Caution: This post contains spoilers from the fifth episode of “Wolf Hall.”
This coming Sunday, Masterpiece on PBS will air the final chapter of “Wolf Hall.” Take the opportunity to catch up before the big finale. The fifth installment of “Wolf Hall” from last weekend is aptly named “Crows” with a marked change in Thomas Cromwell’s (Mark Rylance) circumstances. He’s always had a few adversaries to contend with but this time they are gaining ground. It’s the first time in a while that the Machiavellian administrator is scrambling on a defensive position, rather than calling the shots.
Mark Rylance is always a standout performer, but Damian Lewis (“Homeland”) also came out strong last weekend as King Henry VIII: wrestling with impatience for a male heir and a burgeoning interest in Jane Seymour (Kate Phillips). The latter plot development derails Cromwell’s hopes of securing a union with Jane, which was nicely captured in the shot in the castle as the King’s “right hand man” watches her from the door. She’s bathed momentarily in the light from the window, yet the distance between the two marks the ever constant isolation of Cromwell the social climber.
Cromwell’s isolation and disruption of courtly hierarchy are themes that are hit upon constantly in “Wolf Hall,” even explicitly at times. He remarks on one occasion, “How many men can say, ‘My only friend is the King of England?'” Not many and yet it’s not a position to be envied, as he muses. The extra layer in such few words there is fantastic.
Queen Anne (Claire Foy) is frustrated in trying to get pregnant, resulting in the bizarre death of a dog. That ledge is awfully high off the floor for a dog just to jump by itself. Another strange and arguably exaggerated moment is the near death of the king at the jousting. Cromwell hits Henry in the chest as a sort of CPR, one might suppose. Jane Seymour’s family seems eager to gain favor with the king and push Anne out of her position. Cromwell is going to have to choose a side, but he gets shaken after the king shouts at him. The whole mix of these scenes made for an uneven episode that wasn’t as strong as the previous installments, yet still offers some of the intrigue and lovely artistic touches that comprise such a great program.
Sometimes it feels as though “Wolf Hall” is channeling a bit of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and the vengeance goal. Jonathan Pryce here as Cardinal Wolsey is like the dead King Hamlet, as Cromwell seemed to regard him as a father figure. Wolsey returns with a warning: “The trouble is, Thomas, the king wants a new wife; fix him one. I didn’t and now I’m dead.” These brief moments are extraordinary in their quietness, much in the same way as the Jane Seymour window shots. Wolsey’s words bring a nice symmetry with the beginning of the “Wolf Hall” series, as Cromwell’s fate teeters on an uncertain path. There may have been a remark early in the series about getting on the wrong side of Anne Boleyn. In the end, it’s the king who is the most dangerous figure. Make your move Cromwell, before it’s too late.
It seems almost effortless the way Peter Kosminsky directs “Wolf Hall” to pull you into Cromwell’s world and his point of view. There’s his use of the Steadicam as figures walk along and then the over-the-shoulder shots beside Cromwell during encounters with difficult characters. The edginess and discomfort from these shots work in tandem to the frames of Cromwell’s face and his reaction to what others say. Mark Rylance does brilliant work with the straight stare back, an expression that one might mistake as utterly neutral, but in the eyes reveals a man who is trying to read the situation. Every time, it almost leaves you waiting with bated breath, wondering what Cromwell will say next.
This series is adapted from Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” the first two books in her Cromwell trilogy. Mantel has yet to release the final book, but one hopes there will be a sequel to this television show soon afterwards. Of course, it’s not a complete production without the virtuosity of both director Peter Kosminsky and actor Mark Rylance.