Pros: Historical context, brilliant production
Cons: Storyline weaker than before, less compelling cast
The Tudors – The Complete Third Season
With the first two seasons devoted to the first two wives of Henry VIII, it’s somewhat ominous to see two more wives come and go in season 3. They’re briefer because they’re getting a little less interesting, even briefer when you consider that season 3 only stretched 8 episodes compared to 10 each in the previous 2. On top of that, the episodes are about 5 minutes shorter on average too.
Some have suggested that this season was shorter due to budgetary reasons, but I’m pretty sure that it’s more for the fact that this is a less juicy period in Henry VIII’s reign. Ask most people to name one of Henry’s wives and they could probably tell you Anne Boleyn, the controversial second one, and then some might tell you Katherine of Aragon, the conventional first one. But beyond that few could name wives 3 through 6.
(there are spoilers but that’s history for you)
Season 2 ended with the beheading of Anne Boleyn and with that a great deal of the energy was sucked out of “The Tudors” series. Henry actually goes into a period of quiet content at the start of series 3. He marries Jane Seymour who gives him the long anticipated son. After 24 episodes of the show Henry finally gets what he’s talked about in every episode. Jane dies during childbirth and Henry goes into a period of mourning. What a shame! Henry finally found a woman he wanted, got the son he wanted and she dies. Some historians note that Jane might have been compromised to ensure the safe passage of his son but there is no evidence to support it. The show makes no such accusations and even shows Henry going into a deep period of mourning. That’s actually a curious episode that, if anything, borrows greatly from “The Sopranos” segue idea: Henry spends his time locked up in isolation sharing ironies and moments of madness with the court fool.
Jane’s actually the quietest of wives so far; decent, respectable, courteous; which means that this is a relatively quiet period in the story too. Henry still finds his mistresses but there’s very little in the way of household drama and passion now. Henry is getting a little older too. Jane’s something of a national treasure, in fact, as she helps mend the estrangements of Henry’s two daughters, thus solidifying the line of succession as we know it today.
By far the biggest event of season 3 though is the Pilgrimage of Grace. Thomas Cromwell continues his agenda of breaking down the church system. Monasteries are disbanded, lands reclaimed, and funds reallocated to the national treasury. An uprising begins in the north and makes its way through strategic locations towards London. It’s an interesting sequence of events as we see the upstart, the conversion of apprehensive members and the strategic quelling of it. Robert Aske is the key character here as he’s depicted as quite a noble man, despite his acts of defiance. It doesn’t paint the Yorkshire folk in too good of a light though, passionate simpletons for the most part, easily tricked by those scrupulous southerners (oh well, we’ve had our better days). The Pilgrimage (a little more heated than the name suggests) spans four episodes.
The other notable event is Henry’s short-lived fourth marriage to Anne of Cleves. She’s said to be the least attractive of Henry’s wives and the show plays heavily on that fact, resorting to almost farcical satire. The marriage is proposed for strategic reasons to form an alliance with the Germans, against the French and Spanish who are uniting at the behest of the Pope. England’s religious grounds would continue to be a great source of unrest. In his haste to form the alliance, Henry doesn’t see Anne until it’s time to marry her. He sends dignitaries to scout her out in advance, but Anne’s brother is understandably evasive and the British gentlemen can’t just come out and say, “let us see her.” It’s amusing stuff and in fairness to the actress who plays Anne, she’s not that tough on the eye – you’d have thought the directors could have found an uglier actress to emphasize the point here.
The story is still gripping for those that have hung with the show thus far. But it really lacks the drama of the Anne Boleyn years. Apart from the Pilgrimage of Grace you sense that this is a period of content. There’s the threat of an attack from France and Germany, but there’s really not too much in the way of drama. With Henry getting older, especially losing his passion after Jane’s death and best buddy Charles Brandon settling into his own marriage, the show looks to be struggling for inspiration now. It does play on the age factor, kind of in a “Godfather III” way as Henry and Charles both look back on elements of their pasts that haunt them.
There’s a new character in Sir Francis Bryan, a one-eyed former spy and assassin who’s now among the King’s most trusted, who carries the passionate flame still but he’s not the captivating figure of his predecessors. We’ll get to know wife number 5, Katherine Howard before the end of the season too.
The drama doesn’t quite grip you like in seasons 1 and 2. In Henry’s youth it seemed like the writers had plenty to play with but as he grows older it looks like they’re lacking a little for inspiration. What’s still keeping many of us hooked though is the continuation of the story. Thomas Cromwell, Charles Brandon and of course Henry VIII have captured quite a bit of interest over the three seasons and it’s interesting to watch their lives play out. Sadly most of the newer characters, Francis Bryan excepted, aren’t really driving the show forward. That’s understandable to an extent since we know that Henry doesn’t have too many years left.
Historically the show is keeping me hooked too as I continue to read the history books as a compendium. It’s pleasing then to say that events are now more or less playing out in line with historical record, although there are still lingering shadows of season 1’s fabrications. Probably the biggest discrepancy is the omission of the Duke of Norfolk. I’m not sure why he disappeared at the end of season 1 having played a key role there. Now his involvement is omitted all together and the bulk of his credit is going to Charles Brandon, who nevertheless was a key figure in events in his own right. It’s not much of a discrepancy although I’m sure the Norfolk’s wouldn’t be too happy about it. Events have been brief in the past, but with this being a less meaty period, they’re certainly getting greater attention now.
There’s not much to say about Jonathan Rhys Meyers that hasn’t been said already. Despite his lack of physical resemblance to Henry VIII, I think he’s done a great job so far. But while I’d also like to say he’s developed into the role, that’s not necessarily true in the third season. In the second season he did progress brilliantly as he started handling the pressures of his position and really establishing his supremacy. As Henry ages though, it seems that the actor is having a harder time keeping up. At least the directors and costume designers are doing a good job of puffing him out a little.
As he has in every season so far, Henry Cavill (Charles Brandon) continues to be one of the big draws. He’s aging too, but he’s doing a great job of switching to the compassionate, conscientious side of the job. In several ways he’s a mirror of Henry, but he’s also becoming more of a human being as he ages, whereas Henry is becoming more of a dictator. James Frain (Thomas Cromwell) loses a little here. In season 2 everything went his way and the actor was great at manipulating the situation, but as he starts to feel his demise he doesn’t quite show the same depth.
Alan van Spring (Francis Bryan) brings a new level of intrigue and while Max von Sydow is a welcome addition as the voice of the Vatican it’s shame that we lost Pope Paul III and Peter O’Toole who was a real treasure in season 2. Henry’s wives are becoming less expressive and for their parts all three fail to shine, although we’ll see how the third (wife 5) develops next season. The supporting cast as a whole is certainly lacking a little on past seasons. The likes of Jeremy Northam, Sam Neill and Natalie Dormer are greatly missed.
As ever, “The Tudors” continues to be an excellent combination of costume, set design and rebuilt exteriors. Even the CGI enhancements are much more flawlessly integrated than they were in season 2. Thoughts of budget shortages are definitely allayed in this regard. The same can be said of taking the action to the outdoors and the rising of the masses. I’d often wondered why earlier seasons had neglected the field action and here, although we don’t get battles per se, we do get plenty of sword fights and outdoor shots.
It’s only 8 shows now and therefore only 3 DVD’s (the past series had been 4). I was extremely disappointed with the brevity of the series. Not only is it 2 episodes lighter, the episodes themselves are an average of 5 minutes shorter, so that’s an overall cut of about 25%. Not that the list price dropped: season 2 launched at $40.99, season 3 at $42.99 (go figure) although Amazon now lists it as $25.99.
It’s become custom now for Showtime to include bonus episodes of other shows and sell them as “extras.” Well some might appreciate this free advertising and here you have the first two episodes of “United States of Tara.” The only feature of note playable on the DVD player is a “Tudors Timeline” which helps viewers put events depicted into perspective. This latter is handy because the show doesn’t necessarily make timelines clear, in fact there are many anachronisms in the show that will be clarified here. As handy a tool as it is though, it’s nothing compared to a little Wikipedia reading which will add much greater depth.
PC Extras include cast interviews with Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Annabelle Wallis, Henry Cavill, Joss Stone, and Max Van Sydow. It’s really just a bunch of people paying lip service to the show.
As with all previous Tudor DVD extras, those here do very little to enhance the overall value of the package. If you’re going to buy the DVD, you’re buying it for the show, not the extras.
“The Tudors” has lost some of its spark of the first 2 seasons. I never thought I’d say it but the passion, youth and vigor are greatly missed. There are still plenty of shenanigans but with key characters growing up, it’s not as prevalent. Each show of course does come with its obligatory nude scene.
For those that have made it this far though, and for those interested in the historical context, there’s still plenty to admire. The Pilgrimage of Grace, constant threats from Rome, birth of a son, chasing of Reginald Pope, demise of Thomas Cromwell and introduction of other historically significant characters do plenty to keep you hooked and (for some) inspired to read more. It’s not as exciting a period in the Tudors timeline as what had gone before but there’s still plenty to intrigue. The fact that we get the biggest outdoor scenes is commendable in one sense and also evidence of the lack of in-house drama in another. The production has certainly made advancements, although the same can’t be said of the new cast members.
You really don’t need my overall recommendations by now, do you? This series is definitely not a starting point, but one for those who’ve enjoyed seasons 1 and 2 already. If you fall into that latter category you’ll no doubt be making your own mind up. Consistent with my previous analyses though, I will say that renting or Showtime should be your first options (seasons 1-3 are currently available “On Demand”). The DVD does very little to enhance the series and will only really appeal to collectors or gift givers.
Verdict: 3 Stars (3 ½ for the Show, 1 for the Extras) – Recommended
The Tudors – The Complete First Season
The Tudors – The Complete Second Season
The Tudors - The Complete Third Season