When Reign was announced, it seemed most notable for how little it cared about the history involved — and for giving Mary Queen of Scots’ handmaidens names cribbed from Bratz dolls. But as they played fast and loose with history, Reign became an alternate-history fantasy, almost despite itself.
Spoilers for the 16th century ahead…
Despite pretending to be a history of Mary, Queen of Scots at the French Court, Reign doesn’t take itself seriously, which means its fantasy undertones come and go with supreme casualness. Some episodes are nothing but creepy otherworldly shenanigans, others just ask how many people Queen Catherine can murder in a week. (A lot: She’s a fun lady, and actually became the show’s breakout character, which lends a refreshing background-ensemble feel to the teen romances, but her body count is impressive.)
And since it was slated for thirteen episodes and handed another nine after the initial arc was plotted, there was bound to be an air of the soapy surreal around some of the subplots they churned through—love triangles, secret pregnancies, false identities, marriage carousels, murders by the handful. Some characters seem gifted with the supernatural ability to know they’ll be needed in a distant, unrelated location just in time to reach the crisis point at someone else’s plot. Bash, the king’s bastard son, makes so many convenient appearances the X-Men should test him for teleportation. And the costuming would have a Valoispunk vibe if given any historical effort; as it is, the modern costumes, set against the whatever’s-in-the-costume-closet era the extras are wearing, create a constant low-level aura of time travel.
(This party welcomes people from five centuries!)
Still, fantasy elements have crept in around the edges. Its very first scene established the show as alternate history—this Mary spent her youth in a convent, not the French court—and often plays with historical perception of her. In reality, she was a figurehead of questionable agency in her youth; her first move for the English throne, crossing her coat of arms with England’s, was the King of France’s idea. In that way, Reign’s Mary herself has become a fantasy element, given the agency that history denied her. It’s not that she was fundamentally overwhelmed with the complexities of court politics and manipulated by powerful people around her to keep claiming the throne of England, despite what a bad idea it was! She had a bunch of clever ideas; it’s just that Queen Catherine poisoned everyone who ever tried to implement them!
That sense of secret history pervades even the show’s campiest moments. Sure, Bash never existed, but his mother, Diane de Poitiers, did, and the show makes more than one reference to Diane’s significant presence in historical record. Henry isn’t on the books as trying to annul his marriage to Catherine and have her executed (certainly not multiple times in a single season — Henry, buddy), but Catherine’s spy network of sexpionage agents was all too real, and actually called the Flying Squadron.
(This is Queen Catherine! She poisons a lot of people. If we could measure degrees of fantasy via number of specialized, undetectable poisons administered, this show would utterly trample Game of Thrones.)
The most overt fantasy element comes from Nostradamus, resident visionary, whose premonition of Francis’ death if he weds Mary pushes Catherine to sabotage their marriage repeatedly. He also has several other visions, with a rate of accuracy that bounces between preternaturally accurate and hilariously off-base, depending. It offers the show plenty of chances to talk about things being fated and insert coincidences only a prophecy can make, while also tweaking its own formula as characters try repeatedly to thwart their fates and come up against nothing more dangerous than one another.
And what of that premonition about the Dauphin? It has yet to come true, but in it, Francis dies from a bleeding ear: a hat-tip to the real-life ear infection that killed him, and maybe the most surreal dovetail into historical accuracy the show’s ever had. (It’s a tiny alternate universe lurking inside a love triangle nestled inside a party at which sixteenth-century nobles Aylee, Lola, Kenna, and Greer wear Urban Outfitters.)
And even if you don’t count Nostradamus and his enormous basement room full of poison-making supplies as mad science, the show provides another one! Though he never appears, an offscreen doctor, drunk on his own power, once experimented on one of the castle’s orphaned denizens, setting off a chain reaction of subplots that are positively storming with Gothic horror tropes: creepy masks, hidden doors, unexpected passageways, dark secrets, the ability to be in three different places in the castle at once, and convenient invisibility.
(Also the ability to sleep right under your bed at night with one eye open, which is always helpful for a Gothic figure.)
But maybe the most interesting way the show’s played on the supernatural is to use sixteenth-century superstitions to present natural events with the feel of the fantastic. Over the season, the French court gets menaced by a sect of pagans known as the Blood Cult, who serve an extremely supernatural-sounding Darkness.
The Darkness demands sacrifices, drags people with inhuman swiftness into screaming deaths, and drinks the blood of his victims. Whether the Darkness is actually supernatural is up in the air, but the show makes the most of the uncertainty; there are even suggestions that when King Henry takes a turn into megalomaniac instability, he’s a pawn in the Darkness’ games. But in the season finale, it’s revealed that a pagan prophecy of falling stars signals an even greater threat—and after a meteor shower, the castle gets bad news that only confirms their fears of supernatural punishment.
It wasn’t unusual in the sixteenth century for astronomical events to be considered harbingers of real life events, either vaguely predicted or retrofitted. Folding a little superstitious astronomy into the world of the show is the perfect meeting of quasi-fantasy and all-out nonsense Reign does best.
Impressively, Reign still left plenty of world-building cliffhangers for Season Two. Since every real-world reveal has led to something else uncertain, there’s still a sense of the historically-unexpected surrounding the show. Will Reign frame the season’s final disaster as supernatural curse, or historical coincidence? Are Gothic horrors still lingering in the palace? Will Nostradamus’ visions undermine the King? And will we continue down the brave alternate history of Mary Queen of Scots knowing what she’s doing? When it comes to Reign, the answer’s probably yes. To everything. In the first episode.