Given the media furore over Wolf Hall over the last two weeks, one hardly needed to watch the show. Each second of film has been analysed, re-analysed and debated by pundits from various walks of journalism, history, and television. It’s made an impact bigger than Henry himself.
After the character introductions and “oh, God, it’s Mark Gatiss” of the first episode, the second hour of Wolf Hall brought with it some juicy developments worthy of discussion. Like a slightly awkward autobiographical film, some major future plot-points were gestured to in a somewhat forced way by the dialogue. Suffolk, most notably, confides in Cromwell that a “world where Wolsey falls can be a world where Cromwell can be the king’s right hand”. Given the obvious trajectory of the story and Cromwell’s own political nouse, Suffolk left characters and audience alike consistent in their reaction: well, duh.
Jane Seymour, the future Queen of England and mother of Edward VI, was introduced as “the girl who’ll cry if you look at her sideways”. Cromwell and Jane exchange a too-knowing look before moving away, accompanied by Thomas Cranmer – the future Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas More was once again disturbing – carrying a white rabbit around his grounds like a Tudor Blofeld. One half-expected the classic dialogue: “Do you expect me to reform the English Church and divorce Henry from Katherine of Aragon?” “No, Mr Cromwell, I expect you to die.”
The most interesting part of the episode, once again, was the meeting of Cromwell and Henry. After impressing Henry with his archery skills, Cromwell soothes the king, who had a nightmare about his brother Arthur. With now-characteristic charm and quick wit, Cromwell declares it a prophecy of the king’s success in divorce. He then finds his household entourage to tell them of his success in winning favour with the king, like a high-schooler returning to his friends after asking out the hottest girl in school.
But of hot girls Cromwell apparently has no shortage. This episode saw both Cromwell’s dead wife’s sister and Mary Boleyn flirting outrageously with him. Somewhat implausible, you might think, just one episode after the death of his wife and children, but even the novel Wolf Hall wastes no time in sexualising the poor man. He kisses his sister-in-law in that oh-so-authentic candlelight, and Mary Boleyn’s extraordinarily strong jawline once again took centre stage.
Cromwell is sworn into the Privy Council – the most powerful body in England – and he seems to give the king the idea of the dissolution of the monasteries. It seems questionable that the most significant religious development of English history was born out of a casual conversation after some inter-nobility archery, but once again the plot takes artistic licence with excellent results.
As before, the highlight of the hour was the stunning acting of Mark Rylance. His mastery of subtle gestures and facial movements leaves the audience with no doubt as to his thoughts and intentions. He is the undisputed Machiavel of the piece; with the demise of Wolsey he seems to have taken his advice to “pick a Prince”. Although watching in places like the young home videos of now-famous celebrities, with big names dropping in as minor characters, Wolf Hall is set to get better and better.