TAKE CARE FOR THAT PRETTY NECK Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) introduces new wife Katherine Howard (Tamzin Merchant) to Princess Elizabeth (Laoise Murray).
Yes, True Blood has resumed, and Futurama and Weeds wait in the wings. But let's take a moment to hail The Tudors, which bows out this Sunday night at 9 after four seasons on Showtime. This opulent historical potboiler — running on a relentless energy of sex, death, and Renaissance-era politics — has balanced trashy soap opera with sharp writing and acting, memorable characters, a patina of literary sophistication, and enough T&A and bloody executions to keep any unreconstructed fan of old-school Masterpiece Theatre or The Sopranos on the edge of his or her seat.
The final season has not disappointed. Granted, for historical-thematic complexity combined with sexual intrigue, nothing beats those first couple of seasons. What could exceed the dramatic potential of Henry's shifting alliances with various courtiers including Cardinal Woolsey (Sam Neill) and Thomas More (Jeremy Northam), his battle with the pope, and the double foreplay that leads to the consummation of his relationship with and marriage to Wife No. 2, Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer), and her execution?
And there were plenty of burnings, hangings, and racking of other traitors along the way — not to mention Henry's voracious sexual appetite even when he was "happily" married. It's a tribute to series creator and writer Michael Hirst, that he's been able to whet anticipation and maintain suspense along the way, even as we realize at every turn what's coming, ticking off the helpful mnemonic for those six wives (divorced/beheaded/died//divorced/beheaded/survived), and knowing full well that little Edward must survive that fever to rule one day, and that Mary and Elizabeth too will ascend to the Throne.
So we're aware what's in store for Wife No. 5, poor Katherine Howard (Tamzin Merchant), when the aging Henry takes the teenager as his wife. But what sweet torture to watch it unfold. Merchant is an affectingly clueless queen. And as ill-fated adulterer Thomas Culpepper, Torrance Coombs is an effectively young and handsome foil to the king.
And what barbarity inside and outside of court! Sexually frustrated, Culpepper takes to the countryside with his pals, rapes a peasant woman, and then murders her husband. Equally brutal is the enigmatic Lord Surrey (Henry Howard, Katherine's cousin), a kind of crazed proto-fascist incensed that noble blood has been supplanted at court by so many common "new men." When he isn't off on a bat smashing windows and punching harlots in the face, he's delivering encomiums on his ancestry and translating Martial. Surrey is beautifully played by David O'Hara with an unplaceable accent (Scots German?). It's easy to cheer him when, justifiably accused of treason, he tells off the king's corrupt tribunal — and easy to sympathize when he's led off to be hanged, drawn, and quartered.
The producers seem to have given up on the idea of making Jonathan Rhys Meyers a truly fat Henry. But his decline is apparent in his limping gait, pasty complexion, and hoarse, staccato braying of contradicting royal pronouncements. By the final episode, he even believes in his own divine power to heal the sick. Alas, despite quick make-up sex with Wife No. 4, Anne of Cleves (a surprisingly effective Joss Stone, with her own odd Low Country accent), and a wise choice in an unwilling but pragmatic and truly regal (though heretical) Wife No. 6, Catherine Parr (the exquisite Joely Richardson, channeling her mother, Vanessa Redgrave), Henry's reign is a bust. The final episode is a kind of Ghosts of Christmas Past cavalcade — the formerly brilliant young humanist now a self-deluded tyrant. It's hard not to feel sorry for the guy.