Like most people, I went into the premiere of the CW series Reign with more than a little trepidation. After all, this network doesn’t have a good reputation as far as the “quality TV” department is concerned. However, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by what I found, namely: a decent cast (Megan Fellows threatens to steal the show as the villainous, cunning, yet somewhat sympathetic Catherine de’Medici), acting that wasn’t horrible, and some adherence to the historical record. Though it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, those who enjoyed The Tudors (I did, for the record) or Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (I enjoyed that too), will probably enjoy Reign.
Before we go any further, let me just say that yes, I realize that the costuming is laughably anachronistic. But hey, it’s pretty much that way with any historical drama, though admittedly some take at least a little more effort to adhere to a sense of authenticity, even if they don’t adhere to strictly the dress code of the era. And yes, I also realize that the characters are not acting like men and women of that period would have acted. All of that said, there are other aspects of the series that make it worth watching and, just perhaps, taking seriously as at least a type of history.
Two things stood out the most in the premiere. The first of these is the fact that Mary (ably if not superbly played by Adelaide Kane) may be more than a little smitten with the charming, dashing, and dishy Francis (Toby Regbo), but she also has a streak of iron in her that she will definitely need as she struggles to survive in the deceptive and dangerous French court. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was a female character that had a little bit of backbone and, furthermore, that she is willing and able to stand up to those who seek to put her down, including Francis. Though he tells her in no uncertain terms that she is to be seen and not heard, and that his concern for France will always come before his affections for her, she pertly reminds him that she, too, has a country to keep in mind. While a seemingly insignificant moment, it reveals two things: one, that the series has at least some awareness of the fact that royals couldn’t just love like everyone else and two, that this Mary might have a bit of spirit and bite to her.
The second thing that stood out in the premiere was the splendidly and sweetly poisonous Catherine, Mary’s scheming mother-in-law. Having been advised by her pet astrologer Nostradamus that Mary will bring about the death of her beloved son Francis, Catherine makes it her mission to ruin the marriage arranged between the two young royals. I was prepared to find this Catherine cloying, but instead she threatens to steal the series from its ostensible lead. Indeed, we cannot help but sympathize with her (at least a little), considering that her husband is openly having an affair with Diane de Poitiers, not to mention any other woman he can get his hands on. What’s more, her antipathy toward Mary stems at least in part from her conviction that the young Scotswoman will lead to her son’s death. All in all, she comes across as a woman who knows the place that her society, and her husband, have afforded her and, as such, also knows what she has to do in order to assert what little agency is allowed her.
What emerges from these two women is an indication of how 21st Century American culture conceives of the past and, particularly, the role that women played in that past. Much as with The Tudors and its successor The Borgias (as well as other countless television historical dramas), Reign asserts that Renaissance women’s only access to power was through their men, i.e. through the marshaling of their sexual desirability to bend men to their will. While this does of course run the risk of essentalizing these women as nothing more than walking vaginas, I would contend that there is a hidden complexity here, an open acknowledgment of the fact that, unfortunately, patriarchy often forces women to rely on the only weapons that patriarchy lets them have, their cunning and their bodies (and often a combination of the two). The trick, of course, is how to bring this unfortunate fact to life without merely replicating the mechanisms of that oppression. At this point, it is far too early to say whether Reign will plumb such complexities—as did The Tudors, at least in its highest and most compelling moments—but it has certainly gotten off to a good start. There are at least two strong female leads to give the show a center of gravity, which is one of the essential ingredients to a truly and satisfyingly complex portrayal of historical women’s subjectivity. Don’t worry, though, this feminist media critic will be right there to nail them if they start to betray the promise that they have shown already.
Is Reign historically accurate or even authentic? Absolutely and unequivocally not. As is usual with such series, the people are far too pretty and clean to be accurate representations of what life was like in the 16th Century, even for royalty. There is also the strand of the supernatural that has already reared its head (this could end up working really well or just being corny). However, to ask those kinds of questions, and to condemn a series or a film for failing to live up to those standards, risks losing sight of exactly those issues I have touched upon in this review. Sure, Reign might not be “good” history (whatever that means) but, whether we like it or not, it is a type of history, and we as cultural critics and consumers would be well served to ask and interpret exactly what kind of history it is that we are looking at.