Out of all the kings and queens of England, few have captivated audiences as consistently as the ill-fated Tudors. Henry is the hot-tempered patriarch who burned through six wives in pursuit of an heir. Edward is the pint-sized king who would struggle to fill his father’s shoes before dying young. Mary is the pious (and bloodthirsty, depending on your source) queen who would fight to restore Catholicism to England. There’s also Lady Jane Grey, whose time on the throne is less of a chapter in history and more of a footnote. And finally, Elizabeth is the one who would serve as monarch for decades, ushering England into a golden age of prosperity. These figures are all well-known at this point, which is what makes the coup of Becoming Elizabeth all the more impressive: it offers a thoughtful new perspective on each of them (aside from Henry, whose death is the inciting incident for the show) that manages to be both historically accurate and scintillatingly fresh.
At the beginning of Becoming Elizabeth, three royal children, each in three separate royal residences, are woken up in the middle of the night to learn that their father, King Henry VIII, has died. The youngest of them, Edward (Oliver Zetterström), is now the king of England, and although they enjoy certain privileges due to their rank, their lives have never been in more danger. The power vacuum created by the death of a king leaves everyone in court grappling for influence and position, and they’re eager to make Mary, Edward, and Elizabeth pawns in their game.
In the aftermath of Henry’s death, Elizabeth (Alicia von Rittberg) is sent to live with her stepmother, Catherine Parr (Jessica Raine), the only queen to have survived her time with Henry VIII. She would not have done so without being a shrewd political player in her own right, and although she seems to have genuine affection for Elizabeth, she also has plans for her. Alongside her husband, Thomas Seymour (Tom Cullen), the uncle of the king whom she hastily married shortly after Henry VIII’s death, Catherine hopes to use her guardianship of Elizabeth to gain favor in court. But the close relationship that develops between Thomas and Elizabeth threatens to throw a wrench in her plans.
Although the show’s title is Becoming Elizabeth, she barely seems to be the main character, especially in the first few episodes. With this series, Starz has seemingly abandoned the princess-focused storytelling that dominated its previous historical dramas, including The White Princess and The Spanish Princess, in favor of a more ensemble-driven approach. Indeed, Becoming Elizabeth graciously offers the spotlight to frequently overlooked figures. Catherine Parr, so often relegated to little more than the last on a list of six names with the word “survived” next to her, is allowed to shine.
In the hands of Raine, she is an intelligent, pragmatic woman whose schemes are bourne out of a desire to exert power in the only way available to her: through sex, marriage, and motherhood (or stepmotherhood, as the case may be). It would take a special sort of person to make it through marriage with Henry VIII, and it’s clear that she bears the scars of having slept net to a ticking time bomb that the merest word out of place could set off. In her relationship with Thomas Seymour, however, she has more control. Tom Cullen plays him as charming but impulsive, self-indulgent, and lascivious enough that he thinks nothing of shamelessly seducing his recently orphaned 14-year-old ward, Elizabeth.
But if he doesn’t come off particularly well, Becoming Elizabeth treats the Tudor siblings more even-handedly. This is perhaps the most generous depiction of Princess Mary, who is played here by Romola Garai as deeply religious and fiercely loyal to her family – she’s a little prudish, but she feels like one of the only characters who actually has Elizabeth’s best interests at heart (at least for now, anyway), and although you can feel the loneliness radiating from her, it’s never used to mock her. History often treats Mary unkindly: She’s viewed as either cruelly violent or pathetic, desperate for a husband, and able to convince herself of several phantom pregnancies. Here, whether it’s the writing or Garai’s ability to draw the viewer in, she’s one of the show’s most nuanced and interesting characters.
It’s this complexity of character, the purposeful decision to not just run with the most commonly expected depiction of a historical figure, that separates Becoming Elizabeth from a dozen of other similar period dramas. The show excels in finding hidden depths and story moments that haven’t been done to death in every other piece of Tudor programming. Their choice to feature the teen years of Elizabeth is an apt one – not only is this a period that is frequently skipped over, especially the very real gossip about the propriety of her living arrangements with the Seymours, but it allows us insight into her as she’s still developing into the future queen we would eventually know her as. With von Rittberg’s keen performance that is alternately savvy and naive, Becoming Elizabeth is a rare gem in the burgeoning subgenre of salacious royal history.