The Curious Case of ‘Reign’: Putting the Fiction in Historical Fiction

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I promise I will get to historical fiction, but in the meantime, please allow me the indulgence of a small digression.

I have a strong aversion to Miley Cyrus. The most popular term here is ‘hate’, however that term is bandied about so much these days it has lost any of the meaning it originally had. Aversion is the most appropriate term, being that her presence on my television or computer screen causes me to break out in a nasty case of grumpy-mouth. You know what I am talking about, the grimace that spreads over your face like an infection when confronted with a particularly distasteful image or phrase. This reaction is not limited to pop-starlets, many women would be familiar with this expression due to the prolific nature of “Get back in the Kitchen!” as a ‘joke’. I sure will get back in the kitchen. That’s where the knives live.

I digress (again). Cyrus represents everything that the nightly news complains is ‘wrong’ with my generation, and that sucks. Do you know how hard it is to defend and popularise the brilliant, intelligent, witty and creative minds of youth when this young woman insists on ‘twerking’ with her tongue sticking and calling it feminist (yes, feminist)? Whoever told her that tongue waggling and bum-jiggling was sexy must have had a weird fascination with dogs.

She should really be wearing a hard hat.
She should really be wearing a hard hat.

Damn it if Wrecking Ball isn’t catchy, though.

It’s a difficult (first world) problem, knowing that a song so emotional and strong is sung by a misguided young woman with a penchant for dancing with her tongue out like a sweaty rottweiler. The video is deplorable, and has more to do with wrecking her Disney image than anything to do with emotional turmoil/construction, but I just can’t get that song out of my head. This brings me to the point: what do you do when you love something created by people you don’t like? When it feels wrong, but right? When its very nature should repulse you?

Reign is a 2013 series that just aired its mid-season finale on the CW network in the U.S. This historical series centres on the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, in her time as a prospective bride for the Dauphin (Prince) of France in the 16th century. It is also demonstrably awful. Made by the same people who created Gossip Girl (red flag), the series is more interested in creating romantic turmoil and drama than in any semblance of historical fact. The music is modern (Bastille’s Pompeii second episode), the clothes are more at home on a Paris runway than a Renaissance palace, and the very first scene has a 17-18 year old Mary playing football (soccer) in a convent. Let that last one sink in for a moment, I’ll wait.

The main plot of the season revolves around a love triangle between Mary, the Dauphin (Francis) and his half brother Bash. Yes, Bash, that famous French name. In the wings is a villainous Catherine de Medici, scheming against Mary’s marriage, as she has been told by a suspiciously-young-and-ruggedly-hot Nostradamus that the Queen of Scots will be the cause of her son’s death. Minor characters include a bevy of beautiful and utterly interchangeable ladies-in-waiting, whose various affairs with servants and royals are too bland to comment upon. The only remarkable thing about them is that one of them is called Kenna, yet another famous historical name.

Lesson learned: don't mess with the Tudors.
Lesson learned: don’t mess with the Tudors.

If you will permit, I would like to give you an ever-so-brief history lesson. Mary is hardly the heroine that The CW is desperate to portray. What they want (and are desperate to show) is a headstrong, intelligent, politically minded young woman who will stand by her nation even when threatened with personal peril. Whilst it would be wrong to call the historical Mary a pushover, her reign in Scotland could hardly be called positive, and it was her disastrous relationship with Elizabeth Tudor, as well as her unfortunate marriages, that brought her down.

She impulsively married the mincing and jealous Lord Darnley in 1565, and later caused great controversy when she then married the lead suspect in her husband’s murder, Lord Bothwell, in 1567, only a few months after Darnley’s demise. She was later imprisoned by Elizabeth I under charges of treason, and whether this is true or not, there is indisputable evidence saying the Mary affected the arms of England from the moment Elizabeth’s sister died, making her claim explicit. Later, ‘evidence’ was found that implicated her in a plot to take over the throne of England, leading to her beheading. I wonder, will her execution be in the third or fourth season of Reign? My point here is that there are hundreds of strong-minded women from that era (or thereabouts) that they could have chosen. Elizabeth I. Anne of Cleves. Mary of Guise. Isabella of Spain. Even Catherine de Medici, well known for her controversial and bloody role in history, could have made a great heroic antagonist in the vein of Tony Soprano or Walter White.

There is nothing that should endear me to this show . . . and yet, I keep coming back. Fans of The Big Bang Theory might be with me here, in that they know there is very little to commend the show, but it has a sense of charm and ingenuity that is lacking from many other programs. Dare I say it, I might even enjoy this program more than others such as The White Queen or even the very popular The Borgias. I’m not going to try and weasel out of it either by saying I enjoy it ‘ironically’, not only because that is misusing the term but because I genuinely enjoy the program and become engrossed in the story lines. I can only compare it to how I originally started saying ‘yo’ as a joke to my friends, and yet now I find myself answering the phone in that manner. (If you don’t get why that is wrong, just imagine the whitest girl you know. I make her look like Shaft.)

Objectively speaking, Bash also has eyes you could drown in.
Objectively speaking, Bash also has eyes you could drown in.

I think that the actors who portray Catherine and Bash (actual name Sebastian) are quite talented at showing different sides of their characters. The latter’s personal growth is not limited to choosing between loyalty to his royal half-brother and desire for Mary, he is also torn between the ambition of his mother, the maitresse en titre Diane de Poitiers, and his allegiance to the philandering King Henri. Catherine is by far the most complex and interesting character, evolving from a one-note villainess in the premiere to the brave, yet conflicted character we see in the mid-season finale. The writers could easily have had her become a Livia, a woman obsessed only with power (and those too weak to seek it). Instead, while we may not agree with her decisions, we are always privy to the motivations behind them.

Why is it then, that I am capable of forgiving such blatant disregard for history, when history itself is how I make my living?

"He DIES? How could I POSSIBLY have known that?"
“He DIES? How could I POSSIBLY have known that?”

I should be laughing this series off the face of the planet, and yet I still tune in religiously (but carefully, knowing religion isn’t safe around the Medici family) every week. I wish I could pass it off as [HISTORICAL SPOILERS AHEAD] sadistically anticipating the crushing blow that Francis’s early death will be to his inevitable fan girls, but it simply isn’t so.

I think that, perhaps, I accept Reign based on the fact that it makes no claims for historical accuracy. The inaccuracies in The Tudors and The Borgias are all the more egregious when one discovers that each series attempts to portray “real” history. Reign, for lack of a better phrase, just couldn’t give a toss (no, I don’t really mean ‘toss’). If you are going to throw out any semblance of a relationship to history within the first episode, then I have no issue at all in watching your show. It’s jut another show. Who knows, it might even encourage more people to read about Mary and Catherine. In retrospect, this is easier to deal with than my issue with Wrecking Ball, because if you make no claims to quality, there is no place to go but up.

This brings me to my final point. Isn’t it time we made a new genre for shows like Reign? Or perhaps, we need to reclassify The Borgias and The White Queen. ‘Historical fiction’ just doesn’t cut it when we have such a large differentiation between claimants for the genre- it’s like saying The Vampire Diaries and Breaking Bad are both just ‘dramas’. It’s true, but each has it’s own individual characteristics that make them almost completely different. The only reason that they are both ‘dramas’ is because characters don’t slip on banana peels or spray water on each other with prop flowers. Similarly, Reign and The Tudors have time period in common. That’s it. That’s like saying Sesame Street and The Wire are the same because they both have streets.

I suggest splitting it into historical drama (Tudors, Borgias) and historical fiction (Reign, Da Vinci’s Demons, Labyrinth). Yes, ‘fiction’ is a broad term, but differentiating them this way will allow audience members to see what you are getting, and it will allow VERY SERIOUS HISTORIANS to avoid the inevitable rage when confronted with Reign. Because, let’s face it, however fantastic it is, it really puts the ‘fiction’ in historical fiction.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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I am a historical fiction aficionado from Australia who lives for Game of Thrones, Mad Men and The Borgias...also Xena. Don't judge me.

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30 Comments

  1. Naomi Greene
    0

    Loving this series. However, it is tough for me to get use to the non period costuming and the imaginative re-creation of a real history.

    • Kathryn Talbot

      Imaginative recreation- excellent term!

    • Exactly! The story itself was decent but I couldn’t get over the terrible costumes! They were just modern dresses with crowns.

    • As far as it goes, yes the history (especially the costumes) are laughable, but if you try to ignore the fact that it is supposedly true, it is no worse than any other melodrama on air.

  2. Robert Humphrey

    I try not to be biased against CW shows, trust me I try, but, with the exception of VERY few CW shows, I just generally find CW’s programming to be dreadful. That said, when Reign came out, I thought I’d give it a shot because I usually like period pieces, and I was extremely intrigued and shocked at the fact CW decided to tackle a period piece. (Dang, there’s my bias coming out again…) I tried to watch Reign once and I wanted to put my fist through my TV — largely because of, like you mention, the fact that history pretty much went flying out the window. I’m not sure what I expected when I tuned in. But I like your suggestion of dividing the historical category of TV into historical drama and historical fiction. Maybe I was expecting Reign to fall more in the historical drama category, which would explain my extreme frustration with the show. Perhaps if I knew going in that it was more historical fiction (though in retrospect, I probably should’ve figured it would be anyway), maybe I wouldn’t be so against the show because I would’ve had a better idea of what to expect.

    (A bit of a side note: I really like the way you’ve written this article!)

  3. Hilarious post! I watched the pilot and liked it. Pretty sure it will be my “guilty pleasure”. Honestly I never really expected historical accuracy, I mean, its the CW after all… Im looking forward to their take and what story lines they will cook up.

  4. harrington
    0

    Alright. Here is the thing — note I am not saying historical fiction should not exist–but it can cause issues in schools. I am sure you have known about students who watch the movie version of a book and base their reports on that, only to gain a poor grade for it. Most common case of these is “The Scarlet Letter”.

    I can see a lot of students using what they have “learned” on “Reign” to supplement their actual studies in the class. But of course that does not mean the show is not valid. But it is surely going to make history teachers’ lives more difficult.

    • Kathryn Talbot

      I hear you- I am a history teacher! On the other side though, not too many students are silly enough to believe it is the whole truth.

    • Well this is where it IS up to the teachers to ensure their students are well aware of the vast differences between fiction and historical facts… teachers are TEACHERS to teach.

      • Kathryn Talbot

        I don’t think that the author ever said it wasn’t the teacher’s job. Calm down-your comment reads very antagonistic.

  5. Karla Hopkins
    0

    Do people even know the story? Who wants to see a Television version of Mary and her 1st cousin getting it on? Also, if they were to do it “by the book” we wouldnt have Sebastian on our screens would we.

  6. It is’s historical accuracy people are looking for, do not look here on any of the commercial networks or say 98 percent of cable either. Non-fiction period shows are for the movies; serious, high-brow fare could never have the ratings to stay on air in commercial television. I can’t think of last time any of the bigger commercial networks even tried it.

    • Kathryn Talbot

      True! I really hate it when people complain about the historical accuracy of a show on television when it makes no effort to say it is accurate. If the show says outright that it is all true, that’s different, but that rarely happens. If you can’t enjoy something that doesn’t attempt accuracy, that’s fine, but you can’t nag people about it. I mean, I don’t really like reality television, but I’m not going to watch it and then complain!

  7. LesterDunn
    0

    I am glad it is not following history. I do not want Francis to die :O

  8. Jo Fisher
    0

    I watched one episode the other night and it was Terrible. Cringe-inducing.

  9. Brianna Deveraux

    Thank you for writing this. I have been feeling as if Reign was my dirty little secret but now I feel no shame. As a history buff… I know its just wrong. The whole thing is wrong. Yet, I love the show and I am completely wrapped up in it.

    An important part you bring up is the costuming. In many ways I think that is the first thing that separates Reign from truth and fiction. The moment you see them you somehow know the modern being heavy handed in the production. Often it is juxtaposed against traditional period sets and scenery. I think the CW doesn’t really know what they have on their hands with Reign but they know it works. I just hope they keep the balance that seems to blend history and fiction so well.

  10. Jacqueline Wallace

    I enjoyed your article and you made some good points! I watched the first few episodes of the show however, I found the characters to be extremely unlikeable. I’m not too sure if the character development improves as the show goes on, but I thought Mary and her handmaidens were pretty vapid. What I wanted from the show was a little bit more substance but I suppose I shouldn’t expect to find that from the CW!

  11. Emily Miller
    0

    I agree with everything you said. I am a senior history major writing my thesis on Mary. I should be the one leading the charge against this show, but I can’t. I really do love it. I realized minutes in how not historical it actually was. I gave up and then accepted the show for what it was. I love watching the show each week. It’s so silly and absurd. But like you said I appreciate it. It always baffled me how no major network was ever doing historical shows. I think it was a brave gamble by the CW to try something like this and I sincerely hope it pays off. Then hopefully other networks will pick up more history shows and we can get that Anne of Cleeves show that the world deserves.

  12. Anachronism aside, I think Reign is really great. It’s on the CW -you can’t expect Downtown Abbey or Mad Men or even Tudors-esque quality of historical accuracy. I think for such a small network, the production value is impressive, although yes, Mary might have worn something similar to a crop top on last week’s episode. The producers have said they intend to loosely follow the timeline of historical events, so they’re not rewriting any major history. I think it’s a guilty pleasure show at its finest and it’s on the CW so I wouldn’t really hold it up to higher historical standards. It aims to be entertaining and in that, it succeeds.

  13. mccartyj

    I have a guilty pleasure for watching Reign, and my friends and I often debate exactly this point: how much merit is there in such a faux-historical show? On the other hand, I think “historical” shows like this often spur us on to find out the actual facts, and I definitely get a kick out of trying to figure out exactly how far they’ll push historical lines.

  14. ScorpiusNox

    “Imagine the whitest girl you know. I make her look like Shaft.”

    SO perfect xD .

    I enjoy Reign very much, anyway (or I did, before I lost access to cable <_<). I'm easy to please in general, but I really liked the character arcs: Mary turned out to be stronger/smarter than she seemed at first, Catherine was more nuanced than just a simple evil queen clinging to power, and for a while, I was allowed to believe that Mary would get with Sebastian instead of with…erm…*scrolls up* Francis! The fact that I outright forgot the dude's name should tell you which one I prefer x) .

    It's really not the kind of show I'd usually watch; I'm not huge into period dramas, generally speaking. But, somehow, I got into this one. Your analysis here puts it into perspective very effectively. It's not a great show for expanding your intellect or delving into history, but it's entertaining if nothing else. When it comes to my choice in television programming, that's usually enough for me.

  15. The Guest
    0

    The problem with Reign is that, now more than ever, it doesn’t even try to acknowledge the true story behind it. That’s when it gets horrible: https://prettyandwittyandbright.wordpress.com/2014/10/03/on-tv-revisting-reigns-first-season-and-the-horrors-of-historical-fanfiction-ahem/

  16. The problem I have with Reign, and cannot get over, is the accents. Seriously. Not a single Scottish or French accent. As a Scottish person, hearing these actors with monotone, boring, generic English accents talk about Scotland and butcher the names of Scottish places and names…eugh! Painful to say the least.

  17. Isabella
    0

    Many of these “historical” shows do not show the actual history; they show some facts but most of it is entertainment. It is meant for entertainment. The show wouldn’t be entertaining if Francis died early and she was beheaded. It would be over. I do agree with you though that they could have used a better main character. I love the tudors and Elizabeth would have been a better protagonist, but all and all, it is for entertainment purposes only. People who watch this show and expect the full history with only fact are delusional. People should go into the show knowing that this isn’t what really happened and then we wouldn’t have so many complaints that entertainment doesn’t always go off of historical facts.

  18. If you want the real sad story go read history ,we love to watch reign so we can say what if she lived and had a happy life to rule with justice and love despite her many enemies who wants her dead (enjoy the fiction story) of reign

  19. I just wanted to check if there was any truth in the serie at all. fast.. so i could continue watching, but i kept reading. i red it to the end.
    really funny written! and right on the spot. lol

  20. In spite of how late I seem to be reading this, it’s really interesting! I remember when my friend first suggested “Reign” as a show that I would like because I enjoy historical fiction.
    Back then, I balked because of the (in my opinion) horrendous costumes and what I considered to be a point-blank-pitiful attempt to mix popular culture and history together. What I have come to realize though, that in my snobbishness, I also went straight to the “very reliable” Wikipedia and re-familiarized myself with Mary Queen of Scot’s biography (as well as other aforementioned historical figures).
    I think that you brought up a really good point, Kathryn, in that there is historical drama (that although you still take with a few grains of salt is trying to be somewhat historically accurate) and then historical fiction which is really just like Reign. You take people who lived, make them want to roll over in their graves, but the bigger point, I think is that you bring their existence to people who may not have otherwise been familiar or even the slightest bit interested in their lives.
    Great article, I found it really interesting!

  21. Debra Rymer
    0

    Interesting. You may want to correct the error in noun’s number (women for woman).

  22. Randy
    0

    As I read through the responses, I see the majority of people upset about the inaccuracies in costumes. Really costumes? The historical inaccuracies in time lines, actual events, and even names. To pass it off as history that young kids will watch and believe and you think the biggest up evil is costumes! I knew off the bat it was going to be a joke just hearing hearing Mary’s ladies names. As in truth they were known as the 4 MARY’S. Then one event after another is misplaced or fabricated and timelines well oh well. Those darn costumes.

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