To sum up in a single GIF (though there’s plenty more where this came from):
That was some pretty powerful crack. Look, I’ve seen my fair share of anachronistic nonsense. I sat through the pearly whites and costume porn of The Tudors, the rubber-soled boots and crimped hair of The White Queen, the chainsaws and hang-gliding of Robin Hood, the tomatoes and beer cans of Merlin.
But there was something about the aesthetics of those shows that worked. Sure, The Tudors and The White Queen were far too pretty for the time period they depicted, but (as inaccurate as they were) there was at least a fundamental effort to capture the historical events that the characters were embroiled in. Robin Hood and Merlin was something else entirely; two fantasy-adventure shows that were never meant to be taken too seriously (until they were, and became ridiculous as a result).
But Reign is something else altogether. This is like Gossip Girl set in a simulacrum of 16th century France. It’s like one of those documentaries where modern families are forced to live in medieval settings, except with a contemporary soundtrack and clothes borrowed from The Gap. It’s like a bunch of random cosplayers have escaped a Renaissance Fair and are staging some sort of elaborate performance art over the long weekend.
I’m not sure where to start. The hair. The clothes. The makeup. The names (Greer, Kenna, Lola, Aylee??) The casual use of the word “fantastic.” Stylistic low-motion montages of girls fluttering through the dark halls of the French court. And the fact that immersed within all these modern trappings are things like bedding ceremonies and arranged marriages and discussions over the tenuous nature of a girl’s reputation after a rape attempt.
I’m just ... bewildered by what they’re trying to achieve here. It’s like the ladies-in-waiting are in an episode of The OC and Megan Follows is in a serious costume drama. Who is this show for?
To hazard a guess at my own question, I’d say it’s Twilight meets A Knight’s Tale, combining all the self-important teen-drama of the former with the joyful “we don’t give a fuck” attitude of the latter. But in this case the two comparisons make for rather uneasy bedfellows. A Knight’s Tale got by on sheer audacity and anachronistic glee, whereas the pomposity of Twilight and all its familiar trappings: princessy wish-fulfilment, love triangles, interpersonal relationships, and dewy-eyed pretty boys, don’t quite mesh with the atmosphere the show is trying to create.
Did I mention that it also touches on French politics?
The drama centres on Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Yes, that Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. So we already know this will end on the sharp edge of an axe. But that’s years away, for now she’s a bright-eyed young girl being brought out of the convent in order to reclaim her place at court and meet her fiancé Francis II, the childhood friend whom she’s been engaged to since she was six.
It springs to mind that between Game of Thrones, The White Queen and Reign, medieval courts have become a stand-in for high school hierarchies. We’ve got Mary, the nervous but spirited new girl who must negotiate this strange new environment. Her ladies-in-waiting are the lovelorn one, the nerdy one, the sexually active one, and ... the other one. There's the spoiled pretty-boy Francis, and the rugged bad-boy Sebastian (love triangle ahoy). Catherine de Medici is a little older than your usual Alpha Bitch, but still doing her best to wage war on the cheerleading squad. Heck, this story would have made just as much sense at a high-class boarding school.
Were it not for the strangely dark edge to everything. The episode kick-starts with a vision by Nostradamus of a tree in bloom that drips blood onto his face, one that he shares with Catherine de Medici (who apparently keeps him in the basement?), warning her that Mary will be the death of her son.
The Evil Matriarch immediately starts plotting, roping in Lola’s young beau (though I suppose we may as well embrace the weirdness and call him her boyfriend) to offer Mary drugged wine and rape her later that night. Yikes. What Catherine had on this guy goes unexplained, and is likely to remain so considering he gets his head lopped off before the closing credits.
Elsewhere Mary realizes that her engagement with Francis is not the stuff of fairytales. Not only does he look at their relationship in purely pragmatic terms (maybe they’ll marry, maybe they won’t – it all depends on the political climate) but he’s got a mistress on the side, one that he’s not particularly interested in giving up. No wonder Mary is already casting interested glances at his bastard half-brother Sebastian, who gives her the “I understand where you’re coming from” speech and rescues her dog from the forest.
Finally, the girls experience the 16th century equivalent of porn by sneaking away to watch the bedding ceremony between Francis’s newly married sister and her husband, watched over by dour-looking officials but ending up amazingly sensual despite this (and no, I haven’t attended any bedding ceremonies, but I’m pretty sure they were uncomfortable, awkward, perfunctory, and over with as quickly as possible for all involved).
The girls are so taken aback that they race off in slow-motion to the strains of guitar music, only for Kenna/Greer (sorry, can’t tell those two apart yet, only that both actresses look way too modern) to slip her hand southwards, get caught by King Philip, and ... well...
Oh, and in the midst of this teen-drama meets historical-fiction amalgamation, why not add a third element? The supernatural of course! It works for The Vampire Diaries and Teen Wolf, right? Only instead of vamps and wolves, Reign gets a ghost girl with a sack over her head, who warns Mary of the impending rape attempt by warning her not to drink the wine.
The mentality surrounding the attempted rape was bizarre, what with Lola sobbing that it was all Mary’s fault, Mary trying to get an audience with her rapist in an attempt to protect him, and then Francis coming out with the line “you can’t act like this” (yeah, how dare you almost get raped late at night in your own bedroom!), and very much underlines the show’s uncomfortable disconnect with itself. These girls look and act modern, but they’re trapped in the rigid social constructs/mentalities of 16th century France.
Heck, here’s a new premise for the show: all the ladies-in-waiting are actually time-travellers who go back into the past to protect Mary Stuart from her fate and find boyfriends for themselves.
Yet despite all this snark, there are a few elements of Reign that I not only like, but which have the potential to become truly fascinating with further development:
The court dynamics are already shaping up to be a lot of fun: the lecherous king and his more-intelligent/devious wife, the mistress and her bastard son, the duality of the two half-brothers, Mary and her entourage, Nostradamus in the basement... All good stories are based not only on characters, but the way in which these characters interact with each other. Already the seeds have been sown for some interesting bonds to be either formed or broken within this cast.
There’s a lot of emphasis on the women, specifically in Mary’s coming-of-age story. Adelaide Kane is proving herself better than expected in the role, capturing youth and naivety, but also an awareness of youth and naivety. Many teenagers are convinced they know absolutely everything, but Kane’s Mary has a self-consciousness about her duties and position that she hasn’t quite figured out yet. She can’t quite curb her impetuousness or idealism just yet, but neither is she foolishly mouthing off or throwing her weight around. She wants to be friends to her ladies, but is also aware that they’re counting on her for protection. She wants a romantic connection with her fiancé, but gets a bucket of cold water thrown over her when he voices his reluctance. Hopefully we’re not just going to see her grow from girl to woman, but pawn to player.
As annoyingly clichéd as the whole mother-in-law from hell role is, Megan Follows looks as though she’s going to have a great time. It’s also nice to see Anna Popplewell again; she disappeared a bit after The Chronicles of Narnia.
Geez, how old is Megan Follows? I grew up with the Anne of Green Gables adaptations and was astonished to see her age from child to grown woman so quickly throughout the trilogy. But that felt like only a few years ago – not long enough for her to now be edging towards old age. It’s like this woman has lived an entire lifetime over the course of a single decade.
Hilariously, Wikipedia also tells me that Mary’s ladies-in-waiting were called Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, Mary Fleming, and Mary Livingston. Okay, I suppose under those circumstances I can see why the names were changed to Greer, Kenna, Lola and Aylee.
Nice opening scene with Nostradamus’s vision in the woods, but also Mary locking eyes with the nun who dies as a result of the poisoned food designed for her.
So what’s out in the woods that attracted Sterling? Sebastian’s mother mentioned something about him being attracted to the blood...
I'll hang in there for a few more episodes, though my general feelings on the whole thing are captured perfectly on Faye's face: