The White Queen 1.1: In Love With the King

EDWARD IV: Baron Rivers.

BARON RIVERS: Your Grace, these are my sons, Antony and John —

JOHN: We’ve met, at the battle of Tauton, where you slaughtered half of England in one day.

ANTONY: And in Callais, where your father insulted my mother over her marriage, and called my father a nobody.

EDWARD IV: Because you backed a king whose court was poison, whose taxes were unpayable, and murdered men on whom he had smiled on and pardoned. And yet you call him pious? Well, now your pious Henry is defeated, and I am king. Elizabeth tells me she has lost her marriage land.

The BBC One/STARz new period drama The White Queen couldn’t have come along at a better time—for me as well as for those interested in  serialized period dramas. I am beginning to write dissertation chapters this fall, and without getting into too much detail, the War of the Roses plays by both William Shakespeare and Thomas Heywood are at the project’s core. Shakespeare’s 2 Henry VI3 Henry VI, and Richard III focus on the court politics while Heywood’s 1 Edward IV and 2 Edward IV seems to be a more direct source for the show in keeping the king’s love interests as their central thread. All five of these plays were lucrative in the 1580s and 1590s, enjoying long lives on the public stages of London. My hope is that the televised version of Phillipa Gregory’s novel of the same name will be equally so for the discussion of class and status these sources provoke.

Set against the backdrop of the Wars of the Roses is the story of the women caught up in the ongoing conflict for the throne of England. The series starts in 1464—the nation has been at war for nine years fighting over who is the rightful King of England, as two sides of the same family, the House of York and the House of Lancaster, are in violent conflict over the throne. The story focuses on three women in their quest for power, as they manipulate behind the scenes of history. The promotional blurbs push the feminist angle: women serve as the neck that turns the head of the nation. It is still a problematic stance, causing lines from a mother to a daughter like “you can have everything if you are willing to accept the consequences” ring rather hollow. I might contend that the age of the “girl power” flick has past and the show has far more exigent identity politics in mind. If this first episode is any evidence, the show seems to be much more invested in the collision between native history, mythology, and the kinship networks that constituted English’s “pre-modern” power structure.

Widowed Lady Elizabeth Grey and her two sons intercept the king on the road to war to beg for her marriage lands back.

What makes me think Gregory or screenwriter Emma Frost has at least the Shakespeare if not also the Heywood in their purview in the pervasive “common” rhetoric at work in this episode. The dichotomy of the Common Lancastrian versus the Noble Yorkists comes up again and again as a placeholder for motives a decade into the war. The nation is bloody while the nobles that we see in the show are rather clean, anesthetized from the gore. Even flesht from battle Edward is rather pristine and unmarred. In most period drama, this would be a problematic choice on the designers’ part; few films treat the English past with the appropriate amount of mud and blood like Branagh’s Henry V. But here, the plight of the commons is at the forefront of the dialogue, giving the love chatter a run for its money. It makes the absence of the serving class all the more stark, pointedly, and I think intentionally unsettling for viewers. The epigram above is brilliantly included in a scene that both outlines Edward’s motives, the state of the nation, and the source of antagonism between his beloved’s family and his own.

In fact, the most dramatic interventions are in the filmmaking techniques as much as in the subject emphases. In the wake of the Renaissance bodice-rippers of the last decade—most notably The TudorsThe Other Boleyn Girl, and Anonymous—the only way Hollywood could conceive of selling a historical drama was to push the message “History is sexy! HISTORY IS SEXXXY!” The White Queen is a part of a group of shows, including The Borgias, that are pushing against that image. That’s not to say their isn’t some steamy scenes in a hunting lodge here, but overall the miss-en-scene is softer and lighter. There are fewer bear rugs and dark furs overwhelming and encumbering the actors. There is little to no music after the opening credits, at least no orchestrations that are trying to force viewers into feeling the significance of a scene or event the dialogue couldn’t muster up on its own. As a heritage drama we still have the thunderous war horses over long green horizons, but they are accompanied by equally thundering and impatient percussion.

At the end of a magic fishing line Lady Elizabeth found this ring only hours before King Edward IV proposed marriage to her.

James Kent, who has directed a majority of this first season, is actually trying to rely on filmmaking craft rather than just sumptuous aesthetics, which interesting and contrasting camera angles and shot compositions. In the first episode examples of this include the moments depicting the magical potential of the “Rivers” women—the maiden name of the king’s beloved, Elizabeth Grey’s mother. It is the most significant intervention the show makes in plotting, suggesting that these women who are soon to rule the nation are descendent from a water deity and can see into the future. For me it summons up Arthurian lore and the Lady of the Lake, which Gregory may be drawing from the award-wining novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon, where female magic too was at the heart of nation-builiding. I am uncertain of the magic bent in the plotting, but the inclusion of actors like James Frain and Janet McTeer inspire confidence in the show and its ensemble, leaving me anxious for the next episode.