Before Frank Underwood, Littlefinger, and Karl Rove, there was Thomas Cromwell. The protagonist of PBS’s Wolf Hall was the ultimate fixer, a clever, calculating politico who escaped his lowborn origins to become an instrumental player in Henry VIII’s court. His efforts helped the king shake off the Catholic Church, ditch his wife (and eventually, wives), and reform England.
Naturally, people hated him for it. Cromwell’s ungentlemanly ambition earned him loads of enemies among the country’s nobility, and his legacy still suffers for it. Just look at his unpleasant official portrait, commissioned during the height of his influence: Even if he weren’t a lawyer, he’d be hard to love.
So Mark Rylance has his work cut out for him. The expert stage actor plays the man himself in this six-part BBC-produced drama that doggedly chronicles the period’s tumult along with its splendor. The series is based on Hilary Mantel’s prizewinning pair of historical novels—2009’s Wolf Hall and 2012’s Bring Up the Bodies—which imagine the period from Thomas Cromwell’s perspective. (A third and final installment is on its way; another adaptation is on Broadway now). And like Mantel’s books, the show excellently brings the statesman’s shady story to light with wit, empathy, and even surprise.
Rylance deserves a lot of the credit. His Cromwell is quiet and considered, a man who seems almost burdened by his own cleverness. His eyes are always scanning people, assessing them—a useful skill for someone who often finds himself in places he shouldn’t be. Born in Putney, the blacksmith’s son found his first foothold in government while serving Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. As Mantel wrote and Rylance demonstrates, that close relationship is key to unlocking a lot of Cromwell’s future dealings. After the Wolsey administration is cut short, Cromwell finds himself working for none other than King Henry VIII (Damian Lewis)—though, in more than a few senses, that really means he’s working for Henry’s lover Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy). She wants to be the Queen of England, and Henry thinks she should be too. The current Queen, Henry’s wife Catherine (Joanne Whalley), begs to differ, and she has the Church in Rome, most of Europe, and much of her own country’s nobility on her side. Also on Catherine’s side is Sir Thomas More (played excellently by Anton Lesser). Snide, devout, and likeable all at once, he’s Cromwell’s chief rival, and some of the show’s best moments come when these two Thomases duke it out. Sure, we know the fate of everyone in Wolf Hall—spoiler alert, Thomas More is now a saint—but the intrigue is no less gripping.
Mantel likes to point out how Cromwell was always moving, jumping from task to task, an impatient workaholic whose favorite words were “speed,” “haste,” and “please accelerate this.” Some viewers might find that hard to believe—the series can feel slow, especially early on. But the deliberate pace is by design. Politics is slow, after all; the Reformation didn’t happen overnight. The show us takes us every step of the way as Cromwell makes each crafty calculation, every strategic maneuver. A king’s whims need to be backed up by paper. If Henry wants something, then Cromwell’s got to draft bills, lobby Parliament, manage Dukes, persuade scholars, dissuade priests, write a whole lot of letters—and only after all that can heads roll.
Watching a consummate operator like Cromwell work the gears is as fascinating as it is illuminating, and even the slowest moments are key to building the tension that pays off in the later episodes. I mentioned Frank Underwood and Littlefinger earlier for a reason: This is a deep-dive look into how grimy politics can be. Like House of Cards and some of the quieter, non-dragon stretches of Game of Thrones, Wolf Hall is playing chess, not checkers. It’s a game worth savoring.