Note: This recap originally ran in June following the show's debut in the U.K. We are re-posting it today after The White Queen's premiere in the U.S. on Starz. We hope you enjoy!
Today we present to you a recap of the first episode of The White Queen, a new historical show based on the novel by Philippa Gregory. Please let us know what you think! The White Queen is currently airing in the UK and will air weekly on Starz beginning August 10 in the U.S. We will re-run the recaps then, but until then, American readers, beware of SPOILERS.
Look for episode 2 later today for a special White Queen double feature, and then check back next Monday for a recap of episode 3!
For anyone to whom the title evokes visions of a show about the evil ruler of Narnia, the good ruler of Wonderland or the would-be ruler of Westeros, I should perhaps explain that The White Queen is in fact the first novel in historical author Philippa Gregory’s series The Cousins’ War, upon three of which this 10-episode season is based. The White Queen itself traces a humble commoner’s path to king’s consort and beyond during England’s tumultuous Wars of the Roses, in the latter part of the 15th Century.
Her name is Lady Elizabeth Grey (Rebecca Ferguson), and her Lancastrian husband is not long dead, her two young sons left paupers after their lands were confiscated by the rampaging Yorkist hordes. It behooves the viewer to know a little of this dynastic struggle at this juncture: two Royal Houses, represented by the red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of York, battle it out for the throne as assorted claimants base their fitness to rule on convoluted genealogy and general facility with a broadsword. The tensions go back a long way—Shakespeare deals with much of it in Henrys IV and V and Richards II and III— but for our purposes it is enough to know that in the Lancastrian corner we have another of the Bard’s subjects, the sporadically mad Henry VI (a.k.a King Not-appearing-in-this-episode), and on the other side of the fence we have the brash Edward IV (Max Irons) representing Team York.
When Edward meets Elizabeth, it is pretty much love at first sight—and understandably, too. As Elizabeth’s awesomely suave mother Jacquetta (Janet McTeer) later observes: “There is not a man on Earth who could ride past my daughter, Your Grace.” Replies he, on a wry chuckle: “Not one with his sight, anyway.” She’s hot, is what we’re all saying here. Beautiful, really, in the true sense of that word; like a Raphaelite painting, where even the imperfections are a wonder to behold. The slightest hint of an exotic accent (explained by Ferguson’s Swedish heritage, though perhaps made sense of in-show by her mother’s hailing from Luxembourg) makes her all the more appealing, and it isn’t long before her simple roadside plea to the newly minted king that he return her sons’ lands becomes a royal visit to her parents’ manor house.
Accompanying Edward there is his cousin and, most would assert, puppet master, Lord “Kingmaker” Warwick (James Frain). Pompous, tactless, controlling and contemptuous, Warwick has little use for Elizabeth or her parents, clearly thinking them unworthy of either his or his protégé’s time. Her lowborn father he looks on with particular disdain, calling him “the pageboy,” but Jacquetta is there with the riposte: “He was a squire and always twice the man you are, Lord Warwick.”
Have I mentioned that Jacquetta is awesome?
While it would be untrue to say that Elizabeth is immediately as taken with Edward as he is with her, she can’t help but respond to his cocky charm—plus he’s totally hot, too—and as he departs there is a lingering kiss on the hand that promises oh, so much. He pledges to return the following day... and then: witchcraft! Oh, yes, my friends, in addition to having the most persuasive voice since Wormtongue and the most elegantly speaking eyebrows since Spock, the increasingly awesome Lady Jaquetta Woodville is also a witch! She and her children are, you see: “...descended from the River Goddess Melusina. Magic is in our blood.” (Which doubtless explains Elizabeth’s seemingly prophetic dream that kicked us off, which let her know that the King was on his way.) A spell is cast—or perhaps just some fishing line is cut, but it seems like a spell is cast, so hypnotic is its caster—and, hey presto! The fate of Elizabeth (and her petition to the king) lie at the bottom of a random stream it is to be hoped no one stumbles upon in the days it will apparently take to set in motion.
But wait! Perhaps the spell is already working? Because the next day, here is the king, all come a’courtin’, and when he greets Elizabeth even her mother is taken aback by the familiarity of his embrace, hands on her body and lips on her cheek as though they’ve been dating for months—and this is a mother who left her daughter completely alone with the guy just the day before on the flimsiest of Mrs Bennet-ian pretexts. (Actually, it turns out that Jacquetta’s every bit as anxious to arrange good marriages for her daughters as is Mrs. Bennet; she’s just much, much smoother about it.) This tender moment is interrupted by the arrival of Jacquetta’s husband, Baron Rivers (Robert Pugh), a bluff and ruddy-faced man flanked by his strapping, menacing sons, some of whom have fought against Edward in battle and none of whom are pleased to see him cosying up to their sister. Words are exchanged—“You slaughtered half of England”; “Your Lancastrian queen murdered my father and brother and stuck their heads on spikes”; blah blah, you know, guy talk—and at the end of it all Edward a) returns Elizabeth’s lands and b) wants her to be his girlfriend. Except in 15th-C King Talk that translates to: “I will send a pageboy to bring you to me tonight. I have a longing for you, Lady Elizabeth, more than I have felt for any woman.”
Much to her credit, Elizabeth refuses this offer (“send a pageboy” sounds a lot like Medieval for “booty call”), which shows great good sense, because her family is soon expositioning about Edward’s many conquests, fretting he might “take” her at any moment, and almost incidentally discussing the institutional rape of women all over the country, on both sides of the conflict. Having missed this particular piece of FORESHADOWING, however, Elizabeth throws caution to the winds and meets Edward at sunset as he had begged, to bid him farewell at their special place – the tree where they first met, on the high road. (Because don’t you find that right next to a road is exactly the best place for a clandestine tryst?)
And this is where things get tricky, and you might get cross with me. See, on the one hand, no means no, and any guy who believes otherwise is a jerk, and dude, king you may be, hot for her you may be, but Get! The hell! Off her! I know you’re about to go off to battle, I know these lines probably work on all the Court maidens—“Dear God, let me have you. I’m desperate for you.” Etc. —but your creepiness here reminds me of nothing so much as a drunken frat boy in a bad college movie and you’re currently making me very glad that Rohypnol won’t be invented for at least four hundred years. On the other hand, as an avid reader of Romance, I have suffered through more than my share of that particular meet cute known as “forcible seduction” and so I am utterly delighted by the turn this scene takes (here as in the book), when Elizabeth pulls his dagger from its sheath—not a euphemism!—and then, to skirt an accusation of treason, thinks quickly and holds it against her throat, promising to end her own life rather than let him have his way with her.
And yet from this point on, she loves him.
I know there are plenty of viewers who will take (and have taken) issue with this development. What kind of woman is Elizabeth, to so readily forgive an attempted sexual assault, to love a man who could do such a thing, who can somehow put out of her head the terror of him pressed against her, her gown around her waist, his hands at his fly? I admit it’s a shocking scene, and so much more confronting in live action than on the page, where the first person narration gives you an insight into Elizabeth’s measured thoughts throughout. But, me? I’m cool with it on many counts. One: it’s historically not at all improbable, for while there are no factual accounts of this event occurring between these actual people (well, there wouldn’t be, would there?), noblesse oblige was a very real thing at the time and Kings kept mistresses by the score, whether willing or un-; it makes sense that Elizabeth would make allowances for this. Two: Edward was nineteen here, to Elizabeth’s twenty-four, and as a widow with experience she was hardly an innocent miss who didn’t understand that sometimes ardor temporarily overcomes sense—especially an ardor she had deliberately fostered to her own ends, and was possibly even the result of a magical spell cast by her mom. And three: she put a stop to it quite handily, and he then went on to prove that he cared about her more than his own pleasure by not pressing the issue yet further, meaning she wouldn’t slit her own throat. So, you see, he’s really a sweetheart who deserves her devotion!
And her devotion he gets. (Also: king. Just sayin’.) Despite vowing never to see her again after she spurns his, er, advances, when she and her massive family—she has no fewer than twelve eerily attractive siblings, by the by—go to farewell the York soldiers off to battle against their Lancastrian brethren, Edward cannot bear to be at outs with her. He cannot sleep, he cannot eat. And so he proposes! (Somehow going unheard by the ZILLION people standing around them.) His proposal goes like this: “I have to have you, and if you will not be my mistress, then you must marry me. Marry me! It is the only way. I am mad for you. Will you marry me?”
It’s all very “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” really—he was all “Can I sleep on it,” and she was all “Will you love me forever?” and then he can’t take it any longer and so he swears to love her till the end of time and then they marry in a secret ceremony with only her mother as a witness after he once again defeats her Lancastrian King in battle—and yes, I know that last part isn’t in the song. “Lady Rivers,” Edward asks afterwards, “where can I take my bride?” (Emphasis possibly mine.) A convenient hunting lodge is provided for this purpose.
Edward and Elizabeth, eye-catching separately, together are unfathomably gorgeous. Their marriage is (tastefully) consummated several times, these artful suggestions of nakedness interspersed with Plot: the battle at which Edward might die—he wakes her before he matter of factly heads off to defend his crown, much in the manner of a husband kissing his wife goodbye before going to the office; the suggestion made by Elizabeth’s outraged, earnest brother Anthony (Ben Lamb) that the secret marriage was a sham just to get into her pants; the well-founded rumor that Edward is soon to marry a French princess to secure a treaty. How history might have been changed had that occurred! But instead, after a lot of worry and a not terribly suspenseful, nor discreet, argument with a furious Lord Warwick, Edward announces to the Court that he has wed Lady Elizabeth Grey—which is nice.
So then it’s all a bit The Princess Diaries meets Buttercup’s nightmare from The Princess Bride (“Bow down to the Queen of Slime, the Queen of Filth, the Queen of Putrescence!”), with Elizabeth being properly outfitted for her new position and then received in the big city a little coldly, especially by Edward’s crone of a mother, Duchess Cecily (Caroline Goodall). But Lady Jacquetta is more than equal to her spite—remember: awesome!—and Elizabeth steps up too, insisting that the old harridan curtsey to her, as one does to their monarch-in-law. Lord Warwick and his scheming wife (Juliet Aubrey), meanwhile: also not big Queen Elizabeth fans.
It would please these evil-wishers no end to learn that their new nemesis is having visions of things—a crime for which she could doubtless be burned at the stake—her pre-cognitive dreams now superseded by what Lady Jacquetta calls “a Seeing” (even if you haven’t read the book, you can hear the capital letter), each of which provide Elizabeth with a glimpse of the future. First, it’s to do with her kids: “My boys must stay by me!” she cries, wild-eyed, when it is suggested that her sons be sent to stay with relatives. (Of course, anyone who’s heard of the Princes in the Tower knows that it’s probably not the Grey boys she’s referring to here.) And as the episode ends, another Seeing has Elizabeth covered in blood, possibly her own...
And that’s where we end things, the credits rolling and many a viewer wondering if Max Irons, our lovely King Edward IV, is related to the Jeremy of the same name. (Yes; he’s his son.) What a terrific first episode, and what a truly successful adaptation! Oh, it has its idiosyncrasies, notably the strangely modern anachronisms that creep into view on occasion (seriously; does that castle have drainpipes?) , but if you can ignore some of the more glaring improbabilities (who knew washing powder technology was so advanced back then?) and focus on the nicely accomplished screenplay, then it really is a good time. And the performances are uniformly excellent, especially from Rebecca Ferguson as Elizabeth, Irons as Edward and most notably from Janet McTeer, who steals every scene she’s in and will—take it from me, here and now—win all kinds of awards for her absolutely mesmerising turn as Jacquetta.
Is The White Queen the new crossover hit of the year, bringing Historical Fiction to the masses as Game of Thrones and True Blood have done for Epic and Urban Fantasy respectively? I’m not sure, but only because I don’t think that Historical Fiction is nearly as marginalised as either genre, and really doesn’t need the help. But is it as addictive as either of those shows, and just as likely to be the water cooler topic du jour, first in its native UK and later when it airs on Starz this August? Yes, I think it is. Certainly, I can’t wait for Episode 2, even despite the fact that I know too much about history (and about Gregory’s particular version of it) to remain unconcerned about what is soon to befall our plucky heroine and her beloved.
Until then... adieu.
Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.