Most young couples with mother-in-laws from hell don’t have the fate of England resting on their shoulders, but that unique conflict is what drives The White Princess, Starz’s miniseries follow-up to 2013’s The White Queen. The new series, also based on a Philippa Gregory novel, is essentially the next and final chapter of the Wars of the Roses (though you don’t need to have seen its predecessor to dive in). The Yorkists were overthrown when Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 by the new (first) Tudor king, Henry VII. But the unrest that existed between the two warring families continued to dominate the politics of the day — most of it within the court itself.
But as the title suggests, the story is really about Elizabeth of York (Jodie Comer), daughter of the former king and queen, rumored former lover of Richard III, and now the wife of Henry VII (Jacob Collins-Levy). Historically, Lizzie (as she is known here) didn’t have much agency, and was more of a pawn in her mother Elizabeth’s (Essie Davis) war games. But in The White Princess, history and Gregory’s fiction is tweaked to give Lizzie more of a hand in shaping her own destiny, and the story is far more engaging because of it.
Even without those tweaks, though, women rule this tale. Elizabeth the Dowager Queen’s two sons, Lizzie’s brothers, were kept in the Tower of London and murdered — or were they? Did one escape? The Dowager plots continuously to put the Yorks back on the throne, and to restore them against the “pretender” that is Henry. Henry’s mother, Margaret (Michelle Fairley), has, conversely, spent her entire life setting the stage for her son to become the king, and will not relinquish her control for any cause (she, rather hilariously, insists on being called “Her Lady, the King’s Mother”). She even goes so far as to take the queen’s rooms next to her son after he becomes king so as to make clear her intentions to keep an eye on everything.
Fans of Game of Thrones will find plenty that is familiar with The White Princess, since George R. R. Martin based many of that series’ politics on the Wars of the Roses. Starz’s new series is fittingly full of intrigue, schemes, and suspicions, and it’s particularly interesting to see the family dynamics change over time. Lizzie and Henry are at odds to start, as he feebly tries to hold on to power while not succumbing to paranoia, and he treats her badly at his mother’s behest. But once Lizzie produces a son and heir, things change. She is no longer her mother’s confidant as her loyalty shifts to her Tudor son. And while she continues to try and manipulate Henry (into letting her nephew out of the Tower, or in keeping her mother tucked away in an abby instead of executed for her many attempts at insurrection), there develops something tender and unexpected between them.
All of these exceptional nuances are down to the excellent cast, where the very tone of Yorks and Tudors are clear at every moment not only through costuming, but in how the characters carry themselves. Collins-Levy, with no major credits before this role, is truly a standout in his confidence and deft handling as the uneasy and burdened young king, desperate to prove himself as a worthy ruler to a country that only thinks of him as a foreigner due to his years in exile. And while Fairley and Davis are spellbinding as the dueling mothers (one rigid and harsh, the other a kind of Earth mother — both unafraid to kill), it is Comer who grounds everything with a mixture of weariness and defiance. Lizzie is caught in the in-between of everything in her life — between Yorks and Tudors, her old love and her new husband, her loyalty to her mother and brother versus her own children. But while she struggles to find her place, she does so with wit and bravery. Seething at the royal motto that Margaret has chosen for her, she whispers, “‘Humble and Penitent’ may be damned. Hidden and Patient — that will be my motto.”
Like any good medieval drama, there are heaving bosoms, plague masks, gorgeous costuming, and the staging of the bedroom as a war room. There are also trips abroad to the colorful Burgundy, and one of the more realistic birthing scenes I’ve witnessed on television outside of Call the Midwife. All of these keep The White Princess (at least, the first four episodes given to critics) taught and engaging, and the script works hard to repeat family connections and political jockeying so that it is accessible to causal viewers but not insulting to history buffs. Still, the series doesn’t always trust quiet moments, favoring a cascade of quick, jumpy edits, particularly in the first episode, whereas in the hands of these actors a calmer camera might have been of benefit to maximize the drama of key scenes.
For those who enjoy historical series and are anxious to get back to the political machinations of Game of Thrones (which premieres several months later than usual this year), The White Princess is an excellent way to spend the intervening days. It has a lot of ground to cover and a lot of historical beats to hit, but it’s never stuffy or slow. Though the miniseries is not necessarily a stylistic innovation to the genre, its narrative focus on the women who are controlling the gears of power is certainly refreshing. Lizzie and Henry’s story is also not a love story in any traditional sense, but The White Princess unfolds in a way that shows the intricacies of their partnership alongside the always uneasy status of those in the royal court. No one is ever safe, and that tension permeates The White Princess. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, but given the unending plotting of the women around him, Henry’s life is a piece of cake.
Rating: ★★★★ — Complex, emotionally layered, and very entertaining
The White Princess premieres Sunday, April 16th on Starz