Disclaimer: This post contains spoilers about episode 1.01, “Pilot,” of The CW’s Reign.
I don’t think it’s letting the cat out of the bag – or the queen off the royal grounds – to say I am a woman. I am a girl. Full-on lady bits and everything. I bring it up to give context to my next point: Sometimes, it’s not what’s said or done, but the way in which it’s said or done. It can be as subtle as someone’s inflection, the way a head tilts, or the moment someone chooses to deliver a remark.
Or, in the case of The CW’s new historical teen drama, Reign, the way in which a show chooses to change recorded history for the sake of making it more appealing to its target demographic.
In short, Reign is the story of teenage Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, prior to her marriage to the French crown prince, Francis II, in 1558. Mary Stuart, not to be confused with her cousin Mary Tudor, a.k.a. ‘Bloody Mary,’ was, historically, the source of great intrigue and controversy. When her father died just shy of a week after her birth, the Scots throne was essentially up for grabs, with a Catholic cardinal and a Protestant noble vying for the right to rule in Mary’s stead until she reached the age of majority. Next, Mary’s great-uncle, King Henry VIII, proposed a marriage between his own son and his great-niece to cement an alliance with Scotland (and stake a claim for the Scottish throne). A treaty to make the English-Scots engagement was signed, but was later rejected by the Scottish parliament, prompting an English military attack to enforce the engagement. By age five, Mary and her mother had fled to France for protection and military support, leaving the cardinal and the now-Catholic noble to rule in her stead. She spent the next 10 years leading, by all accounts, a pretty charmed life at the French court.
And this is the first point where Reign goes off the rails: The series starts by allowing Mary to narrowly escape a poisoning attempt at a convent where she’s conveniently been living for the last several years. As a point of divergence, removing Mary from the French court isn’t a bad idea: It’s a visual shorthand for her Catholicism plus it gives a plausible excuse for her shock when she returns to court and sees the excesses there. It also gives the Mother Superior a chance to info-dump that this isn’t the first attempt on Mary’s life, and it probably won’t be the last.
Mary is spirited away from the convent, returning to the French court where her intended, Francis, and his mother, Queen Catherine de’Medici, are unhappy about the planned marriage. King Henry II is bound and determined to preserve the Auld Alliance, and his mistress, Diane de Poiters, is worried her son, Sebastian, will suffer for his crush on the young queen.
Mary is met by her four ladies in waiting – Aylee, Lola, Greer and Kenna – who are also native Scots but who, for some reason, were not with her in the convent.
Historically, everything about Mary’s return to the court is on the up-and-up, with the exception of her ladies in waiting: They were also named ‘Mary,’ and were all daughters of Scots nobles. Again, while there might have been a way to work around having five characters with the same name (This is a TV show, after all, not a book, and it’s not unusual for teenage girls to call each other by their last names.), I can understand changing the names for the sake of simplifying the story.
Meanwhile, Nostradamus – yes, that Notradamus – is floating around on the periphery, a sort of Rasputin to Catherine’s Empress Alexandra. Again, while less famous than Nostradamus’ prophesies, this isn’t historically inaccurate.
So, you may ask, what about the way Reign is portraying Mary’s story that got my back up? It’s the not that the story’s been simplified or changed, especially as the changes actually contribute to the audience’s ability to understand the story with no prior knowledge. It’s not that the Ford Fiesta is the “official car of Reign.”
It’s not even, honestly, the anachronistic costuming for Mary and her ladies in waiting. (Although, I think a few of Blair Waldorf’s couture gowns would have been more appropriate.) After all, the target audience for this show isn’t going to go looking for prom dresses inspired by Game of Thrones costumes, but they might want to look like Queen Mary.
It’s the lack of attention to detail that bothered me the most. In a 45-minute episode, I counted twice when Adelaide Kane, the actress portraying Mary, attempted a Scots accent. Nothing about the accents of her ladies in waiting was identifiable as either Scots, English or French.
I adore Megan Follows, who portrays Catherine de’Medici, and have done since the first time I watched Anne of Green Gables. But other than staring stonily at various characters, Follows was given little to do as a character who should be Mary’s greatest foil.
I’m bothered that the show couldn’t be bothered to put a rinse in Kane’s hair to at least attempt to make her look like the ginger she was in life. (If only because if and when Mary Stuart comes face to face with young Elizabeth Tudor, the sight of two striking redheads would’ve made for some lovely promotional photos.)
And I distrust any production that chooses to subject its female lead to an attempted rape in the first episode. You don’t need to subject woman to sexual violence to make her seem strong, especially when she also happens to be a queen.
Mary was a remarkably bright young woman, who survived smallpox, outlived both her husbands and grew into a savvy, if unlucky, politician. But as Reign has her, she’s the sort of girl who would’ve transferred after a week at Constance Billard. not climbed the social ladder to rule it with a coy smile and a iron fist gloved in velvet.