Earlier this week, the creator of Netflix’s monarchical costume drama “The Crown” revealed that its upcoming second season will focus not on the titular monarch (Claire Foy), but rather will delve into the “complexity” of her husband, Philip (Matt Smith).
It seemed only fitting that the same week this baffling creative decision came to light, real-life royal (and descendant of both Elizabeth and Philip) Prince William came under scrutiny for seemingly blowing off a royal function to ski and dad-dance without his wife and young children.
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So for “Highland Games” (Mar. 17) to highlight the boys will be boys behavior of its male ensemble — which forces the women in their life to pretend to choose to compromise, lest they reveal the choice is not theirs to make — well, it lands with exacting precision. And as the fifth of 16 episodes, we’re looking at a transitional act-break for this final season: Meant to take whatever the story’s handing us most clearly as an introduction to the next five, at least.
This show, quite clearly, has never been about historical accuracy at the micro level. But at the macro level, the way it shows women’s role in society — even when those women happen to be Queens — is as true a portrayal of life in 16th century Europe as anything could be. And that we, as a society, are still forcing women into these same situations… It lands as well with a certain amount of resignation. Plus ça change.
One of the sweet spots for “Reign” has been how it backs its protagonists into a series of dangerous situations and allows them to come to their own rescue. They’re lucky to be dramatizing a time when three women did wield more power than in past generations, but it’s clearly always been a goal to focus on the fortitude and resiliency of these women. Often, “Reign” shows the fortitude of its female characters by throwing them into harrowing experiences (kidnapping, assault, blackmail, ghosts of their dead husband) and watching them overcome. This week, neither Mary (Adelaide Kane) nor Catherine (Megan Follows) are in life-or-death situations, more or less at their baseline of bad*ssery — prepared to stab, poison, or scheme against their enemies, but not called upon to do so.
Which is why, perhaps, the men around them seem to fall apart — reminding us of Mary and Catherine’s fortitude in contrast with the men’s collective inaction. In any given week, it’s a miracle that Mary and Catherine are able to survive daily life at their respective courts without an eye-rolling related injury. These two don’t need to do anything other than exist for us to realize they’re infinitely more knowledgeable and capable than most of the men around them — which this week took the spotlight, showing us at least three of these men at their privileged worst.
Starting with the baby vampire in the room: King Charles (Spencer MacPherson) has been staggering around covered in blood to the point that the townsfolk have mostly accepted their ruler is some sort of child-murdering werewolf. Catherine, the victim of Charles’s bloody-faced backhand last week, treads delicately around the situation, more or less cooing: “I’m not saying you’re a beast that devours children, but the villagers do need convincing…”
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If Catherine’s struggle last episode was getting her son to at least act like a King, this week she’s set her sights lower — urging him to try and masquerade as a human person. After spending so many weeks dripping with blood and staring off into the middle distance, it’s a bit of a shock to see Charles actually stand in front of a small crowd of subjects and deliver a speech. Once he starts talking, of course, he resembles nothing so much as Buffalo Bill disguised in a suit of human skin — but that he mustered up the effort to try is more than he’s done so far this season…
Then, “Reign” being “Reign,” his big speech is interrupted with a bloody “Carrie” incident that sends him running off into the woods like Frankenstein’s Monster and/or Buster Bluth; his human disguise too fragile to overcome this sort-of unmasking.
We don’t check in with England this week — perhaps because there is no thematic counterpoint to Charles in a country ruled by a woman who does not suffer fools… Or perhaps because it’s time for Scotland’s Highland Games! There is a sad lack of caber tossing or weight-throwing, but we do get the requisite bagpipe scene intros, and a few men in kilts.
It’s Mary’s first time overseeing the event, and she plans, in a basic but effective PR mode, to use the occasion to announce her engagement to Darnley (Will Kemp). “Reign” being “Reign,” this winds up with Darnley challenging a clansman to a shirtless boxing match, the result of which will seemingly seal his fate as either beloved Prince Regent or pariah traitor’s son.
Darnley is a singular presence on this show. We’ve had dashing schemers before, and Mary has turned her head before for cocksure aristocrats. But this new suitor has quickly revealed himself to be more unpredictable and volatile — Francis’s (Toby Regbo) opposite in every way — along with vainglorious and thin-skinned. Last week, he seemed to light a house on fire just to get the glory of saving the baby inside; this week, he readily admits as much to Mary, shrugging it off as basically a PR move.
Mary has been highly aware of how her countrymen see her, but her strategy has — thus far — been to provide a calm, capable, just facade. Darnley is of the end justifies the means persuasion, which is why she immediately suspects he’s somehow going to fix his upcoming (and inexplicably crucial) boxing match.
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At first, both we and Mary believe her reservations about Darnley are due to how weirdly upfront he is about being a colossal jerk. But in a quiet moment with her BFF Greer (Celina Sinden, whose character’s divorce is handled in two C-plot scenes) she comes to realize that part of her reluctance stems from the grief she still feels for the loss of her beloved first husband. She wants Darnley to have the same innate sense of justice she shared with Francis — and each time he disappoints her, she digs in deeper, which frustrates him in turn.
Mary’s hands haven’t been clean for at least three seasons, though whenever she’s killed or schemed against someone, it’s been both for self-preservation as well as her keenly held sense of justice. She is appalled that Darnley would put himself in danger simply for PR, but gamely offers her brother’s help as a boxing tutor — and brings her own rictus smile to the stands for the big fight. She knows she has to marry this man, and the way she’s chosen so far to deal with that is to attempt, via sheer force of will, to make of him a man she could love.
“Hopefully both [your husband] and Darnley can be better men, if we give them the chance to be,” Mary tells Greer, and both women do their best to believe this is in any way likely, let alone possible. This line rings true because it has always rung true; how many (white) men in their 20s/30s/40s have been given light sentences, or cut slack, because boys will be boys? Maybe if we give enough space, enough support; if we love hard enough or just want enough, somehow, miraculously, these men will change who they are in a way that will better suit us all. It’s the pipe dream of anyone who has ever been treated badly — and as with so much on this show, stings a little more… Because the real Darnley was not remembered by history as a man who became better, but as a sort of Scottish Caligula.
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And so, speaking of unstable men unsuited for positions of power, the episode once more winds up with Charles’s self-pity and cruel treatment of his mother. Unlike Mary, Catherine has no choice but to support this tiny, blood-covered tyrant: Not only is he her eldest surviving son, he’s the King. When she tracks her son to a “cave in the North woods” where it turns out he’s been spending much of his free time (the more to create a myth of him as a feral child-chomping demon)… We find he isn’t really a serial killer or a vampire: He’s a lost boy, self-medicating the PTSD from his captivity last season by forcing himself to relive it, eating dirt and living in a cave.
His pain is clear and the reasons solid, but of course his Season 3 kidnapping plotline wouldn’t rank on anyone’s list of the top 10 worst things to happen to anyone on this show. His inability to stop wallowing in and whining about this both makes him look weaker, and reminds us of the preternatural strength of Mary and his mother, the latter of whom we get the sense dealt with similar situations on at least a weekly basis when she was his age. He’s playing the game on the easiest setting, which doesn’t make his pain less real, but it does make a solution both harder and more immediately necessary to come by.
And yet still, it’s Catherine who ends the episode once again flat on the ground. This time Charles didn’t actively throw her there, but in his running off into the woods (again with that Frankenstein’s Monster shuffle) that caused her to fall. And while Mary ultimately chooses compromise, helping Darnley fix his fight (but only after learning his opponent was also fighting dirty), the couple’s detente is brief, ending when Darnley overcompensates his PR game by enveloping her in a huge public kiss.
They all need something to hold on to/ they all mean well: As the show’s one-time theme song reminds us, personal safety and the common good are two crucial factors that should overlap exactly, but here are found often at odds. Both Mary and Catherine end the week a little more trapped, with slightly less options than they had going in. But as we’ve seen time and again on this show, it’s when they’re at their lowest that we get those great reminders of precisely why neither of these women should be discounted.
“Reign” airs Fridays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on The CW.