The TV Room: Wolf Hall

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Those who already watched the first two seasons of Showtime’s The Tudors and are wondering why they should bother with the miniseries Wolf Hall, which covers the same basic ground, should know a few things. First, this time the story is told with Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) as the protagonist; Henry VIII (Damian Lewis) isn’t even heard to speak until the final minutes of the first installment. Second, this is in an entirely different mode of storytelling. Where The Tudors created a binary between major moments and all the little bits that led up to them, Wolf Hall is all small developments, each built on top of the prior and then serving as the foundation for the next, forming a whole that is staggering in its breadth despite being composed of relatively mundane pieces. And third, get over yourself. You saw one version of a story and now you’re the world’s leading expert on Henry VIII? Come on.

At the beginning of our story, Cromwell is the most trusted aide and friend to Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce), the king’s Lord Chancellor. Henry wants his marriage annulled, what with his wife, Katherine (Joanne Whalley), unable to give him sons and him being in love with young Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy). When Wolsey fails to convince the Vatican to acquiesce, the Boleyns and their supporters conspire to have him humiliated and exiled. He dies shamed and alone. Cromwell maneuvers himself into Henry’s (and Anne’s) graces while vengeance boils just beneath his stoic visage. Writer Peter Straughan never has Cromwell voice his desire for revenge but flashbacks and Rylance’s subtle performance make his motivation plain.

One of the benefits of episodic television is that it provides room for patience, the time to weave a more intricate tapestry through long-form storytelling. A seed, once planted, can be discreetly watered and sprout weeks later. This approach lends itself well to quiet intrigue and scheming, which is exactly how Wolf Hall unfolds. In this, it resembles no greater a show than Deadwood. Yet David Milch’s landmark HBO series is not the most apt comparison for Wolf Hall. In telling the tale of a man with noble intentions who, over years of logical, almost inevitable decisions becomes someone he himself doesn’t recognize, the series better resembles Breaking Bad. The fact that it stands in the company of both shows and holds it own is a testament to its achievement.

None of it would be worth anything without Rylance, though, on whose shoulders the entire enterprise hangs. Still, he’s not the only standout. Lewis gives us a terrifying and volatile Henry VIII, shrewd but twisted by a lifetime of privilege, increasingly convinced of his own divine righteousness but with a nagging insecurity borne of the fact that he would never have been King had his brother lived. And Foy plays Anne as a woman who had enough smarts to grab power but not enough to hold it. As it slips through her fingers, she resorts to a cruelty that only makes her more pitiable. But Wolf Hall remains Rylance’s show. Like only the best actors, he commands a room with stillness and silence, such that every word he does speak garners rapt attention both from the other characters and the viewers at home.

If the recent “Golden Age” of television (kicked off by The Sopranos and either over now or just a permanent fact) was defined by male antiheroes, Wolf Hall makes a worthy addition. He has qualities we respect (being the son of an abusive blacksmith and a self-made man of power) as well as some we don’t (a cold willingness to treat others as collateral damage). We know, as he does, what formed him when he stands on the grounds of the Tower of London and watches Anne Boleyn’s execution. Director Peter Kosminsky, helming all six episodes, has heretofore exercised a hushed restraint. In the lead-up to Anne’s beheading, he finally allows himself a well-earned bit of ornamentation, playing with sound and time to dilate the moment. It’s a horrifying end for a scared, young woman. We feel for her just as much as Cromwell does. In these moments, he reflects almost imperceptibly on what he’s become and, without knowing it, bears witness to what will become of him in just four short years.

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