Wolf Hall opens with a bravura credit sequence. After a title that places us amid King Henry VIII’s attempt to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, we first see a man staring pensively out of a large, twilit window. The action moves swiftly in lockstep with a duo of fast-moving men who are making their way to the office of Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor to the King, whose one mistake was to fail to persuade the Pope in Henry’s favor. The score, which opens with “Cromwell’s Theme” — Cromwell being the man we saw at the window — is beautiful, even painful. As the men arrive, Wolsey situates his crucifix over his heart.
And it only gets better from there. The men hastily announce that Wolsey has been removed as Lord Chancellor and that he must return the royal seal. Calmly, shrewdly, Thomas Cromwell, Wolsey’s attorney, whispers into the ear of the Cardinal. They need a written ordinance, one that they do not have. And, legally speaking, the Cardinal is not allowed to hand over the royal seal to these men. After they leave, Wolsey asks a question of Cromwell that announces the intimacy they share as well as the latter’s cunning: “Did you know that or did you make it up?”
The opening scene of Wolf Hall reveals so much — the King’s wild capriciousness, Wolsey’s grace in decline, and Cromwell’s steely, almost gentle guile. All three are major currents that drive the show’s action. And the scene’s setting comes across as a metaphor for the show at large. Why show a whole castle when a candlelit room is so much more illuminating?
But we’re already ahead of ourselves. Wolf Hall is Cromwell’s show, not Henry’s or Wolsey’s, and it turns out that Wolsey doesn’t even know where his new assistant is from. “Putney, I left when I was a boy,” Cromwell says. He was the son of a blacksmith.
“At last!” Wolsey responds. “A man born in a more lowly state than myself!”
Cromwell reveals himself to be a family man and a moderate Lutheran. He is a happy, strong father and faithful assistant to Wolsey. While teaching the Cardinal a card trick, Cromwell reveals that he learned it “on the docks” after leaving home at a young age. Wolsey asks, “What else should I know about you, monstrous servant?”
One of the stranger aspects of recapping a show based on historical record is that, on some level, there are no surprises — all of this already happened. This would seem to go double for Wolf Hall, given that it’s based on a series of novels known for deep historical accuracy (and some revisionism). The excitement comes when Wolf Hall fills in the gaps where history cuts out. How did these momentous events come to pass?
If there was any complaint to be had about the first episode, it would have been that capaciousness of history is often glossed in a short dialogue, as when Wolsey explains to Cromwell the grounds for Henry’s annulment. Henry, it turns out, married Katherine after her husband, his brother, died, leaving her a widow. In order to be queen, Katherine claimed at the time that she was a virgin. Now, twenty years later, she can’t produce a male heir. So Henry argues that she wasn’t a virgin after all.
But because of the immense skill of Mark Rylance, who plays Cromwell, and Jonathan Pryce, who plays Wolsey, this scene comes across as a moment of tactical confidence, with Wolsey informing his assistant of the King’s secrets. At each moment the audience can feel Wolsey’s stately decline, his faith in his assistant. And, phrase by phrase, we can see Cromwell assume his role as advisor and gatekeeper to the most powerful men and women in England.
The joy of much of the rest of the episode is watching Rylance-as-Cromwell in action, all in service of Wolsey. He eavesdrops — we learn that he may have killed a man in Italy. During dinner, he cooly berates Sir Thomas More before asking for a sauce recipe. He solidifies alliances and affiliations by moonlight. He is told that the Cardinal is all but finished. He comforts his tiny daughter, who carries a candle while wearing a pair of angel wings in the middle of the night.
The misery of the episode is watching Cromwell’s daughters and his wife succumb, overnight, to sweating sickness. He returns home to find them dead in their beds. Rylance’s face, so paradoxical to this moment, so gently resolute, melts before our eyes. It has to be one of the more devastating scenes in recent TV history.
From there Cromwell visits his father, who is wife, before her death, recommended he seek out, and who he remembers only as a vile and violent man. His memory is not disappointed. In a scene that his perhaps more important than American audiences will realize, Cromwell allows his maternal nephew, Richard, to take his name. Richard’s great-grandson Oliver will become Lord Protector of England.
He then meets Anne Boleyn — who is played with an equal mix of obstinacy, force, and cattiness by Claire Foy — who dismisses him in a huff, but who also somehow suggests that she still likes him. Next Cromwell is made a burgess of Parliament by the King
We don’t even meet Henry until the end of the episode, where we find him in the Legatine Court listening to Katherine make her case. One witness with knowledge of the couple’s first coupling retells the story Henry’s asking for an ale after spending a night with the queen. “I’m famished,” Henry said, “for last night I was in Spain.”
At the end of the episode, none of it seems to matter. Stephen Gardiner, played by writer and actor of Sherlock fame, Mark Gatiss, informs Cromwell that a treaty has been signed in Italy, one that guarantees Wolsey’s failure. The cardinal’s downfall is now months away. But what about Cromwell, his fast rising assistant? The answer may be found in the episode’s final scene, when Cromwell finally meets the King.