Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Review: Reign Season 1

Over the past week I’ve been marathoning Reign (three episodes per day, give or take) and have now reached the end of its first season. It became clear to me pretty quickly that although it was too slight for me to comment on each episode individually, there was plenty to say about the show as a whole.

It’s fluffy crack. It’s cracky fluff. It’s like eating metal-flavoured candyfloss, and like all the best crack and candyfloss, it’s addictive. Buried deep within the invasive pop soundtrack and the inexplicable outfits, the half-hearted attempts at historical accuracy and the ludicrous “pair everyone up with everyone else on a rotor basis” shipping mentality, there is a formula for a fairly entertaining drama.

Described as “historical fantasy” (which makes me wonder why they didn’t jettison the history entirely and set this in a fully-blown fairytale kingdom) Reign is best described as a teen drama in which its young protagonists are looking for a husband instead of a date for the prom, where exam results are replaced with political intrigue, where nerds are represented by deformed loners who wear sacks over their heads, and Sue Sylvester is now Anne of Green Gables moonlighting as Catherine di Medici.

The only thing that bears any resemblance to the trials of contemporary youth is the girls’ acute awareness that any slip-up in regards to their virtue will result in the complete annihilation of their reputations. Other than that, you won’t find any modern teen in a morning-after scene involving the words: “I hope you’re pregnant.”

There’s a lot to get through, so let’s break it down into the pros and cons.


Obviously Catherine de Medici. Glancing over her resume on IMDB, it’s clear that Megan Follows never got the career she deserved, for her performance not only stands head-and-shoulders above everyone else’s (it’s not that they’re bad by any means, just that she eclipses them at every turn) but she plays what is easily the most entertaining character on the show.

Here’s a woman who during confession casually sandwiches her massacre of a half-dozen men in between taking the Lord’s name in vain and slapping a servant, and only regrets that last one because it was a loss of self-control. Her relationship with Mary ends up being the most important on the show, with the two women transcending the “mother-in-law from hell” cliché to become bitter enemies, reluctant allies, and an effective team. Roughly in that order.

She owns practically every scene she’s in, and even when others are in the foreground, your eyes inevitably stray to her to see how she’s reacting to whatever new chaos is emerging around her.

Yet as good as Megan Follows is, Adelaide Kane is the glue that holds all this insanity together. She’s a beguiling actress, mainly due that pair of big sad eyes, and not since Carey Mulligan have I seen such a tragic bearing in such a young woman. Treading the usual path from a naïve young girl to an astute political player, the show makes the most of Mary's position as Queen of Scots to explore the very real power (or lack thereof) she wields and the effect this would have on a teenage girl's psyche.

I’m a sucker for a good Gothic mystery, and though their take on The Phantom of the Opera (switch the deformed genius living in the sewers for a deformed spy living behind the walls) took a turn for the silly once Clarissa’s parentage was revealed, there were some genuine thrills to be had in the lead-up to figuring out what her game was. And I’ll admit that a sleepless night followed the episode in which the camera panned down beneath Mary’s bed to reveal Clarissa hiding there. Seriously, I had a nightmare about someone hiding under my bed.

Meanwhile there was something a-brewing out in the woods. Let me see if I can get this straight: there were pagans making blood sacrifices to a guy dressed in a scary Freddy Krueger costume in the hopes that he could pacify “the Darkness” which is eventually revealed to be the imminent Black Plague, as predicted by a number of visions recorded in chalk drawings in an abandoned village. Is that right?

To be honest, I still think that kid Pascal is up to something. I was getting excited actually, thinking/hoping that he was a Trojan Horse, (akin to young Mordred from Merlin) who had disguised himself as a little boy and cleverly integrated himself into the castle walls. Of course, there’s every chance that that’s the storyline for season two, but as much as I enjoyed the lead-up to the bogyman in the forest, the denouement was rather anti-climactic.

Bash and a temporary love interest that was way too cool to live.

Still, there was some nice use of Balancing Death’s Books (one of my favourite tropes) and the moral conundrum that arose around Bash’s need to find a blood sacrifice to replace the one he cut down in the woods (lest the pagans come for Mary) played out surprisingly well. That image of the pagan boy casually tipping himself off the balcony was startling, though the stag’s head that was hung over Mary’s bed made me laugh for a solid twenty minutes.

And then there's the sheer insanity of it all. Hey, remember that time the king literally killed a woman by screwing her out a window? Or when Lola pushed a guy and ended up accidentally impaling him on a wall? Or when the king’s bastard was taught a lesson by being forced to watch his brother consummate his marriage to his ex-fiancée? There are no depths (or heights) to which this show is not prepared to sink (or rise) to, and the craziness of it all ensures that the plot races along at the speed of light.


I hate to say it, but the ladies-in-waiting. Part of the reason why I decided to give this show a shot was because I was certain that five main female characters pretty much guaranteed a lot of focus on female relationships, and in a medieval court setting there was plenty of room for strategizing and intrigue, presumably with a marked improvement in the girls’ ability to spy, manipulate and connive as they become increasingly good at the game (of thrones).
Unfortunately, the quartet instead ends up being remarkably crappy at their ONE job of protecting Mary. It gets to the point where they’re more of a hindrance than a help to their Queen, and though I don’t fault them for their obsession with landing a husband, it’s a pity that ninety percent of their screen-time is devoted to this goal.

I'd love to say they're scoping out the territory, but they're
really just bracing themselves for their impending husbands.

At one point Catherine describes them as: “the spy, the forger and the seductress.” Well gee, I really wish we could have seen that in the show. Imagine a show in which all of these girls have a particular skill (seduction, maternal instincts, wealth, strategy) and were set loose on the French court by Mary to work those abilities in mining out information and allies.

Occasionally it happens, but even then it’s in fits and starts. I usually hate it when female characters are dismissed as “just a love interest” as this is usually fandom code for “wah, she’s getting in the way of my perfect bromance!” but in this case I really wish the ladies had a bit more going on in their lives than husband-hunting. They’re in such a rich, fascinating environment where they could be such valuable assets to their Queen, and instead most of their screen-time is made up of Kenna’s liaison with the king, Greer’s liaison with a servant and Lola’s pregnancy (after wasting Anna Popplewell for most of the season).

In short, they comprise the soap-opera part of the show, which is not nearly as interesting as the political or the supernatural bits.

Then there’s the love triangles. To be more specific, the love dodecahedrons; to be more broad, the shipping. These days the fourth wall that used to exist between creators and fans is well and truly destroyed.  Thanks to Twitter and conventions and other venues in which creators and viewers can communicate with each other, there are no secrets between what a fandom wants and what a show is prepared to give in response to their demands.

And the one thing that creators – especially those of teen dramas – have learned is that shipping is the life’s blood of any fandom. And I honestly think this realization is one of the worst things to ever happen to storytelling. Does that sound too melodramatic? Probably, but since we’re dealing with a melodrama here, I’m going to run with it.

In its purest form, there’s nothing wrong with shipping. It’s about investing in a particular couple, enjoying their interactions, and hoping for a happy ending for them. But the recent destruction of the fourth wall and the eagerness with which network executives are willing to pander to whatever voices are yelling the loudest on-line means that an acute awareness of shipping's popularity is woven into the very fabric of the storylines.

Reign is a show that seems specifically designed for shipping wars, with at least one character invented solely to be positioned at the third point of a love triangle. Every character gets a chance to flirt with, sleep with, or get engaged to practically every other character that comes into their orbit.

Why wait until the finale? Let's get married now!

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the amount of ship teasing that goes on, the arbitrary hook-ups, the rush to present as many potential couples as possible means that the relationships ring hollow. I don’t care about any of the romantic relationships on the show as it gives me absolutely no time to invest or grow interested in any of them. This time next year Lola could be married to Leith and Kenna dating Nostrodamos and Greer engaged to Francis’s newborn bastard, and I wouldn’t be remotely surprised.

Thanks to this emphasis shipping and the feeding-frenzy that arises when shows cater to it, there’s no such thing as a slow boil anymore. Everyone just gets flung at the wall for the sake of Tumblr GIF sets and ten-page ship manifestos. Mark my words, in a few years time on-line polls organised by the networks will allow viewers to decide end-game for their favourite OTPs, regardless of whether or not such pairings make storytelling sense.  

Perhaps there’s something to be said to the way Reign chomps through its plots like a hungry, hungry hippo, ensuring that there’s a sudden swerve with each new episode, but none of the long-term relationships are crafted with care, and even when a solid relationship is established, it lacks any sense of resonance or depth.

But that’s just part and parcel of the general writing. The plotting is rather terrible, for nothing builds, characters and plots are introduced only to disappear at random (remember when Mary had a dog and Francis had a mistress?), and the relationships are all over the place. The breakage of the “show don’t tell” rule is some of the worst I’ve ever seen, with characters sharing exposition to each other in barely-veiled summations to the audience or arbitrarily explaining things that they already know.

Stuff just ... happens.

For example, at one point Aylee and Mary set up a double-blind in which Catherine catches Aylee stealing from Mary’s room and subsequently blackmails her into bringing her Mary’s letters. By the end of the episode we discover that it was a deliberate set-up by Mary in order to send a stream of carefully-controlled information into Catherine’s hands.

This is never again brought up, and when Aylee dies it’s with a complete lack of emotion considering we barely knew this girl.

What if Aylee had brought Catherine Mary’s letters only for Catherine to legitimately grow quite fond of her? And for Catherine to be guilt-ridden when Aylee accidentally drinks the poison, believing that she has the girl’s innocent blood on her hands? Which would have been even more interesting when she finally realizes that a) she wasn’t responsible, and that b) Aylee was conning her the whole time.

Split milk, I suppose. Aylee dies and becomes a quintessential Forgotten Fallen Friend considering no one ever mentions her again.

And yet for all of that, the characters, atmosphere and situation must have gotten under my skin. There’s a scene in which Mary is challenged by a group of Scotsmen whose help she needs. After being informed of their doubts that she is a worthy Queen, she angrily tells them that she’ll do whatever it takes to protect Scotland.

There’s a brief pause – and then the men offer their swords to Mary. They bow. Bagpipes blare over the soundtrack. Their leader says: “We have waited a long, long time for you to rise.” It sent a chill down my spine. I think there may have been a few onion fumes floating around that caused a strange swelling of tears in my eyes.

It is on.

So ... I guess I’ll be back for season two. Perhaps not on a weekly basis, but for another mind-screw over the course of a day or so? Yup, definitely. "Long may she reign" is not an official internet meme for no reason.


  1. I have so been looking forward to your comments on this show.

    I find I largely agree with them. As usual you present tantalising possibilities that we will never see (sigh). I am perhaps a little more willing to handwave the lady-in-waiting subplots (well, some of them), since I actually found a little something in one or two of the endless pairings they were thrown into, but I too would have liked a lot more politicking and a lot less lovemaking. And the fandom is mostly obnoxious, but at least it's the male characters Dying For Our Ship this time.

    But there is just something about this show. It's daft on virtually every level, but I find it ridiculously enjoyable nonetheless, and Catherine has to be one of the most enjoyable characters on TV right now. As long as it never starts taking itself too seriously.

  2. I'm hoping now that at least two of the ladies-in-waiting are married there'll be more emphasis on them using their wits and wiles to negotiate court instead of the soap opera stuff. I mean, I can understand their need to find a husband (and Bash/Kenna ended up being surprisingly enjoyable) but they really did suck as loyal/helpful companions to Mary!

    It gets by on sheer audacity, as well as Megan Follows and Adelaide Kane sharing the show's emotional centre, so I think it could hold out for another couple of seasons. I'm hoping that it will widen its scope and give us a glimpse of Queen Elizabeth at some stage.

    On that note, I'd also be interesting in seeing just how far it'll go in terms of foreshadowing Mary's eventual fate.