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For a long time I’ve marvelled at pop-culture’s reluctance to embrace the dazzling early modern figure of Mary, Queen of Scots. Sure, Elizabeth’s lime-caked, in-your-face virginity and glorious defeat of the Spanish Armada are interesting, but Mary – that’s a sensational historical story if ever there was one. Sex, intrigue, rebellion and murder intertwine in such a way that her life takes on the distinctly morbid appeal of a soap-opera.
Therefore, when I learned that the American television network The CW (home of Gossip Girl, America’s Next Top Model and The Vampire Diaries) was attempting a foray into Scottish history in the guise of Reign, I had conflicting feelings. On the one hand, I was pleased that Mary’s story would finally penetrate popular society. On the other, my inner historian quaked at thoughts of the damage a teen-drama filter would inflict.
Our first glimpse of Mary, frolicking about the French countryside with a convent full of nuns, introduces a seemingly carefree and fun-loving girl of sixteen years. Such an image is quickly shattered, however, in the pool of blood her companion slumps into. Coupled with Nostradamus’ mist-laden prophecy of her imminent arrival, it becomes apparent that nothing in the young queen’s life is as simple as it seems.
Shortly after her arrival at the royal French castle (marked by suspiciously British architecture), the time-tested hallmarks of a CW drama begin to unfold. The mother of her husband-to-be, the French queen Catherine de’ Medici, reveals herself to be our heroine’s foil. Significantly, the awkward position she found herself in trying to control a woman who was a queen in her own right reveals a very real historical tension. This is compounded, however, by the prophesy of the famed Nostradamus who foresees Mary costing the French dauphin, Francis, his life.
More than merely finding herself caught in a web of familial rivalries, Mary quickly establishes herself at the centre of two love triangles. While the one involving her friend Lola (that common Scottish name) and Collin (a remarkably English Aberdonian) is quickly laid to rest, along with the latter’s life, the other promises to drag oh so painfully on. In the midst of the spontaneous dance scene we all secretly wish we’d started, time miraculously slows as Mary locks eyes first with the (fictional) illegitimate son of King Henry II, Sebastian, and then with his brother, her betrothed Prince Francis. The charmingly handsome Sebastian or the angsty future king – this is prime-time drama at its best.
Adelaide Kane, who plays Mary, convincingly conveys a sense of naivety and indignant self-righteousness that would develop in a girl who had been a queen since six days old. Furthermore, she and her four giggling attendants act very much as a group of teenagers would be expected to, even within such a regal context. Somewhat surprising for the CW, no attempts are made to skirt around that all important aspect of teenage hood: hormones. After watching the ceremonial bedding of the French princess, Mary and her companions are aroused to the extent that they each run to a different corner of the castle to touch themselves. While an extended scene was cut which reportedly showed Kane explicitly masturbating, what’s happening remains heart-poundingly obvious.
Mary comes off as a romantic somewhat detached from the political gravity of her situation, which is indeed a common historical interpretation. Interestingly, the programme addresses the central issue of gender relations in quite a provocative way. From the very visible power of Henry II’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers, to Francis’ pointed assertion that kings don’t answer to their wives, Mary and the audience are confronted with the harsh reality faced by early modern women. When Collin attempts to rape Mary in her sleep, not only does Mary quite easily absolve him on the grounds of coercion, but she is reminded of the serious repercussions she would face upon the loss of her ‘virtue’.
Despite the difficulty of her situation, Mary’s capacity for hope and belief in the overriding importance of love not only shows signs of breaking through to Francis by the end of the first episode, but it is something that will undoubtedly resonate with the show’s intended audience. It wasn’t easy being a queen, especially not in the man’s world of sixteenth-century France. However, with the support of a dog called Stirling and a mysterious faceless woman that haunts the castle, Mary appears ready to face the challenges that lie ahead.
Seeing as it is ‘loosely’ based on the life of Mary Stuart, it is unclear how the show will proceed. It is really when Mary returns to Scotland after a short reign in France that her story gets juicy. If the CW chooses to stay faithful, it remains to be seen how capable Kane will be at portraying the enigmatic figure around whom a passionate historical debate has raged for more than 400 years.
Taken as it is, Reign is an entertaining and surprisingly sexy piece of historical fiction. Although it will naturally suffer by comparisons to Showtime’s The Tudors and BBC’s The White Queen, the relatively low-budget show stands its ground remarkably well. It will certainly infuse a bit of popular interest into the history of a nation positively teeming with drama and intrigue.