The second episode of The White Queen aired on Sunday night, and I’m still trying to figure out whether the show’s worth watching.
Week two was kind of a weird episode, with lots of exposition, a time jump and not a lot of action, but the final ten minutes set up some changes that might make it more compelling in the future… and, to be honest, I just really want to see a good show on the women of the Wars of the Roses. The potential is there, BBC. Please can you deliver?
One major problem is that our main players aren’t that clever. With the matriarchs in the background this week, we mostly saw Edward and Elizabeth stumble about, failing to appease people or notice the signs that Warwick is less than happy. They wave away concerns, prefer enjoying their victory to ensuring that it stays around, and when Elizabeth does exert her influence on her husband, it hardly shows wisdom.
In fact, the Most Interesting award this week is a toss-up between Margaret Beaufort, whose religious fervor and desperation to see her son receive his inheritance is compelling if disturbing, and Isabel Neville and her younger sister Anne. Isabel certainly isn’t the softest or sweetest of girls, with her distaste for her new queen, but the scenes between the two sisters were some of the best in the episode. The use of shadow-puppets to fill us in on a twisted, storified version of recent history and the old queen Margaret of Anjou was a fun narrative decision, and the moment when Isabel realizes that she was just a pawn in an uprising, whose life is potentially now at risk, was compelling.
But Elizabeth is still our protagonist, and she can’t escape being a player in the game, no matter how ill-equipped she seems at times. Warwick storms around declaring that “she will NOT WIN,” even before Elizabeth has made any efforts to undermine him. He warns her not to scheme against her, and then blames her for everything that goes wrong, even at a point where she’s still shying away from the crowds and trying to figure out what exactly she’s supposed to do. In that environment, Elizabeth either has to become a competent player, or get destroyed for decisions she wasn’t even involved in. Luckily for us, it seems like she’s going to choose the former.
And so it seems that the story worth watching began at the end of this episode, when Edward was captured and Elizabeth’s father and brother were executed. Elizabeth has swung from relatively sweet and naive to a vengeful woman out for blood in an instant, but at least she has a goal and something to fight for now. Again, however, I’m disappointed with the inclusion of witchcraft in the story. Everyone else, it seems, is fighting and surviving based on their wits, but our heroine must use magic. It almost feels like cheating. Although a curse makes for a dramatic final moment in an episode, a woman who uses secret magic makes a less compelling main character than one who has to work a little harder using conventional means to get what she wants. “Sneak off into the night, write down some names, and your enemies will be defeated” is a far less interesting battle than one that actually involves facing your enemies and using your own cleverness and determination to destroy them.