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Leith Bayard: Ambition and Class Divide in Reign

Image from Reign as streamed on Netflix

Note: This article was first posted on April 2, 2017, at my old blog.

In the episode Left Behind, soldiers following an Italian nobleman took over the castle whilst King Henry was away, and took Catherine, Francis, Mary, and everyone in the castle hostage. One of the soldiers took a fancy on Greer, who was dressed as a peasant on her way to a picnic with Leith. The soldier came back for Greer later, and almost discovered the ongoing plot to herd the servants to safety through the tunnels. Leith tried to stop him from raising an alarm. Leith was just a young kitchen boy at this time; he could not defeat a trained, experienced soldier. Greer came in to help, and knocked the soldier out with a blow to the head. When a shaken Greer wondered if she had killed a man, Leith did the first of the many sacrifices he would make in the name of love. He swallowed hard, then leaned in and slit the soldier's throat. We would never know which one of us killed him, Leith told Greer. But Leith knew. It was one thing to accidentally kill a man in self defence. It was quite another to step into the abyss and wilfully take a life. The shades of guilt would matter to a man who was fundamentally good like Leith, yet he willingly took on the burden, for he did not want Greer to carry it alone. With that one act, Leith joined the blood drenched ranks of the nobility in Reign, though he remained, in their eyes, a servant.

In a show about rulers, issues of class divide was not focused on much. One of its most popular characters, after all, is Catherine de Medici, portrayed to mesmerising perfection by Megan Follows, a brilliant political mind who once admitted to putting a hat maker on the rack because he tried to overcharge her. Yet class divide was consistently present, from the soldiers and servants at Reign's many parties, to Bash's terse declaration that his brother Francis, then the dauphin of France, could have caused the attempt on his life by a few ill considered words spoken within the hearing of someone eager to please royalty. The great majority of the characters of Reign routinely showed kindness to everyone, but they were all aware of their exalted place in society. 'I don't have to prove myself to you. I am Queen, and your job is to serve me!' Mary once declared.

Leith was the one character who, from the beginning, saw these blue blooded members of nobility as human beings rather than bright suns he dared not gaze at. When he fell in love with Greer, it was not out of aspiration, a desire to better his station by romancing one of the Queen of Scotland's closest ladies. Rather, he saw Greer as she was, a young woman who carried her family's burden of expectations, just another life with its own set of unique challenges. Leith could talk to Greer, tease her, argue with her, love her, because he could look at her and neither see nor care about the enormous privilege with which she was brought up.

It was as pure a love as one could have or dare hope for.

The reality of the social conditions of the time could not be denied, however, and Greer was always more pragmatic than romantic. Though Leith gained lands courtesy of a grateful Francis, Greer still chose the enormously wealthy Castleroy. Leith's standing was enough for a comfortable life. It was not even close to clearing Greer's father's debts, or providing suitable dowry for her younger sisters.

It was at this point that a very hurt Leith declared his intention to rise, not out of love, but out of spite. To a tearful Greer, he said, 'When you are alone and miserable, remember this is the moment that you threw your happiness away. And I'll remember you as the woman who told me I wasn't enough. I will become everything you are so convinced that you need. I will rise and rise, until I am rich and powerful. But I will never be yours again.'

Leith did not have a chance to fulfil this promise, for too soon, his status as a gentleman farmer ended. Francis was forced to take Leith's lands away and give them to Narcisse, who was, at that time, furious at the loss of his son and heir (Mary had him killed, in retaliation for murdering an entire family). Leith returned to Court, and eventually rose to become Captain of the Guards.

The next time Leith tried to better his lot in life, it was out of love again, for Greer who was married but without a husband, for Castleroy was already in jail. Leith wanted an annulment for Greer so they could marry. As a Court favourite, Leith could provide a respectable life, a life removed from Greer's existence as a Madam. Leith was forced to be in the employ of a corrupt Church official just for the slim chance of Greer being granted an annulment. In the end, it was Claude, the Princess Leith was tasked to guard, who gave him jewellery valuable enough to bribe the Cardinal.

Again, it was Greer who stepped back. Greer had a thriving though not entirely respectable business. She knew how unstable life at Court could be. She refused to give up the independence she gained the hard way, and broke Leith's heart a second time. What Leith offered was a comfortable and simple life as his wife; what Greer wanted was security that money she earned herself rather than granted by royalty could give her. They were two good people who loved each other, but who could not agree on the vision they each had for their lives.

The next woman Leith loved was a princess.

As tempting as it was to thump Leith on the head for consistently choosing women way beyond his social station, the chemistry between Jonathan Keltz and Rose Williams has been strong even before they became lovers that it was so easy to ship them. Unlike Greer, Claude was connected enough to give Leith a chance to move up in life. When Leith's efforts to break into the merchant class did not work out, Claude convinced her brother King Charles to give Leith a title in exchange for his help in bringing down the Red Knights.

Claude held out hope for Leith's survival for a long time. When she began to accept that Leith had died, she mourned him. Claude appreciated Luc's kindness, but she all but flew into Leith's arms when she learnt he was alive. She wanted an annulment, and when that could not be done, she was willing to run away with him, to give up her privileges in lieu of a peasant's life.

That was a nonstarter for Leith, who knew, more than the other main characters of the show, the realities of poverty. Claude's vision was of a simple but happy life. Leith knew that poverty was neither simple nor happy. Economic insecurities aside, life outside castle walls was fraught with danger. Even if he was not dragged to prison for running away with a married princess, he would still have Claude to protect and provide for, Claude, who has never cooked her own food or done her laundry, who has never lived in a small hut with farm animals inside. Leith was a romantic in most things, but very much a realist when it came to poverty.

Of course he could not share Claude too. That he was tempted to allow Luc to die was the final straw in Leith's sojourn with royalty. Leith wanted to be away from Court, to be away from Claude, before the last vestiges of who he was was stripped off him by the power plays at work that pulled emotional strings as well.

When Narcisse sneered that Leith had traded away his heart to rise in station, he misread Leith. A nobleman like Narcisse routinely engaged in profit making schemes; it was part of the game of power he played. If a man stood between Narcisse and a fortune he wanted along with a woman he loved, he would have no hesitation in cutting down that man. Leith did not want to become like the rulers he served. He wanted to leave to preserve his heart, his good nature. He wanted what, in the early days, was his vision of a life with Greer, a simple and comfortable life. Narcisse viewed Leith as someone who finally learnt to operate like a nobleman. Leith merely used the language of court dealing, but his intentions were different. If he had explained his true reason, a man like Narcisse would have viewed him as suspect.

In a show about rulers, the perspective of a peasant who lived with them and loved at least some of them was an important and interesting one. In Jonathan Keltz's capable hands, Leith essayed a spectrum of emotions that has been one of Reign's quiet pleasures throughout the seasons. So long, kitchen boy. Come back if you can.

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