A while back, I wrote a scathing review of the pilot episode of the CW’s “Reign.” Still, I continued watching in spite of those impressions (or perhaps because of them—you know I can’t resist a good train wreck). It seems that other critics who had similar first impressions have also warmed up to the show, if by “warmed up” you mean “come to embrace it as less of a costume drama and more of a typical CW teen soap in kind-of sort-of period dress, if faux fur and acetate were around back then.”
Anna Popplewell described the show as “fantasy history” and likened it to fan fiction, which is accurate, as long as you realize it’s one of those fan fiction stories in which the canon flies out the window and the characters resemble their canon counterparts in name only.“Reign” becomes an enjoyable enough diversion when viewed this way, but every now and then, the writers will throw in a nugget of historical accuracy. After focusing extensively on soapy melodrama and romantic intrigue for several episodes, the writers suddenly drop the bombshell that hey, Mary Tudor’s gonna kick off soon and shit’s going to get real, and we viewers are like, “Oh yeah, this is a show about Mary, Queen of Scots and not Mary, Teenage Girl Torn Between Two Hunky Brothers.” And then it’s just really jarring, because what business does history have in this teen costume drama?
But it’s actually at this point that (for me at least) the show really started picking up. The Mary/Francis/Bash love triangle, which has been the show’s focal point until now, is easily its weakest link. We all know how it ends (Mary/Francis and Francis/crown are canon, yo!) so it’s just a matter of watching it play out. Mary and Francis have mildly more chemistry than Mary and Bash, who make Trouble Maker seem like a nuclear power plant in comparison.
Add the fact that Bash, as a fictional character, has no role in the history the show is (albeit very loosely) based upon, so the writers have to increasingly grasp at straws to make him relevant, shattering whatever tenuous thread of suspension of disbelief remains. Furthermore, Mary’s motivations seem to leapfrog to accommodate whatever romance the narrative is pushing at the moment, making her an even less sympathetic or particularly likeable character. I hesitate to blame Adelaide Kane entirely for the charisma void her character is (particularly since this seems to be an unpopular opinion), because I’m not sure there’s anyone who could elevate this material. However, I do think it’s noteworthy that Anna Popplewell’s Lola managed to show more grit and stage presence in her brief téte-a-téte with Catherine than all of Mary’s encounters with the latter combined.
The real driving force of this show is its adult characters. It’s no surprise that “Inquisition,” by far the best episode to date, revolves around them almost entirely. Catherine is truly sublime, and the scene between her and Henry has more heat than all of the Mary/Francis and Mary/Bash scenes combined. The subtext between her and Nostradamus also becomes text (although one has to wonder how he recovered so quickly from getting slashed in the neck by Phantom of the Opera a couple episodes ago). Catherine also briefly reunites with a former lover (get it, Queen C) and we find out that Clarissa, the castle’s “ghost,” was the issue of that union. Apparently Nostradamus’s surgeon father attempted to erase the birthmark from her face that she shares with her father, and she ended up “deformed” (in quotes because the actual reveal shows her deformity to be some Vincent-on-the-CW’s-Beauty and the Beast realness).
Catherine’s attempt to poison Mary in the final cliffhanger is some epic drama that had me rooting for Queen C to succeed despite my obviously knowing better—and that is exactly the effect you’d want from a historical drama and the only time this show has been able to achieve it.
It’s painfully clear now that the real trio that drives this show are Catherine/Henry/Nostradamus, but since it’s the CW, you can’t have people over 30 on the poster, so I’m sure the writers are going to attempt to wrench the narrative out of Catherine’s grasping fingers back onto the snoozefest that is Mary and her wannabe Legends of the Fall-style melodrama. Personally, I’m not looking forward to it.
Long may Queen Catherine reign.