The Costs of Power
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Reign is a series upon which a plethora of feelings are borne from, often within the space of a singular hour. Sometimes it’s brilliant, it’s campy, it’s irritating, or perhaps even all of the above within the span of a singular sequence. Reign has always been, for better and for worse, a roller coaster of a ride and its third season (thankfully not its last) arrives with arguably the best episode this show has ever constructed. The previous installments were quite excellent, even if some of the logic in plotting was a bit ridiculous. But hey, this is a show where Diane de Poitiers had her head bashed in by Catherine de Medici and everyone forgot about it until about last week or so, so a bit of ridiculous plotting is to be expected. But for all of its ridiculous plotting, when the show has doubled down on the inherently complex politics of the age, it’s been significantly more delightful than say, when it jumps into the realm of the supernatural. Reign is, for its faults, one of the most feminist series on television. It understands the complexities of politics that are significantly intertwined when it comes to ruling, even if it doesn’t always display them to the best of its abilities. It understands, more importantly, of what it means to be a woman in a political system build upon not just strictly male primogeniture but in a world where that primogeniture is simply one display of the sheer patriarchy entrenched far more deeply than most would care to acknowledge, let alone act upon. Mary, Elizabeth, and Catherine are all within this juxtaposition of power and patriarchy, trying to establish their power as women while grappling within the structure of the patriarchy that sets to limit it as much as possible.
The most knowing tragedy of the hour, however, belongs to Lola. Anna Popplewell has always been exceedingly charming, sharp, and witty in the role and arguably the most politically astute one. The show at a certain point lost its way with the character when she was married to Narcisse but it came back around when Lola was sent to England as a political hostage for Elizabeth. There Lola was able to use her political acumen and her sharp wit to navigate what was a truly difficult and dangerous circumstance for her to find herself entrapped within. Quietly, confidently, while extremely and understandably worried about her position, Lola made it work. What helped, most obviously, is Elizabeth’s loneliness, her isolation from individuals who don’t seek her out for the sake of sharing her power. Being in power is, regardless of the governmental system in question, an inherently isolating position. Elizabeth’s isolation is heightened significantly because of her status as a woman. Some advisors stick to her to boost their own power. Others try to undermine her to ensure that a female never sits upon the British throne again. Some see her as an extension while others see her as the remnant of a condemned adulteress queen in Anne Boleyn. All see her, as Lola so bluntly put it, as a vessel for power and little else. They cling to it and not her and that’s where her loneliness comes from. Part of it is certainly understandable. Being in such a tenuous political situation doesn’t allow for easy confidants, but how lonely must it be to be afraid of confiding in anyone at all? That Elizabeth found her political prisoner the being with whom she could be the most open is notable.
Lola’s direction to assassinate Mary is a neat bit of a puzzle for the show to dwell on, although in expected Reign fashion it’s dealt with in about three seconds later on in the same episode. Lola knows that it is inherently not like Mary to order an assassination out of all things but she also knows the threat Mary faces with Elizabeth’s rising efforts to bring Scotland into her English fold. If Elizabeth is successful in taking the Scottish throne and absorbing it into her English one, then Mary would be in absolute danger. The two queens, as John Knox notes to James, are like two spiders in a jar, the titular battlefield contenders between whom one of them has to die. And so Lola makes her choice. She chooses loyalty, friendship, and the life of the person whom means far more to her. Lola and the assassin are, as expected, caught and it leads to the most insightful conversation about power the show has ever had. Elizabeth visits Lola in prison, enraged and hurt that in spite of welcoming Lola into her court (notably she never addresses that Lola was a political hostage) and confiding in her that Lola would betray her and her plans for a bloodless unification with Scotland. Lola scoffs at Elizabeth’s folly of a “bloodless” anything, noting that it was a delusion that she had put herself through in order to convince her own self that what she was doing was right at all. When Elizabeth noted that she had trusted her, Lola bluntly shuts down that thought as well. Elizabeth hadn’t ever truly trusted her. She had become incapable of trusting anyone because everyone in some way or another was a threat to her power and as she valued power above everything else, she would always be alone. Lola was walking to her execution, but Elizabeth was the one who deserved to be pitied. Elizabeth breaks in that moment quite visibly, the truth of Lola’s words ringing throughout her mind long after the axe fell on Lola’s neck.
Catherine faces her own isolation from power. Charles comes back from his ordeal shaken and terrified, the product of his completely idiotic plan to take out the Red Knights. He has lost all the will to rule, the most terrifying reality settling into Catherine’s mind. She’s a pragmatic woman of unparalleled fierceness, understanding the vitality of ensuring the continuation of the Valois line above all else. Faced with the possibility that Charles might not have made it out of his captivity alive, Catherine recalls her younger son Henry to the palace, ready to groom him and place him on the throne with her as regent if the necessity arose. Catherine slapping Charles after his admission of terror and telling him to grow up was immensely satisfying, but Charles then turning around and taking her power as the regent away by having the Privy Council declare him of age was surprising. A Catherine without power is not a woman to be toyed with and we see the frustrations of her working within the confines of a patriarchal society quite notably here. She does manage to turn it around, however, with thinly veiled threats to Charles with Henry in tow. It’s a threat she doesn’t have to explain in abundance. It sells itself. Charles asks incredulously where her promise of the importance of family had gone. As a woman, Catherine was tasked with family, tasked with raising the next generation and at most, making herself a presentable presence at court. Henry had never required more of her and nor had the nobility. The Vatican’s misogyny was already on display as late as last week. Charles, as she noted tersely, taught her how little family meant on the pedestal of power and if she had to throw him aside to ensure her own power, then that was what would happen. She wasn’t going to be pushed down by the patriarchy, having used the confines of a woman’s role in the family as an excuse.
Mary ends the season in her own isolation, a beautiful series of shots with Mary overlooking the stunning Scottish landscape making a note of how isolated she had become. John Knox, the vile man who had set Elizabeth’s assassination into motion, is wooing her brother James with plans of power. Bash has left on a mission to become a healer and her next court seer, an undoubtedly useful task in this world, but one that arrives at a fairly uncomfortable hour to say the least. She uses a man’s death as a political tool, a move that would have impressed Catherine but also leaves a burden on her heart, making her question what kind of individual she had become. Some in Scotland didn’t trust her because she was Catholic. Some didn’t trust her because she had come from under the tutelage of Catherine de Medici. In other words, she was too “French”, which in this context in and of itself points to a woman who wants power and will stop at nothing to maintain it. That’s what Knox and the men who follow him are afraid of, a woman at the head of a patriarchal system, a woman with the power to shift nations. Lola had that power and she lost her head for it, a news that reaches an enraged Mary. Mary, having obviously not sent the order of assassination, is flabbergasted by the assassination attempt and far more so at Lola’s involvement. Lola would never do such a thing and her mind naturally goes to Elizabeth killing her as a punishment for Mary. It’s a betrayal, a doling of isolation that she simply couldn’t forgive. She doesn’t know about all of the plans Knox has up his sleeve and she certainly doesn’t know that her brother may betray her at any upcoming juncture in order to take the “democratic” throne for himself. She does know, however, that there are two spiders in a jar and thusly she has to take Elizabeth down to ensure that no one else close to her is dragged and killed because of them. She powerfully declares that she will dismantle Elizabeth’s power bit by bit, systematically removing the English threat before that throne becomes hers. The winds whistle in anticipation of the showdown and whether or not Reign follows history, the chess board has been prepped and the thrill and heartbreak awaits.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+“My guess is that it starts with his mother.”
+“Women say such things in anger for effect. In anger.”
+“Elizabeth must die.”
+“Oh, you don’t trust anyone. You have more power than anyone around you, and people will want it. And because you value power above all else, you will always be alone.”
+“You foolish boy, you need to grow up! I didn’t work this hard for nothing.”
+“I am your Queen.”
+The bagpipe music when Mary declares herself as Scottish
+“What is love if not sacrifice?”
+Well, the Leith and Claude saga is over, then? How appropriately tragic.
+“You can’t be beaten by any man.”
+“Tell John I love him. Tell him every day.”
+“Stephan, let me go.”
+“Did she kill my friend to punish me?”
+“People see what they want to see.”
+“Someone must rule.”
+“I will dismantle her power bit by bit.”
+Anna Popplewell was fantastic this episode and I will miss her Lola greatly. Her performances in the cell and executions scenes were astounding.
Episode Title: Spiders in a Jar
Written by: Laura McCarthy
Directed by: Deborah Chow
Image Courtesy: CW