“We’re overrun by Scots.”
It’s become a regular thing on television in the last few years to take a well-known historic or classical figure and give him/her/them the modernized series treatment. On the history side, there’s been The Tudors, The Borgias, Rome, and so on. Now, it’s time for the ever-controversial and scandalous Mary Queen of Scots to take a turn in the sexed-up yet teen-friendly CW adaptation, Reign, the first season of which is now on this five-disc set.
It’s 1557. After living most of her young life in a convent, Mary (Adelaide Kane, The Purge) learns she is the Queen of Scotland. She is shipped off to France, where she has been arranged to wed Francis (Toby Regbo, Mr. Nobody), son of King Henry (Alan Van Sprang, Immortals). The resulting French/Scottish alliance, everyone hopes, will unite both countries against the threat of English invasion.
It’s not all fancy dresses and tiaras for the young queen, though. Henry’s wife Catherine (Megan Follows, Anne of Green Gables) has been sneaking around with the psychic Nostradamus (Rossif Sutherland, Timeline), who has predicted that Mary and Francis’ eventual marriage will spell doom. Catherine secretly plots to get rid of Mary, and she’s not the only one. When dealing with all the political and possibly murderous intrigue, Mary also faces trials of the heart. She and Francis grow close to one another, even as he has other females competing for his attention. Francis’ less refined half-brother Bash (Torrance Coombs) catches Mary’s eye as well.
Look up Reign online and you’ll see the show’s viewers losing their freakin’ minds about the show’s historical accuracy, or lack thereof. This is especially true of the costumes, with seemingly hundreds of irate comments about how all the pretty, pretty dresses are not of the time period. Other complaints have to do with the acoustic alt-folk-rock soundtrack, simplification of complicated European politics, and the overall “edgy YA fiction” approach to the whole thing.
The only way to enjoy this show is to forget whatever true story it’s based on and instead watch it as it was intended — as a soap opera. Although there are a few literal backstabbings, most of the backstabbing is done with words and rumors. This one’s all about who’s fallen for who, who is boning who, and who is secretly plotting against who. At the heart of this is Mary’s pull in two different directions. She is meant to be with Francis and feels drawn to him despite the other women in his life, but she’s also drawn to Bash because he does so much for her (and because he’s the requisite “bad boy”). Mary knows her romantic choices are also political ones that could affect half of Europe, so she’s not the atypical boy-crazy TV teen. She’s fighting for her affairs of heart to also be affairs of state for the best of everyone, not just her. It’s true that Mary spends a lot of screentime reacting to events happening around her, but the writers do work to give her some agency, showing she can be queenly and make the tough decisions when she has to.
This being a soap opera, there are plenty of other plotlines to follow. Mary has four ladies-in-waiting (one of whom is played by Anna Popplewell of the Narnia films), who serve as her best friends and unofficial advisors. Each of these girls gets her own romantic entanglement and/or murderous conspiracy plot, but these often feel like filler in between segments of the main storyline. Never quite settling on a status quo, the series makes big, sweeping changes as it goes along, with deaths, weddings, and major shakeups. This is mostly true of Catherine, who starts out as the villain, but then gets put through such a wringer over the season that she ends up in a whole new place by the time we get to the finale.
Knowing that this show is likely standing in the shadow of the mega-popular Game of Thrones, the creators have added a few “fantasy-lite” elements. One subplot has to do with a mysterious masked girl who lurks within hidden passages inside the castle, and who helps out Mary. Her true identity is slowly revealed piece by piece over the course of the season. The latter half of the season introduces us to pagans living in the woods outside the castle, who bring an “outsider” element to the show, and there’s a might-be-supernatural-or-it-might-not-be-supernatural animal called “the darkness” roaming around the forest at night.
Despite the constant twists, betrayals, and couplings, after watching several episodes of Reign in a row, a sameness settles in. Between the few really big developments, all the running around from bedroom to council meeting to suspected poisoning starts to feel repetitious. There are only a certain number of ways that Mary can be worried about something only to take a brave stand, or for two characters to start kissing as a shocking twist, or other such soap opera craziness. The series goes through phases of spinning its wheels with all the constant drama.
The CW spent a fortune on Reign and it shows, not just in the oh-so-fancy dresses, but in the overall lavish production design. All this shows on this five-disc DVD set, with stunning detail, vibrant colors, natural skin tones, and deep blacks presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic aspect ratio. The 5.1 surround audio is top of the line as well, especially when the acoustic alt-Celtic-rock songs kick in. There are deleted scenes on each disc and two featurettes that offer a glimpse behind the scenes.
Reign is hardly groundbreaking television, but it works for what it is: a soap opera set in a fanciful historic setting.
Her majesty decrees, not guilty.