Reign, Season One (2013)
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
The history surrounding Mary Queen of Scotts is a fascinating one even without embellishment. She was a powerful pawn and emotional ruler in a time of great religious and social unrest in Scotland, England, and France. All but the very ignorant of history know that she wound up a victim of Elizabeth I's reign, though whether or not she truly plotted against her cousin is still hotly debated. So why this series chooses to alter such significant portions of her life, until they do not even vaguely resemble reality, in favor of torrid fiction, I haven't the faintest idea. It's entertaining but ... truly, setting it in a fictional universe and changing the names might have been a start.
Scotland's primary ruler is a very young queen, sequestered away in a nunnery for her own safety. But when one of the taster nuns falls prey to poisoning, it is believed that Mary (Adelaide Kane) would be safer in the court of King Henry Stuart of France (Alan Van Sprang), and the companionship of her betrothed, the young dauphin, Francis (Toby Regbo). Having grown up together as children, Francis and Mary have an instant attraction, but he is reluctant to allow himself to fall in love with her, knowing how easily alliances change. The matter is further complicated by the prediction of the court seer, Nostradamus (Rossif Sutherland), that Mary's marriage to Francis will result in his death. This greatly concerns Queen Catherine (Megan Follows), who sets about to sabotage the engagement... even if she must compromise Mary's virtue to do it. Mary is saved from assault out of the mysterious advice of an unseen watcher in the walls, and becomes intrigued with solving the mystery of the unseen girl.
In the meantime, the king's illegitimate son Bash (Torrence Coombs) is concerned with the increasing pagan violence in the woods. A violent sect of the pagan faith has started up, which includes human sacrifices as part of their weekly rituals. Their presence threatens the kingdom from within, while stakes heighten in Scotland. What follows are twenty two episodes of intrigue, violence, unraveling mysteries, and romantic entanglements that bear no resemblance to what really happened. Show viewers will leave the series with the impression that the French court was even more scheming and debauched than it actually was; that Henry would actually dethrone his son and consider legitimizing an illegitimate heir to take his place, that he would have the power to behead a queen of noble birth; and that Catherine de Medici arranged to have her future daughter in law raped... more than once.
I have a bit of a problem with using historical figures freely in fictional narratives, much less altering their lives so severely and misconstruing them in the process. Most shows in this period have done it to some extent, but most of them have also tried to remain true to the major themes in play in these stories (Henry Tudor was not nearly the debaucher he was painted as in The Tudors, but he did execute who they executed) ... this is not the case with Reign. It is a fictionalized, almost "set in another version of reality" take on events, with modern costumes and music, that shouldn't try and pass itself off as anything other than a tawdry visual paperback. Everything revolves around sexual intrigue to some extent, which cheapens the entire experience. That is not to say that it isn't entertaining -- it is quite easy to get hooked, but that for every magnificent moment there is one of equal absurdity.
The cast is wonderful, Megan Follows in particular. I quickly tired of the soapy intrigue of the younger court members and found myself fascinated with her queen, who is ruthless, cunning, scheming, and oftentimes funny ... in a truly dark way. The woman winds up planning her own execution at one point, down to the tiniest detail. Now, that's dedication to the throne.
Any chance to be tawdry and the show takes it: the first episode shows an observed martial consummation by the court, which arouses the ladies in waiting so much that one of them runs off into a stairwell to masturbate; the king comes along and "assists." Many scenes feature implied sex or sex as graphic as non-cable can get away with (heavy breathing, passionate kissing, rolling around in bed, and movement). King Henry develops a taste for S&M and is shown in bondage situations, pre-and-post lovemaking. Oral sex is hinted at on a couple of occasions (men kiss their way down women's bodies and move out of frame). Mary has premarital sex with Francis, who also sleeps with one of her ladies in waiting on a whim, and beds an old girlfriend two weeks into his engagement elsewhere. Many conversations revolve around mistresses, sexual favors, etc. Mary is nearly raped in the first episode; during a hostage situation, the queen offers up her ladies to be raped in exchange for their freedom and safety -- the men start to take her up on it by roughing up the girls, until she stops them. She hints at being raped herself as a young girl.
Scattered profanities, a few mild abuses of deity.
Blood spurts when people are beheaded, shot with arrows, or sliced into with swords. Severed limbs are left lying around. Murder is semi-frequent. The ladies of the court are slapped, thrown around, and almost raped (held down and their skirts are pulled up).
Much discussion revolves around Catholic and Protestant factions in England and France, and all of them profess some kind of faith -- Queen Catherine even goes to confession once, where she confesses having a dozen men murdered and slapping her maid -- but none of them show a shred of genuine integrity, chastity, or moral fortitude, much less genuine faith in God. Catherine uses Henry's self-righteous hypocritical behavior to bend him to her will, when she has a priest walk in on his latest sexual shenanigans, in a situation that resembles a crucifixion. (Henry is warned that God may withdraw favor from him, and is terrified.)