Viewers who persevered with this series were rewarded last week, with the tense, emotional and well-crafted princes in the tower episode. Unfortunately, the series finale wasn’t quite up to that standard. In fact, the final episode was typical of the show as a whole: enjoyable, worth watching, with a great cast of female characters, but falling far short of its potential.
The White Queen has never been very good at battle scenes, and the battle of Bosworth field was unfortunately no exception. The show got in its Shakespeare reference, but the actual downfall of Richard was disappointing, considering the fact that 99% of viewers knew it was coming. It seemed to show a lack of understanding of how dramatic TV works, especially dramatic TV where the audience already know the outcome. Richard puts on his crown before the battle, to ensure that Henry can find him and face him himself. Is this foreshadowing for the one-on-one fight they will have, where viewers have their hearts in their throats, part of them hoping Richard will win despite knowing he will lose? No. It just makes it easier for the mob to find him. Getting beaten and stabbed to death on the ground by a group of enemies might be brutal, very Game of Thrones, but it’s not really the dramatic final battle we might have hoped to see.
Of course, Richard’s final battle isn’t really the point. This was never about Richard III, or the endless skirmishes on the battlefield. It’s not Richard and Henry that really matter, but Elizabeth, Margaret, and Anne. And the final episode provided great moments for each of its women.
Anne is slowly being destroyed by guilt over the death of the princes, by loss, and by the politics that have turned against her once again. She loses her only son, and begins to lose her husband as well, as he turns to the young Princess Elizabeth in order to secure Yorkist support. Anne’s story has been one of constant loss, but it is also one growth and of extreme strength in adversity. She will stand up to Richard. Even in her grief, she understands politics and how a few well-chosen words can bring her support. And even when dying and shamed, she insists on carrying out her duties as queen. She still sits on the thrones, even when she can hardly sit up at all. She learned about queenship from Margaret of Anjou, and she will not bend now, even though she declares that she wishes she had never been queen.
Meanwhile, Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth of York engaged in a battle of words and wills, and Elizabeth demonstrated her understanding that, although playing near the throne is dangerous, it can also have great (if temporary) rewards. She is the only person whose future is secure during the battle. If Richard wins, she will marry him (or so she believes). If Henry wins, she will marry him. Either way, she will be queen. She may have preference for one man over the other, she may suspect that Henry was partly responsible for her brother’s death, and she may be afraid of all the risks and dangers involved in becoming queen, but she also understands the benefits, and she is unafraid to use them. Margaret may attempt to bully and mistreat her now, but Elizabeth will be queen, and Margaret will never sit in her presence again.
Yet even the women’s triumphs felt somewhat sudden and empty this week. Margaret’s appearance on the battlefield to declare she has won seems strangely out of place. She has spent ten episodes (and about twenty years) declaring that she is devoted to God’s will and being entirely concerned with putting her son on the throne. But now, in the moment of victory, it is about how she will be powerful, and she will be a sort of queen? It doesn’t quite follow on. Meanwhile, the episode’s final moments felt almost rushed. The sentiment, that being Queen can be a fearful thing, and it takes strength and determination, is one we’ve seen throughout the series. But the line “you will be Queen of England, as I once was” didn’t feel like the final line of the show. Ten weeks, twenty years, and the show didn’t really feel done at the end of it.
In the end, that seems typical for a show that had wonderful aims and ideas, but wasn’t always sure how to pull them off. Its battles were confused, its initial protagonists unlikeable, and its historical accuracy suspect to say the least. Yet it still did something that many other historical and fantasy shows fail to achieve: it put the women front and center. Women were not sexualized objects that moved around the important, male players, as they are in The Tudors. They weren’t divided into protagonists and background objects, or worthwhile female characters and negative caricatures, as they often are on Game of Thrones. The White Queen told the story of a rather sensational and dramatic period of history, and it did so by focusing on the actions and struggles of women who had a great impact on events, but who have often been forgotten. It didn’t always do it well, but it made a good effort, and that’s still pretty darn refreshing. With a bit more polish, this could have been an amazing series. But I’m willing to settle for enjoyable (with amazing moments and one mind-blowing episode) if it means having some generally non-problematic women’s history dramatized on my screen. And I’m going to miss the show now that it’s over.
So… a sequel series about Catherine of Aragon now, please? Something actually sympathetic and non-sensationalist about Anne Boleyn? A TV series about Elizabeth I? Let’s call The White Queen a practice round, BBC. If you work out the flaws, you could have an excellent thing on your hands.