Reign / Screen

Reign: “Acts of War”

This review took me quite some time to come up with. There’s school and work to deal with, not to mention the fact that “Acts of War” is perhaps the most controversial episode of Reign to date. Months ago spoilers surfaced that the castle would be stormed and Mary would be raped, and viewers came up with petitions to go against the storyline in the hopes that it would be changed. I also hoped that would be the case. 

I hesitate at maintaining that shows shouldn’t explore rape and its aftermath because it’s unfortunately a very pervasive event in our culture. And despite this pervasiveness you don’t see much media actually touching on it and exploring how violent, damaging and everlasting such an occurrence is on a victim. It’s thrown in for shock factor, to give sympathy, to show something violent and horrible without actually doing it justice. This has happened so many times before that it’s only natural to have the same concerns about Reign especially when this news broke months ago. This is why viewers fought against it when spoilers came out, appealing to the show’s team to listen.

The last thing you want for a show you enjoy is to see it drop the ball on the such an important subject, to put a character you love through such an emotional and violent experience and then to completely miss the point and remind you just how often the real world also forgets these points. I don’t want television to ignore rape, but I want it to understand it better. “Acts of War” doesn’t do badly on this front, but it’s hard to nail down my feelings on it without seeing how it’s going to play out in future episodes.

Reign has never shied away from implying sexual violence. It’s brought up the vulnerabilities of its female characters in a world dominated not only by men but by kings. To ignore the threat of sexual violence against the women in this world would be cheap and unbelievable. The show’s touched on it before, the last time the castle was invaded and Mary and her ladies were threatened with rape. But seeing it happen really is both shocking and horrifying.

Mary flees her rapists and encounters Catherine, and uniting the two after this is one of the show’s stronger decisions. With Catherine and Mary having had such a tumultuous relationship, their moments of understanding are always strong. This season’s thrown them together much more, and Catherine’s growing respect for Mary has given way to a lot of strong interactions on their part.  Catherine being a survivor of rape herself means she’s the one most capable of understanding how Mary’s feeling. Both Megan Follows and Adelaide Kane give heartbreaking and strong performances as Mary, shocked and horrified and Catherine, assertive and quietly enraged.

It’s hard to watch Catherine advising Mary to get up and pull herself together long enough to show the public that she’s still in control. But it’s very Reign. The show’s been exploring the ways in which power is held and maintained, particularly projecting this power in times of weakness. Mary’s rape leaves her vulnerable and devastated, but she still returns to the throne room with Catherine at her side to address her subjects.

It’s one of the show’s best scenes as it sums up just how horrible an ordeal this has been, how Mary is going to be forever changed and how she’s still forced to put on the appearance of strength. She can’t admit to being raped. She can’t even admit to being found by the men who storm the castle because it will terrify her subjects and give off the appearance of weakness which is one thing a queen can’t do.

And it’s heartbreaking to see Mary have to pretend at this strength in a moment where she feels the opposite, to have to offer herself for viewing by a frightened group of people and promise them safety when her own sense of security has been shattered. It’s comforting to see Catherine there with her, the only other person there who knows the depth of Mary’s pain even as she’s the one who pushes for Mary to go through the emotional ringer of pretending. So it’s nice to see Catherine and Mary behind closed doors again, with Catherine tucking her into blankets and telling Francis that Mary’s healing is going to take time.

I appreciate “Acts of War” allowing time to react to Mary’s rape rather than making it a cliffhanger. Showrunner Laurie McCarthy has promised that Mary’s rape isn’t just going to be a one-off for the show to drop as soon as it’s tired of it, but that’s it going to be part of a a journey for Mary. I want to be optimistic about it, but both the interview and the episode paint an undesirable picture of making this about Francis and not so much about Mary.

I want to see Mary’s journey as Mary’s journey not Francis’ journey as Mary’s husband. I don’t want to watch Francis sulk in his guilt about how his inability to stop Narcisse led to this kind of violence. Francis is secondary, which makes McCarthy’s admission that they originally conceived the storyline through “the prism of Francis” beginning with the decision for him to kill Henry, troubling. Then there’s Francis’ return to the castle, where he’s told about what happened and he’s immediately feeling guilty for the role he played in leading up to this moment. It would be unbelievable for that guilt not to be there, but I don’t want it to overshadow Mary.

Mary’s the one who went through this, who’s going to have to cope with this for the rest of her life. Her declaration that the men who stormed the castle “altered nothing, and now they will die for nothing” is powerful. She deserves justice, and I hope she gets it, and I hope it’s hers to attain and not Francis’ to find for her.

Stray Observations

  • Mary’s dress at the party was something else. Do want.
  • The fight scenes in this show are not great. Bash and Francis fighting Narcisse’s people is…rough.
  • It’s official: Kenna has nothing to do this season. Greer and Castleroy accidentally funding the assassination attempt on their friends is almost something, but I still don’t care that much about it though at least now they have something to do. And I wonder, if Mary confides in her friends about what happened, how angry she’ll be about it.
  • I’m not sold on Rose Williams as an actress in Claude’s role (or her wardrobe) even as there’s some strong narrative stuff, like her hopes for being useful and accepted by her family, for the character. It’s the same with her and Conde, who don’t have enough chemistry to sell the pairing even when their dialogue and scenes are good. It reminds me a bit of Bash and Mary, who had the same problem but had a good narrative foundation for their relationship.
  • Mary and Conde have way more chemistry. Even agreeing to marry Claude sounds like flirting coming from him. I don’t know what to make of his sudden departure other than that he was really thrown by Mary’s declaration of “inexplicable faith” in Francis.
  • Narcisse remains…Narcisse.
  • Claude: “He sounds like a charming pair of shackles.”
  • Mary: “Claude, in this moment the very future of France rests in your hands.”
    Catherine: “Oh then we are in dire, dire circumstances.”
    Mary: “Oh, sweet lord.”
  • Catherine: “Short and sweet. Like forcing food down a duck’s throat to make foie gras. One can barely hear the sound of people choking on the news.”
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