Monday, May 18, 2009

The Tudors; Season Finale and Season Three In Review

Warning! Possible spoiler alert for any and all who don't watch THE TUDORS on SHOWTIME's ON DEMAND service ( and get to see the next week's episode in advance)...or to all who don't know anything about British history. OK, considered yourself warned!

I'll tell you up front- I love historical dramas. As a history junkie, I enjoy seeing the stories told for modern audiences. Of course, as entertainment certain concessions are made- rarely do you ever see a film or television show of that genre that is 100% on the mark. These are dramas, not documentaries. Some come very close in the accuracy department- off the top, Charlie Wilson's War, The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were historical dramas that stayed pretty close to actual events, for the most part. Some, like Brain De Palma's The Untouchables were accurate only in having men named Ness, Nitti, and Capone, a city called Chicago, and Prohibition in the storyline.

I come to praise The Tudors, not to nitpick its historical inaccuracies. The story of Henry VIII is not unlike that of Tony Soprano....both were powerful, ruthless, lustful men who would crush any and all who would stand in their way- neither friend nor foe nor family. Obviously Tony Soprano was a creation of David Chase for HBO, and Henry VIII of England was a real and much married 16th century monarch on the SHOWTIME series, which is an Irish-Canadian co-production. But in Tony Soprano we saw someone who was a charismatic, and sometimes even likable gangster. He was like alot of sociopaths- a person who used others with little or no empathy but yet still charmed us....and part of the guilty pleasure of The Sopranos was that the viewers found themselves rooting for bad guys for no other reason that the other bad guys were even worse.

In The Tudors there are few distinctions, as Keith Olbermann would describe, between "worse, worser, and worst". This series is about survival in a world of 16th century court intrigue, with a despotic tyrant on top of the pyramid, and subsequent layers of aristocracy trying to go from one day to the next by staying in the King's good graces, and keeping their heads off of the block...or worse. most viewers don't like Henry or his underlings- but you keep watching in an almost sadistic way to see just how cruel and cunning these ultimate survivors-and their King- could be. In The Sopranos you rooted for Tony and his crew. In The Tudors you root for the victims, even though you know its a lost cause....they'll die, cruelly usually. And in all too many cases, the tormentor becomes the victim.... even the haughty Anne Boleyn or the manipulative Thomas Cromwell become sympathetic in their downfalls, for example.

The time frame for Season Three's eight episodes spans from the summer of 1536 to July, 1540. The first episodes concern the marriage of Henry to third wife, Jane Seymour, her pregnancy, the birth of their son Edward in 1537, and her death from an infection shortly afterward. Queen Jane's influence led to a reconciliation with Henry's daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, both of whom would later ascend to the English throne. Jane remained Catholic in her beliefs- and one wonders if she had lived, and with her calming demeanor and affection she held from Henry, could she have swayed Henry to bring the Anglican Church back to Rome? This woman was queen for little more than a year, but her premature death might have changed history in ways unforeseen.

During this time Catholics in the north of England arose in rebellion, which was known as The Pilgrimage of Grace. The leadership, among them lawyer Robert Aske, were invited to London to air their grievances before Henry, who listened to them, and promised reform. Then Henry reneged on his promise and decided to crush the rebellion. Thousands of rebels were killed or executed, and the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace, including Aske, were arrested, tried and put to death as well.

Henry, despondent with the death of Jane, locks himself away for months, with his only companion his Court Fool, where he devises The Articles of Faith, and draws up plans for the grandiose Nonesuch Castle. By 1540 Thomas Cromwell, his chief minister, has a marriage to the German duchess Anne of Cleves arranged to strengthen ties with Protestant Germany. Henry dislikes Anne from the start, but marries her- and fails to consummate the union. Courtiers Charles Brandon (Duke of Suffolk) and Sir Francis Bryan bring the teenage beauty Catherine Howard to court as a more suitable match for their King. The marriage to Anne is annulled, and Cromwell takes the fall for the failed marriage- a trumped up charge of treason is used against him, he is tried, and executed in a very messy, botched beheading. The season ends with Henry pondering his future with a potential new queen young enough to be his daughter.

Season Four, the last of the series, is to go into production for viewing in the Spring of 2010. These episodes will cover the last years of Henry's reign (1540-47), culminating with Henry's death at age 55. And here's where its going to get tricky. During the run of the series viewers forgot about the stereotypical portrait of Henry VIII- that of a very obese middle aged man who had to be hoisted onto a horse with a special devise in his later years. To be historically accurate, in the first three seasons of The Tudors King Henry was portrayed as a young, athletic, thin and very handsome rake, played effectively by Irish actor Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. In keeping with the real Henry's story, in the series Henry has a jousting wound in his leg that won't heel, and frequently became infected. He walks with a limp and with a walking stick in Season Three. The wound led to Henry's immobility- he stopped exercising, and continued like a king.

Now, in Season Four do the producers change actors playing Henry, going with an older , more "full bodied" man to play a King that reputedly had a 54 inch waist? Or do they go with the handsome, young Rhys-Myers who's made the role his own, using the wonders of make up, special effects, digital effects, or "fat suits" to make the thirty-something actor look like the 50-ish 300 pound King?

Just for reference sake, take a look at this page from New York Magazine, where we see portraits of the actors playing Henry, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Cromwell, Thomas More, and Brandon, and portraits of the actual people. Yes, the actors are alot prettier. But who ever said becoming the reigning monarch of England was a beauty contest?

What historical fiction invites us to do is discover characters we might not know about, and then explore their stories on our own, and separate fact from fiction. Yes, The Tudors does take liberties with facts...but it also tells some poignant stories. I never knew of "The Pilgrimage of Grace", and the slaughter and suppression of the revolt. It was as cruel and crushing as anything put down by Stalin, Hitler, or Mao, and yet this story is almost forgotten today. And in its loss, the tragedy of the noble Robert Aske, treacherously arrested and painfully put to death, his own words of loyalty to his king twisted. And I never heard of Reginald Cardinal Pole, the last Plantagenet, and the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, returned from exile at the ascension of Henry's daughter Mary I. The story of Pole's mother, the tragic Margaret Pole, a noblewoman who was Princess Mary's godmother, accused of treason and beheaded at age 68 at the behest of Cromwell, was another tale that was unknown to me.

Historical fiction does serve as a springboard for those of the mind to take another look. Some of these lives lived were more interesting than fiction, and others needed to be rediscovered. Lately the term "reboot" is being used to describe the relaunch of venerable movie franchises. But its series like The Tudors that reboot ones interest in the study of history.

Main Characters and Actors- Season Three THE TUDORS

King Henry VIII- Jonathan Rhys-Myers

Charles Brandon- Henry Cavill

Thomas Cromwell-James Frain

Jane Seymour- Annabelle Wallis

Sir Francis Bryan- Alan Van Sprang

Robert Aske- Gerald McSorley

Anne of Cleves-Joss Stone

Cardinal von Waldberg - Max Von Sydow

For more on The Tudors, on SHOWTIME.

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