Monday, February 3, 2014

I Keep Forgetting Reign Isn't Fanfic - Only Fanfic Is This Good

Okay, so I live in the Seattle area, and yesterday, during the Superbowl, I was at this loud party with all my friends and their families and tons of people yelling and screaming and eating skittles (long story, I don't quite understand), and with my brother-in-law shouting in my ear, and throughout the whole thing, do you know what I was doing?

I was on tumblr, regaling my one non football friend (well, my one non-football friend at this particular party) with the hilarious plot and juicy gossipy stories from Reign, the CW's most recent attempt to really corner the market on things that make teenage girls squee. I spent hours just going through tumblr, looking at gifsets and caps and interviews and headcanons, and trying to figure out why it is that this show gets me all twisted around inside. Why do I love it so much? Is it an objectively amazing show? 

No, I'm really asking. Because I can't be objective about this. From where I'm standing, Reign is awesome, because it has solid writing (I can't think of any episodes that didn't work, that weren't engrossing, or that had spotty characterization), great acting (no, seriously, great acting), a fun cool concept, and really genuinely gorgeous sets and costumes and all that jazz. I enjoy the ever loving crap out of this show, but it seems like no one else even knows that it's on.

What gives?

So, Reign is a new show. It just started this year. And the concept, while cool, is a little complex. It's a historical fiction - or maybe historical fanfiction would be more accurate, but we'll discuss that more later - about the life and loves of Mary, Queen of Scots. If you vaguely recall from history class, Mary was around at the same time as Queen Mary of England, and was of approximately the same age as Elizabeth I. She had some claim to the throne of England, and full right to Scotland, which she had ruled since she was a girl. She was then engaged to the Dauphin of France, in an alliance that had the potential to sweep up half of Europe.

That's the historical reality, which gets very depressing as you go along. The show follows historical events. Roughly. Very, very roughly. By which I mean that it invents characters, kills people off, and just generally prances around and makes you all excited and swoon-y even though you know that half these people are going to die and it's never going to end happily and that just makes you love it more...

It's a thing, is what I'm saying. The show is a thing that now has a life of its own, and I'm not sure how to stop it. I'm not sure I want to stop it. I'm just having so many feelings.

The show starts when Mary (Adelaide Kane) returns to the French court after being raised in a convent. Mary's life is in danger, and she needs to solidify her alliance with France right the crap now, or else the English are going to kill her. Unfortunately for Mary, though, while she is engaged to the future king of France, Francis (Toby Regbo), she cannot marry him until King Henry (Alan Van Sprang). And Henry won't agree until it suits his purposes. So now she's stuck in limbo at French court. She's falling in love with Francis, but he won't make a move until his father allows it, and meanwhile his bastard-born brother, Bash (short for Sebastian, played by Torrance Coombs) is over there being all attractive and flirty.

It's enough to make any girl feel a bit woozy. And then there's the prophecy. What prophecy? Oh, just the prophecy made by Nostradamus (Rossif Sutherland) to Queen Catherine (Megan Follows), that if Mary and Francis wed, Francis will die. Catherine's not about to let her baby fall to some Scottish curse, and she's going to do everything in her power to stop the wedding. Up to and including murdering Mary.

But that's not all. Nooooo, that would be simple. There's also Mary's Scottish ladies at court, who all have their own intrigues and love stories and political plots. There's Kenna (Caitlin Stasey), who has been chosen as consort of the king, much to Catherine's displeasure. And Greer (Celina Sinden), who needs to marry a nobleman to save her family, but has fallen in love with a kitchen boy. Plus, we can't forget Aylee (Janessa Grant) and Lola (Anna Popplewell), Mary's advisors and spies at court.

I forgot to mention that there's a mysterious probably not ghost running around in the walls of the castle who doesn't talk but does wear a sack on her head and murders people sometimes. Also, pagans in the woods who like to make human sacrifices.

Man is this show insane. And I love it so freaking much. Why? Well, probably because it is insane.

Here's the thing: when I say that Reign is really historical fanfiction, I don't mean that in a bad way. Not at all. I love fanfiction. Love it. Fanfiction is what happens when fans (mostly women) dominate a media space - the media is recontextualized and turned into a medium for emotional expression. That's what's going on here with Reign. It's fanfiction, insofar as most of the really juicy stuff isn't particularly historical, but that's not a bad thing. The juicy stuff, like a prophecy of doom, or murder attempts, or mysterious pagans, all serve to advance the character developments. Not so much the plot, but then, there really isn't much plot in the show. And, again, that's not a bad thing.

Like, as far as I can tell, the plot of the show is: Mary is Queen of Scotland and should probably marry someone at some point. Also, Francis might die if she marries him. But she loves him! Also pagans.

There really isn't a whole lot to go on. It's Catherine scheming against Mary, or Kenna dreaming of how she's going to be the queen of France, even though we all know that would never, ever happen. It's Bash making moon eyes at Mary while she and Francis debate politics and even though there isn't some big goal hanging over our heads, that doesn't make it bad. It's great. It means that the only story we're really concerned with is what's going on in the hearts of the people on our screen.

SPOILERS for the most recent episodes.

I started thinking of this a few days ago, when I finally caught up on the more recent episodes. In them, Mary and Bash run away from the castle. Mary because she's just learned of the prophecy, and has decided to save Francis by breaking his heart, and Bash because his mother has decided to try to have him legitimized, which would make him the next king of France. And they're both afraid for their lives.

So they end up on the run together, which is ridiculous enough. They jump into rivers and pretend to be married to get rooms at inns and change in front of each other, etc. But that's not enough. They have to get recaptured and dragged back to French court, where Henry is dead set on Mary marrying Francis so that she can lay claim to England (long story), only Mary is still sure Francis is gonna die, and Francis is miserable because the girl he loves just ran off with his brother, and everyone is having feelings all over the place, until Mary decides that the only solution is to get Bash legitimized after all, so that she can marry the next king of France, but Francis won't die, and holy crap, this is a real TV show.

Well, a real TV show that isn't Game of Thrones and has sweeping montages and lots of romance and longing and big romantic gestures and pretty dresses. It's like if Game of Thrones had a baby with a romance novel. That's what this show is.

Have I mentioned that I love it?

And then in another episode they have to sneak Bash's cousin out of the castle, but, whoops! She's about to have a baby, so we have to deliver the baby in the woods, and then the mother dies, and pagans come and are creepy, and then the baby must be disappeared into the royal nursery, all while everyone plots against Bash's life, and I'm just sitting there going, "This is fanfiction. This is AU fanfiction. And it's amazing."

It's amazing because when you get stories that take character development and emotional stakes seriously, you're usually talking about shows like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad or Mad Men. Shows that are gritty, tough, or deep. Shows with brooding leading men and huge casts and intense anti-heroes.

Not usually shows about pretty girls in nice dresses who are beloved of the handsome boys and also have their own castles and kingdoms and lots of female friends and are really really smart to boot. Mary is a total female power fantasy, with her power and intelligence and political acumen and really handsome love interests, and that's not a bad thing. Mary is a Mary Sue, in the most general of terms, but that's fine. I mean, everyone's totally cool with watching Batman swan around for three hours, what's wrong with getting to see a brilliant, commanding, feminine woman school a bunch of old men on how to govern a country?

And I love that Mary is such an unapologetically strong figure. Having love interests doesn't make her weak. They love her because she is so regal and demanding and powerful. She's freaking good at her job, and she doesn't feel bad for not being a normal girl. She's not a normal girl. She's never been a normal girl, and if they want to love her, then they're going to have to do it on her terms. That's awesome.

Plus, she's a female character whose main friends are all female, whose main antagonist is female, and whose main advisor (her mostly off screen mother) is female. The men are mostly there as parts of Mary's love story. And while they struggle against each other for her affection, they don't ever call her a whore or accuse her of leading them on, or in any other way cast their hurt feelings onto her. Mary is the Queen, and you will respect her. It's kind of really nice to see.

I guess what I'm ultimately saying is that Reign feels like fanfiction because it's a juicy, well written, engrossing show about a strong female lead who has a strong female antagonist, and a bunch of attractive, nice, not jerk face boyfriends, and a whole host of girl friends, and she's a BAMF at her job but still gets to wear pretty dresses, and there's some part of me that is so used to Hollywood rejecting all of those things that I refuse to accept it as real. 

It can't be real. It must be fanfiction.


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