As “Reign” enters its final ten episodes, Mary, Queen of Scots (Adelaide Kane) finds herself, yet again, on the precipice of a life-changing decision. She’s been fending off assassination and coup attempts for four seasons now, wed and widowed, suffered a miscarriage, and now faces an uphill battle to be taken seriously as the Queen of her own country. While history has certainly been embellished and massaged in its transition to TV drama, the broad picture of what this women lived through is basically exactly what we’ve seen. The narrative about and around this show, years hence, will most likely never get that part right… Almost totally because it’s not a believable life in the first place.
We’re as surprised as Mary herself, in “Love & Death” (March 24) when, having presented herself as strong for so long, even in private conversations with her longtime BFF, she finally identifies the panic that strikes her whenever she gets too close to her new fiance, Lord Darnley (Will Kemp). After coming to a detente via cheating in a boxing match, we see they’ve spent the past two weeks flirting and bantering — the dramatic kiss at the end of the previous episode leading to some outside-the-clothes action, but nothing more.
The chemistry between these two actors does much to sell this connection — but more than that, it makes sense for them to connect on this level. Mary has always been a woman without a country — thrust into a series of unanticipated crises, somehow keeping her head. And Darnley may come across as a rogue, but he’s committed — in his particularly self-aware way — to being with her.
In private, Mary describes the feeling to a friend as “panic.” Every time she feels herself letting go and letting Darnley close, she panics. Her fiance is not the first man she’s been with since the death of her beloved Francis (Toby Regbo) — in fact, it was through her friends-with-benefits affair with Gideon (Ben Geurens) that she was able to find her footing in her new circumstances.
Panic is a close cousin to fear, which is what Mary comes to realize is causing her to run away from this man so often that he utters the disarmingly anachronistic line, “I’m starting to think you’ve avoiding me…”
This is “Reign,” so naturally the stakes are raised to the point that Mary effectively forces Darnley to stay away from her for his own protection, hiding him away in a safe house so he can’t be attacked or forcibly returned to England. But like the best plotlines on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” here we see life and death courtly intrigue as metaphors for the human condition. Something about Darnley terrifies her, but Mary has trained herself over the course of this series to work through her terror. The natural pressure of being Mary, Queen of Scots would make it hard for most of us to get out of bed in the morning, much less during such a dangerous era that someone’s almost literally always trying to kill her: Freezing up every time she’s scared is simply not an option.
But even Mary knows there’s a difference between being suspicious of a new moustache-twirling English ambassador versus running away whenever things get too hot and heavy with her husband-to-be.
Last week, she unearthed a piece of why she was keeping Darnley at arms length; the understandable loss
we all Mary still feels at Francis’ death. Accepting and living with that allowed her to open herself up to Darnley on a surface level. But as she comes to realize this week, she not only lost Francis — she saw him murdered in front of her. She unleashed her rage upon his killer last season, but grief isn’t just one emotion to process and move on from — it’s a journey of tiny moments that constantly surprise you. She pushed Darnley away from her, both emotionally and into a safehouse, to protect him from harm — and herself, from the pain of losing him, too.
Marriage and love and war are all muddled up for Mary, as by simple fate they always have been: She knows she must marry Darnley to protect her country from Elizabeth (Rachel Skarsten), but she’s unwilling to wed for purely mercenary reasons and is starting to like him. Even as half-brother James (Dan Jeannotte) — whose own shifty-eyed looks hint at possible future betrayal, as per usual — reminds her she need not necessarily marry this unpredictable man, Mary knows she has no choice. And since she knows herself well enough to realize she’s incapable of faking it, to love this man is to open herself to future misery. So, panic: Not just a limited set of bad options, but a very real tick-tock atop them.
If Mary’s going to deploy marriage as a weapon, Darnley is the best possible co-conspirator… or at least, someone you want playing on your team. Kemp imbues this historically hated character as someone just slightly off-kilter with the rest of the characters, his reactions and energy different enough for us to both mistrust and enjoy his line readings, and sometimes inappropriate facial reactions. He’s wholly himself, which is someone we — and Mary — still don’t quite understand. When he turns the full force of his attentions to her, offering to dance with her moments after an English assassin’s corpse was rolled out of a carpet for dramatic effect, it’s either the awesomest thing ever… Or a huge red flag that this man is bad news.
“I can’t allow myself to fall for you,” Mary tries to explain to him, the panic finally overwhelming her well-practiced gentility. Centuries before psychiatry, she is telling him that she knows her triggers, she needs space — classic “Reign” — and that she has to protect her heart: If everyone’s always trying to kill her, who else can she count on?
Which is when Darnley says the only thing that could break through her resolve, something that digs into the wild rage that’s only been seen in her a handful of times. She was a girl who played sports, who grew into a young woman who liked to ride horses, who became a Queen willing to stab a man to death if he deserves it badly enough. Darnley doesn’t pressure her or guilt her or do anything other than come up with exactly the thing it takes in this moment for her to let go:
“Let the danger come,” he pants, both actors swirling in a nearly-visible fog of their own chemistry.
“Doesn’t it make you feel alive?”
And it’s not the thing where all a woman needs is a man’s love to overcome her problems; nor, crucially, is it the thing where a woman hooks up with a guy to avoid being alone with her thoughts: She’s not running from him, or her own fears. She sees him there, she’s entirely present, and rather than running, she chooses to lean into her panic — perhaps believing, like we all sometimes do, that sometimes fear is just excitement in disguise.
“Reign” airs Fridays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on The CW.