Starz’s The White Queen pilot review

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I was first interested in the Wars of the Roses when earlier this year I started playing the video game War of the Roses: Kingmaker, developed by Fatshark and published by Paradox Interactive in late 2012. The Wars of the Roses was a time in British history (1455-1485) where rival houses for the throne, York and Lancaster, fought each other for control. In the game, you’re able to read small bits of information about the battles you’re fighting in, along with flavor text that tries to get you into the mindset of the soldiers who were fighting in these historical battles. I found the setting very interesting, but the amount of information was very limited. This left me hungering for more that I could get immersed in for the setting. Enter The White Queen, one of Starz’ latest dramas.

The White Queen is set during the Wars of the Roses and premiered its first episode on Starz on August 10th. In this review I will be discussing the events of the first episode, which means there will be spoilers of what takes place in it, but nothing of what comes later. Consider yourself warned.

The pilot episode, as you should expect, introduces us to our protagonist Elizabeth Woodville and her family, King Edward IV and his family, Lord Warwick, and other supporting cast. We don’t, however, meet some of the characters who are hinted as being important antagonists for the story, and instead we only hear of them. Right off the bat it’s clear that this is no amateur endeavor as the settings and costumes are both great. Very quickly we see the scene set for our characters and their important bits of history, and all of it is portrayed by actors who certainly seem to understand their roles and give a satisfying performance within the given script.

With these initial impressions hot out of the gate, I thought I may be in for quite a quality experience. Unfortunately, these thoughts didn’t last throughout. The writing in The White Queen is best described as inconsistent. There are some great moments in the episode that definitely show potential with phrases, expressions, and ideas that roll off the tongue in a way that is certainly a treat. A particular highlight is when Elizabeth and her mother Jacquetta meet Edward’s mother and a lashing of dramatic wit and tension is unleashed. If moments like that are more common in other episodes, there could be an interesting tale to tell here, but the other side of the writing’s inconsistency is a huge hurdle to overcome.

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The White Queen is first and foremost a story about the marriage between the Lancaster commoner Elizabeth and the York King Edward and all of the drama that comes as a result of that controversial wedding. This means that their relationship has a lot of heavy lifting to do in order to make the viewer invested in these events, and this is easily the worst part of the pilot. Just before the two of them meet, we learn that King Edward is responsible for the death of Elizabeth’s previous husband, leaving her as a widow with her two children. You would imagine that this is going to cause to some seriously negative feelings between Elizabeth and Edward, but those seem to totally vanish in mere moments.

Elizabeth appears, at least in part, charmed by the king from their first encounter, and Edward makes no effort to hide his intentions, asking to see her again. In their second encounter, he is unrepentantly affectionate, kissing Elizabeth and getting all manner of touchy feely. At this point, Elizabeth seems completely captivated, although she claims her only goal is to get her dead husband’s lands returned to her. In their third meeting, Edward throws himself upon Elizabeth, and while she goes with it for a bit, urges him to stop just before he gets his pants off – a notion he doesn’t listen to. She draws a dagger to throw him off, to which Edward declares treason. Elizabeth then threatens to kill herself if he comes any closer. She is hell-bent on not having sex with this guy, and for understandable reasons. Edward eventually concedes, leaving in a huff and declaring that she will never see him again.

It’s not long after that they do, in fact, see each other again. This is where things, frankly, just get stupid. Where in the previous encounter Elizabeth was almost raped and threatened suicide, and Edward left with his ego pained, this next encounter can only be described as make-up sex of the medieval era. Edward declares his love for Elizabeth and begs her to marry him, to which she accepts. How on Earth do you go from near rape-suicide to marriage just like that is completely beyond me and made the entire notion of them being in love completely fall flat on its face.

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The problem here is that The White Queen is heavily focused on its idea of being a romance with lots of lust, and this dedication to its genre really harms its storytelling potential. This is made clear in all of the nudity and sex that follows, which is supposed to get us on board with the love in their relationship, but instead it makes our protagonist seem like an idiot, driven by frivolous emotion and teenage lust, despite being a widow and mother of two. It’s one thing for a character to be flawed, and another thing entirely to be, at best, entirely unlikable, or at worst, completely unbelievable.

There are plenty of examples out there where an audience can very quickly get on board with love in a relationship and believe in it. It’s an entirely possible concept, yet The White Queen makes it feel rushed and improbable in the extreme. However, if perhaps you’re able to look past this massive camel hump of a flaw in your way, what else is there to see?

An important part of this era in history is that it was a very bloody civil war. We hear often in the first episode alone about how much the two houses hate each other, and how many people have died in the fighting, yet we never actually see even a glimpse of these fights. While I’m someone who just likes some good medieval combat and would have liked to see some, I think its absence here actually hurts the story being told.

Without seeing any glimpses of the battles, we are heavily missing out on context to make the drama important. Even if future episodes show some of these battles to some extent, an incredibly important one was already missed. After Elizabeth and Edward are married and have a rousing game of twenty-toes, Edward rides off to an important battle and the only part of it we see is a very brief shot of him in the war camp. That’s it. Not even for a brief second do we see any of the danger, strife, or struggle that he goes through. Instead, we only see a brief dream Elizabeth has worrying about him being in danger, rather than what is actually taking place. If the idea was for us to be in the same shoes as Elizabeth and not know the dangers Edward was facing, then we shouldn’t have seen the war camp at all. Upon his return, we see this passionate scene of their reunion brought on because Edward didn’t die in the battlefield, but it really just equates to more mindless lust because we aren’t shown any of the danger, whether implied or not. The show makes it seem trivial.

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By the end of the episode we get a taste of what points of drama are likely to unfold throughout the show, yet these points seem compelling enough to have a lot of interesting moments with twists and turns, rather than necessarily being a dirge of predictability. We also know that the show is not strictly adhering to historical events as both Elizabeth and Jacquetta have a talent for magic referred to as “the sight” by Jacquetta. At current, this magical ability is only appearing to be a lame foreshadowing plot device, but diverting from the true historical path means there may be yet more surprises in store for us.

Whether you should stick around to see if the show delivers or not is another question, however. The White Queen is not a bad show, let’s be clear, as it is quite well executed for what it is. However, its devotion to the idea of being a lusty romance hurts the story greatly by making the core plot point of Edward and Elizabeth’s love one that is both unlikable and unbelievable. The show makes some of its context feel trivial despite the importance the characters put on it, while at the same time it manages to still show moments of genuine intrigue.

If you want a show set in the medieval era with vapid, lusty sex scenes portrayed as love at its forefront, then this show should be right up your alley. It is totally possible that the brief moments of interesting dialogue, intrigue, and drama could make this into something more memorable if they become more prominent as they are developed. The potential is without a doubt there, but I have a hard time buying in to any of it when it revolves around a love that is so immature that it feels like an insult to try and pass it off seriously.

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Kyle McArthur
Kyle McArthur 17 posts

Freelance Writer. Game Designer. Poet. Life-long gamer. Jedi enthusiast. DM extraordinaire. Shrimp lover. <a href="http://rolltonotdie.com/">http://rolltonotdie.com</a>