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.)

The last shot of this episode tells us Clarissa is dead. I cannot tell you how much I hoped that at the last minute, her eyes would flutter, or one of those ominous forest pagans would come sweep her up, leaving us with the narrative promise that she'd be saved from the brink of death. (Or even resurrected. Why not?? I feel like this show just needs to embrace the full-on supernatural. We've already got Nostradamus's visions! What's a spot of resurrection next to that? And what good even are ya, forest pagans, if you don't save Clarissa when I need you to???)

Clarissa's (apparent) death is my first major disappointment with the show's storytelling choices. Things have felt a little weak to me in terms of Mary's characterization since Aylee's death and Francis's departure, a bit directionless and hollow, and that pattern seems doomed to continue despite the really compelling tragedy of Mary killing Clarissa to save little Charles.

The way the scene was shot really stood out to me, mostly for what it lacked. Clarissa's last conscious action was to reach for Mary's hand, and Mary took it -- a beautiful, bittersweet moment, but strangely shot. It was a moment significant enough for a close-up on their entwined hands, and one of those bittersweet folk songs that Reign is so good at busting out. After all, this is a relationship that has mattered since the first episode, just like Mary/Bash and Mary/Francis. But instead, the moment was all filmed in one far away shot, and did not pack the poignant narrative punch that it should have.

The last scene heaped more disappointment onto that. I would like to see Mary's reaction to causing a death, especially the death of someone so loyal to her. She has killed someone who loved her -- someone who was by no means innocent in the conventional sense, but certainly twisted by a life of abuse and suffering. Blood is on Mary's hands now, even if that blood was spilled to save a child. The last scene in this episode, I think, rightfully belonged to Catherine and Mary: both had the closest connection to Clarissa, and no one knows better than Catherine what it's like to bloody one's hands, to spiral into the dark, in order to protect one's family.

Instead, the scene turned into yet more marriage talk between Mary and Bash. (And man oh man, did Bash bug me by rejecting Mary's marriage proposal so that he could reassert the patriarchal authority of The Dude Proposes! Like, I get that this is the "1550s", but come on. We are listening to The Lumineers. Y'all are wearing prom dresses. Why couldn't you just let Mary propose, bro??) It was one of the first moments where the show itself, rather than the buzz around it or the fandom reactions to it, genuinely made me feel all, 'Okay, enough of this love triangle stuff.'

I'm guessing that killing off Clarissa -- and Clarissa's point in the first place -- will serve the prophecy storyline. Now that Mary has killed Catherine's firstborn, Nostradamus's prophecy about Francis will be called into question. If this is the case, I'm disappointed, but at least it ties into the larger narrative in an integral way.

Because let's be real here: killing off Clarissa felt like the easy way out. Like in Jane Eyre with Bertha, the easiest way to handle the reveal of the animalistic madwoman's existence is to ... kill her right away. And yes, that "she couldn't survive in this world" argument is valid.

But what if she had to try anyway? Where would that take the story?

What if Clarissa had lived? How would that plotline go? I was really excited to see where her storyline went simply because it is so bleak and so brutal. How in the world do you try to help someone who's grown up in such ghastly circumstances? I would have liked to see Mary try, even if it would have ultimately resulted in failure. How would everyone react to Mary's determination to show Clarissa compassion? And -- the big question -- how would Mary react to finding out the true reason behind Aylee's death?

Catherine has insisted more than once that Clarissa is better off dead -- but that seems like just the kind of cold assertion that Mary would fight, even if she gradually discovered that Catherine was correct. I would have liked to see that fight last longer than one episode. To really see Mary grappling with the dark.

Not to mention that Clarissa sticking around would provide more great material for Catherine, whose vicious ruthlessness is somewhat redeemed by the fact that she is a fiercely devoted and loving mother. Would she really be able to keep her heart cold toward the baby she lost, especially when (as last night's episode excellently highlighted) Catherine herself has so much darkness in her, and knows the pain that comes alongside it? Catherine is often maligned as almost supernaturally wicked. Henry called her "Devil" -- soon after, Nostradamus tells us that Clarissa was deemed "kissed by the devil" at birth. It would have been fascinating to see the full realization of that parallel: Catherine's is a very civilized brutality, in contrast to Clarissa's animalistic brutality, but they are two sides of the same coin. Just as Clarissa and Mary were (two girls raised in hiding), and just as Catherine and Mary are (our story's two queens).

Mary killing Clarissa is not the problem. If the storyline had been allowed to build for a few episodes and ended the same way, I think it would have been truly powerful. Mary having to kill someone who loves her, who has sworn (a twisted, brutal) loyalty to her, is the stuff good drama is made of. But after all of the magnificent buildup that Clarissa's had since the show began, she should have been kept around for more than one episode after we finally saw her face. I would have liked to see her properly pulled out of that eerie symbolic realm and brought into the light -- even if only to see how tragic, how doomed, that transition would be.

I think what I missed most of all was an actual scene between Mary and Clarissa. One conversation. One opportunity for the two of them to meet face-to-face and speak at last. (A very trope-subverty opportunity, and one that Jane and Bertha certainly didn't get.) Mary mentions ordering the mask for Clarissa; did they interact in order for Mary to make that decision? How did Clarissa get the mask? Did Mary give it to her?

The point is, the connection between Mary and Clarissa has been one of the driving forces of Reign since the beginning, one of the elements that really set it apart for me as a refreshingly female-centric series with complex, unique, important relationships between its women. I can't help feeling now that it all built to ... well, not quite nothing, but not enough.

RIP, Clarissa.

Or don't, because I seriously hope that the forest pagans resurrect you.

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