“The White Queen,” a BBC and Starz miniseries, is more interesting for the history it covers — the Wars of the Roses — than for how it covers it. The Tudors, the ultimate winners (historical spoiler alert?) of the 15th century dynastic wars between the houses of Lancaster and York, rivals within the House of Plantagenet, get most of the pop culture glory thanks to Henry VIII and daughter Elizabeth I. We (at least in the U.S.) tend to forget about this ridiculous real-life “Game of Thrones,” in which siblings and cousins and way too many Richards, Edwards and Henrys all vie for the crown. Most everyone is drooling over the chance of reigning, no matter if the current sovereign happens to be a relative. “The White Queen’s” problem, however, is how much ground it tries to cover. Beginning in 1464 and ending in 1485, the 10-part series flies through battles, betrothals and betrayals so quickly, I found myself often pausing and consulting the Wikipedia pages for different figures, not to mention studying the confusing family tree. There’s a lot to follow, and if you don’t pay attention or already know your history, “Queen” offers little more to enjoy than pretty people in pretty costumes. The U.S. version airing on Starz contains more nudity, however, if that entices you to tune in, but nothing on the level of Showtime’s series “The Tudors.” Come for the love scenes; try to overlook the anachronisms (drain pipes, zippers, etc.).
The list of players is too long to detail here, but “The White Queen,” based on a series of novels by author Philippa Gregory, primarily focuses on three Lancastrian and Yorkist women:
Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson)
Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale)
Anne Neville (Faye Marsay, on the left)
They form the backbone of the larger narrative and in this way, In addition to “The Tudors,” “Queen” is somewhat reminiscent of “Game of Thrones,” especially the latter’s most recent season. The role of women of this age isn’t easy, not even for royals. To not only survive but succeed requires walking a fine line of doing what you’re told while still looking out for your own interests (read: neck). Women easily are used as pawns, especially in marriage (the men don’t always have a say, either), and their lives aren’t necessarily easier when they realize it. A marriage for love is what sparks much of “The White Queen’s” conflicts, as King Edward IV (Max Irons), of House York, chooses the older and widowed Elizabeth Woodville, of House Lancaster, to be his queen. This goes against not only the logic of the time but of the wishes of his main advisor, Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick (James Frain), known as “the Kingmaker.”
Warwick’s daughters, Anne and Isabel (Eleanor Tomlinson), find themselves used as pawns in their father’s eventual schemes against Edward, and if I can be permitted one more “Game of Thrones” reference, Isabel can be likened to Sansa Stark, an initially naïve girl who only realizes her marriage to one of Edward’s brothers, George, Duke of Clarence (David Oakes), is a political maneuver after the marriage is uncomfortably consummated. Anne is much more keen to play the requisite games, and her sights are set on the final brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Aneurin Barnard), who will become Richard III, recently back in the news. Meanwhile, Elizabeth is loyal to her husband and to her new house (York), and in the series at least, she and her mother Jacquetta, Lady Rivers (Janet McTeer), have a bit of fun with witchcraft to get their way. Margaret is loyal to the Lancastrian king Henry VI, deposed by Edward IV. She also wants her son, Henry Tudor (Michael Marcus), to one day be king.
(From left, Richard, Edward and George)
The family tree is way too complicated to explain further, and again, considering how quickly the TV series moves through storylines, name tags would have been helpful. The series’ dialogue and performances are not as stilted as many expect in costume dramas, where caricatures are often presented in place of characters, but not enough time is given to any individual to earn a viewer’s allegiance. The women are the strongest, especially Hale, an actress who for whatever reasons has been on a roll playing religious and somewhat unhinged characters, from “The Crimson Petal and the White” to “Ripper Street.” Ferguson and Irons deliver impressive chemistry, and it is easy to side with Elizabeth and her family thanks to Ferguson’s convincing performance. But “The White Queen” lacks an overall spark, offering only an introduction to a fascinating piece of history that, given time and better resources, could have been presented in a far grander manner. It’s not enough to cram exposition into scenes to try to explain why a battle is being waged; you have to help us understand it, to feel it. Bringing these stories to our cultural consciousness is important, but mostly “Queen” plops its viewers into the middle of the action and expects each of them to just go with whatever happens. That’s fine, in a way. The miniseries can be, to borrow a phrase from Alan Ball, “popcorn for smart people.” But oh, it could have been more.
“The White Queen” airs at 9/8C Saturdays on Starz.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.