As a ramp up to Emmy night this Sunday, September 20, I wanted to take a look back at the six episodes of masterpiece television that was Wolf Hall. The series is nominated for a whopping 8 awards, and I plan to be watching and rooting for the entire crew to take home at least a few of those statues. Allow me to cover a bit of the highlights of each episode and you be the judge.
Episode 1, “Three Card Trick”
Wolf Hall is about Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell did all his most significant work during the reign of Henry VIII, thus, Wolf Hall is also about Henry VIII, but only insofar as the king was the patron and leader and provider of opportunity behind Cromwell’s ideas.
When we enter the story, Henry has been married to Catherine for 18 years and she hasn’t produced a son. He’s panicking. He wants out of the marriage and he wants the freedom to remarry. He’s had several mistresses. One woman, however, has refused to become his mistress. She has higher goals than that. He’s enamored of her and she’s young and he wants a son. She wants to be Queen.
So much of this story is about Henry’s bedroom, yet we never see his bedroom. Wolf Hall is about the politics of the thing. About the machinations necessary for successful public life, manipulations needed even in the most personal of matters.
Finally in this episode we are treated to an incendiary first meeting between Cromwell and his King. First seen at a distance, then in the foreground, the King saunters, gestures and preens like a rooster (a “beautiful big bumblebee”as Damian tells it) before delivering an oratory displaying his disapproval of Cromwell’s opinion. As Henry is delivering his diatribe, Cromwell doesn’t waver. Cromwell manages to win the King over by not fearing him, speaking to him respectfully while not kissing up to him and just agreeing for the sake of agreeing. And Cromwell honors the King by saying he can form his own opinion. Then how tantalizing Henry’s words:
“I can, and I will.”
Episode 2, “Entirely Beloved”
Henry sees Cromwell waiting in the wings among many others lined up to present petitions to the King. With a princely come hither flick of the hand, Henry gestures Cromwell forward. Cromwell has gotten an audience with the King through sheer persistence and the King’s nascent admiration of that persistence. Henry also seems to admire Cromwell’s focused readiness to stand by his man in spite of everyone telling him the Cardinal is a lost cause.
Because of Cromwell’s persistence and because of his own sad confession that “Everyday I miss the Cardinal of York,” Henry whispers a sum to Cromwell to give to Wolsley to support himself. It’s a victory for Cromwell.
Meanwhile, Anne is still lording over her handmaidens, holding forth to getting her man, come hell or high water, and seeing her own trite conspiracies in cartoons drawn against her.
Henry as Renaissance man is shown in archery practice. We seem him boyishly excited about hitting his mark, and, as the center of all attention that he must be, we see him naively believing the laughter from the sidelines is a sharing in his glee, instead of the telling of a ribald joke by bored sycophants that has little to do with him at all.
We’ve seen him laugh so now we must see him cry. Thus, we see more humanizing dents in the King’s necessary armor when he calls Cromwell to his bedside to seek counsel out of a nightmare. Henry’s visions take the form of his dead brother Arthur visiting him.
Henry is haunted by his insecurity and guilt over acquiring his position by a random accident of fate, of stealing his brother’s wife and deserting her. Ann Boleyn’s personal chaplain, Dr. Cranmer, gives Henry the standard biolerplate advice to be given to anyone in moral disarray: God is merciful and you will be forgiven. This doesn’t work for Henry because he doesn’t see himself as worthy of mercy, he imagines that Arthur will plead against him on judgement day:
He has come to be make me ashamed and I alone must bear it, I alone.
Cromwell jumps into the logical hole at the heart of the omen: he offers his interpretation that Arthur appeared to remind Henry to hold strong and fast to his kingdom.
Now is the time for you to become the King you were meant to be.
Henry’s brother and father appear in his dreams to strengthen his hand. So whereas Cranmer had said something like “Yes, you’re guilty, but God will show mercy, Cromwell essentially says “You are not guilty of anything. Now is the time to exert power and you will be redeemed for whatever you think you’ve done through exertion of that power, the power to not bow to Rome.”
Cromwell has turned Henry’s frown upside down for which Henry congratulates himself and erects his spine back to working order.
I knew who to send for, I always do.
Episode 3, “Anna Regina”
This episode was all about the queen, one outgoing, another incoming, and the next waiting in the wings for her eventual turn.
The House of Commons votes on the bill. Those in favor of the King becoming the head of the Church are told to move to one side, those against to the other. Shuffling ensues and the King leans forward. His glare at the men standing on the wrong side leads them to change their opinion and shuffle back across the aisle. The splitting of the House of Commons was apparently Cromwell’s idea so that the King could see clearly who was for him and who was against. All the better for Henry to know to whom he should direct his glare. And, of course, the King has influenced the vote by intimidation.
Meanwhile back at the Tower, those speaking for the King and against Rome are being charged with heresy and dealt with accordingly by Thomas More. As the counterpoint to More, we have Cromwell, who is as adaptable as More is stubborn, as flexible to the tides as More is stuck to his guns. Cromwell, ever the pragmatist, dismisses all who are not able to make the system work for them.
Next, the fixer Cromwell is called to sooth the tension of some trouble brewing in the House of Boleyn. Anne’s old paramour Thomas Percy has confessed that he was contracted to Anne in marriage. In a speech that may as well have been paired with Hollywood crescendo background music (but happily wasn’t), Cromwell preaches some truth to sorry sack Percy:
The world is not run from where you think it is..fortresses…nor even from Whitehall. The world is sun from Antwerp, from Florence, from Lisbon, from wherever the merchant ships sail off into the West…not from castle walls, from counting houses, from the pens that scrib out your promissory notes.
Cromwell has moved the world onwards to full blown capitalism.
As More resigns, Anne and Cromwell share a laugh as they both acknowledge that the path has been further cleared to Anne getting her “heart’s desire.” The scene of Cromwell escorting Anne down the courtyard to the King reads as a father escorting a bride to her new husband.
Good news abounding leads the King to drink. He sloppily confesses all kinds of neat tidbits to his best buddy.
And so Anne and Henry are married. And visited outside their marriage hall by Eliza Barton, speaking of prophesies she seen of the King’s mother appearing in “pale fire.” The King is not immune to omens as Cromwell himself has witnessed and so he ushers them all away from Miss Barton.
First comes marriage, next comes coronation. And so, Anne, her dress already let out more than a little bit with pregnancy, is given the sceptor and the crown.
Episode 4, “Devil’s Spit”
A shadow is cast over the land and over Henry as he asserts that no celebration will be necessary for a girl child.
Anne’s focus is on assuring that her girl child holds a higher position than “bastard Spanish Mary”. Anne is still young, still quite capable of giving the King a male heir. Yet, still, she is scrambling to retain a foothold for herself and for her daughter in Whitehall. How wonderfully Claire Foy plays that insecurity and fear: Anne’s “crazy eyes” only to become even more crazy as this episode progresses. And Anne’s not the only one losing it.
We’ve seen a full cornucopia of emotions from Henry: boyish glee, fear over nightmares, regal posturing and gestures fit for a King.
Then Henry learns Anne is pregnant again. Oh, the sheer pride and joy of it. Then, the miscarriage.
Cromwell compiles his list of conspirators and presents it to the King. While Henry is boyishly recalling a childhood snowball fight with one of the men on that list, Anne is repeatedly imploring that More needs to be on the list.
In the final scene, we have Cromwell planning out the King’s itinerary for the coming days. He blocks out a good chunk of time to be spent at Wolf Hall, home of sweet sweet Jane Seymour.
Episode 5, “Crows”
All six episodes were strong in their own right. We’ve seen Cromwell’s rise in the King’s court and we see Henry’s tyranny slowly develop over time. In this episode, the one submitted for consideration for the Emmy award by Damian Lewis, you see the maniacal despot at full bloom, at the cusp of this descent into madness.
In this episode, we see leonine Henry’s frustrations coming to a head and wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing Cromwell being shown his place in the realm. And we see Anne slowly and painfully preparing to be escorted to the gallows.
We start with the King’s assignations viewed through a window. The King’s private life is lived in a fish bowl, his retinue, his nation, the nations of friends and enemies all watching. Even to the man constantly at his side and aware of every detail of the King’s private matters is on the outside, watching it all happen from a window. Henry has started chatting up Jane.
Meanwhile, the Queen’s bed is on fire, Henry laments the loss of the drapes, and Lady Rochford drops innuendo (candles lit way past bed time) and names (Henry Norris). Anne grows more desperate. We meet baby Elizabeth. A spitting image of her daddy as he waddles like a bumblebee with her on his hip.
Henry appears to have reached a fatal end after a jousting match. But he survives. After going thru this near-miss, Cromwell considers his position. He admits, without Henry I don’t have a crumb. It seems the pieces on the chess board have moved behind his back. This marriage he mediated may be the vehicle for his demise. He wanted Henry to have Anne, to have a son. But, the winds have shifted in an unforeseen way, as winds tend to do.
Henry has survived, but, now he’s more desperate than ever. And, pregnant, but miscarrying Anne is desperate too. She bows before him and asks that he never joust again. In a terrifyingly sinister princely wave he motions her towards him and spits in her face.
Rough guy, this King of No Sons. The truth is, the King has been gelded. Damian Lewis chewing at the inside of his mouth shows unequivocally, the King, gelded in spirit. His face is all panic. Then in a split second Henry’s face turns to resolve, his insecurity transformed before our eyes into the belief that all Anne has done must be witchcraft.
Meanwhile, that sweet girl Jane, shown previously garnering the King’s affections, is now weighing purses full of coin and letters sent professing his royal admiration. She sends the notes back with a kiss, playing the game like a pro.
Despite all the sympathy he just garnered, or perhaps because of it, Cromwell manages a manipulation worthy of a king. He entices Chapuys to Mass, where against his will, he is forced to bow to the Queen. This courtesy finally grants him an audience with the King, where he gets his head served back to him. Chapuys mumbles messages from the Emperor. Henry explodes at Chapuys. Witness the width of the King’s stance getting wider and wider the angrier he gets. The jutting elbows making his already corpulent body take up even more room. Yes, he’s wearing a fat suit, but that’s all Damian Lewis, bellowing, maniacally growing bigger and bigger right before our eyes.
Henry storms out only to return again and direct his rage at Cromwell. He accuses Cromwell of manipulating the whole thing, manipulating Chapuys audience with him (which he did), manipulating a concession to Rome (which Cromwell sort of wants to do too, even though he stands a firm Reformist…he wants what’s good for everyone…he wants, like anyone from humble and damaging beginnings, to please all the people all the time) Henry rails at him. And the bitterness of his accusations is like bile spewing off the screen.
Is Crum really sad that the big bad King made him feel small? Can he need reminding that he’s small? Apparently so.
Impetuous boy he is, in the next scenes, Henry turns it around. He glances contritely at his best friend as Cromwell goes back to work advising the king on how to handle Chapuys and Mary. His looks say: Ah, shucks, you know we’re still friends, right, Crum. And out loud he says
You are my right hand, sir.
However much of the relationship between Henry and Cromwell is historically accurate is a fount of debate. One thing is certain though, what we’re seeing is an epic bromance played by two of the finest actors anywhere in any time. Makes you really really hope they get to do more projects together after the book closes on Wolf Hall.
Episode 6, “Master of Phantoms”
The King is bitter and hateful and cannot even look upon his wife showing off a freshly embroidered cap made especially for their little dumpling Lizzie with anything short of contempt.
Anne is getting clumsy. In a moment of boredom she decides to pick on her lyre player, Thomas Smeedon. And then some ribald banter gets out of hand, and, oops, she’s said too much. Her indiscretion is only affirmed by her conniving sister in law Jane Boleyn. How luscious her delivery of
She practiced on him, in the French way.
The rumors reach the King and to his credit he discusses it all in private with his Queen. We see the King’s chambers from a distance, his private life again seen through a window. And through that window we see Anne with hands in supplication. Begging her innocence, or begging forgiveness, we don’t know.
Cromwell gets his hands on Smeeden and a night with a phantom phantom is all the boy needs to spill the beans. He names names and Cromwell gets to work. Once he has all the information he needs, he sends word to the King. Henry gets the message and leaves abruptly from the joust.
Cromwell kindly escorts the Queen to the Tower. Her face in concentrated grief, her delicate neck arching up towards the tower. She’s alive and curious about what’s happening, but her body is also communicating helplessness and resignation to her fate.
The master of kingly obfuscation, everything that has happened to Henry is someone else’s fault, never the fault of the man in charge. He laments and whines and says nasty things about this woman he loved, then brushes it off with an upbeat
I’ve written a play…a tragedy…my own story.
Henry is pretty hateful, but not entirely so. In large part due to the tiny flicker of vulnerability Damian Lewis inserts into the character. In an interview with PBS Damian Lewis said “the great sadness of Henry’s reign is that he killed the ones he loved”. He clearly played that sadness and tragedy of loss just as faithfully as he played the arrogance and monstrosity of never looking back.
The men who have been named as playing a part in corrupting the Queen are conveniently the same men who played at sending Worsley to hell. Cromwell gets his revenge and it doesn’t matter exactly what the men are guilty of, just that they are guilty. Cromwell’s ruthlessness has finally come to the fore.
In the Tower, Claire Foy’s performance brilliantly manifests a bird: Anne first lit upon this King she loved and desired and wanted as her equal only to find herself trapped by him, her wings clipped, and Anne now poised to take flight again, one final time.
And then the trial. Cromwell reminds the congregation “we’ve never tried a Queen before”. So the rules can be flexed and he manages to finagle a quick clean beheading instead of the much more painful burning at the stake.
Anne enters her final scene absolutely having made peace with her fate. She says her speech, documented and therefore true to history:
I pray God save the King and send him long to reign over you.
This King who didn’t even bid his lady good bye. The expert executioner swings the blade. Then, on cue, the rain comes down to wash away the blood.
Finally we see Henry post-mortem, post-release, after finally obtaining the freedom to procreate with a fresh uterus, that freedom he so desperately desired. To say that he’s lost his grip on reality is putting it mildly. He’s gone off the rails as far as being a humanitarian goes. And how does Damian Lewis convey that? With his eyes and with a smile. Henry looks absolutely insane in the last shot. How Damian Lewis get his eyes to convey “insane” is beyond me. The eyes vapid, unfeeling, emersed in an ideal world that no one else can see, where he is regent and father to a son worthy of regency.
Damian Lewis knows how to use breath and hesitation and glances and blinking and his body, in general, to convey thought. A focus on real emotion and real human reaction instead of well-rehearsed oratory and flawless elocution. Damian Lewis, miraculously, combines the perfect enunciation of each syllable with a personal emotion, so palpable you can reach out and touch it. A combination rarely found in any modern actor.
No matter what the Emmy’s bring we can rest in the knowledge that Damian Lewis and Mark Rylance aren’t done with Henry and Cromwell just yet. Happily there WILL be a next series, the book is being written, and both Rylance and Damian are committed. Watch this space for recaps and other gushing when the last book of Mantel’s trilogy is adapted to screen!