Few British dynasties have inspired as much material in recent years as that of the Tudors. From Showtime’s aptly named “The Tudors,” to Hilary Mantel’s book/play/series “Wolf Hall,” to the current Broadway musical “Six,” the turbulent reign of Henry VIII and his six equally turbulent marriages have clearly had no shortage of retellings. At this point, those who want to tell a story about this family have to find a new way into its well-trod history.
Anya Reiss’ “Becoming Elizabeth,” premiering June 12 on Starz, aims to solve this problem by picking up at a more unusual point in Henry VIII’s history — more specifically in 1547, mere minutes after his death. In so doing, Reiss gives herself the gift of untangling the uniquely messy matters of succession, self-preservation, and the escalating tensions between Protestants and Catholics. What’s more, the series can give more consideration to Henry’s three surviving children — pious Mary (Romola Garai), restless middle child Elizabeth (Alicia von Rittberg), and new boy king Edward (Oliver Zetterstrom) — than those productions about the adults ruling their lives often can.
As the title suggests, the new drama mostly centers Elizabeth, who was 14 years-old when her father’s death made her a pawn in several competing games at the Tudor court. Though she would eventually become the legendary Elizabeth I, she then found herself torn between Mary, a devout Catholic, and Edward, a stubborn Protestant, as they jostled for power and influence. When she went to live with her stepmother, Catherine Parr (Jessica Raine), and Catherine’s new husband Thomas Seymour (Tom Cullen), she became an object of fascination and plaything. She was young enough that her lady-in-waiting Kat Ashley (Alexandra Gilbreath) acted more as a concerned grandmother than a servant, but old enough that having to live with the tween Lady Jane Grey (Bella Ramsey of “Game of Thrones”) felt like an insult. Far enough down the line of succession to be dismissed, but still technically a princess, Elizabeth quickly learned that she had to find her way forward lest she be left behind.
At first, “Becoming Elizabeth” presents England’s future long-reigning queen as little more than a passenger in her own story. In the first episode, the heart of the story lies with Catherine and Thomas, whose mutual relief at Henry’s death leads them to rekindle their previous romance in every corner of their impressive Chelsea manse. (The sets and costume design of “Becoming Elizabeth” are suitably sumptuous to paint the show’s portraits of royal privilege run amok; the only ahistorical aspect of the series, it seems, is Tim Phillips’ urgent piano score, which underlines some of the tenser moments with deliberately jarring purpose.)
As Catherine and Thomas, Raine and Cullen are immediately charismatic as a pair. Imbuing both characters with breathlessly reckless streaks, they make it easy to understand their characters’ giddy connection — and why Elizabeth, lonely and lost as she was, would end up idolizing them for it. But where the series gets more interesting, and more uncomfortably fraught, is the moment when Thomas’ magnetism sours into something far more sinister when he aims it directly at the young princess in his care. Seeing Elizabeth’s frustration at being treated “like a child,” and sensing an opportunity, Thomas makes it his business to make sure she’s on his side, whatever it takes.
The series is smart to flesh out the court and world beyond the initially limited scope of teenaged Elizabeth. In particular, Mary’s struggle to reconcile her love for her brother with that for her Catholic faith eventually gives Garai more to do than cry with frustration, especially with the introduction of Pedro (Ekow Quartey), a concerned Spanish envoy. But in tackling Thomas’ insidious fixation on Elizabeth and the ensuing so-called “Seymour Scandal,” which almost ended her chances at becoming queen well before she ascended to the throne, “Becoming Elizabeth” finds its singular angle to unveiling her narrative.
Viewers should be forewarned, though, that watching Thomas manipulate Elizabeth’s adolescent crush to his advantage is as disturbing as it should be. In the first four episodes given to critics for review (out of a total eight), the series is much more explicit about this intimate dynamic of abuse than I ever expected, frankly. Adding to this is the fact that Cullen and Von Rittberg are so convincing as a handsome uncle figure and overwhelmed teenager, respectively, that I had to make sure the age difference between the actors wasn’t true to life. (Though Von Rittberg makes a very convincing teenager, she is, thankfully, in her late twenties.)
As Thomas circles Elizabeth, and Catherine finally starts to realize that his affection for her stepdaughter takes a different shape than she knew, “Becoming Elizabeth” evolves from typical palace intrigue to something more devastatingly personal. After having little to do in the first couple episodes, despite the series ostensibly being about her character, Von Rittberg finally gets to stretch her muscles as Elizabeth starts trying to wield her power and influence in her own way. Seeing the differences between how she acts around Thomas, to whom she’s desperate to prove she’s an adult, and around her friend Robert Dudley (Jamie Blackley), around whom she feels comfortable being her true self, make the subtlety of Von Rittberg’s performance clear.
Seeing how Thomas and Elizabeth’s story unfolds in the second half of the season will be telling. The first four episodes largely walk the line between portraying Elizabeth’s fascination with Thomas and justifying his response to it, not to mention illustrates the gravity of the situation without having characters’ reactions sound completely ahistorical. So it would be disappointing, to say the least, if the show ends up tipping into salacious territory as it sees out this arc’s doomed end, or else indulging it as the “scandal” it has since been labeled. So far, however, “Becoming Elizabeth” is steady enough on its feet to offer hope that there should be a more nuanced ending to come.
“Becoming Elizabeth” premieres Sunday, June 12 at 9 pm EST on Starz.