The Tudors: Season Two Review
Posted by therebelprince on July 15, 2009
(Right: David Alpay as Mark Smeaton)
After the pomp and campiness that was season one, The Tudors season two premiered with a vast range of high and low expectations. Among the more sex-hungry viewers it was eagerly awaited, while jaded historical buffs waited with pins poised above their Michael Hirst voodoo dolls.
Hirst and the network (and Rhys-Meyers himself) have been legitimately candid about the whole historical-accuracy affair. Rhys-Meyers is not going to wear a fat suit, they say, to capture Henry VIII’s later-year rotundity (At least not until the final episode, I’d assume) because, let’s be honest, a lot of people are coming to see glimpses of the show’s naked star. And with that in mind, let’s get to work on this review.
The second season opens with King Henry VIII publicly shunning his wife Catherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy), after failing to secure a divorce. Instead, he showers praise upon his mistress Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer), and ultimately breaks with the Catholic Church and the Holy See to marry her.
On the work front, Henry is facing signs of rebellion. With his advisors Cranmer (Hans Matheson), More (Jeremy Northam) and Cromwell (James Frain), he sets about establishing his own church. The exploration of their work is never as thorough as you’d think it would be (which is sad, because we lose two of this very talented troika this season only to see the storyline continue unabated next season).
(Below: Natalie Dormer and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers)
At home, Henry settles into married life with Anne. Her rise to the throne is historically an interesting tale, but we’ve seen plenty of Anne acting like the Queen in the first season, that here the writers skip that step and go straight to her powerful phase. She is utterly aware that providing a son is her only priority, and that if she fails in this task then she is wormfood. (The crucial difference between the wives is that Catherine was the aunt of the Emperor of Spain. She was simply not a candidate for death. Anne, on the other hand, has none of that power.) Anne shuns her sister Mary (Perdita Weeks) over a marriage scandal, but works with her father Thomas (Nick Dunning) to secure more and more power. When she becomes pregnant, all seems well: but she gives birth to a girl instead. Henry begins looking elsewhere, leading Anne to take any measure she can to keep him in her grasp. When Anne falls pregnant again, things at last seem like they are looking up. (Possibly the one thing the show fails to do is impress upon viewers how important a son is over a daughter. It’s seemingly obvious, but within the show’s context it would help to have that conveyed to explain Henry’s growing bad mood with Anne).
One thing that boosts this season in contrast to the other is the increased number of stories central to the plot. Last season’s subplots – Thomas Tallis’ relationships, the travels of the Princess Mary/Margaret to Portugal, etc. – all felt extraneous, more like filler than storyline. This season, all of the plots tie back into the central political plot.
Henry Cavill continues to be beautiful, but now keeps his clothes on as the newly chaste Charles Brandon. With Henry Czerny off the show, Brandon begins to take on a few aspects of the Duke of Norfolk’s real life role. Brandon’s development into a sensible family man is quite dull this season, but Cavill will get some good material next year.
* Thomas More rises and falls over the course of the season, and Northam gets most of the season’s best scenes leading up to – and including – his brutal end. More’s crisis of faith is possibly the only interesting aspect of the whole Church of England plot this year, since Hirst chooses to treat it as a bathroom break excuse between Henry’s sexual exploits. Northam – along with James Frain – belongs to that school of handsome Brits who somehow convey a racing, rugged heart beneath a restrained exterior. (The reason Colin Firth shattered hearts in Pride and Prejudice, even though he wasn’t exactly wrestling with issues of life and death) Ever since last season’s finale, when – as More, watching the burning of a heretic – Northam managed to showcase about one hundred and twelve emotions in a single scene, it’s been evident that More’s downfall would be one to watch. Well, it is: although it comes on somewhat abruptly, his fall from Henry’s graces is painful and moving. Northam probably had better chemistry with Rhys-Meyers even than Sam Neill or Dormer did, and – unlike the deaths of Wolsey and Anne – we actually get to see Henry seriously contemplating this decision, which makes it all the more affecting. As he awaits execution in the tower for refusing to say the Oath, More rejects his family – and is ultimately betrayed by his friends, in a spiral of public shame which is gut-wrenching when played by an actor of his depth. When first Bishop Fisher (Bosco Hogan) and then the martyr himself take to the stage for their executions, it’s utterly devestating. Jeremy Northam was far too good for this production, but he’s probably the reason I enjoyed the first half of this season so damn much.
[End Jeremy Northam fangirl moment now! But if you agree he should be a bigger star, so does Popwatch.]
Maria Doyle Kennedy is underused as the dying Queen Catherine (not that she can do much under the circumstances), who spends her final years in exile hoping in vain to see her daughter Mary. However, she continues to drape a serene dignity over the proceedings, before mercifully escaping to what can only be a better place.
Sarah Bolger makes a dynamic debut as the Lady Mary, Catherine’s daughter with Henry who is now forced to be nursemaid to her sister Elizabeth. The producers would somewhat fumble the Mary/Elizabeth relationship in season 3, but here it makes for some fascinating viewing as the elder daughter settles into life in a manor built entirely for a baby, with a stern governess (Jane Brennan) looking over her.
(Left: One of the show’s saving graces, the ever noble Jeremy Northam as Sir Thomas More)
We’re introduced to Jane Seymour, here played by Anita Briem. After the King falls for her, Jane is moved to the court where she becomes fascinating to him. Is this because she was much more demure than his two previous wives? Or because he was bored? It is unclear here, since Hirst and Rhys-Meyer’s portrayal of Henry seems to centre on him as a sexual being, leading us to assume that Henry is just sexually frustrated. Either way, by the penultiamte episode, it becomes clear that Anne’s pregnancy is all that is keeping the Boleyn family from being taken down by the Seymours. (There are some delightful court scenes where Thomas Boleyn and his sympathisers begin to realise there is a rival family in town.) Briem is sweet but uninteresting, presenting a Jane who is heavy on the naive charm of an ingenue, but lacking any kind of fascinating features. Given that Anne, as played by Dormer,remains clever and beautiful (the fault of Dormer, Hirst or the make-up division, it’s unclear), my theory stands that Henry was just really really horny, and only wanted what he couldn’t (or rather, didn’t) have.
When Anne has a violent and unexpected miscarriage, things take a turn for the worst. Dormer here is much stronger than she was last year: she exudes nouveau riche power very well, and her growing despair over her weakened relationship with Henry is neatly crafted. She isn’t helped by some poor writing, however, and by an overall weakness in Rhys-Meyers’ portrayal this season. I’m not sure if it was his much-reported drug problems or just having to rise to the challenge of playing a slightly older Henry, but Rhys-Meyers is nowhere near as strong as he was last season (or as strong as he will be in the third).
The season two finale is the strongest episode to date. Anne is arrested and taken to the tower, where she awaits her death sentence knowing there is no way out, and her father chooses his own life over hers. Various men – poet Thomas Wyatt (Jamie Thomas King), composer Mark Smeaton (David Alpay), (historically dubious) assassin William Brereton (James Gilbert), and Anne’s own brother George (Padraic Delaney) – are all charged with treason and adultery with Queen Anne. In a tragic irony, Brereton (who confesses to destroy Anne), and the secret lovers George and Mark are convicted and movingly executed, while no one believes the assertions of her only true lover, Thomas Wyatt. King is wonderful in his scenes, and it’s a pity we didn’t see him again, because he is one of the few actors who speaks the dialogue entirely naturally, and whose emotions seem raw. In fact, the entire execution arc is perfectly handled. Rhys-Meyers was of course undergoing various personal problems at the time of this, and perhaps wisely we see almost none of Henry’s reactions to these executions, or to the deaths of either of his wives. Without him, though, Dormer, Northam and James Frain provide plenty of emotion and the final two episodes – in which Henry is secondary – are probably the best of the series to date.
Of course, beyond this we get season two’s much-hyped guest star Peter O’Toole. O’Toole plays Pope Paul III, broadcasting live from the Holy See. He’s a bit anachronistic, and it’s never explained what happened to the previous Pope Clement, but I’m not complaining if I can get my weekly fix of O’Toole. His plot is a strange, disconnected one which I must applaud in its audacity. Pius and Henry never met, and for once Hirst takes pains to keep this realistic. In fact, the only principal character O’Toole meets is King Louis (Emmanuel Leconte) in his final appearance on the show. Mostly, O’Toole narrates these episodes in a sophisticaed – and a bit expositionary – way. His character is lively and frank, a nice change from the repressed Tudor court, and his conversations with his cardinals provide for a nice alternate view to the actions of our lead characters. Still, while I enjoyed every moment, I do wonder whether it was worth the expense of O’Toole for all of six scenes, none of which feature any other main cast members, and none of which seem to have impacted on the church plot, which falls at the bottom of Hirst’s priorities.
(Below: Peter O’Toole, looking as confused as the rest of us.)
The season’ s closing moments are magnificently fitting. As the first season ended with Anne performing coitus interruptus during lovemaking with Henry – a fitting thematic ending, but a peculiar choice all the same – we get an equally thematic finale here. Following Anne’s execution, a beautifully composed shot zooms in on Henry being served a cooked, but gaudily plumed, swan. He digs in with his hands and begins eating, smearing the meat all over his face while scores of court attendants look on. We get an implication that Henry will begin his debaucherous, hedonistic lifestyle which left him morbidly obese in just a few short years. It must be said, Rhys-Meyers is looking buffer and more filled-out this season but unfortunately his substance abuse problems would return him to his scrawny state for season three.
In housekeeping news, this is the last we’ll see of Jamie Thomas King and Nick Dunning, as well as Hans Matheson. Matheson reportedly left because of other opportunities – which is a pity, since it means we get Cranmer in name only once the reformation storyline heats up.
All in all, this is a vast improvement over season one. Perhaps the reduced timeline (four years instead of ten) allowed them to focus more on the fallout from each action, rather than providing us with brief vignettes of life in Tudor times. And definitely the tighter rein over the storylines keeps things in check. But it’s still historical soap, and it’s clear from the high priority assigned to the story of Henry and Anne that this show is a psychological and romantic drama before it is a political one. (This isn’t a bad thing, but the series pretensions toward chroncling the Reformation fall short)
Later this month, I’ll review the show’s third season which, in my opinion, is the best overall (even if it lacks some of the truly affecting moments of this season).