Friday, February 28, 2014

On Clarissa (Spoilers for Reign 1.12)

Anyone who interacts with me these days knows that I am absolutely bonkers for the CW's Reign. (I may have even done my Discourse Analysis homework on a promo for "Inquisition." I may have included a screencap of Nostradamus just to prove how remarkably furry his coat was. Even my poor educators are not safe.)

Like so many modern day franchises with a female character at its heart, Reign does the love triangle thing -- particularly in its marketing and the buzz around the show. I am not nuts for love triangles myself; in my fangirl old age, I absolutely try to avoid anything as stressful as a love triangle. I put in my time spazzing out over Ron/Hermione during the Harry Potter years and then Kate/Sawyer during the era of Lost. I'm done! I'm old! And I figure as long as a story puts equal time into making both relationships interesting and substantial, then I'd much rather just go with the shippy flow than take a side.

I must confess to being more on the Francis/Mary than the Mary/Bash side of things, but the love triangle isn't what has me so invested in Reign. For me, the important relationships on Reign have always been the ones between the female characters.

The central relationship on the show, in my eyes, is not Mary's relationship with Francis or Bash, but the complex dynamic between herself and Queen Catherine. They're enemies, sure, but respect and compassion always sneak in to complicate that enmity. Their adversarial interactions always have a flicker of understanding that reminds us that the two were fond of each other in Mary's childhood -- and would be still, if it weren't for a certain prophecy and Catherine's refusal to let it come to pass. Catherine's determination to destroy Mary is purely pragmatic, and that brings a bittersweet quality to her ruthlessness. Combine that with the fact that Megan Follows is some kind of indescribable acting goddess, and, well. In my estimation, the Mary/Catherine dynamic (and Catherine in general) is the true heart of the series.

Mary's relationships with her ladies in waiting, too, have the potential to be fascinating: Greer, Kenna, and Lola are Mary's best friends, but they're in her service, too, and there is a lot of room for conflict between friendship and obligation. This has been touched upon in the storylines of all three of the girls, but not explored in-depth yet; I hope that's coming.

And then there's Clarissa.

I'm currently in the middle of writing my master's thesis on the connection between Jane and Bertha in Jane Eyre, a dynamic that has fascinated me for years. When Reign's first episode established that there was a mysterious girl "whose face is a ruin" lurking ghostlike in the castle passageways and watching out for Mary -- well, that's when this show had me for good.

And at this moment, I was won forever. Hands and shadows!!!
The start of a beautiful Gothic friendship.
(Image courtesy of grande_caps.)

What really got me about the Mary/Clarissa connection is that it wasn't totally relegated to the realm of subtext. Unlike in Jane Eyre, where the interaction between Jane and Bertha can only be found when you really delve deeply into the text, Mary knew about Clarissa straight away -- and Mary felt for her. Mary talked to her -- or, well, talked to the shadows, and knew that Clarissa was listening. And that compassion, that lack of fear, won Clarissa's fierce and rather frightening loyalty. Clarissa appointed herself Mary's guardian angel of sorts, even if the things she's done in her name have been distinctly less than angelic.

The Clarissa/Mary dynamic definitely seems to have its roots in Jane/Bertha, especially the reading popularized by Gilbert and Gubar in Madwoman in the Attic - namely, that Bertha is not Jane's rival. Instead, Bertha is actually acting on Jane's behalf: all her violent actions are manifestations of Jane's own anger. There are problems with this argument, but this is not my master's thesis so I won't go into them too much. The number one issue is that, while suggesting this connection between Jane and Bertha brings a lot of feminist potential to the text, Bertha is never really considered as a person in her own right. Her actions are, in some strange supernatural way, a result of Jane's impulses. 'What a cool symbol for feminist rage and rebellion Bertha is!' this argument seems to say, but does not take into account the suffering and oppression that Bertha has faced. It's very easy, in this argument, to see her as a symbol instead of a person. And taking away a woman's personhood? Kinda not feminist. Kinda breaking that #1 feminist rule, where -- oh yeah! -- women are people.

Mary/Clarissa seemed poised to subvert that very problem in the heroine/her-monster-doppelganger dynamic -- to grant each girl equal personhood. Mary knew Clarissa, even if they never met face-to-face, and saw her as a human being and a friend. A protector, not a monster.

Which brings us to last night's episode.

(Spoilers beneath the cut.)