I’ve been looking forward to this one.
The first episode of the new BBC drama, The White Queen, aired on Sunday. The show is an adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s series of historical novels, which in turn tell the story of the women of the Wars of the Roses, a seemingly never-ending scrap for power between the house of York and the house of Lancaster in 15th century England. In particular, it focuses on Elizabeth Woodville, the first commoner in England to be crowned Queen, the cause of great tensions between King Edward and his family and supporters, and one of the orchestrators of the end of the wars. A fascinating lady with the chance to be the focus of a fascinating show.
If you wave away hopes of historical accuracy and view it as a “based on real events, adapted for the modern Sunday night TV viewer” type of story, it’s an enjoyable show with real potential. It’s certainly a show with the chance to see a lot of badass ladies attempt to control a warring court in a time where their opinions mean nothing.
But the romance? The romance might disappoint, to say the least.
The opening did its best to set us in the mindset of shows like Game of Thrones (and I wouldn’t be surprised if the success of that series was part of the reason this was made). We see a battle in the snow, with blood and death and slow-motion, so we know that this is gritty and brutal and dramatic and all those things we viewers like our medieval stories to be.
And then we switch to the actual focus of the story, Elizabeth, who has just awoken from a nightmare about the death of her husband. And Elizabeth is an interesting character, at least from what we see in this episode. She’s grieving her husband, and is somewhat intimidated by this enemy king, but she will force herself to face him and to speak. She will fight for her lands and her son’s inheritance, even if she does not do it perfectly eloquently or boldly.
But the episode made me hate Edward, hate the “true love” between him and Elizabeth, and so start to like Elizabeth less for a somewhat weak character that was tied up with his. If the opening evoked Game of Thrones, then the romance had an A Song of Ice and Fire level of disturbing to it, but presented earnestly, without any self-awareness.
I’m not a fan of the “we’ve met twice, and now we’re in true love” kind of story, and that’s exactly how the show chooses to present it, adding to the rags-to-riches element of the tale by making Elizabeth meet him on foot, in the woods, as a supplicant, rather than in any kind of situation where he might consider her close to a social equal. He follows her home, insists on meeting her a couple more times, and then things get really messed up. She agrees to meet him in the forest before he goes off to war, and he decides that this means she’s agreed to be his mistress, no matter how forcefully she says no. When she fights him off once, he tells her that he’s “desperate for you,” as though that changes anything, and he doesn’t back off until she literally steals his dagger and threatens to cut her own throat if he comes any closer again.
And sure, this is a pretty awesome moment for Elizabeth. She is strong and defiant and brave, and she stares Edward down without flinching and presses the knife into her throat. The poor wounded prince storms off, crying about how she made a fool of him, and I hope we’re not supposed to sympathize with him. I hope we’re now going to get into some political scheming where Elizabeth can’t like him but has to marry him anyway, for the good of her house (and now that does sound very Game of Thrones).
It wasn’t to be. Within a scene, she talks about how she will regret her decision to fight him off forever if he dies. She declares herself in love with him, and it’s lucky that Edward is such a romantic, because when he comes back from the war, he proposes a secret marriage so they can be together. Everyone warns Elizabeth that he has tricked her, that he has done this to women before (are we supposed to like him?) and must marry a princess, but she anxiously believes in him… and is rewarded when he announces her as his queen at court and calls her to him. Yay, everything is happy, except that people are reluctant to accept her as queen, and some will do anything to crush her and her family. It’s a potentially interesting future conflict, but it would be far more interesting if the romance at the center of it wasn’t so concerning, or if Edward and Elizabeth had motivations beyond a blind naive belief in this “love.”
Luckily, a lot of the secondary characters were more compelling. Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta, is an elegant and sophisticated woman on the outside, but she knows what she wants, and she knows the reality of the world that her daughter is in. “You may not fall in love with a York king unless there is some profit in it,” she says, and I’m so grateful to hear her say it, because it means there will be at least one gameplayer in this early part of the story, rather than just the naive Elizabeth doing it all for true love. Her destruction of Edward’s own mother at the end of the story was perhaps a little unbelievable, but it was good for establishing them as two very strong-willed, very intelligent, very determined women at odds with one another for control of the king and the throne. And our glimpse of Margaret Beaufort promises great things for another important female player in the future.
The one thing that puzzled me about Jacquetta and Elizabeth was the show’s inclusion of witchcraft. Once again, I assume they’re going for the Game of Thrones-esque angle… mostly gritty historical, with some magic and mystery thrown in for tension and flavor. But my Googling skills and so-so knowledge of the period says that Jacquetta was only accused of witchcraft by Warwick in an attempt to discredit her and the power she’d gained for herself. Here the accusations are true, but she doesn’t seem to use her powers with much purpose. Perhaps the fishing lines in the woods are the reason that Elizabeth “caught” a king, but the show didn’t do much to establish any connection between magic and scheming and the marriage itself. Perhaps it’ll come to play a more significant role in the future. But for now, it seems an unnecessary extra, an attempt to add power and intrigue to female characters who could be perfectly powerful and intriguing without any supernatural elements, if the narrative would give them that credit. Luckily, Jacquetta already has that place in the story. And Elizabeth… well, we’ll see what happens once she’s forced to start fighting for her crown.