Louis Bayard
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In Finale, King Henry's Masque and Anne's Little Neck
New York Times, May 10, 2015

Part 6, "Master of Phantoms"

"It was a play," gasps Harry Norris (Luke Roberts). "You can't ... you can't seriously...."

Oh, but Thomas Cromwell can. Because if there's one message ringing out loud and true from "Wolf Hall," it's that playacting is serious business indeed.

Start with that ill-fated masque that sent a make-believe Cardinal Wolsey to hell—and consigned its four actors to Cromwell's personal revenge inferno. I've always thought there was a touch of patness to this device: a tidy way for Hilary Mantel to predestine the fates of four men who, in real life, may simply have been random collateral damage. (To take down a queen, you have to take down the men standing in your way.) But the revenge scenario does feed nicely into the show's central mystery. Who are we behind our masks? And what happens when they're stripped away?

No one better understands the importance of playacting than Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), who has borrowed a gesture from Queen Esther—hands clasped to her breast—to dramatize her purity of heart. It's a gesture that works on King Henry (Damian Lewis), but when she tries it on Cromwell (Mark Rylance), he sees it for what it is. And with that, Anne's mask falls away for good, and out comes her authentic self. Curling her hands around her throat, she whispers: "I only have a little neck. So it will be the work of a moment."

Ms. Foy has been a redoubtable presence throughout the show, but she splendidly conveys Anne's terror in her final minutes. Condemned by her government, betrayed by her family, she goes to her death bare and unfriended. Even her execution is a bizarre form of theater: the headsman skulking around the platform like a mustachioed villain, the audience gasping like groundlings at each ripple of stagecraft.

But what of the husband she leaves behind? He has already written—no surprise—a play. "A tragedy," he declares, pressing it on Cromwell. "My own story." In which, of course, he is exculpated of any wrong.

As Mel Brooks once reminded us, it's good to be the king—if only because you can let your mask slip without consequence. In one of Sunday night's most telling epiphanies, we learn that the audience member laughing the loudest at Wolsey's theatrical humiliation was Henry himself. Which would also make him a sinner against the cardinal's memory, just like the four make-believe demons whom Cromwell has sent to their deaths. And yet with no one to challenge him, the king can slip on a new mask and become Wolsey's chief defender, piously lamenting the way Anne "practiced against" the poor fellow.

In the show's final scene, Henry embraces Cromwell for a job well done, and we can see, in his undisguised face, a man engorged with joy at his own deliverance. Henry will walk away a happier fellow, but Cromwell fatally won't.

That's partly because, in Anne, he has lost his truest soul mate. Think about that strange dream vision of her body being dragged the length of his dinner table. She smiles as she watches him raise his dagger--an equal partner in his Dance of Death.

Note, too, how in the moment of her arrest, Anne calls Cromwell "the man I created." "He created you in turn," retorts her uncle, and one can't help but think that, in an alternative universe, these two would have made an unbeatable team, ruling their nation with the firmest of hands and without a trace of illusion. But in the world of Tudor England, as Anne says, "Those who've been made can be unmade."

Until Sunday night's episode, I think, a Cromwell apologist could have written off his actions—even his prosecution of Thomas More—as a kind of hard-edged Realpolitik, anchored to an innate sense of justice. No longer. As we watch Cromwell fasten his web around the lovesick musician Mark Smeaton (Max Fowler), we see an inner rot take hold. "I need guilty men," he says to Norris. "So I found men who are guilty. Though not necessarily as charged."

That's a distinction with a difference, and a sign that the moral order has changed. For the younger Cromwell, violence was self-preservation; now it's a means of erasing truth. (Note the cool way in which he threatens to gouge out a prisoner's eyes.) For the younger Cromwell, self-knowledge—the ability to dispense with masks—was the path to wisdom; now it's the road to damnation. Better than anyone else, he understands what he's capable of and what the consequences will be. "Life pays you out," he reminds us.

Which leads me to one minor reservation. Mantel is currently writing the last volume of the "Wolf Hall" trilogy, and I can't help but wish this superb production had waited to incorporate that final strand. The story, as it stands, is "complete" enough, but it lacks the full arc that Cromwell demands. We need to see him go to his end, not for the sake of retribution but for the sake of reckoning.

All the more reason, then, to applaud that final shot, where Cromwell is visually decapitated by the king's embracing arm—a head floating on royal ermine. The shadows of Cromwell's impending death have already gathered around him, and those melancholy eyes see nothing but doom.

Fraught symbol: The Tower of London, where a queen can wait either to be crowned or beheaded—one event leading ineluctably to the other.

The World According to Norfolk (Bernard Hill): "I'll do slaughter!" he bellows, trying to calm the trial he's presiding over.

Machiavelli would be proud: Cromwell sets things straight for poor Mark: "We'll write down what you say, Mark, but we don't necessarily write down what we do."

Other stuff ...

  • It's strange that Jane Seymour (Kate Phillips) registers more powerfully off screen than on. She's the enigma toward which a nation now bends for salvation. Anne is undeceived: "Tell her from me: God sees her tricks."

  • A powerfully human moment for the doomed dandy Francis Weston (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd). "It's just I thought I had another 20 years ..."

  • Tip of the hat to Jane Rochford (Jessica Raine) for educating us about "the French fashion," a venerable term for nonprocreative sex. (But what did the French consider "the English fashion?")

Speak for the last time, my friends. Did you enjoy your wolves? Did the example of the Boleyns make you feel better about your own family? Did the example of the royal court make you want to eat with your hands? And who could have guessed that the little red-headed girl bouncing on Anne's knee would even make it to her fourth birthday, let alone become ... You Know Who. Chalk it up to survivalist genes.

Enjoyed our game of thrones, friends. Exeunt wolves!



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Louis Bayard