Okay, I’ve thought about it, and I have decided I don’t love this version of Elizabeth. Primarily due to the actress playing her. She’s not like Marian-in-The-Gilded-Age bad; she’s just got this really subdued vibe all the time, and Elizabeth is someone who threw Robert Dudley in the Tower because he got married without her permission and who broke one of her ladies-in-waiting’s fingers (again, because of the marriage-without-permission thing). She had a really bad temper, and I’m not saying it would be in full swing here when she’s constantly watching her back, but she almost fades into the background among the stronger personalities.
Mary stands in bold outline throughout the series. Is she starting to lose her shit a little? Yes, fine. But try to live Mary Tudor’s life and then be told you’re marrying someone whose beliefs are not only counter to your deeply held ones but who will make you stop practicing yours, and then try not to get a little panicky. It’s such a final straw. And a really good final straw! A completely understandable straw.
All right, I know we’re all thinking it: Where is Archbishop Thomas Cranmer? Right? He’s the one who helped push Edward’s Protestant reforms, wrote the Book of Common Prayer, and then was pretty famously burnt at the stake by Mary. I do applaud this show for winnowing down the huge number of people we have to keep track of, but winnowing Cranmer seems like a mistake. Who doesn’t want the drama of someone shoving the hand that signed a false confession into the fire? Ideally, that event would be fictional, but we cannot change history, so we might as well have the cool parts in our TV shows.
But okay, where are we? At Whitehall, Edward is burning the first of two people who would be burned to death during his reign. I touch on this not to be gross but to establish the number in comparison to Mary’s, which was so much more (almost 300. It was almost 300 people). Both of these people were Anabaptists who believed in adult rather than infant baptism. Sometimes when I get bummed out about humankind’s moral progress, I remember how I, a gay lady, can tell my wife how I want our hypothetical children to be able to choose whether they want to be baptized. And how there are so many reasons this would not have passed muster in the 16th century.
This whole burning scene is intense, by the way, so if you haven’t watched yet and are squeamish about, y’know, watching people be burned alive while screaming, all you need to know is Edward is very “How else will they learn?” about it. Then Somerset is released from the Tower and seems to be back on the council because why not? Dudley has a whole plan for the country. They’re going to end the war in Scotland, reform the Church, and end “dissent.” The writers couldn’t resist: “In short, we are to make England great … again.” As my friend says, hahahaha sob.
We get to see more of the Spanish ambassador because he is uneasy about the situation in England, particularly regarding Mary. Spain does not want to go to war because of her, but they do want to make sure she is safe. Which is nice? I think? His big plan is to have Mary move to Spain. Mary feels strongly connected to Spain because of her mother, the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon, and she has been protected for years by her cousin Charles V(who rules Spain, among other parts of Europe). But she was born in England and has lived her whole life there as an English princess (except for when she was disowned by her father, but let’s ignore those).
It’s likely impossible for us to think of religion the way those in the 16th century did, but think about how mad people got when they thought Starbucks removed Christmas messaging from their disposable cups, and then imagine the only religion you were familiar with was suddenly upended by a king who wasn’t happy with his wife anymore. And! You believed that choosing the correct religion and its particular practices was the only way to guarantee you wouldn’t be mercilessly tortured for all eternity. It’s just a lot of pressure. So people were extremely keen to make sure they practiced the “right” religion and to save their neighbors from damnation by stopping anyone who might be preaching to them about other options.
It doesn’t help that they had verses like Matthew 18:6 to fling about: “If anyone causes one of these little ones — those who believe in me — to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” So. Y’know, that might make people feel like they had license to do some things.
The point is that Mary doesn’t want to leave England because it is her country, but she also doesn’t want to leave it because she feels a spiritual responsibility for the salvation of its people, which can only be heightened by England’s persecution of Catholicism under Edward. But weighing on the other end is Edward’s command that she marry an Elector’s son, who is “a Protestant zealot.” Omg, it’s so mean. And then Dudley comes and burns all her liturgical objects and iconography! This is after he tells Mary that if she protests her arranged marriage, she’s protesting the natural order of things. Omg, this whole century can get fucked. Then he throws Bishop Gardiner down the stairs. Dudley, this is some Extreme Villain Behavior (EVB).
Mary tries to come at him, saying, “you will BURN for this; God sees you, Lord Dudley,” but Pedro holds her back. I love this. It’s foreshadowing, but also the drama (to be clear: not foreshadowing for Dudley, who is regrettably not done throwing people down flights of stairs. Just like, for Mary’s whole vibe).
Meanwhile, at court, Elizabeth is trying to convince Edward that he doesn’t really need her to marry the guy from Denmark. Edward’s a no-go on being persuaded, so she tries Somerset. Really, Elizabeth? Somerset rightly brings up how his sister died giving birth to Edward for Henry, his brother died after bringing Elizabeth into his house (well, and for being an idiot), and he’s not going to get more involved with their mess of a family. Okay, Somerset is a massive grump, but also, I like him and I want him to get far away from court, even though he won’t.
A servant comes and secretly brings Elizabeth to meet Mary in what seems a random field. Things start off well, but Mary’s real on edge and immediately suspicious of Elizabeth’s motives. Elizabeth tells her she wishes she’d listened to her about everything and that all the sturdy framework of her life has fallen or changed, except Mary. It’s such a wonderful and sisterly moment! And then it immediately gets smashed to bits because Mary mentions how the ambassador wants her to flee, and Elizabeth is like, yeah, maybe that’s a good idea. Mary thinks Elizabeth wants her accused of treason to leave England open for Elizabeth to take, and she calls Elizabeth a “far stealthier predator” than Dudley. This switch in attitude towards Elizabeth happens very quickly, but it makes emotional sense that Mary would feel destabilized and on the verge.
Something that doesn’t make as much sense is Robin Dudley proposing to Elizabeth. What? What?? We’re going, like, a little more off the rails here. I mean, I accept it because this is a fun fictional show, but this is not a documented event in any possible sense. It is worth it, though, because Elizabeth tells Robin, “Love marriages are for peasants wishing to fuck without sin.” Hahaha. INDEED.
Mary almost goes to Spain but doesn’t. Elizabeth wears the dress from her teenage portrait, and I got really excited about it. Robin asks her if she loves him, which like … again, has this scene been earned? Feels like no. She’s just getting over her Thomas debacle! Elizabeth shows up to be betrothed to the Danish man (is it the king? Is it a prince? Is it a random duke? I did not care enough to note it down because this all seems fake), and he canceled because he heard some stuff about her. Elizabeth gives a crying speech that I am not feeling, acting-wise, and Edward says she’s not the whore; it’s her mother. Wow, the men are all so generous here.
Edward has a coughing fit and passes out on his bed. Gasp! Are we at his end already? Dudley is like, oh shit, and rightly so (for him). And Mary tells Pedro there is a sickness in this country, and if England has to burn to stop it, she will see it done. It’s so cool, but also SCARY.
Wow. Wow. We better get a second season of this that focuses on Mary’s reign, and maybe we could recast Elizabeth, but that’s a light suggestion, not a demand. Excelsior, Tudors!