I’ve written before about my (totally surprised and initially reluctant) love of the new CW show Reign. An interesting debate has emerged in one of my previous posts about whether Reign is a feminist or anti-feminist show, hinging in particular around its historical context and the presentation of Catherine de Medici and Mary’s ladies in waiting.
I stand by my claim that Reign is a pretty darn fun and feminist show. Mary is a badass political strategist, brave and intelligent and manipulative and flawed, and her rival/enemy Catherine de Medici is arguably the most interesting and well-developed character on the show. She certainly has all the best lines, and her ruthless allegiance to herself and her family line makes for compelling scenes. Every episode passes the Bechdel test. Every episode gives us examples of interesting, varied, compelling female characters struggling in the political area. It’s a show with lots of romance, yes, but also very much about court strategizing, and yet the majority of named regular characters are women. And although opinions differ on whether we’re supposed to support King Henri or find him utter reprehensible, if the show sticks to its history (which is admittedly a 50/50 chance at best), that problem won’t plague us for long.
But the characterizations of Mary’s ladies in waiting have been a major problem in the show. Four female characters who should be similarly compelling and interesting, who should form support for Mary while also pursuing their own plotlines. Yet, although the show has tried to develop them in the past, they’ve generally been rather flat and interchangeable, and only existed in relation to their romances. In Sacrifice, Catherine characterized them as “the spy, the forger and the seductress,” but I must admit I could only think of them as “the one trying to be the king’s mistress, the one with the cute romance with the kitchen boy, the one who was in the Narnia movies, and the one I always forgot existed who’s now dead.” At least, thanks to Catherine’s pointed efforts, I think I’ve finally learned all the living ones’ names.
But if Catherine’s speeches to the ladies were an unsubtle attempt to distinguish them on the writers’ part, I can only celebrate it. The ladies have been a weak link in the story, and we should see them doing more than we have. With Mary running around the woods and pretending she has chemistry with Bash, Sacrifice was the perfect time to introduce the idea that her ladies are capable and interesting without her. Without their queen, the three ladies in waiting were forced to watch Catherine de Medici, prevent her scheming, and act to protect Mary and Bash when things go awry. And, surprisingly, they lived up to the challenge, dealing with Catherine directly, playing her game of words and manipulation, and even punishing and controlling her without appearing to do any such thing to the outside world.
So now we see that Kenna has intelligence, an ability to scheme and an artistic forger’s hand, even if her dealings with the king have painted her as rather naive and foolish (Anne Boleyn, she is not). And we see that Lola has inner steel, able to face Catherine de Medici’s wrath without so much as a flinch. The ladies are able to play the political game too, to give orders and manipulate and even be ruthless when the game calls for it. Because who needs real evidence when you can create it yourself?
Unfortunately, Lola’s additional characterization has also created a problem. She is determined to destroy Catherine de Medici, because Catherine killed “the man she loved.” Yet the man she loved died because he was not only willing to work with Catherine but to rape Mary on her orders. The man Lola loved was hardly an innocent victim, and portraying him as such while placing all the blame on Catherine is problematic at best. Lola can be angry with Catherine for revealing her love’s true nature and tempting him into that situation, and there are plenty of good reasons to want Catherine’s political or literal destruction, but the fact that Lola’s boyfriend was executed after drugging Mary, breaking into her chambers and attacking her is not one of them. To suggest that his actions are somehow forgivable, that he was an innocent in Catherine’s schemings, is not just shallow writing but rather insulting.
Lola’s blandness in previous episodes means that the show basically had a blank slate to work with here. And yet she, like Kenna and Greer, has ultimately been defined by her relationship to male characters. Kenna is the naive one who thinks she can become the king’s mistress and use that to her political advantage, but who ultimately cannot (or at least has a lot to learn). Greer is the one who needs to marry well but has fallen for an adorable kitchen boy. And now Lola is the one who wants revenge for her reprehensible “true love”‘s death. With development, all three of these are potentially interesting court storylines, showing different ways that women try to navigate a world of male power to their best advantage, and how it can all fall apart. And I have to admit to a lot of fondness for Greer’s story so far. But these plotlines need development, and thought, and a careful hand to ensure that the storylines come down against the traditions of the court and the men who use their power to manipulate and crush these female characters. And that final category has to include Lola’s dead love. Otherwise, all of the show’s other achievements in creating a feminist Tudor-era show will be completely undermined.