mary a reason to work together to secure the regency that’s apparently up for a vote. (I guess bygones are bygones; if Catherine remembers being thrown in prison for planning something similar to this four episodes ago, she doesn’t mention it.) They’ve always been their most interesting in Francis’ absence, as the grieving widow and grieving mother work to oust Grenier while giving Catherine the out she needs to remove French troops from Scotland. And though there’s a lot less mourning than I would have expected after such a momentous loss, we at least get a nice shot of Mary and Catherine comforting one another before the plot machine starts up again.

Mary’s internal conflict between being a person and being a monarch is always a tough sell, given how obvious it is that other characters are making ruthless calls regularly—though as I’ve said before, it’s the only way to write her that stays remotely true to her historical inspiration. You buy that she’d stay in France to honor her husband’s last wish, despite pressing political need in Scotland; it seems impossible even for her not to realize how dangerous it is to be a far-off symbol for a country as vulnerable as Scotland, but here we are. That said, Adelaide Kane really did good work in this episode; subtler than the first wave of grief is her effort to move past it, and it’s played really well. When she finally admits, “I barely remember Scotland,” it’s a gently human moment. Given the eventual tragedy of Mary’s rule, I wish her human moments came in more than these small glimpses, especially after suffering such a loss. But I’ll take even the hint of tragedy, and the hint of a truce; it’s as close as this episode comes to any continuity.

Otherwise, we get a conflagration of romantic and interpersonal disasters, as if the showrunners were afraid to leave any stone unturned after the death of the show’s male lead. Bash tells Charles how important it is for a king to have support from “a brother, free from politics or agenda,” apparently having forgotten that time he deposed Francis and laid claim to the throne and to Mary. Claude suggests that Leith groom himself for an imaginary girl as an excuse to seduce him (volta first, smooching second, jaunty music throughout). And Elizabeth yanks Dudley’s leash to make him come back to court. It’s believable enough, given what we’ve seen of her, but it falls victim to the same economy of historical recognition that’s been part of Elizabeth’s story since the beginning: Dudley and Elizabeth spend more time telling one another about their feelings than they do building any connection that would sell it. (I have no trouble believing the man would kill his wife; it’s the only thing about him I currently believe.)

By a significant margin, the saddest thing in this episode (strange in an episode ostensibly in the wake of mourning) is the out-of-nowhere reboot of Lola’s character post-marriage. She used to be the cleverest and, quietly, the least conventional of the handmaidens, and is now reduced to the bleatingly unhappy wife. Narcisse has to suggest they “broaden our erotic horizons” because she’s hesitant in bed? Wasn’t this the woman who had a boyfriend in the pilot, then had a no-strings fling with Francis? She outsmarted Catherine once. She killed a man! She’s been circumspect about Narcisse, but this prudish, oblivious Lola is coming out of nowhere, and it does not bode well for her unless this episode’s an aberration…or she catches on to the inevitable and gets some teeth back.


But it’s Catherine, who has never had a problem showing teeth, who participates in some of the episode’s biggest emotional whiplashes. Because it’s Megan Follows, it’s somehow delightful even though it’s a narrative disaster to have her go from mourning her son to smoldering at Christophe the fireplace valet in under sixty seconds. It’s slightly more expected to have her go head to, uh, head with Narcisse, though it’s burning up the last dregs of sympathy for him. And while I am always an advocate for Catherine as a sexual being, and for Megan Follows as a master of camp, having Christophe ravish her as she begs him to make her feel alive is…an odd place to end an episode that began with her inert from grief. (This is maybe the most unfortunate narrative thread in the episode, merely because I would have enjoyed it so much if it had happened in an episode with more grounding and more distance from tragedy.)

The biggest question now is how Mary will move on, both politically and personally, and given that France looks as if it’s off the table—for the moment—the quickest answer comes, of course, from Elizabeth. With her usual hyper-efficiency, she strips Nicholas of his post and drags a former enemy from the Tower to seduce Mary and ruin her standing. (It’s worth noting that in a better episode, there would be a poignant parallel between Mary’s nostalgia for a country she’s never really known, and Elizabeth’s nostalgia for relationship security she never really had.) It’s an interesting enough setup, though it feels drowned out by so many subplots competing to compel us to keep watching in Francis’ absence. Let’s hope it pans out…a little more slowly than this.


Stray observations:

  • “It’s what Francis would have wanted.” Oh my God, the continuity of this show can drive me to distraction. What Francis wanted was for you to marry her, Charles. He said it repeatedly. We spent a whole episode on it.
  • “Even at my lowest of lows, I’m stronger than my enemies.” Just when you think you can’t love Catherine more.
  • It was good to see Greer at Mary’s elbow during the logistics of mourning, but she’s also been more and more frequently part of the queen’s unofficial privy council. Is she back in court politics permanently, as Spymaster and/or Official Madam to the crown, or is she just here until another subplot presents itself?
  • “Catherine deserved the time to mourn her son without my throwing my happy marriage in her face.” But what about us, Lola? Did you think about us?
  • Related: Catherine’s slam about “absent wit” shouldn’t have hit home.
  • Greer, you’re a madam. You don’t know about lesbians?
  • Dress of the week: The French court knows how to mourn in style, I’ll give them that; Greer’s glittery cape was a touch of somber fabulousness. But honestly, this week goes to Dudley and his Jareth-tastic ensemble.
  • …but I can’t go without mentioning Elizabeth’s spider earrings. In case you weren’t sure how to characterize her rule, now you are!