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Julianne Moore Is a Cunning, Queer-Affirming Momager in Starz's Sacrilegious 'Mary & George'

By Chris Revelle | TV | April 9, 2024 |

By Chris Revelle | TV | April 9, 2024 |


When I was 9 years old and recovering from a broken ankle one summer, my mom took a gig playing Anne Boleyn’s sister-in-law Jane Boleyn, “the infamous Lady of Rochford” in Maryland’s Renaissance Festival. We watched a metric ton of historical dramas about the reign of King Henry VIII and his wives. In my memory, it was from this point forward my mom and I would take in theater together. Not to make this even more on-the-nose-stereotypical, but I realized with thunderous certainty that I was gay while watching Cat On a Hot Tin Roof with my mom. I establish all of these as bona fides of sorts, as both a journeyman-level expert in the arts of soapy historical dramas and a pretty avid watcher for Gay Stuff. Mary & George takes all of these things, historical fiction, femmes playing power games, a queer son’s close relationship with his mother, and throws them in a blender with a good dollop of horniness, serving a perfectly prickly parfait of period fun.

Mary & George represents Starz’s exit from the relatively staid world of Philippa Gregory adaptations into a saucier, bolder, and decidedly spicier historical fiction direction. Preceded by the similarly-toned Samantha Morton-led The Serpent Queen, Mary & George begins by showing us the birth of George Villiers, second son of Mary (Julianne Moore, mother) who, with a preternatural calm for a person who just gave birth, leaves George attached to her by the umbilical cord and delivers a monologue about how little George will inherit due to the familiar strictures of agnatic primogeniture. Moore’s Mary at first seems cruel in her summary of how little value George stands to have, but it quickly becomes clear that for as far he may be from traditional power, George is close to Mary’s heart. We cut forward many years until baby George has become a young man played by Nicholas Galitzine. He is attempting to hang himself when Mary comes upon him in the woods, and she cuts him down, remarking cooly on the red scar that’ll be left under his chin. Though George claims he really meant to die, Mary is blithely confident he was just acting out, and she needs him cleaned up because she’s sending him off to France for an education.

When her husband Sir George dies, Mary is in a tough spot. Her eldest son John is unlikely to marry due to an apparent developmental disability (the show isn’t clear yet), so the path to power and prosperity is narrow. What’s a smart lady of dwindling means to do? Well, you put on your finest top hat decorated with feathers and donkey ears (as you do) and introduce yourself to a new, rich, land-owning old guy as his next wife.

Meanwhile, young George is greeted in France by the smirky Jean, who leads a flustered George through an orgy in the manor house where George is meant to stay. He’s told that he’ll learn the art of being a gentleman, which includes the usual things like fencing and dancing but also less expected things like having sex with other men. Mary, it turns out, has sent young George to a finishing school for hot gays, and it doesn’t take much for his curiosity to flower into robust bisexuality. By the time he returns, Mary has made inroads with King James VI & I and “accidentally” witnessed His Royal Highness making out with his main boyfriend Robert Carr, the Earl of Somerset. If that wasn’t enough, James also has a stable of “well-hung” Scots to keep his bedchamber well and warm. The game becomes clear: Mary means to send her gorgeous son George into James’ midst to become the king’s new favorite and primary lover. This would put the king under George’s thrall and Mary’s influence.

If the description of a powerful, calculating mother making her son into a sexual weapon to gain political power didn’t tell you, this series is quite gay. There’s a frankness to the sexuality that feels refreshing in the context of a period piece. Usually, queerness is invoked in these settings to emphasize secrecy and shame, but Mary & George is suffused with a relaxed air and the repeated axiom, “A body is just a body.” That’s tremendous fun on its own, but the show is super gay in other ways that may seem less obvious. I don’t know how else to put it, but watching Julianne Moore play Mary like an iconic bitch who would slit any throat to achieve her goals is gay in a primordial way, I feel it in my bones. Mary & George has plenty of guy-on-guy, but it’s also for-the-gays in the ways that are harder to fully explain easily. The series is queer in the way Clue or Showgirls is queer; it’s a vibe, a mood, a feeling, a combination of so many small things aesthetic and metatextual that adds up to a queer experience apart from the sex you see.

Aside from all the great queer stuff, Mary & George has a wicked sense of humor and a sharp eye for absurdity. This keeps the proceedings punchy and entertaining instead of falling into stiffness or mustiness. Queerness is the centerpiece of the plot, and while the show recognizes the heteronormative societal constraints at play, the premiere episode never frames queerness as anything to be ashamed of. I really can’t emphasize enough how rare that is for a story about queerness in less enlightened ages to de-emphasize the usual secrecy and self-hatred. It’s not that those things aren’t legitimate or real, it’s that stories of queer misery and shame are usually the ones told and Mary & George makes different choices.

It shouldn’t shock you to learn that Julianne Moore is a force of elegantly-dressed nature as Mary, the kind of “spectacular asshole” grand dame that’s an absolute scream to watch. Her British accent isn’t the most natural thing you’ve ever heard, but she’s such a fabulously mendacious vixen that it doesn’t matter. Nicholas Galitzine is once again playing an emotional young royal getting up to some Gay Stuff, but where Red, White, and Royal Blue felt distinctly young-adult in its approach, Mary & George graduates to full frontal male nudity. No shade on RWRB, but it carried the same squeaky clean unreality as a Disney Channel Original Movie. On Mary & George, Galitzine can curse, smolder, be dark and sexual and ridiculous in ways he couldn’t before.

While historians debate whether James IV/I’s close relationships with men were sexual and romantic or platonic, there’s a lot of story to be found in even the possibility of an English king using his position to go all Peter Thiel in the 1600s. Besides, as one of my favorite Kate Beaton comic strips reminds us, history has been often revised to hide such details as queerness. In that light, it makes perfect sense why this series chooses to embrace the story as an under-sung song of royal sodomy in England. If that makes the show sacrilegious to the idea of good historical fiction, then it’s deliciously so. Mary & George is a ribald, spiky, horny ride and as much as the show is for-the-gays, a stylistic, wild story well-told is great for anyone to enjoy.

Mary & George streams on Starz, with new episodes every Friday.