We’re two weeks into Wolf Hall and already the drama has been named as BBC2’s most successful venture in the last decade. After hitting the ground running last week, episode 2 picks up where we left off. It’s two and a half years into Henry’s pursuit of his divorce. Wolsey is being placed as far away from Henry as possible, having been ordered to head to his Archbishopric in York. Cromwell is desperately trying to reconcile his master to his king. And the question on everyone’s mind is: “A world where Anne Boleyn is queen is a world where Cromwell can be….?”
The second episode of the series has a much slower pace. Despite the wordy source material there is still time for quiet, reflective scenes and intimate conversations. Having spent most of last week being brought up to speed on the political and religious background of the 1520s and 30s, this week we learn more about Cromwell himself: his relationship with his son, Gregory, is strained; his grief for his wife has led to him becoming intimate with her sister; his past is a mystery even to those who know him best. Coupled with Mark Rylance’s understated yet superb acting these scenes flesh out a historical character who has otherwise seemed one-dimensional: whether you agree with David Starkey’s comments this week that Wolf Hall’s Cromwell is ‘too emotional’ or not, it is refreshing to see.
This week also saw the introduction of some new but important characters, namely Dr. Cranmer (the future Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the man who will help seal the divorce) and “John Seymour’s daughter from Wolf Hall” (Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife). It’s good to see these characters integrated into events at this stage rather than popping up later when they become relevant. Also getting more screen time were Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, and Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk. Although The Tudors’s Henry Cavill made for a much more eye-catching Brandon, it’s nice to see casting and costuming that is more realistic – Richard Dillane’s Brandon looks as though he could have stepped right out of a contemporary portrait of the man.
Aside from the slower scenes this episode established several important narrative directions that will pull the story from now on. The infamous dissolution of the monasteries – and Cromwell’s justification of it – discussed in this episode will come to be of central significance. Cromwell’s ability to simultaneously calm and manipulate the king in the post-nightmare scene will come to epitomise their relationship as events unfold. Wolsey’s death is depicted here as a seminal moment in Cromwell’s career, and as we see him being sworn in as privy councillor in the last moments of the episode, we get the sense that a reckoning is to come for all those who have so far underestimated him.
There remains a lot about Wolf Hall that appeals to most audience members. Eagle-eyed history buffs have plenty to look out for (many have already noticed, for instance, that the ring gifted to Cromwell by Wolsey is an exact replica of the one Cromwell is wearing in his most famous portrait) the dramatic twists and turns of the show are interesting in themselves. Although this episode felt a lot slower than the last and was essentially designed to bring Wolsey’s arc to a close so that Cromwell’s can truly begin, again it packed in a sizeable amount of content and promises a good deal more to come.