Compassion, altruism, kindness, malice are the latest casualties in The Tudors’ domineering quest to portray, or rather stamp, the life of Henry VIII into the consciousness of the world.
History was sacrificed on the end of a bloody dagger about five minutes into the first episode of the first series, so it’s a wonder that these fellow conspirators in the plot to instil even the rudiments of humanity into a series that is singularly obsessed with a myopic lust for power at the expense of everything else have lasted this long.
It adheres to a virgins’ joystick charter that the king must be omnipotent; an omnipotence that awards him no blushing refusal from any young woman that takes his licentious fancy, that also means he might summon up loyal armies of men to crush insurrectionist peasants, and that he might even be able to casually threaten his new wife, Jane Seymour, with the same fate as her predecessor beside him should she merely strain on her leash – all of which occur not as splinters of insubordination, but each to enable him to have an excuse to exercise his power rather than have his exhibition of megalomania thwarted by the cowed suppression of his subjects.
Even Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ once-nuanced performance as Henry isn’t enough to save it from theatrical perdition. He’s crippled by a script that sees him oscillate between anger at his perceived enemies – the rebels in the north – and his allies, never once pausing to love, or even hate; everything is simply an obstacle to be crushed as though it were as devolved of the human spirit as a block of ice, and the instrument of crushing is one of his loyal men, who themselves are little better than tools, and accordingly their motivation for this loyalty isn’t friendship or adoration but more power, evinced in a meaningless list of dukedoms.
Among these allies is Henry’s latest wife, Jane Seymour. She at least bore some vague scratches of being a real person, until that too was dispelled as an illusion. Her sympathy towards one of her ladies-in-waiting and Henry’s estranged daughter Mary were stratagems to restore the authority of Catholicism in England once more. Henry, meanwhile, marginalises her as a baby machine for a yearned for son; a clone to be cherished.
Another dumb cipher is Sir Francis, who acts as Henry’s dagger, fist and, for wont of a better phrase, penis taster. An extension of the king’s noble manhood who carnally corrupts Lady Misseldon, one of Jane’s ladies-in-waiting, to ensure the king is privy to his wife’s most intimate thoughts. However, a little while later after he has assured the king of the quality of the produce, Lady Misseldon switches to the king’s bed, leaving Sir Francis out in the cold, flaccid and discarded like the human condom he truly is.
One of the recipients of Henry’s nebulous favour is his major-domo Thomas Cromwell (a restrained James Frain), whom he later lambasts for stirring up the northerners through his persecution of the Catholic Church. Henry resolves to subdue the mutiny not by placating and negotiating with their complaints, although he does undertake this as part of the ruse to trick them into disbanding and castrating the anger by executing the ringleaders. And he does so by hiding his bestial instinct to protect behind the rule of “God’s holy word” rather than bother expressing distinct human traits viewers can recognise.
The rebel leaders have as little moral authority as Henry in this matter. They, too, are acting out of faith to God (the rabble foot soldiers roused to fury by excessive taxes), only they are Catholics, rendering the whole conflict a futile squabble between two factions who each want to submit to a broadly identical system that oppresses through its fidelity to an unseen figurehead, the absence of whom allows the power hungry men at the vertex of the faith to rule as they wish without answering to their conscience, at the beck and call only to shimmering fable whose edicts can be warped into whatever shape they choose to suit their whims.
The only difference is that the rebels worship Henry, too. This leaves them at a fatal disadvantage for the denouement as they genuflect before his supremacy as they might were they in the presence of God. This results in their leader Robert Aske excitedly passing a letter from his liege about his family dining table as if he’d made it through to the last 10 of X-Factor, when it’s evidently a trap that no amount of safety nets put in place by his more circumspect conspirators can prevent.
We know the rebellion must ultimately fail because even those whose familiarity of British history is dispersed about their brain like patches of fluffy, broken clouds are aware Henry is currently on wife three out of six. And no matter how many liberties with reality The Tudors takes, it isn’t going to usurp the few solid things everyone knows about the protagonist for the reckless sake of dramatic licence.