A friend of mine has been urging me to watch Reign, a CW teen soap revolving around a heavily fictionalized Mary Queen of Scots and her betrothed, Prince Francis of France, for almost two years now. My response was that of course I would get around to it eventually: “It’s basically everything I want in a TV show: a campy romantic drama with an out-of-control costume department starring familiar faces from the girly movies of my youth.”
Boy, was I right.
(spoilers behind the cut)
Campy romantic drama: check. By the ninth episode of the twenty-two-episode opening season, Mary has had fully three separate royal fiancés. She has survived an attempted rape, a kidnapping, an assassination attempt, an attempted pagan sacrifice, and an attempted poisoning. And that’s not even counting what happens to the other characters, who murder, torture, and betray each other with assiduous inventiveness and astonishing frequency.
Out-of-control costume department: CHECK. In some episodes, Mary and her “ladies” and Queen Catherine de’ Medici (Prince Francis’s mother) are wearing what essentially passes for a serious attempt at mimicking Elizabethan gowns. Other times, Mary waltzes around with shoulder cutouts and weird modernist patterns, looking basically like she picked the foofiest dress at a Barney’s clearance sale.
(images courtesy of screencapped.net)
Familiar faces from the girly movies of my youth: check! Megan Follows of Anne of Green Gables fame (really the reason I watched this show, to be honest) plays the scheming, raging, possibly murderous Queen Catherine de’ Medici with a healthy amount of growling, howling and completely enjoyable scenery-chewing.
The basic idea is that Mary and Francis have been engaged since they were six, but as soon as Mary, now a young woman, arrives in France to wed Francis, she is thwarted by mysterious plots and rumors, which seem to be orchestrated by the treacherous Queen Catherine.
Eventually, Mary and Catherine grow to realize that they have something in common: loving Francis, who is a vapid, full-lipped, wishy-washy pretty face of the type that the CW loves to cast as their leading men. But as the season goes on and the women slowly learn to like each other, they find out they have something else in common: they are capable of almost anything. Adelaide Kane, whose surprisingly complex performance basically carries the show, portrays Mary with a mixture of vulnerability and steely strength. Mary, who is tender-hearted and trusting when she arrives in France, finishes out Season One by closing the castle gates on Prince Francis as he rides out of the castle into a plague-ridden countryside to meet another woman, her eyes flinty.
Meanwhile, the prophet Nostradamus lurches drunkenly through the castle making dire predictions about the future, talking in an aggressively throaty voice that sounds fake until you consider that he’s played by Rossif Sutherland, half-brother of Kiefer, and then all bets are off. Mary has three loyal “ladies” (in waiting), including fun-loving Kenna, sensitive Lola, and ambitious Greer, who needs to find a rich husband but falls in love with a servant instead. Bash, Francis’s illegitimate half-brother, may have designs on Mary himself. And finally, there may or may not be a real supernatural monster stalking the countryside killing peasants.
Obviously there is way too much going on at every single moment to get very invested in any of it–again, with the exception of watching Mary’s transformation and being mesmerized by the performances of Adelaide Kane (who seems to inject a kind of seriousness into all her scenes that the show itself hardly cares to try to earn) and Megan Follows (who throws herself into the show’s lack of seriousness with utter abandon, which is a total pleasure to watch).
The show makes feints at posing real ethical problems, mostly by pitting Mary and Francis’s pallid romance against their duties to their people. The worldview of each character is, by necessity, wildly divergent from week to week depending on the demands of the plot, but one has to admire the attempt to make something substantive out of what is at heart the frothiest of soaps.
Obviously, though, the most important question with any CW show is not an ethics-related one at all. My question is: Who’s the Dawson?
That is, what relationship represents the show’s predetermined “endgame,” which will be drawn out in such a tortuous and artificial way, with such constant declarations of love despite an apparent lack of any physical chemistry, that viewers will grow to rabidly hate the unlucky side of the love triangle? After Season 1, I have to believe it’s Francis, with whom Adelaide Kane valiantly mimics chemistry despite the fact that Toby Regbo’s main strategy for expressing emotion is to open his eyes a little wider and maybe let his lips tremble a little. The two are constantly talking about how much they love each other and how sad they are about their various problems, but Mary clearly wants to make out with half the castle (not that I blame her; she’s surrounded by CW’s typical cast of hunky if slightly cookie-cutter dudes) more than she wants to make out with the incurably romantic Francis.
As far as the other relationships go, they are mostly surface-level, sketches of romances rather than actual portrayals thereof. Greer’s forbidden romance with Leith takes a rather disheartening turn when Leith reveals himself to be merely a fifteenth-century Nice Guy. And Bash does enter a sweetly touching romance of his own by the end of the season, though it develops with rather astonishing speed out of a traumatic experience.
Mary may be a hell of a character, and the romantic intrigues range from dull to almost gripping, but the real thrill of the show is in its joyful, over-the-top campiness. After an episode or two, its rhythms settle into a whiplash-inducing pace of betrayals, declarations of love, more betrayals, and usually a stabbing or two by the end of each episode, all performed in the most ravishing if unlikely of sartorial finery. It’s completely bonkers, and you will love it.