Reign, Ep. 2.01: “The Plague” begins the season with high stakes

ReignS02E01

Reign, Season 2: Episode 1 – “The Plague”
Written by Laurie McCarthy
Directed by Fred Gerber
Airs Thursday nights at 9 on The CW

Welcome back to Reign, in which narrative burns quicker than the fires lighting the royal hall. This is one way to kick off a season. Many series opt for the easy re-introduction into the shows’ worlds and stories. “The Plague” has its “Previously on Reign…” segment and that’s that. Did you miss last season? Well, good luck catching up on all the gossip. Really, though, the pleasures of Reign don’t require a full comprehension of its history. The fun is all there to be had in the moment, and “The Plague” is anything but short on entertainment.

Last season left us with two major events to think about: the king is dead and the plague has returned. The consequences of both are addressed in “The Plague” in somewhat surprising ways. Most predictably (and yet most effectively), Mary being forced into the highest position of power forces her to grapple with the realities of being a ruler. Catherine has made a career of shady deals with nobles, throwing a few people under the proverbial bus for what she (and Henry) perceived as the greater good. Mary, though, is young and idealistic. Even though the nobles supply her people with food and other goods, she’s not willing to sacrifice a life to appease them; all life matters to the new queen. Mary’s (and several other characters’) foolhardiness has been one of her most admirable and annoying features in Reign. Like any good, young protagonist, she thinks she can challenge an established order and bring change to a corrupt system. It’s endearing as much as it is naive, but she gets bonus points for being crafty.

That craftiness comes from spending so much time with Catherine. In a move right out of the queen mother’s repertoire, Mary has Nostradamus concoct a potion that generates symptoms of the plague so that Catherine thinks she’s dying, simultaneously eliciting a little humanity and temporarily removing her from the picture. It’s a great example of how Mary can bend her moral rules to get things done, and it would be doubly effective if not for her later decision to have a murderer thrown into the catacombs with the plague-ridden. As a viewer removed from the situation, this seems like vengeful justice. After all, the guy killed an entire house. Yet, for an episode that deals heavily with how Mary does under pressure, it’s a bit disheartening to see her stoop to murder-by-proxy. This is what makes layered characters, though. And Reign has a way of making characters reap some amount of punishment for their crimes, so I wouldn’t expect this to go smoothly without coming back to bite Mary in some way.

The whole presence of the plague is actually a fantastic narrative device, and I hope the writers decided to make it a major part of this first collection of episodes. One of my favorite novels of all time, Albert Camus’ La Peste (comparing Reign to Camus is probably punishable by death in France, but so be it), uses the plague two-fold: as an allegory for German occupation of France and as a source of conflict to center a narrative around. The novel’s mostly been lauded as canonical because of the allegory, but I’ve always been struck by how well-crafted the plot is on the much simpler level; read as a story about people dealing with the plague, it’s still just as moving and startling as read through any other lens. “The Plague” creates an opportunity for Reign to do some similar things. There may be ways that it can extract some in-show philosophy about the “disease” of the aristocracy, but I’d also just like to see the main cast put into a life-threatening situation over an extended period of time that they can’t control. Nature challenges humans in ways they cannot challenge themselves, and this is one of the few examples when character-based conflict or drama might not be the most interesting.

Case in point: Francis and Lola. I’ve not been a fan of this part of Reign since it became a sub-plot, and even though I didn’t really think it was going to happen, Lola leaving on the boat would have been the best option going forward. Because Reign‘s pace moves at a million miles per second, good mini-arcs become even better because of their brevity and poor ones are less annoying because they don’t stick around for too long. This arc, however, has already overstayed its welcome, and I don’t want to see season two of this series get dragged down by what the implications of Francis’ bastard son mean to the day-to-day operations in the castle. It was somewhat contrived to begin with, albeit logical in context, and it doesn’t do “The Plague” any favors; an episode focused solely on the plague in the castle would have been even more effective.

It’s hard to complain with much vigor, though, when this wonderfully ridiculous series hits the ground in full sprint. Some of these cliches get overused, but it really doesn’t feel like Reign has been gone very long, and that’s a testament to how much confidence “The Plague” has by not worrying about catering to the viewer. In a season of rather stale series premiers, “The Plague”–despite its name–is a breath of fresh air.

– Sean Colletti

Gossip from the Halls:

– Nostradamus has lost his beard, and I literally could not be more upset.

– Goodbye, Pascal. We barely knew ye. But hey, it’s pretty rare that Kenna gets material this emotional. I won’t go so far as to say it’s genuinely moving, but the episode does a pretty decent job of making you feel the loss through her.

– Something I’ve always loved about Reign: the not-quite-supernatural element. We get a ghost sighting, but it turns out it’s just in Bash’s dream. Yet…there is a reckoning coming, so…full-on ghost episode the night before Halloween? Please?

– The establishing shots in this show are absolutely beautiful. And somehow the anachronistic music has been so well-defined that I hardly notice a song is playing. Reign might be weird when it comes to its production, but it has got that weirdness down.

– Well, Leith won’t be too pleased when he finds out his girlfriend is dead. That makes two characters I thought the show was going to keep around for a while removed rather horribly.




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