Mary, Queen of Scots (Adelaide Kane) has been trying to convince herself she’s not in the ultimate no-win situation for several weeks now. Marriage to the unpredictable Darnley (Will Kemp) is her trump card to seize power away from her cousin Elizabeth (Rachel Skarsten).

And sure, she had to work through leftover grief from her first husband and PTSD from viewing the brutal murder of same and she’s been receiving anonymous notes warning her away from Darnley who also had been, until recently, still sleeping with his ex. Any one of these would be an immensely reason for anyone to call off, or at least extend, ones engagement: but Mary also has the ticking clock of pending religious upheaval and that small matter of her power-hungry cousin over the Scottish border.

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Every part of her knows Darnley, even when he’s in one of his infrequent even-keeled moods, is not the right partner for her. He’s applying his own pressure to her as well, his increasingly thirsty requests to be King in his own right becoming less flirty and more threatening. And, crucially, although he swore last week to cut ties with ex-lover Keira (Sara Garcia), James spills the tea that the English lady has been seen around town… and Darnley has been sneaking off somewhere nobody’s been able to follow him.

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Without a mentor or true ally to turn to, Mary’s ripe for the picking when she once more encounters the broad-shouldered, de-dimpled Lord Bothwell (Adam Croasdell). Last seen negging her in a tavern while refusing to sell her his land, she happens upon him this week in a moment of peak masculinity — his broad shoulders put to work repairing a wall on another plot of land she needs… Which, wouldn’t you know, he just won at another game of cards.

In this single tableau, he instantly sets himself apart from Darnley who, though equally handsome and dimpled, is a Prince-After-Transformation to Bothwell’s Gaston; we haven’t seen Mary paired romantically with anyone this adult, and it is to the delight of many viewers that they proceed to spend most of the episode in a series of situations from which any number of romance novel covers could be drawn.

Bothwell needs to inspect the land before he can sell it, and wouldn’t you know there’s a river in the middle and how about that the only boat available only has room for two. And then of course they encounter the world’s weakest flash flood, which leads to damp clothes and the inevitable here, let me help you unlace your bodice like in the first-season opening credits. For another show, this would be the sum total of how much melodrama one episode could take, but this is “Reign,” so it all leads to them encountering a prophecy-spouting vagrant in the woods.

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When James hears of this turn of events he, like perhaps new viewers to this show, scoffs: “Please tell me why you would give serious consideration to a prophecy spoken by a vagrant in the woods?” Mary can’t exactly offer up DVDs of the first three seasons of this show, but she’s seen enough to believe in the power of fate and — especially — that of the man with sea glass green eyes described by Rizzio.

RELATED: Queen Mary leans into her panic attacks in a surprising way as the doomed ‘Reign’ wedding approaches

Francis (Toby Regbo) has been mentioned numerous times this season, particularly this week when his Valois relatives begin to arrive in Scotland for Mary’s wedding. This is the first mention of his half-brother Bash, a shout-out delighting long-time fans while also having an immediate effect on Mary herself: the idea of this man who had been so special to her for so long visible helps her unclench. And Bash-via-Rizzio’s warning only serves to cement what she already knows is true: she can have love, or an heir, but not both. And the woman we know her to be would love to see where things go with Bothwell, but the Queen she is at a deeper level, knows she must continue down her path with Darnley.

That this message comes via Rizzio — the third part of a triangle that history scholars know has Mary’s doom at its centre — lends an additional dark irony to the proceedings. For Mary, though, the introduction of both Bothwell and Rizzio to her life must feel like a hopeful new beginning, two men supremely loyal to her amid a sea of shifty-eyed Protestants and usurpers. Bothwell, of course, comes with his own baggage, here explained as his being basically too decent of a man to be allowed back in Court. Because, of course, he is the Loyal Watchman who’s been sending her secret messages all along, these a manifestation of the promise he made to Mary’s late mother to keep her safe.

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But then, we’re heading toward the end of a tragedy, and the seeming security offered by these two men is really only serving to further divide her from the increasingly unhinged James, who has a sour history with Bothwell. And then, of course, in a classic “Reign” death-as-pratfall, there’s the tricky matter of Mary inadvertently causing Keira’s death via horse accident — and Darnley finding out about it.

RELATED: On ‘Reign’, boys will be boys — and women pick up the pieces

And then, in an Edward Gorey twist on the “Gift of the Magi,” Darnley reveals he wasn’t seeing Keira again at all: he was designing her a special pair of ruby earrings. There are so many tragic misunderstandings in this episode alone, but perhaps the combination of Keira’s horse mishap with Darnley sadly opening a 16th century Tiffany’s box of jewels is just about as “Reign” as you can get. This is the balancing act this show has achieved throughout its tenure, wildly swinging for the fences — because when it’s firing on all cylinders, it’s better than anything.

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Every time Mary becomes more comfortable with her decision to marry this man, the universe seems to conspire against her; but as much as we know what’s coming her way, there’s no way to know that spurning Darnley would have led to a different fate.

Marrying Darnley equals a victory against Elizabeth and nothing — no dead girlfriends or brooding Watchmen or Bash messages via the astral plane can stop her: Marrying him isn’t the final step in her plan to conquer England, it’s the first in a sequence that she knows will inevitably lead to Elizabeth’s death. Even if Darnley were just as dreamy as, oh let’s just say a Scottish Lord who’s as good at cards as he is flashing his dimples, she’d still chafe at the decision.

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Dealing with her own long-haired cutie: Queen Elizabeth, who falls in with a pirate on the run from Spain, Captain Jim Hawkins (Max Lloyd-Jones), who inspires her to explore the New World. Yes, we have our Sir Francis Drake — in the popular imagination, something like a cross between our show’s Narcisse and Nostradamus (Craig Parker & Rossif Sutherland), and for some of us one of the most highly anticipated aspects of Elizabeth’s rule. But no matter how much or little he matters to the series, in these final days, thinking beyond cold war with Mary and Spain is a sign of Elizabeth’s strength, with no real equivalent for Mary… Which is why Catherine’s (Megan Follows) eleventh-hour arrival could not be better timed.

For Mary, protecting her country means embracing her destiny, which means slicing off the last piece of her humanity; a loveless marriage to a man who hates her being only one small part of a much bigger, and infinitely more tangled web. As Princess Claude (Rose Williams) reminds us this week, two rivals for a throne can never safely coexist; the very fact of the other means one faction will always favor them, which endangers the other.

If anyone can see Mary through this no-sum game, it’s Catherine de’Medici: The woman who went from trying to kill her to — we can only hope — is prepared not to kill to protect her.

“Reign” airs Fridays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on The CW.

Posted by:Ann Foster

Writer and historian living on the Canadian prairies.