Reviewer: Charity Bishop
The fourth and final season of Showtime’s immensely successful but wildly inaccurate series The Tudors returns us to the king’s scandalous court one last time. Adulterous affairs, scandalous secrets, and war is brewing… in just the first two episodes!
Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Myers) has married again, this time to seventeen year old Catherine Howard (Tamzin Merchant). Immature and spoiled, Catherine is the king’s delight and succeeds in bringing him happiness in spite of his increasingly deteriorating health. Though the court does not know what to make of the recent addition to the collection of wives Henry has discarded, it is more than apparent that the person who thinks the least of the new queen is Henry’s eldest daughter, Lady Mary (Sarah Bolger). Their immediate contempt for one another puts them at odds and leaves Henry uncertain how to proceed. While assuring the king that she intends to give him a son, Catherine soon becomes distracted by her husband’s groom, Thomas Culpeper (Torrance Combs), who has made it his ambition to seduce the queen with the assistance of her lady-in-waiting, Lady Rochford (Joanne King). While much is transpiring behind closed doors and through secret meetings, Henry is realizing his reign may soon reach its end. He has found a friend in the form of Anne of Cleves (Joss Stone) and is coming to see the merits in his children – the quiet grace and popularity of Mary, the quick mind and charming temperament of Elizabeth, and above all the promise of a future monarch in young Prince Edward. But when the scandal of Catherine’s infidelity becomes known, Henry takes violent repercussions and chooses to live out the remainder of his life with the controversial Katherine Parr (Joely Richardson). But even she may not be above the threat of execution…
Michael Hirst brings his series to a dramatic conclusion, teaching manipulated history along the way but also including clever references to actual events. The historian in me has been consistently fascinated and frustrated throughout the series, which excels in some areas and is found severely lacking in others, but it was a bittersweet conclusion. Perhaps the most gracious and memorable inclusion is the presence of Henry’s former wives in the final episode, ghostly memories returning to haunt him and remind him of their destroyed lives. The audience is invited to give Katharine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy), Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer), and Jane Seymour (Annabelle Wallis) a final farewell, as well as see them embracing their children and heirs to the throne. Certain aspects of this season are impressive while others struggle from poor plotting and throwaway characters. The first half of the season is the most impressive, with the downfall of Catherine Howard and her romance with Culpeper (historians actually believe she was innocent, Hirst assumes otherwise), but several times in later episodes the action borders on bland, as we are left with an assortment of random secondary characters we have no emotional involvement in. This could have been fixed with better planning, as it leaves numerous plot threads hanging and manages to overlook the inclusion of what could have been clever winks at fans of history. I was particularly sorry that attention was not played to the increasing fascination Thomas Seymour had for Princess Elizabeth. Overall, it is a solid effort but not nearly as gripping as it could have been, although the nostalgic flavor of the finale more than makes up for other shortcomings.
Premiering on a network known for its inclusion of titillating material, the final season is no different from previous installments -- many of the episodes feature sexual content. It’s implied that Culpeper rapes a woman. His affair with Catherine is graphic and involves copious amounts of female nudity and movement. There is one implication of oral sex. Catherine dances around in skimpy garments and lies in a bed wearing nothing but rose petals for Henry; we hear their loud lovemaking in which she repeatedly screams the f-word. Lady Rochford is sometimes shown nude as well. Other adulterous affairs and come-ons are present; we see a clothed love scene between Brandon and his French mistress. The violence takes a disturbing turn with the presence of an implied “hanging, drawing, and quartering” in the fifth episode – the victim is strung up by the neck (the intention is to keep him alive) in front of a roaring crowd, then lain out on a table and sliced into with a heated poker. The audience does not see the actual act but gallons of blood poor down his chest and around him; though not visually gruesome, it is very emotionally disturbing. Beheadings are implied rather than graphically depicted but we do see severed heads on the block and mounted on pikes in the Tower. A torture scene shows a woman being stretched on the rack; she is later carried to a pyre and set ablaze. We hear her screaming and watch the flames creep higher until the little bag of gunpowder around her neck explodes, leading to her merciful death (implied). Language is infrequent but does include a half dozen or so f-words.
While the series has always had tremendous actors, this time around in particular illustrates some great talent. Tazmin’s witty, childish and ultimately heart-wrenching Catherine Howard is haunting, whereas a bit of padding and aging makeup give Jonathan Rhys Meyers much more to work with – by the end, his decrepit, bitter Henry is more the overweight, angry man seen in the Holbein paintings. It is also worth noting that Lady Mary has been given a more kindly but nevertheless ominous depiction than most series would have given her -- from her narrow-mindedness to her fondness for her siblings, Sarah Bolger is magnificent in expressing a young woman caught between her prejudice and her emotions. Never is this more plainly expressed than in her final scene, in which we watch Mary dissolve into tears at bidding farewell to her father, whereas the much stronger, colder Elizabeth merely turns her back and walks out of the room. It's one of the most subtle and powerful moments in the series, an implication that Mary will rule with her heart, and Elizabeth with her head. It is with a blend of mingled sadness and frustration that the series comes to its end, a farewell to a legacy of bloodshed and adultery but also our last opportunity to visit the notorious English court.