It can’t claim to be accurate. Reign is about as much – or probably less – a responsible recounting of Mary, Queen of Scots’ life as The Tudors was of Henry VIII’s. While the pilot episode opens with some promise, giving us a fairly gruesome indication of the danger Mary’s highly politicized life is in, it quickly falls apart, suffering from too many attempts to appeal to a modern audience, and not enough attention paid to the things that make it a story worth telling.
One of the more charming coincidences of Queen Mary’s life is that her Scottish friends who accompanied her to France were also all called Mary. This is interesting not only because of the character implications for a group of friends, but also because of the religious associations with the name, and Mary’s place in the war between Catholics and Protestants. The show renames her friends, though – perhaps to avoid confusion? – which seems a little pointless, since by the end of the pilot, you’re still not sure which of them is which. This is a shame, because Mary (played by Adelaide Kane) and her friendships among the strange and tense life of court should be the focus of the show. Her relationship with her childhood friends provide the most opportunity for emotion and audience empathy, as well as a resting focus from the court intrigue that plagues Mary.
Reign, though, is more concerned with Mary’s betrothal to Prince Francis of France. It makes sense for a teen drama to age the love interest, Prince Francis (who was in reality 14 years old at the time of their marriage) for added romance, but Mary and Francis don’t appear to even like each other, and their will-they-won’t-they storyline is awfully contrived. “Love is irrelevant for people like us,” Prince Francis tells Mary, as if she wasn’t absolutely aware of this already – and apparently she’s not, as it’s the source of most of her angst.
These romance scenes are intercut with Gossip-Girlish sequences of make-up, clothes, and dancing, which might be charming and delightful, if we cared about the five girls’ friendship at all. These scenes also show off the bizarre costume design choices, which vary from lazy attempts at period costume to blatantly modern prom dresses. At one point, as Mary is arriving at French Court, one of her friends chides her. “Your hair, Mary,” she says, pulling back Mary’s loose locks, “Didn’t the nuns teach you anything?” And yet, all five of the girls wear their hair exactly so – long and loose. Perhaps the writers were envisioning a more period-accurate design than they got.
Meanwhile, the villain of the piece, Catherine de’ Medici, played by Megan Follows, consults with Nostradamus (Rossif Sutherland) about her son’s future, and the supposed danger Mary poses to it. This is an interesting piece of actual history, and Catherine de Medici makes a fine villain given the CW’s other adaptation choices, but her particular brand of evil seems like it would do better on an HBO show. In fact, the whole piece feels like an attempt at HBO-lite, and it rings more than a little false. The predictions of doom are vague, and will strike anyone with knowledge of the actual history as slightly overdramatic. Little to no attention is played to Mary’s actually dramatic position as a political chess piece between France, England and her home country Scotland.
The real Mary, Queen of Scots had some harrowing moments in her life, but the CW’s new show seems set to avoid them all. It’s an attempt to turn a dark piece of history into a tv-land fairytale, as if it’s the Once Upon a Time version of Mary’s life. It might be amusing for some, if they can put up with stilted dialogue and convoluted plot devices, but a dramatic piece of well written historical fiction is one thing it isn’t.
Reign airs on the CW Thursdays at 9/8 central. You can also watch it online at thecw.com.