Published on February 19th, 2015 | by Bean


Wolf Hall Review – Episode 5 – “Crows”

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As the BBC’s flagship drama nears it’s conclusion, this stunning show continues to ratchet the tension like the proverbial hand winding a rack. The title’s origin’s become clear in the opening placard, explaining that Cromwell has arranged that the King pass through the Seymour household on his summer expedition, their residence being Wolf Hall. Cromwell’s unspoken infatuation with the young and winsome Jane is quickly halted when the King makes his own interest known.


Seymour displays her knack for tactics from the get go in “Crows”, replacing her previous facade of slightly indifferent distance; as all other aides and courtiers tiptoe around the king snoring at the head of the table, she gamely prods him awake. Making a show of her innocence, playing the incorruptible yin to Boleyn’s harpy-like yang, she’s just as big a player as all the rest, but marginally more subtle. This is the first sign that Cromwell is less than his usual perceptive self; he did not see her calculations, and is disappointed in himself more than her. As ever though, he snaps back to himself in time to give her excellent advice in how to court the King’s affections. Pray.


The Seymour clan are a gross combination of smug, arrogant and short-sighted. Why anybody would think their hand is the winning deal in a game where the banker displays such erratic leaps of loyalty is a mystery. Such is the sense of entitlement which curses the ‘ruling class’, they are quite blinded to the precariousness of everybody’s position.


This point is most vividly made with the ‘death of the King’ scene; the baying pack of lords and noblemen, in their collective fear spitting ravenous vitriol at Cromwell.  There is a palpable savagery in the air which the more lowly bred but infinitely more humane Cromwell cannot fathom. The throne still hot, and the scoundrels are leaping to attack the man at the wheel. The fear on Cromwell’s face never leaves now; his downturned gaze, that before spoke of a watchful image of diffidence learned as a serving boy, now exposes his ever-growing anxiety. The outcome of this dramatic seesawing is the nudge Henry needs to shake off his Queen for a newer model.

Meanwhile Anne clings to her righteousness like a woman adrift, panicking as the sharks circle ever nearer. Cromwell reaches the end of his alleged alliance with Boleyn, as he defies and repudiates her tacky methods to slander and unseat Princess Mary, ultimately severing their already unreliable bond. Her own arrogance smacks of self-reassurance, while all around her lay dead dogs and burnt bed curtains; her hanger’s on cannot be trusted and it seems everyone is surrounded by fair-weather friends. Cromwell complains of the King being his one friend; what good does it do anyone to have only one ally? As everything slides inexorably from his grasp, the most valuable weapon in his arsenal – his relationship with the King – falters in spectacular and riveting fashion.

“Crows” affords Damien Lewis frequent opportunities to stretch his loon-muscles. His King is by turns petty, impossibly blinkered, easily swayed, obdurate, unpredictable and spiteful. He peppers what is left of his scenes with a quality of barely-contained agitation laced with shiny-eyed gormlessness. This is a monomaniac monarch extraordinaire, and Lewis is on scenery-chewing form, seeming in particular to relish the scene in which he publicly dresses down his right hand as much as the subsequent one in which he humbly craves his pardon. The last is somewhat meaningless in the end, as Henry admits he needs Cromwell’s services, the unspoken subtext being ‘more than I mind your ambition’.


Rylance continues to give an astonishingly poignant performance in Wolf Hall; in this episode, his sense of identity is thoroughly shaken when Mark Gatiss’ Bishop Steven…. informs him that Cromwell’s father might have protected him from death as a youth. For a man who’s faculty of self-sufficiency begins and ends with the narrative of his difficult and violent origin story, this news sends him spinning into memories of moments past, sufferings both forgotten and earnestly remembered. Like a man staring into the abyss of existential angst as his life flashes before his eyes, Cromwell vows to learn from this terrifying experience. But will he learn in time?

Review by Nina Clark

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