Sex, Lies, and Corruption: Showtime’s The Tudors

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Mix the steaminess and constant backstabbing of The Young and the Restless with the frat-boy mentality of MTV’s Fraternity House and you have The Tudors, a Showtime miniseries chronicling the early years of the notorious King Henry VIII’s reign. Those familiar with the history of his rule—he was the one with all of the wives—know it is a tale of sex, lies, and corruption. Henry is not looked upon too favorably by those who came after him (probably something to do with that beheading incident), and The Tudors explores how he came to be the wife-swapping, defiant king we all know today.

Henry, aptly played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, is young, impetuous, and demanding. Rhys Meyers portrays him as a hardheaded man who enjoys the power (read: all the sex he wants) that comes with being king, but is ultimately naïve to the complex webs of the political world. He is lusty and foolish—a jock who is more interested in the thrills of war than in its consequences. Rhys Meyers, known best for his roles in Bend it Like Beckham and Velvet Goldmine, is the perfect Henry. His intense blue eyes and strong jaw line are haughty; his stare signals a hunger for challenge, like a spoiled brat who has never been denied. He gets what he wants, and what he usually wants is sex.

Politics and sex often seem inextricably connected, and this is demonstrated nowhere better than in The Tudors. Everybody’s doing everybody and, needless to say, it gets pretty graphic. The sex scenes are like a Danielle Steel novel acted out before your voyeuristic eyes. Those embarrassed by naked bodies and loud, orgasmic cries should probably steer clear of this show. King Henry’s court is one big orgy and he is definitely the star. It is not until Anne Boleyn shows up and steals his heart that he stops sleeping with every maid and ally’s wife that catches his eye.

The first season of this show details the shaky marriage of Catherine and Henry and sets the stage for his break from the Catholic Church and his (spoiler alert!) disastrous second marriage to Boleyn. Every character on the show has a hidden agenda and a desire to take advantage of the king—well, except Queen Catherine (played by Maria Doyle Kennedy), who is quite open about her desire to stay queen. Henry may be stubborn, but his ear is quite bendable. He is also never able to really write anyone off, even those who openly deceive him, because he is so naïve (and probably insecure) in his new role. His bravado and arrogance belie a man fresh out of adolescence who enjoys the power and freedom of his position (he spends most of his time gallivanting in court and hunting with his friends), but doesn’t yet understand the weight of his responsibility.

Though The Tudors is historically inaccurate (the real King Henry was much older at this time in his life than the youthful Rhys Meyers would suggest), it is entertaining. The corruption and scandals of history are sometimes better than any contrived soap opera story line. King Henry is definitely a character everyone can agree to loathe, and the rest of the players are compellingly flawed and calculating, but not inherently evil. As the duplicitous Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the great Sam Neill is at once conniving and charming. Though his actions are reprehensible, I don’t have the same disgust toward him that I hold for Henry. Maybe it’s because I have such fond memories of his role in Jurassic Park. Regardless, he does a great job of being a corrupt church official (one of many in this series). Natalie Dormer, who plays the infamous Anne, is enchanting and mysterious; the viewer is never quite sure about her feelings for Henry (a vagueness that adds an interesting element to the show), but it is apparent that her motives are far from pure.  

While most scenes are dramatic and captivating, there are a few unintentionally ridiculous moments in the first season that made me laugh out loud. For example, there is great tension in the court when Henry casts out his good friend, Charles, for marrying the king’s sister without permission. Their fight comes to an earth-shattering climax when Henry challenges Charles to … an arm wrestling match. No, not a duel or even a good old-fashioned joust—arm wrestling. The viewer is provided with close-up shots of their straining faces and clenched jaws so as to truly understand the gravity of the situation. I was on the edge of my seat, mainly because it seemed like a good time to take a bathroom break.

There is another scene that seemed out of place, and it involves Henry masturbating. Okay, so he masturbates just like everybody else—except he has a man kneeling in front of him, holding a strategically-placed towel to catch his, um, release. I understand that members of royalty have people to do everything for them, but is Henry so lazy that he can’t even bother to clean up after himself? Was this a standard practice among kings? This is not something that they covered in any history book I read. It gets more bizarre: between his grunts and moans are flashes of Anne sitting by herself, knitting. I suppose this suggests that Henry was thinking of Anne whilst pleasuring himself, but it seems an odd image to choose. Granted, she was wearing a low-cut dress (she and every other female character in this series), but she was knitting—is this his ultimate fantasy? It’s interesting to think that a man who has probably had a woman in every possible position would fantasize about something so simple and seemingly innocent, but the whole scene was just weird and disjointed.

However, neither of these moments decreased my level of enjoyment or interest in the show. I’ll definitely check out the second season when it premieres on March 30. Like any good soap opera, the ridiculous is nicely balanced by dramatic plot lines that draw in the viewer. The Tudors is by no means a documentary or biography—and it’s not trying to be one, either. It’s more like a guilty pleasure that entices you with tawdry scenes of sex and corruption—think Melrose Place in period costumes. Who knew that history could be such a turn-on?


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