Last night, it was with great joy that I welcomed back a fresh installment of The Tudors. I read a lot of Alison Weir and Phillipa Gregory because I love historical fiction, and The Tudors combines that with a lot of very pretty scenery. I love the scenery and settings, appreciate the soundtrack, and I completely covet and look rapturously on the costumes. There’s not a lot of historical accuracy left in the show, outside of the scenery and music and costumes, but it’s so well put together that I can’t help but genuinely appreciate and enjoy it.
However, I do feel that Showtime is stretching it a bit (NO!) this season. Usually, they wait at least three minutes before showing ladyparts; this week, I think they made it less than two into the actual show. Hey, look, there’s a naked teen girl covered in rose petals! Yes, we get it. Henry VIII is shtupping a child, who is lacking in “honor, cleanness, and maidenly behavior”, and whom he openly makes fun of in court when he introduces her. We’re going to continue along this theme throughout the episode, how Henry is sexually enthralled by this child-woman, but bears her no respect as a person.
Chapuys has been given better lines this season at least. First, he gets to make a quip about the only mourners at Thomas Boleyn’s funeral being the ghosts of his children; then he gets to make snarky comments about the King of France’s reaction to Henry’s marriage to a teenager. It seems the Spanish ambassador’s role is larger in this show as the controlling hand behind the dwindling and confused Catholic faction. He continues to encourage Mary, and act as a surrogate father to her. It’s hard to tell if his interest in Mary is genuine, or if it is for the political end – but then, that would have been a question in history of any confidant for any of the women around whom the religious and political factions gathered.
We also get to meet the charming Earl of Surrey. Just in case there was any doubt, he immediately announces his ambition and his relation to the current Queen. Immediately, we’re to make parallels and understand his place as the replacement for the old Duke of Norfolk, Anne Boleyn’s uncle. I have wondered why, if the Norfolk/Howard/Boleyn faction was so despised, as they must have been after Anne’s destruction, so many of them returned in high positions at court. Surrey just seems to wish to introduce himself as This Season’s Sneaky Slimeball, complete with attempts at seduction of Lord Seymour’s wife.
I will say that the actress portraying Catherine Howard is brilliant in her portrayal of that queen as a silly, shallow twit. Even for seventeen, she seems young – more like a fourteen year old in today’s era. I can’t figure out if this is because her backstory calls for her development being stunted by her time in the Dowager Duchess’ household, or if it is because the writers just need to exaggerate that character. There’s a lot of giggling and flurries of teenagers, and genuinely immature behavior that is written to be completely at odds with her sexual maturity. Lady Rochford looks on impatiently, seeming like an old matron compared to the fluttering and laughter. I love the moment when Catherine saunters off her throne in one of her first scenes without Henry, when she gathers her ladies around her and makes them all swear to “dress in the French fashion”. When Lady Rochford comes in, even Catherine quiets suddenly in front of the older woman, and then she remembers that she’s the Queen, and sashays over to collect her letter like a teenager on My Super Sweet Sixteen.
And then we meet the poor unfortunate Lord Culpepper, the silly boy who will end up being beheaded for treason: having sex with the new Queen. Whether before or after her marriage to Henry, I’m not sure history has ever proven. Here, he’s played by UBC alumni Torrance Coombs, who is previously known for playing John Doe on the CBC’s jPod. Apparently, John Doe has learned to turn up the smoulder a notch or two, because it’s extremely clear by the way he looks at Queen Catherine that he lusts after her, in a way that suggests he knows exactly what he’s lusting after. We can only imagine what terrible things will happen to him for lusting after the Queen – after all, the Tudors has already exaggerated much torture of Anne Boleyn’s lovers. But, just so we don’t feel TOO bad about poor Thomas Culpepper, he immediately goes out with his posse of boys, rapes a local woman in her own barnyard, and then kills her husband when he threatens to call the squire. Oh, Showtime, did you have to ruin John Doe’s innocence? At least he only has a few more episodes to go around raping and stabbing before he gets executed for nailing the Queen.
It’s also interesting watching Tamzin Merchant playing a seventeen year old meeting Henry’s children for the first time. Mary, of course, is less than amused at having a young girl as her stepmother. Elizabeth I, by contrast, is charmed. While Catherine is flustered at dealing with the austere and serious Mary, she is on better footing with the younger children, and is able to conduct herself with authority with Edward and Elizabeth. The latter, especially, by all accounts, was smart enough to play up to whoever was in her father’s favour at the time. The girl playing Elizabeth actually looks a bit like the paintings of the future queen, and conveys the brisk, serious manner of the character Alison Weir depicts in her Lady Elizabeth. I hope they continue to develop and bring out Elizabeth – it will be interesting to see how Showtime approaches the future queen (Hey, there’s a spinoff in the making!)
But Showtime is banking heavily on their almost underage Catherine this season to turn up the softcore factor. From the suggested lesbian teenage interlude with her friend (and subtle blackmailer Joan), to the end scene of the young queen dancing in the rain in a see-through gauze nightgown, there’s no question that Showtime wants us to understand the sexual thrall that Catherine holds Henry in, and the palpable tension she creates that makes it easy to see how the entire court understood his decision to marry a teenager. Whether they need to push it so far to convey her unsuitability as Queen to the television audience, I’m not sure. Yes, we get it – she gets in mud fights, and throws rose petals, and giggles and acts silly and uses sex like a child would use any other manipulative tool. Whether the real Catherine Howard was so childish and sexual, there’s no real way to tell. By all accounts, she was a good deal plumper, at least. Perhaps Showtime chose the slender Tamzin Merchant to convey a more childlike character – breasts and hips would convey a stupid woman, not a Lolita figure. But it’s more likely that they chose the actress to match an overly slender modern ideal of beauty, because the writing that defines her character as silly, vapid and childlike is heavy handed enough to make her seem more immature than any seventeen year old of that era had any right to be.
This season will cover a lot of the plot of the Boleyn Inheritance. Having read that book does make this season easier to understand. I wonder if it will continue past Henry’s death at all. It’s a shame this will likely be the last season of the Tudors – there could be at least a few more to be had out of the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth, and the wars with France and Spain they fought. I suppose those are being saved for made-for-TV movies…or Showtime feels they have already been covered by the movies with Cate Blanchett. For now though, I’m glad to have my historical smut back.