Jun 24 2013 12:45pm

The White Queen Season 1, Episode 1 Recap: Love is a Medieval Battlefield

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!

The White Queen bannerToday 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.

Edward and Elizabeth in The White Queen episode 1********SPOILERS********

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.

The White Queen castAccompanying 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...

Jacquetta in The White QueenAnd 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.

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Lynne Connolly
1. Lynne Connolly
The critics in the UK hate it and the ratings aren't good. One called the story "The Retelling of the Phwoars of the Roses." I'm not a huge Gregory fan, not liking the way she plays fast and loose with history, but I gave it half an hour and then turned over to the highly sensitive and accurate (tongue in cheek here) "Criminal Minds." I can't believe they depicted Warwick as tactless and bumbling! The man was a schemer of Machiavellian proportions, one of the most powerful men of the fifteenth century.
On the other hand, I love "The Borgias"! Perhaps because it doesn't even pretend to depict history, and because it's doing it with such gusto!
Heather Waters
2. HeatherWaters
I'm looking forward to checking this one out. Like lynnemargaretconnolly said, The Borgias (which I loved!) wasn't historically accurate, but I still enjoyed the hell out of it so I'm willing to give this one a few chances.
Miranda Neville
3. Miranda Neville
This sounds awesome! Don't care about the historical accuracy (or not). I like Shakepeare's plays, too.
Lynne Connolly
4. Lynne Connolly
It was kind of gloomy and the two central figures were acted off the stage by everyone around them. The Borgias is enormous fun, and that, I think, is the difference. Like Downton Abbey - loved the first series, lots of humour, and then it started taking itself too seriously.
mind you, Janet McTeer is usually worth a look.
But - all that hair on show? What is it with history on TV and hair? A married woman showing hair was considered indecent by a married woman. They even plucked their foreheads to avoid it. I get that Woodville was supposed to resemble her distant descendant and namesake (take a gander at Elizabeth I's coronation portrait) but the rest of it?
Shakespeare wasn't writing "history," and "accuracy" then meant something else - until the advent of the eighteenth century, history meant something different. Not the recounting of events as they happened, but the retelling of events as they apertained to the contemporary eye and the lessons that could be learned. That's why myth and history were sometimes bound together. Maybe we're going back to that.
Lynne Connolly
5. Lynne Connolly
BTW, if you like Shakespeare's plays, do not miss "The Hollow Crown," the series of four history plays produced by the BBC last year. Ben Whishaw, Jeremy Irons, Patrick Stewart, Tom Hiddlestone - all filmed on location, not on a static stage - awesome.
Rachel Hyland
6. RachelHyland
@ lynnemargaretconnolly

A cursory glance at some of the UK reviews indicates that often their biggest issue with the show is the anachronism I mentioned above (there are several more I didn't notice, like zippers and rubber boot soles). One reviewer was particularly pained by the glossiness of our heroine's hair and the whiteness of everyone's teeth. Well, you know what? I'm sorry, but I have no interest in watching ten-episodes of anything featuring historically accurate dentistry. Ew. (Can you imagine Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I with her teeth all black? No thank you.) And while you are, of course, right about the hair thing -- Medieval women were discouraged from displaying it in public, it being all sinful and such -- surely you can see that covering up Rebecca Ferguson's glorious tresses would be a crime? I'm more than happy to abandon truth for pretty, pretty fiction on that score.

"Phwoar of the Roses." Funny, but I don't think entirely accurate -- so far the sex stuff has been pretty tame, especially for an audience now jaded by, as for example, Game of Thrones. I'm not saying that the producers didn't make of themselves a big fat target for unkind critics with some of their more questionable costume and set design choices, but I also think that a lot of the negative reviews reflect a particular bias against this series because it is based on Philippa Gregory novels more than anything else -- as a writer of what is essentially Historical Romance, her interpreations of history are evidently not considered worthy, to which I, as a romance reader, take some exception.

But to each their own, of course!
Lynne Connolly
7. Lynne Connolly
Philippa Gregory is definitely not seen as a historical romance author in the UK! Historical fiction is what she will admit to. Romance has to have a happy ending, and her books don't often have that!
So you don't have to take exception to that. But each to his or her own, I say, and if you're having fun with it, go forth and enjoy. I'll stick with "Criminal Minds" (which has its own romance in Derek and Penelope). Since Game of Thrones's inspiration was the Wars of the Roses, it might be that the BBC is trying to cash in on the popularity.
Heather Waters
8. HeatherWaters
@lynnemargaretconnolly -- I think the BBC is totally trying to cash in on GoT's popularity, and maybe a bit of Downton Abbey's too? Different time period, of course, but period dramas are in right now. Bring 'em on, I say! I want more.

@RachelHyland -- I've seen a lot of people complaining about the hair and teeth too but it's like one commenter said--Americans must only have the most gorgeous actors for every role! Probably true, though I doubt we're the only ones superficial in our entertainment tastes and hey, even we complain about a cast being TOO pretty sometimes.

But anyway, yeah, I don't think those things will really take away from my enjoyment because I'm used to it (everyone in The Borgias had perfect teeth too from what I can recall), and I can overlook other anachronisms if I'm digging the story overall.

Obviously I haven't seen the show yet so I could still decide it's not for me, but I'll probably give it a few episodes at least. Some really good shows get off to a slow/rocky start, and sometimes it just takes me a while to get into them and marathon sessions help. The Walking Dead, for instance. I watched the first season and wasn't very impressed at the end of it, so I took a long break. Then I caught up with my roommate and we watched the last full season and real time and quite enjoyed it.
Heather Waters
9. HeatherWaters
P.S. Thanks for the "Hollow Crown" recommendation, lynnemargaretconnolly! What a great cast.
Lynne Connolly
10. Lynne Connolly
Here's the original trailer:
Tom Hiddlestone and Tim Minchin being awesome (he's accepting an award for acting) in which he compares being Hulk Smash to playing Henry V:
Ben Whishaw got the BAFTA for Richard II but his presentation wasn't as funny!
Terri Rose
11. Terri L
I am sure that Philippa Gregory never claimed to be 100% historically accurate. I also doubt that the producers of this show ever claimed it was 100% historically accurate. The reason for this is one knows exactly 100% of history...even historians. I think that they were just taking a subject and trying to make an entertaining form of what may have happened. Obviously they have changed a lot to make it appealing such as people's hair and teeth. It is much like The Tudors if you ever watched that. The Tudors series was not historically accurate. In fact they played even more loose with the "facts" and critics loved it. I also doubt that Downton Abby and other shows like that are really meant to be historical shows. They are dramatic entertainment. This show is meant to be the same. I also never recalled Warrick being portrayed as tactless and bumbling. He always seemed to have an agenda and try to play everyone to his will. Even the first couple scenes when he interrupts Edward and Elizabeth... it comes off to me as him not wanting them to form a bond. He wants Edward to be focused on his duties. When he slights Elizabeth's mom it came across to me as a deliberate way to show Edward and Elizabeth's family that they are beneath them. I saw him as conniving and deliberate. he At least that is my two cents on that matter :).

Did anyone notice the difference in the Starz vs BBC version? The first scene where the guy is running ... he takes his helmet off much earlier and looks up. That was different. Also the sex scenes in the US version were different. I can't figure out what they took out of the BBC version though. They clearly took stuff out to add those scenes but they have the same running time. It will be interesting to see the differences throughout the series. :)
Lynne Connolly
12. Lynne Connolly
The Tudors was awful, but at least it wasn't the BBC. If they want to appeal to Brits, who know their history, it has to have some relation to reality ("The Tudors" was shuffled off to late-night Saturday on a minor channel - the death zone for UK TV since people are either out or watching the sports coverage on the major channels).
The "nobody knows" is a bit spurious. Yes, they do know. Lots of people writing lots of first-person accounts. Portraits with inbuilt attitudes. Paintings ostensibly depicting religious scenes with details of everyday life embedded in them. Miles and miles of sermons, ambassador accounts. Historical mysteries, like the Princes in the Tower are the exception, not the rule.
And if you believe in Akashic memory, nothing is hidden.
As I said before about the (also inaccurate, but well-acted) "The Borgias," this series, "White Queen" is dreary and boring, IMO. Much could have been forgiven had it been entertaining.
Interesting about the sex scenes. In the UK, the series was shown after 9 pm, the "watershed," which acts as a buffer - after the watershed, anything goes. Maybe it was shown earlier in the US?
Rachel Hyland
13. RachelHyland
@ Terri L

What was the difference in the sex scenes? More? Less? I actually thought they were pretty tame in the BBC version, but Starz has that cable channel freedom of HBO and the like. It'd be not entirely unexpected to have them up the naked ante somewhat, to compete in that particular marketplace... I'm intrigued!

@ lynnemargaretconnolly

If you hated The Tudors, then this was never going to be your thing. I can assure you, however, that as the series has progressed, "boring" is the last word that can be ascribed to it. The last few episodes have been first rate -- but then again, I don't object to fancy hairstyles and gleaming dentistry showing up in my period drama. In fact, I prefer it!
Terri Rose
14. Terri L
@ lynnemargaretconnolly
History is full of unanswered questions, which is why there are still historians studying the subject. If history, as a subject, had fully accountable depictions of a time, then history as a discipline, would no longer be needed. There are gaps and only a fraction of primary sources available to historians and they make predictions based on these. However, it is not as if a detailed daily account was written for each person of the time period. Due to the lack of primary resources, there are many contradicting ideas about so many subjects in history that you can get lost in the historical journal articles. For example, many people argue whether the founding fathers of America created the Articles of Confederation for the purpose of a good democracy, or a more sinister reason, based on their own economic interests. This was only 237 years ago, not nearly the distance of the time of the War of the Roses. The truth is there are many, many unanswered questions in history. Haha Sorry if this explanation is long, but I majored in history in college, so I am pretty passionate about the subject :).
@ RachelHyland
Well, the scenes were more graphic and longer. For example, in the first scene after they are married he she is standing with her back to him as he undresses her. In the British version she is left with an undergarment on. In the US version she is naked. The rest of the scene is done with the camera zoomed in the British version to likely minimize the nudity shown. The US version is zoomed out more so that the nudity is shown. The second scene between them cuts off in a much shorter version for the British version. It is hard to explain without getting to graphic! In the US version there is a third sex scene as well that is completely cut from the British version. It occurs at the end of episode, right after Edward tells Elizabeth she must love Warrick for his sake. It is probably only the difference of a minute or two of footage but clearly they had to cut something out of the British to allow for this. The runtime is the same. I agree with you completely about how graphic the scenes are though. The Tudors and Game of Thrones had much more graphic scenes.
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