This episode is all about the princes in the tower. Anyone with even a vague familiarity with the Wars of the Roses knows that they are going to die. The most interesting question is who is responsible, and, like history itself, the episode keeps us guessing to the end.
And wow is it good.
The White Queen avoids the obvious conclusion, that Richard killed the boys to secure his throne. Richard is definitely the most compelling male character we’ve seen in the show, as he mostly lacks ambition and truly wants to secure peace, but is painted as the most villainous one of them all by the actions of others. His turmoil in this episode, including his desperate visit to Elizabeth in the mad hope that the boys had escaped, was heartbreaking, as was Elizabeth’s reaction to the loss of her son. All the actors brought their A game this week, and for once, the script really allowed their talent to shine.
For a while, I thought Anne Neville would be the culprit. She has definitely embraced her inner Margaret of Anjou in recent weeks, and when she spoke to the guard about whether she wished for the boys’ deaths, I initially believed this was a coded request for their murder. This left me pretty darn confused, when she swung from saying she could not wish a pair of innocent boys dead to wishing that very thing in the space of thirty seconds, but as a pragmatic woman fighting for survival and making a hypothetical statement about how she wished things would be. And this rather sudden change of heart set us up for a fantastic end to the episode, when Anne cries in her confession booth. Even if she did not kill them herself, she wished it, and that is enough to create guilt to last her lifetime.
Meanwhile, the real culprit, Margaret Beaufort, went through her own personal turmoil. She is an intelligent, pious and ambitious woman, and despite the fact that people have long considered her delusional for her faith in her son, she tends to see things as they are. Her suggestion that they marry Henry to Elizabeth’s daughter is an excellent one, as it will not only secure her son’s potential throne, but do so in a manner that will be satisfying to both sides once the princes are dead. But first, the princes must die, and no matter how clearly Margaret sees that they must die, she is loathe to order it. Her battle with her husband, where she declares how impossible it is to order the deaths of two boys, only nine and twelve, and he repeatedly demands that she choose, “save or slaughter,” is one of the tensest of a very powerful episode. The boys must die, “obviously” they must die, but Margaret cries as she orders it. She must do it, she believes it is God’s will… but that does not mean she is not distraught over where that path has led.
This episode also went to lengths to show how genuine Margaret’s piety is, despite her desperation to restore her son to the throne. She truly believes that God supports her son’s cause, but if he does not, if he wants young Edward on the throne instead, then she will do his will.
In fact, Margaret was easily the most compelling character in compelling episode. I was captivated every time she appeared on screen. Seeing her scheme and manipulate is like watching a master at work, and her reaction to her husband’s betrayal, to the loss of her fortune and lands, was heartbreaking.
Even the inclusion of witchcraft this week was compelling. The younger Elizabeth showed herself to be a shrewd and intelligent player in this game of thrones, suspecting allies who “promise to flood the gates but don’t quite succeed” and speaking in defense of her and her sister’s freedom, and she created a formidable team with her mother. The two Elizabeths cursed the boys’ murderer by vowing that their first-born sons will die young, and their descendants’ first born sons, until the entire line runs out. This doesn’t exactly fit (Henry VII certainly isn’t going to die young), but it works well enough, especially when we consider the irony of it. Richard warns them that their “curses last too long,” and might involve someone they love — someone like Elizabeth’s own firstborn son Arthur, for example. And of course the younger Elizabeth now vows that she will never marry Henry, no matter what her mother says — not only might he be involved in her brother’s death, but his involvement means that any future son of hers would be cursed as well.
After a very slow and bitty start, this show has really hit its stride. Elizabeth and Edward were not the most interesting protagonists, but Margaret and Richard make for fascinating drama. And now only one episode remains. Is it too much to hope for a second season, about Elizabeth as Queen, and Margaret Beaufort as the fearsome Queen Mother, and eventually Katherine of Aragon appearing on the scene? Please please please, BBC. With the recent revival in Doctor Who sexism and the general sexist nature of Game of Thrones and other historical shows like The Tudors, I think we deserve a show like this. They’ve ironed out the kinks, found out how to construct compelling episodes, and have a wonderful collection of powerful and varied female characters to work with. Why quit now??