With Starz as our guide, we have marched through the years among the Wars of the Roses, starting with King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville in the 15th century (The White Queen), to the reign of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York (The White Princess), onto the rise of young Henry VIII and his early romance with Catherine of Aragon (The Spanish Princess), and now we meet the Tudor Queen Elizabeth I (Becoming Elizabeth). The first installments lightly followed the novel series by Philippa Gregory, which focused on women in the historical background who deserved more attention for their influence and agency. But now that we’ve reached Elizabeth I, the most well-documented woman of Tudor England, the primary question becomes: what new perspective is there to see here?
Becoming Elizabeth creator Anya Reiss has managed to find one by spotlighting an Elizabeth who has not yet come to power and is still very much finding herself. When we meet her here, her father Henry VIII has just died, leaving an enormous power vacuum in the English court. Henry had three living children: Mary (Romola Garai), the daughter of his first wife Catherine of Aragon; Elizabeth (Alicia von Rittberg), the daughter of Anne Boleyn; and Edward (Oliver Zetterström), now King Edward VI, the son of Jane Seymour.
The eight-episode series (four episodes of which were available for review) picks up immediately in the midst of chaos. Edward, the only son, is obviously elevated as King—but he is also just 11 years old. He has been raised by his stepmother, Catherine Parr (Jessica Raine), and is fond of her and his uncle Thomas Seymour (Tom Cullen), who Catherine weds as soon as Henry is in the ground. This would-be power couple seek to wield influence over the new king, but are thwarted in a quick power play by Thomas’ older brother Edward (John Heffernan), who has the young ruler name him Lord Protector.
To regain lost ground, Thomas and Catherine invite Elizabeth to come and live with them; she is only 14 at the time, and impressionable. More importantly, she is not Catholic like her older sister Mary (the young King Edward is staunchly Protestant, and religious friction is a dominant subplot). Almost immediately, though, the handsome and charismatic Thomas begins flirting with Elizabeth, even in front of his new and supposed beloved wife. And Elizabeth, flattered, flirts back and starts to fall in love.
Crucially, Becoming Elizabeth understands from the start that the “relationship” between Thomas and Elizabeth (a matter of historical uncertainty that the show makes explicit) is problematic. Catherine at first plays along, believing that Thomas—a man of almost 40—is just teasing Elizabeth in order to win her to their side, so that they can manipulate her. But as quickly becomes clear, Thomas’ motivations are even more nefarious, and while his attraction to Elizabeth may play out as a romance from her side, to everyone else (viewers included), it is unquestionably scuzzy.
Like the series that came before it, Becoming Elizabeth has a lot of table setting to do and a lot of ground to cover to explain who everyone is, what their motivations are, and who is trying to backstab who, when, why, and how. Though Wikipedia is often a helpful resource when watching dense historical series, Becoming Elizabeth does an admirable job of eschewing that need by having characters speaking plainly (if in hushed whispers) in a way never feels like rote exposition. The thing about court intrigue is that it is intriguing—there’s a reason why George R.R. Martin took this time in English history and its many political twists as the basis for his Game of Thrones saga.
So while Elizabeth is all tied up into knots over her feelings (as any young teen girl would be), there are a lot of fascinating things happening around her, and everyone has a role to play. It’s very clear to everyone what’s taking place in these dark hallways and musty corridors that Henry VIII’s reign filled with uncertainty and betrayal; neither Elizabeth nor her siblings are surprised to find that they are in the middle of a great game, but how they respond to it differs widely. (Even an innocent child like Bella Ramsey’s Lady Jane Grey gets used by the adults around her to try and garner favor and power; truly no one is safe.) Still, the series again does an admirable job of letting the younger siblings (Elizabeth and Edward) react as children. They can be petulant, immature, and easily wounded, each desperate to be thought of as old enough take their own power. But when Catherine confronts Elizabeth about Thomas, she asks the right question pointedly: “what did he do?” She knows that ultimately it’s Thomas who is responsible for essentially grooming their young ward. After all, Catherine was a woman chosen and used by a powerful older man herself.
With a soft, raspy voice and major Clare Danes vibes, von Rittberg brings a quiet confidence to her role as Elizabeth. And yet, though Elizabeth is naturally the show’s lead, it takes half of the season to only very slightly start to know her and her motivations better. It’s Catherine and Mary who really pull our interest and who deserve even more time devoted to them, as two women smarter and more capable than the men around them, but who are hamstrung by dismissive attitudes towards their gender. (Thankfully, Raine and Garai both master the art of the subtle look to betray their characters’ true feelings, yet all that did was make me want to know even more.) They are devout champions of their respective faiths, but also acutely aware that they must plot and scheme to maintain whatever power they possess. As they struggle to find their place, Elizabeth begins to see an opening for herself, though she remains uncertain quite how to get there.
Quiet, dark, staid, and familiar in many ways, Becoming Elizabeth may not win over any new viewers to the genre, but for the faithful it certain fills its niche well, guided by excellent dialogue and direction and full of satisfying turns. History buffs will be excited at the introduction of Robert Dudley (Jamie Blackley), the aforementioned Jane Grey, and the Duke of Somerset. For those less familiar, it will feel like a whirlwind of similar-looking men who are all itching to dispose of the others and assert their dominance. And yet, the show’s careful pacing, costuming, and inventive modern score create an entrancing atmosphere that makes you eager to see how things will play out, regardless or whether or you are already familiar with the truth of it all.
Becoming Elizabeth will be judged most on how it deals with that which is not hard truth, such as the particulars of Elizabeth’s rumored sex life. With the shadow of her mother’s fate hanging over her, she is terrified of being thought of as promiscuous; by the fourth episode, she starts to wake up to the realities of how she must conduct herself in order to be taken seriously at court—romping around with Thomas Seymour is a complication she doesn’t really need. In hinting at this turn, Becoming Elizabeth flips the power dynamic between Thomas and Elizabeth, giving us the first glimpses of the girl who would become queen, and the sacrifices that requires. But there is still much that happens before that, and as Elizabeth begins to fulfill her destiny, we start to see just how the world the Tudors fought to control changes to create one of their most powerful, and final, leaders… who at this point, is still just a teen with dreams of her own.
Becoming Elizabeth premieres Sunday, June 12th on Starz.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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