I like Reign. I like how the show is early-modern Gossip Girl, flagrantly unconcerned with history except as a stage for teen jealousies and romances. I like how everyone wears pretty dresses. And I especially like the Very Serious face that Adelaide Kane, as Mary Queen of Scots, pulls whenever she has to make a Morally Difficult Decision. There’s an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Faith, the evil vampire slayer, swaps bodies with Buffy, and Faith (in Buffy’s body) practices her impression of Buffy by looking sternly into a mirror and saying, “You can’t do that, it’s wrong.” I think of this exaggerated performance of tough virtue every time I watch Reign.
The show’s particular understanding of virtue has been behind an interesting twist in the most recent season, which introduced Elizabeth I as an on-screen character. English history has a deep-rooted Madonna/whore complex about Elizabeth and Mary, with the virgin queen representing England’s strength by opposition to the multiply married, adulterous, foreign Queen of Scots. Reign inverts this valuation, but also shifts the terms. The show rejects any presentation of Elizabeth as a strong virgin queen, but her incontinence isn’t presented as a question of sexual immorality; she does have extra-marital sex, but so does Mary, and in both cases the show presents this as a good and healthy decision. The show presents Elizabeth as lacking Mary’s virtue, though, because Elizabeth is emotionally incontinent: she feels too much and too indiscriminately, and is not able to suppress these feelings when it’s necessary to take the difficult decisions that are required to act ethically in contentious political circumstances. The show doesn’t condemn Elizabeth for this; instead, it patronises her with a sympathy for her excess of emotion which nonetheless always makes it clear how inferior this excess is to Mary’s cautious navigation through emotional restraint. The show also always arranges things so that Elizabeth’s emotional inability to make the tough choice leads to her hurting someone she cares about.
The idea that women – especially female political leaders – are emotionally incontinent is of course not new at all, but I think Reign is interesting for presenting a particularly clear adaptation of this trope in terms of ideals of femininity that have particular resonance in our neoliberal period. I’m thinking of the cliché of the “strong female protagonist,” and related ideas around “leaning in” and resilience, the ideology that purports to admire “feminine” virtues of “emotional intelligence” while making sure this understanding is always used to direct emotion along channels that are productive, not destructive or even just otherwise to productivity. It’s interesting watching the show present some of these ideas, but what saves it from being just a rehearsal of pure ideology is the camp quality I mentioned above: the combination of pretty dresses with an unflinching earnestness.
I do wonder where the show is going to go, particularly now that it’s got to the point in the historical narrative when Mary returned to Scotland, at which point things pretty rapidly went downhill for her, and, of course, didn’t end well. I kind of hope it casts of its already tenuous connection to actual history, and the last episode is a flash-forward to an alternate 2016 in which Mary succeeded Elizabeth as Queen of England. Right now, I’d take pretty much any AU United Kingdom that’s on offer.