October 20, 2013

THE SKED Series Finale Review: “The White Queen”


Although Starz was a co-financier of THE WHITE QUEEN, the show was produced by the BBC predominantly for a British audience, so it helped to have a working (or at least a Wikipedia) knowledge of 15th-century English history to get the most out of it.  For example, it would have been difficult to appreciate that that basically decent young nobleman Richard (Aneurin Barnard), without any hunchback or other disfigurement, was going to grow up to become Richard III, who in this revisionist history was relatively blameless as royals go.  The White Queen didn’t so much as offer non-UK viewers a crawl at the end to explain what happened to those personages left alive–its attitude seemed to be, if you didn’t already know the story of the Tudors, look it up.  (Or catch that series on Netflix.)

Adapted from a trio of Philippa Gregory novels, White Queen was ungainly and too sprawling, with no real focus as it moved from being the story of Queen Elizabeth (Rebecca Ferguson), low-born wife of Edward IV (Max Irons), to various other mothers or wives of royal challengers.  (It didn’t help that at at one point, it seemed like every second woman was named Elizabeth and every son was named Edward or Richard.)  The most vivid characters were Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale), the austere religious zealot who believed–rightly, in the end–that despite all logic, her son Henry Tudor would end up with the crown, and Margaret’s eventual husband Lord Stanley (Rupert Graves), whose utter pragmatism and complete lack of principle was refreshing in the midst of so many nobles claiming that justice and/or God was on their side.

The final hour, written by Emma Frost and directed by Colin Teague, provided a good picture of what worked about the miniseries and what didn’t.  The back half of the series, in general, was better than the first because the marriage of Elizabeth and Edward was of limited interest, and with Richard on the throne and Henry as his chief antagonist, the story became less diffuse.  In truth, it also helped that the narrative started tracking events somewhat familiar from literature, because even when the interpretations were markedly different from Shakespeare’s–in this version, Richard wasn’t responsible for the killing of the princes in the tower, and in fact there was only one prince (the other was an imposter put in place by Queen Elizabeth)–at least there were milestones telling us where in history we were.  With Henry finally making his move against Richard, and Stanley’s allegiance (and troops) of critical interest to both sides, the finale had plenty of Margaret and her husband, and there was a minimum of the idiotic witchcraft thread that ran through the series, which took the position that Queen Elizabeth was not only a practicing witch (as were her mother and daughter), but a genuine one who could bring down a fatal storm or curse a bloodline when it suited her fancy.

However, much of the drama centered on Princess Elizabeth (Freya Mavor), the queen’s daughter, who spent the hour looking lovely and pining after Richard, a soapy angle that never made much sense.  Also, once the decision was made not to paint Richard as the villain he’d been in Shakespeare, what was left of him wasn’t all that interesting.  (Even though he lacked a hump and the other traditional accoutrements, he still dressed like Olivier’s Richard, which seemed to imply that his only villainy was in his fashion sense.)  Richard’s wife Queen Anne (Faye Marsay) was one of the story’s most uneven characters, sympathetic in one episode and vicious the next; she spent the final hour jealous of Princess Elizabeth and slowly dying.  Meanwhile, Henry was off hiding in France through so much of the series that every time we saw him, he seemed to be played by a different actor, and although he was the drama’s ultimate victor, he was the character we cared least about.

White Queen also suffered from a spare budget that didn’t allow for much in the way of battles or royal pageantry, so the final confrontation between Richard’s troops and Henry’s was staged on Monty Python scale, with a few horsemen hacking away at each other in the woods.  (The battle was made even more Pythonesque when both sides literally stopped fighting and stood still in the middle of the fray to wait and see whether Stanley’s troops, who were going to make the difference between victory and defeat, were marching in on their side or the other.)

Starz hasn’t had anywhere near the success of HBO or Showtime (or now even Netflix) at causing any excitement with its original programming, and it’s been keeping the lights on with British imports like White Queen and the new Dancing On the Edge; its next serious effort at a breakthrough, the Michael Bay-produced pirate adventure Black Sails, arrives next year.  White Queen did its limited job, garnering about 750,000 viewers for initial Saturday airings, and unlikely to have persuaded many to subscribe to the service or make them keep their subscriptions in place.  It had moderate quality, but there was nothing royal about it.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."