“The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.”
While many connoisseurs of “Quality TV” will tune into AMC this Easter for the final new episodes of Mad Men, there is competition. PBS airs the first of six episodes from the acclaimed mini-series Wolf Hall, a lush BBC adaptation of the two amazing novels by Hilary Mantel. With a stellar cast featuring Mark Rylance in the lead as Thomas Cromwell, the show has garnered an avalanche of accolades in the UK and has been eagerly anticipated by Mantel’s American fans.
Why? Like several of the best TV shows of the past two decades — The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Mad Men — Wolf Hall showcases the triumphs and tribulations of an immensely talented yet dark, brooding man near the center of power. In the first two installments of Mantel’s trilogy of historical novels (the third is expected soon), Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the Tudor-era confidante to King Henry VIII is brilliantly reimagined as a kind of godfather of the secular state with both the eye and the stomach for human weakness.
Who is Cromwell, a self-made man of murky origins, born with little in an England governed by men based on their inherited station? “He is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” Mantel’s Cromwell is a killer, but unlike some of his adversaries, he’s no fanatic. Driven by pragmatism and a reverence for power — real power, based on real calculations of the art of the possible — Cromwell is depicted as a Machiavellian machine, a kind of Frank Underwood of the Sixteenth Century.
Readers have come to know Cromwell through his musings on power as much as through his ruthless deeds. Underwood would appreciate Cromwell’s cultivation of a formidable aura:
“But it is no use to justify yourself. It is no good to explain. It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.”
Wolf Hall is hardly the first BBC creation to delve into the madness of power. After all, Netflix’s hit drama starring Kevin Spacey as a murderous ascending U.S. politician is based on the 1990 BBC series House of Cards. Some of the American show’s critics have alleged that Frank Underwood is unbelievable, cartoonish and lacking real motivation. Yet his British predecessor, Francis Urquart, murders and maneuvers his way into No. 10 Downing St. and explains, in Season 2, that his work amounts to an ancient struggle, what he calls “biting into power, and hanging on.”
If Urquart was right about the timelessness and self-explanatory nature of grasping for power at the highest levels, viewers this spring can expect a master course from Cromwell. The BBC/PBS show channels Mantel who channeled (conjured?) the historical Cromwell, who might have been ugly but comes across in his famous portrait by Hans Holbein as a true Baller.
So this Easter, finish your Season 3 of House of Cards, begin “The End of an Era” with Mad Men, and follow Cromwell into the profane and sacred corridors of Power.