Anyone who’s even loosely familiar with Scottish history always knew this one was destined to end with a decisive swish of an ax — but that doesn’t mean it was easy to watch. After four seasons of bloodshed, heartbreak, deception, and binding corsets, Mary, Queen of Scots’ Reign has come to an end on the CW. At least the bonnie lassie went out with a showstopping (if a little rushed) series finale that included explosions, threesomes, and — of course — a beheading. Once you’ve mopped up your tears from that flashback-laden closing montage, check out what showrunner Laurie McCarthy had to say about bidding farewell to the rightful queen.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Mary and her great love Francis are reunited in Mary’s afterlife! Was it always the plan to bring Toby Regbo back for the end of the series? How did that come about?
LAURIE McCARTHY: It wasn’t the plan from day one, but by early in their second season, their chemistry convinced me that there would be no love as great for Mary, now matter how we wrote the show. Mary faced so much strife, darkness, and betrayal once she returned to Scotland. She was altered by more and more difficult events and choices, and knowing that the facts of her death were indisputable, I wanted to return to the joy she had known in her life and believed she might mentally want to imagine herself there as well. The idea and filming of the final scene came before Toby Regbo departed the show, and long before we knew how many seasons the show would have.
Since we know from history that Mary Stuart’s life was full of so much tragedy and bloodshed, how important was it for you to find some way to give her a happy ending?
Very important. We explored some very dark territory, playing things that really happened to her, plenty that might have happened, and a few that either occurred or were rumored to occur at other points later in her life. Those scenes were hard to write, and we all felt our lead character’s pain. We wanted to feel her joy as well reflected even in her final moments.
How did you go about planning out the final season? What was behind the decision to tell a pretty full arc about Mary’s marriage to Darnley as opposed to fast-forwarding the timeline?
First of all, Darnley was such a complicated, flawed character, and I was so happy to have Will Kemp agree to play the role, that we really sunk our teeth into her second marriage and how Darnley’s weaknesses played into Mary’s downfall. But also, her marriage to Darnley was a bold move that could have worked. It could have brought her power in England. It might have undermined Elizabeth in such a way that Mary could have joined both nations (not, decades later, her son)… it was a strategic risk, which also angered Elizabeth and was part of her undoing. How could we not tell it?
When you began the series, did you have an idea of how much of Mary’s story you wanted to tell? How you would pace it out? Were there parts of Mary’s story you really wanted to tell but didn’t get the chance to?
Yes. I wanted to tell all of it: her third marriage, her time on the run… there was a Western in another season, really, that would have been an interesting contrast to the machinations in France (a bloodbath, of proportions we had not seen before, was coming), and I would have loved to see Elizabeth’s rise in England. That said, there are indisputable economic considerations, and the CW supported the show as long as it could in every way that it could. They and the studio were incredible partners, always opening the gates wide creatively, and I’m deeply grateful for the time that we had.
So much of this final episode, and the series as a whole, really, was about these women in powerful positions fighting against men who don’t think they’re capable simply because they are women. They have to work twice as hard to get anything done or anyone on their side. It all sounds very familiar! Was it a coincidence that these stories about female monarchs in the 1500s would feel so applicable to today, or were you hoping people would make that connection?
Either answer breaks my heart. Is it a coincidence if, at the top levels of power, very little has changed? I’ve read some comments about the show that implied that all the men on it were jerks — that the show was somehow “man-hating,” and that always amazed me. We had heroic, if complicated, men around all of our female leads throughout the show, but we did see them face some brutal male foes. I suppose I’m glad people see the portrayal of men who dismiss or want to take down women as “hateful,” but that is certainly what Mary, Catherine, and Elizabeth had to face. And yes, this year it resonated deeply. We didn’t squeeze in dialogue that also fit our times — we wrote for our characters in their time — but I wish it weren’t all so relevant.
Reign is known for some of its crazier moments (King Henry humping a woman out of a window, the prince of Spain being impaled by a sex horse), and the finale provided one last crazy moment: the queen mother, Catherine de Medici getting involved in a three-way with a witch. Was there the feeling in the writers room that you needed to go out with a bang?
We loved doing crazy things, and we were writing characters who were both relatable but also lived in a world of privilege that is difficult to comprehend. Also, you’d be shocked how much of it actually came from, or was very inspired by, history. Sometimes, particularly with King Henry, we toned down what we’d read in our research (or in one case of blowing up ships filled with his own men, cut it in half). But we also took incredible license and as a group cackled merrily at some of the things royals, running amok, might do…
Over the series, was there anything pitched that was too crazy for Reign?
I’m sure there was, but upon reflection, it’s hard to imagine what that might be. If it didn’t result in something, serve the story, and grow the characters in some way, we usually didn’t do it. The window-sex, for example, was only the beginning of Henry’s madness that led to Francis murdering his own father. Which led to a secret that drove Mary and Francis apart, for example.
Reign is also known for its amazing costumes. More than just being lovely to look at, the costumes also helped reveal character — like Mary wearing more plaid and heavier materials once she arrived in Scotland, or Elizabeth putting on her suit of armor. How closely did you work with your costume designer? Did you keep anything from the wardrobe department?
If by working closely with Meredith Markworth-Pollak you mean me saying, “Wow, yes, that’s brilliant, let’s do that!” then yes, we collaborated. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but as the show went on, only slightly. We had very clear discussions at the pilot stage, even about beads for the girls’ hair, and I reviewed costumes for every episode. Meredith and I would talk about things coming down the road… Mary needing to show her power more, or embrace her culture. Battles we would need to build dozens of costumes for, pregnancies, and especially weddings. Oh, those wedding dresses — amazing. But what I really wanted was a pair of beat-up riding boots (sadly there were none in my size).
Elizabeth donning her armor and rousing her troops is a moving scene — as if the Elizabeth we’ve been watching on this show is finally becoming the Elizabeth we know from history. Were you there during filming? What was the feeling on set that day?
I wasn’t there, I was busy with editing and wrapping things up in LA, and the fact that I missed it kills me. Let’s not talk about it, or I’ll get sad.
I was so happy to see Catherine choose herself over her children in the end. What were you hoping to say with Catherine’s story?
We were gearing her up for her next chapter, when she would really have to play her children against one another and realize that some of them should never, ever rule. It also worked as a series finale, as a culmination of an arc for her. At the start of the series, she would have done everything for her children (and for Francis she did), but as a hardened pragmatist, and a survivor, even she realized some sacrifices might not be worth making.