New York Times, May 3, 2015
Part 5, "Crows"
Remember that dumb line from "Love Story"--"Love means never having to say you're sorry"? Turns out that's pretty much the modus vivendi for King Henry VIII (Damian Lewis), and it comes with a corollary for everyone else: "Love me, and you'll be sorry."
Exhibit 1: Katherine of Aragon (Joanne Whalley) who goes to her death with Henry's name still on her lips and earns this epitaph for her troubles: "We'll lay her to rest in Peterborough. It will cost less."
Exhibit 2: Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), who comes close to being immolated in her bed, only to see her husband grieve over the surrounding arras. ("Oh, this was a good piece.")
Exhibit 3: The king's trusted adviser Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance), who begs Henry not to unhorse Cromwell's son in a jousting tournament and gets this blasé reply: "When you're thundering down at a man, you can't check."
Kings have always been kings, but Henry's new quasi-papal status seems to have made him more changeable and less anchored than ever before. When Cromwell tricks Imperial Ambassador Chapuys (Mathieu Amalric) into acknowledging Henry's new queen, that should qualify as a diplomatic coup. But when Chapuys presumes to make direct overtures to Henry, our man-boy king sniffs a different kind of coup and goes mental on Cromwell. "What would a man like you know about the honor of princes? You think you are the king and I am the blacksmith's boy! Don't you? Don't you?"
It's an attack of such heat and ferocity that, in defense, Cromwell can only cross his wrists—as his blacksmith father once advised him to do after grabbing a hot iron. "Confuses the pain," said Walter, but in this case, the gesture, with its evocations of the cross, seems more designed to quell a demon.
Cromwell's enemies are crowing over his humiliation, but the next day, the King taps him on the shoulder, and off they go for one of Henry's patented non-apology apologies. First some distraction: idle talk of going "down to the weald" to talk to ironmasters. Followed by affirmation: "You are my right hand, sir." Followed by a declaration of need: "I cannot live as I have lived, Cromwell. You must free me from it. From Anne."
And what choice does Cromwell have? As Wolsey's cheerful ghost reminds him: "The King wants a new wife. Fix him one. I didn't, and now I'm dead."
It's a peculiar conundrum for Cromwell, who prides himself, as we've discussed, on knowing what lurks in every mind and heart. (Surely that's why Hilary Mantel refers to him constantly as a godlike "he," with no antecedent.) But what good is all that omniscience without omnipotence?
"You think I have everything," Cromwell complains, "but take Henry away, I don't have a crumb." Crumb, as it turns out, is also our hero's nickname—a constant reminder that he can be brushed off whenever his master chooses.
And such a master! Morphing from alpha male to keening child and no more infantile than when he is screaming "I am not an infant!" Stung by any threat of emasculation and yet willing to emasculate himself to get out of his second marriage. ("I was seduced, practiced upon. Perhaps with charms, with spells. Women do such things.") His volcanic temperament is perhaps best exemplified in the scene where Anne begs him not to joust again. Smiling, he beckons her forward, and then, when she is in sonic range, hisses, "Why not geld me while you're at it?" (In effect, she already has. Hence the fury.)
With his towering size and his gift for duress, Mr. Lewis is fully up to the character's barometric swings—and a good thing, too, because Henry, initially a marginal figure, has become the axis on which this whole mad enterprise spins. He's power without knowledge. And maybe the only one who can survive in this world—for now—is the blankly enigmatic virgin Jane Seymour (Kate Phillips), who has neither knowledge nor power and has somehow turned that into a singular asset. She prospers because no one can be sure what's inside.
Fraught symbol: The pelts! In a show called "Wolf Hall," it's no surprise that animal hides confer status. Recall the mangy stole that sagged from Thomas More's neck in his waning days, and now contrast that with the robust pelt that adorns Cromwell—no longer a consigliere but a councilor—as he holds court behind his desk.
The World According to Norfolk (Bernard Hill): The good duke's strategy for dealing with Princess Mary: "I'd go upcountry, and if she would not sign her oath, I'd beat her head against the wall until it was soft as a baked apple." To which the weary Lord Chancellor (Tim Steed) replies: "Thank you for that."
Machiavelli would be proud No. 1: Cromwell passes on advice to his son about jousting that seems ideally suited for political sparring: "Sit easily in the saddle as though you're going out to take some air. Carry your lance loose until the last moment. And above all else, defeat your instincts to survive."
Machiavelli would be proud No. 2: Cromwell to Stephen Gardiner (Mark Gatiss): "Do your worst, Stephen. Put your men on the road. Lay out money. Search Europe. You'll not find any talent I possess that England cannot use."
Other stuff ...
Either my eyes are being acculturated, or "Wolf Hall" is growing more lushly beautiful with each episode—as Cromwell himself ascends the court hierarchy. The side view of Jane standing before a mirror has the feel of a lost Vermeer.
With her almost obscene mocking of royal customs and even childbirth, the character of Anne's dwarf-fool (Sarah Bennett) is clearly meant to be a subversion of Anne herself, but I confess to a little queasiness at seeing an actual person enact the conceit.
Another confession. The chaos surrounding Henry's near-death in the jousting tournament was almost too much for me. Boleyns rushing in from nowhere (like the crows of the episode's title) ... threats raining down ... the Duke of Norfolk pulling an Al Haig and declaring himself regent ... Cromwell pounding on the king's breastbone in some kind of Tudor CPR ... well, I had to hightail it back to the book to grasp all the cross-currents. Anyone else have trouble?
And while I'm in an inquisitive mood: Are you ready for the endgame? Sufficiently primed for those masked Wolsey defamers to get their comeuppance? (The constant flashbacks to that long-ago court masque make it feel like original sin.) Wouldn't "The Concubine Wore Yellow" be a great thriller title? And isn't telling Cromwell to "be very secret" like telling the sun to shine?
The end draws near!