How Reign Drew Me In
I’m a big fan of the television series Reign, a kind of historical fiction/romantic drama on the early life of Mary Queen of Scots. As a girl in the mid-to-late 1500s, Mary was sent to live at French court for safety, during the unrest between forces loyal to the English Protestant movement and those loyal to the Catholic Scottish ruling line.
Loosely touching on real historical events, the series’ plotlines weave strands of strategic alliances, romantic dalliances, and threats around Mary and her entourage of ladies-in-waiting, as well as other key female characters—Queen Catherine of France (played by Megan Follows), and Queen Elizabeth of England who is ever wary that her cousin Mary had a claim to the English throne (played by Rachel Skarsten).
Beyond the dramatization of compelling historical events, the show excites me for how it depicts the very human side of women who bear power and position. The female leads must operate in a hopelessly patriarchal context, and must tactically use a range of tools—their poise, loyal servants, spies, ladies in waiting, insights, wit, wiles, seers, persuasion, defiance, and tactical socio-political skills—to negotiate their way through situations fraught with complications.
I discovered the show while serving as the (female) president of a condominium owner’s association—a small community leadership role which usually brings large tensions with it. So, I was glad to sit back and watch other girls handling the weight of competing interests and intrigues of alliances. Watching other women go through their leadership struggles was a nice relief to sublimate my own issues. I also found that I could borrow from the characters’ pluckiness as the tests of nerve and courage unfolded on screen!
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the sumptuous costumes, gorgeous jewels, and romantic tensions made a direct hit on my feminine nerve centers, making this show a most pleasurable distraction and escape valve for me.
Nature in 16th Century Europe and on 21st Century Television
Reign evokes an era when character, comportment, and people’s experience of the world were unmitigated by technology. Back in the 16th century, the non-human, natural world had a much more powerful significance in people’s minds and lives. The relationship of people to nature, which might easily have been dismissed as a minor background detail, is treated richly and with some depth in Reign. The writing struck a chord in me because it’s unusual to be able to watch such an imaginative depiction of people’s experience of nature on television.
Today, most people spend the majority of their time in built urban environments surrounded by worlds of artifice of human systems, urban construction, technological creations, and in front of screens that plumb virtual networks. The experience of ‘nature’, say for the majority of Reign’s 21st century audience, is neutered and incidental. Unlike back in Mary’s day, nature is effectively conquered, contained, manicured, and relegated to a diminished space in the margins of human transactions. It’s largely invisible, largely non-threatening and often confined–in zoos, in parks, and to a fairly silent background.
Lacking massive earth-moving engines, modern medicine, and computational engines, the 16th century European had little control over nature. Reign’s writers have elevated nature as central to the contemporary consciousness of what it means to be a person. In people’s minds at the time, nature is a being, a force in her own right, with power, danger, mystery, and always just beyond the realm of human control. The writers therefore depict nature as an important element of the drama, as a palpable and mysterious force that is larger than human life. On the show, the undertone of nature’s mystery and danger and its role as a counterpoint to the human, cultural realm is richly portrayed in dialog, symbols, filming and editing.
Examples of Nature Depictions in Reign
A group of pagans is featured through multiple early episodes of Reign (Season 1, Chosen). Predating and outside the formalized Christian church, they worship nature. In the French court, there is frequent mention of ‘dark forces’, which are played out as pagan belief in a cult associated with the worship of nature. The pagans are seen as heretics of course, for denying the beliefs of the church, and are said to offer rites of blood sacrifice. Their acts are loosely associated with appeasing nature to ward off her wrath and heavy hand, or else offering gifts of obligation for nature’s bounty. Related to the blood sacrifices (and human blood specifically) is fear. People fear the woods, they fear “spirits” who live in the woods and extract sacrifices from people who are irreverent, who don’t acknowledge, and pay homage to the deity and power that is nature.
In this show, the French king’s lover is a pagan. She bears him a bastard son Bash (played by Torrance Coombs). Her role as a pagan is secret because it threatens the ascendancy of the Church whose figurative authority is channeled by the King, her lover. As ironies go, the King’s attraction to her as a woman is sufficient protection, and her pagan affinities and beliefs go unspoken. She remains officially silent about it. (Season 1, Inquisition)
The traditions associated with deifying nature tie human beings in deep relationship to nature, so that their blood, their very substance, is one with the earth. Nature is not something outside the human pale, but is the very source, or life-blood, of human life. There is a striking moment when a pagan man is buried and Bash (who has pagan history) is alone at the grave with Mary. Bash tells Mary about proper pagan burial rituals and out of respect to Bash and his background, she herself performs them. She cuts herself to spill her own blood into the soil, a symbol of a return to union with nature. The scene represents that human blood is identical to the rest of life in nature. (Season 1, Royal Blood)
A counterpoint to this moment of union with nature is a terror-inspiring scene where a woman healer (Bash’s later love interest, Delphine) who has prescient insights and intuition about others is seen as a witch and burned on a pyre. Her understanding of the healing properties of individual plants and closeness to nature makes her a threat to the established Christian church with its hierarchy of male-dominated knowledge systems. There is only one way to eliminate this existential threat to a male world, burn her at the stake. Nature and her secrets are often seen as feminine, and crushed by patriarchy.
In yet another notable scene, the hegemony of the Catholic church is undermined by groups of people who are exploring protestant ideas fomenting in Germany and England. These apostates from Catholicism congregated in hidden vales in the woods in order to escape the strict codes of religious orders and worship rites enforced through power and tradition. In the woods, people were free, outside the pale of human control. The woods were a respite for those who were sickened by socio-political straightjackets. (Season 2, Terror of the Faithful)
Nature is also depicted as a character who is larger than human life. People believe that nature has her own rationality, her own cruelties, and dark side. They are fearful. Early in the series the seer Nostradamus works on healing a woman who has been kidnapped and imprisoned by a force of evil roaming in the woods. When the dauphin Frances, and half-brother Bash (who have tensions between them because of their mutual love for Mary) go in search of this force known as the ‘darkness’ there are strange and dangerous moments that threaten Frances’ life. He seems to be lured into and then trapped in the ice, and only a redeeming moment with his brother can save his life. (Season 2, Monsters)
Reign’s Radical Take on Nature.
Nature written for television today largely uses the disembodied language of science in a natural history ‘observation’ style. Nature documentaries are the most prevelent experience of nature on the small screen, featuring a “god” voice that describes objectified processes or animal behaviors, from an “as seen from above” vantage point. Nature is an objectified, separate thing, and its mechanics more important than its soul. The documentary is enhanced more often than not these days into docu-drama, where animal behavior is anthropo-styled with qualities that humans can relate to, and sets up classic ‘conflict’ tensions. (Will the baby mule deer die or survive? Will the penguin who lost its mother be adopted or rejected? Will the hungry shark kill the man in the flimsy cage?). Here again, the perspective on nature is as a separate world, distinct from human identity, only made more understandable through the application of human and social qualities.
Given prevailing trends, Reign’s treatment of nature is both startling and radical in my opinion. Few television shows today offer such emotionally-driven animations of nature, that depict her as “being” who shapes human relationships, inspires fear, and drives dramatic tension and character growth. There is enormous power of suggestion in a well done television drama, with its language, editing choices, and imagery. Using all of these modes, Reign’s writers have used the evocative power of dramatization and embodiment to remind us what it felt like humans didn’t dominate (and hadn’t yet decimated) nature. It’s far sighted of the writers to bring nature alive as character, and as deeply integral to human characters in the story.
It’s unusual, frankly, to have small screen moments where viewers can be immersed in a world in which nature was a powerful, awe-inspiring force, full of bounty on the one hand, and able to punish with pain, death, and disease, on the other. Using such a popular platform as television drama, Reign allows viewers to experience the power of nature at an emotional level. And emotional engagement with nature is perhaps the one thing that modern culture is painfully lacking as we have claimed technological ascendancy over the planet; we witness the results of our human disconnect and dissociation from nature daily, as the planet slides into a strange, ugly realities shaped by the global impacts of human enterprise. Reign reminds us, there was another reality once, where we felt differently about nature, as powerful, threatening and central to our own definition of ourselves.