I know, I’ve been remiss in blogging about Reign lately. I have a lot of thoughts after most episodes and on season two in general but I never actually write them down except sometimes on my twitter, and not in a particularly coherent fashion. But since shit went down on Thursday’s episode, “Acts of War,” I had to write a post about it.
But first, some catch-up. I was rather brutal toward the show in my recap of the pilot, though as the first season went on, I gradually warmed up to the show, particularly when the focus shifted from the pointless Mary/Bash/Francis love triangle toward an (albeit, campy and soapy) examination of power, politics, and relationships. In particular, we have watched Mary and Francis’s relationship slowly crumble under the strain of leading a country, despite all of their good intentions. Francis’s consistent incompetence as a leader has maneuvered him into a quandary I suspect even the writers can’t brainstorm a way out of, so Mary had to be sacrificed for dramatic impact (and, I suspect, a last-ditch attempt to pull the show out of bubble hell).
As a casual fan, I don’t really read spoilers, so I went into “Acts of War” completely unspoiled. The episode was chugging along in its typical soapy way, providing the usual amusingly pointless anachronism and melodrama. Francis needs to be away from the palace for plot reasons, so he and Bash embark on a mission to untangle the threads of Narcisse’s blackmail. Said mission leads them to Montgomery, the noble whom Francis subbed in for and was credited with Henry’s death. It was nice to see Bash and Francis working together again, a callback to the early seasons when Bash essentially functioned as the one who does the dirty work that Francis cannot stomach. Bash ends up dispatching Montgomery swiftly and pragmatically, in a scene that reminds us why, when he has actual screen time, Bash is actually a far more interesting and layered character than Francis is. It’s a shame he never has anything to do other than Kenna and being Francis’s henchman.
Meanwhile, it’s soapy fun time back at the palace, where Queen C makes her requisite scene-stealing and timely entrance once talk of marriage for Claude is in progress.
Said marriage is the brainchild of Mary, who felt that pairing Catholic Claude with Protestant Louis might help smooth over the tensions between Catholics and Protestants, and that the writers felt would finally give Claude something to do other than be a Tudor-era Miley Cyrus with Mommy issues, and give Louis something to do other than be a Bash stand-in complete with doomed boner for Mary. In fact, it’s pretty apparent Louis only agrees to the engagement with Claude because of Mary, as his agreement is couched in admiration of Mary’s hustle and a healthy dose of goo-goo eyes at her.
Given what a massive horse’s ass Francis is being lately, the Mary/Louis pairing has its appeal. Claude and Louis are quite pragmatic in their viewpoints of marriage and it wouldn’t be Louis’s first rodeo, so to speak, with a married woman, so it’s really only Mary’s loyalty to her inept husband preventing this pairing from being a possibility. At least, it seems that way, until that happens.
Imagine a brakes-screeching sound in my brain when I hit that scene. I was fully expecting Reign to pull an Outlander and have someone (Louis, maybe?) show up in the nick of time to save Mary, and when that didn’t happen, I just sat there in awe and disbelief that the show would actually go there. That awe and disbelief quickly turned to dread, and I’ll give you a few reasons why.
I’m not watching Reign for a particularly dark, brutal, historically accurate look at Tudor-era France. Even Outlander, a far more thoroughly-researched and well-made show, is largely a fun historical soap, and all the rape and attempted rape felt really discordant and gratuitous. Yes, rape is a horrific act of war (to quote the episode title), and is historically accurate, but that excuse tends to lose steam given how fast and loose so many canons play with history when they don’t need it for a plot device, shock value, or just a cheap ploy to display the brutality of the setting in which the characters live. It’s rather disturbing that of all the “historically accurate” issues to preserve, showrunners consistently choose violence against women, like we don’t already have enough sexism and misogyny in our media today. Furthermore, is Reign really going to play that card after making up a fake prince who gets fake killed and then joking about the incident being erased from history books? The show is particularly egregious in lampshading its utter lack of fucks to give, so don’t even.
Reign’s inability to show much internal consistency within its own canon (not to be confused with actual history) does little to build any faith that Mary’s rape will have any lasting repercussions on the characters, despite showrunner Laurie McCarthy’s assurances during her Entertainment Weekly interview. We’re talking about the same show that gave us Catherine plotting to have Mary drugged and raped in the pilot, then revealing herself as a rape survivor in “Left Behind.” Furthermore, that McCarthy’s commentary continually refers the rape storyline to its effects on Francis does nothing to build that faith. This is a show about Mary, not Francis. So what we’ve got here is the sacrifice of our main character to the offensive trope gods in order to further a supporting character’s manpain. OK then.
As for the rape scene itself, I will credit the show with doing a fairly decent job. The scene was not overly sexualized (something that made me very uncomfortable while watching Outlander’s attempted rape scenes, despite the show’s far less exploitative approach to its consensual sex scenes), and it was very uncomfortable to watch, albeit for different reasons. I’m not sure if a scene this explicit was necessary for a CW show, but I did appreciate its portrayal of rape as nothing more or less than a brutal act of power. Queen C’s advice to Mary in the aftermath—to make sure the general public never found out about the rape—made some waves in the fandom community, with some fans expressing concern that it advocated for silencing victims. In this case, however, I think it’s important to understand the context and the specifics of the situation. There’s a certain extent to which even Reign can expect audiences to suspend disbelief, and there’s no escaping the fact that Mary and Catherine live in in era in which public knowledge of Mary’s rape would undermine the latter’s power and influence. There’s Mary the queen and Mary the person, and this is another time in which Mary the person must be sacrificed for Mary the queen. It’s a powerful scene, one I interpreted as more a sign of the times and not “Hey guys, this is how you approach rape in the twenty-first century!”
However, the issue only circles back to my original point—do we really need a rape storyline on a show like this? The stigma of rape and silencing of victims is still a problem today, a sad reminder of how little our values and beliefs have in actuality progressed since Mary’s time. In an unfortunate coincidence, this episode hit the airwaves around the time when the controversy over Rolling Stone’s UVA rape article exploded, and the parallels are highly disturbing. To its credit, Reign tries to counter these unfortunate implications by having Catherine deliver a very powerful speech to Mary and extend her full support. Catherine never leaves Mary’s side in the aftermath, which I thought was really wonderful for the characters, and there’s no victim-blaming here. But that doesn’t change the fact that the writers’ hands are generally tied by the show’s setting, and I must ask what a rape plotline on a pseudohistorical show could possibly contribute to our culture’s current dialogue on the subject, other than a reiteration of “yeah, patriarchy has been and still is shitty in regards to violence against women.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention other stuff in this episode. Narcisse is being a dick as usual and, now that the Lola/Narcisse ship is sunk, he’s scamming on Claude (apparently the writers forgot the rumored original plan for him to be a Catherine love interest, because no women over 30 can get some on this show, I guess). Greer is considering converting for Castleroy, and it’s nice that the show is stressing that it’s her decision and not the result of pressure from her husband. The unlucky couple then find out that they may have inadvertently funded the Protestant radicals’ assassination attempt. Oops.
Ultimately, the rape storyline is really bad form on the part of the writers and showrunners, and even if it is portrayed with the gravity and sensitivity that McCarthy promises, delivers little but some cheap drama and shock value. While I grant that I absolutely loved the scenes between Mary and Catherine and both actresses knocked it out of the park, but there are other less offensive ways of building their relationship. I won’t say Reign is above cheap drama and shock value because I’m not in that deep, but I had sincerely hoped the show would never put me in the position to have to.