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‘Tudors’ closes history book on Henry’s reign

After four seasons and 38 episodes, Showtime’s “The Tudors” will have its series finale on June 20. And I, for one, will be sad to see it go. I say that even though I was a history major in college and now spend the aftermath of every episode answering questions from my wife about whether a particular event really happened, or what the eventual fate of a beloved or hated character is. I neve
/ Source: TODAY contributor

After four seasons and 38 episodes, Showtime’s “The Tudors” will have its series finale on June 20. And I, for one, will be sad to see it go.

I say that even though I was a history major in college and now spend the aftermath of every episode answering questions from my wife about whether a particular event really happened, or what the eventual fate of a beloved or hated character is. I never expected to like the series because I assumed it would be entirely focused on the king and his women, and would resemble a cable TV version of “General Hospital.”

Though “The Tudors” isn’t going to be shown as a documentary in history classes anytime soon, and though I spent the past two seasons complaining that star Jonathan Rhys Meyers was at least 150 pounds lighter than the monarch he was playing (once the king injured his leg jousting in 1536, his workout regime went downhill in a hurry), I’ll miss the cable network’s treatment of one of the most fascinating periods in English history. I’m a sucker for period pieces, and this is one of the few to take on a complex historical era and pull it off.

With Henry VIII as the focus, there is the inevitable soap opera feel to all the hookups and breakups in the royal court. However, the king’s personality and libido often obscure the fact that he ruled during one of the most volatile periods of English history. He was the king at the time of the Protestant Reformation in Europe, and during his nearly 38-year reign, England broke from Rome, placed the English monarch and the head of the English church, and flirted with more Protestant ideas before tacking back toward orthodoxy.

All that made it a confusing  — and a dangerous — time to be an Englishman. Trying to follow the king’s theology was a losing proposition for many who held too tightly to their Catholic faith and were persecuted or died for it, or who went too far in the other direction and were executed as heretics.

We see all that in “The Tudors,” both in terms of royalty and clergy caught on the wrong side of the faith divide, and local rebellions that sought to restore the old faith. The show made much of this conflict, perhaps because it combined with the usual court intrigue to produce the violence that made the perfect counterpart to all the sex in the court.

King Henry VIII had a legendary temper, particularly as he aged and his health worsened. We saw his explosions often in the third season, as he raged to Thomas Cromwell before sending him to the execution grounds, and we continue to see the violence grow more capricious as the series winds to a close. The king went from being loved to being feared during his reign, and “The Tudors” did a nice job of tracking that process.

Of course, take all of the historical information with a healthy degree of skepticism: The show freely admits to taking historical liberties in order to be more entertaining — and befitting a TV show. Everyone is good looking, even Anne of Cleves, King Henry’s fourth wife, who was dismissed because he wasn’t attracted to her. (Helpful tip: If you’re looking for someone viewers would expect a king to find ugly, perhaps Joss Stone isn’t the right person to cast.)

It was no accident that “The Tudors” focused much of its time on Henry VIII’s younger days. Though we think of him as he was in his later portraits when he was grossly overweight, he was a tall, athletic young man who was well educated and able to impress a Europe skeptical of the Tudors and of England in general.

In fact, the show kept Henry relatively young and vibrant well beyond the point of historical accuracy. Though we saw footage of his wounds being drained and his gait slowing to a hobble, it’s only in the past couple of weeks that he has looked appreciably older, and the old king would be flattered at Rhys Meyers’ thinness.

But if I have one complaint, it isn’t Henry’s physical appearance — it’s that the show didn’t go on longer. It may be uncharitable to complain about a 38-episode look at 16th-century history, but the show’s notoriously fast pace took on a whole new level over the past couple of seasons.

Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, was there for about three seconds, and then was dead. Sixth wife Catherine Parr’s three-and-a-half-year reign passes by even quicker on the screen. I would have loved to have seen the declining years of Henry VIII’s reign and the scramble for influence as people looked beyond him for their future prosperity to have gotten more screentime than it has.

And if Showtime’s next generation of shows doesn’t generate the same ratings or buzz, bring back Sarah Bolger and do a spin-off: “The Tudors: Bloody Mary.” That way we could see how King Henry VIII’s eldest daughter tries to undo her father’s reforms, with the accompanying bloodshed that gave the queen her nickname. With the success of “The Tudors” and that kind of historical record to build upon, how could such a spin-off go wrong?

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @craigberman.