Welcome to Wolf Hall, and the world of 16th century politics and intrigue. It is the year 1529, and the issue of the first marriage of King Henry VIII is coming to a head. And, as the opening placard tells us, the king is not a forgiving man.
Wolsey: These days, twenty-four hours feels like victory.
Wolf Hall begins as it means to go on, a program that at once overwhelms you with the rich tapestry it presents, while having no inclination towards showy exposition. We begin in the middle of the current power struggles of King Henry VIII's court in the late 1520s. It is only hours before the Fall of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce), Archbishop of York, and almoner to Henry since his ascent to the throne in 1509. In fact, this could have been the hour of the Fall itself, as two noblemen stand before Wolsey, demanding he hand over the Great Seal. That is, if it hadn't been for the presence and quick thinking of one Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance), lawyer to Wolsey, and our anti-hero of this piece.
This may be the 1500s, but make no mistake, Cromwell is an anti-hero on par with Walter White of Breaking Bad or Don Draper of Mad Men. He is a hustler. A fast-on-his-feet, quick thinking and daring bootstrapper, who as a child was making money on the streets with one of the oldest cons known to our modern world - the Three Card Monte. As he tells Wolsey (in one of our many flashbacks, this one probably dated around 1521 or so), most men thought they could easily beat a "child's card trick." That hustle got him in good with Wolsey from the start, the Cardinal himself being from lowly beginnings as well, as the son of a Butcher. Upon meeing Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, the Archbishop rejoices - finally someone whose lowly birth is actually lower than his own.
Cromwell: The rumor is the king has moved on from Mary Boleyn to her flat-chested sister.
Sticking with the memories of 1521, Wolsey has just, with a thoughtless flick of his wrist, made a powerful enemy, that of the Boleyn family. As Cromwell stands there awaiting his audience, Wolsey blocks Thomas Boleyn's daughter Anne and her plans to marry Harry Percy (Harry Lloyd), a man above the station to which she's been originally assigned to wed. To him, this is merely practical. After all, the Boleyns are already a pain in his poltical side. Their older daughter Mary Boleyn is the king's not-quite-official mistress during this time period. An issue made only more pertinent as the King ramps up his requests to find a reason to annull his first marriage, which continues to not have produced any sort of male heir.
All that is coming to fruition in modern day - or will soon, just as soon as those noblemen we met in the opener, Norfolk (Bernard Hill) and Suffolk (Richard Dillane) ride hither and yon (at this time of night, in this weather) to fulfill requests from Cromwell that he made up right then and there to buy time. But as we see in another set of memories, these dated 1527 or so, the Cardinal has been attempting to buy time for months now. Despite the insistance by those like Norfolk that Wolsey is out to establish his own power, the truth is the Cardinal has been working franctically behind the scenes to get the pope to hand over some sort of annullment agreement to end Henry's marriage to Katherine of Aragon (Joanne Whalley).
Anne Boleyn: Do you think I am a simple person?
Cromwell: You may be. I don't know you.
There have been plots to go to France and bring up ruling commissions in the Pope's absence, during convenienty timed wars. There have been papal envoys. There have been distasteful trials where Katherine has insisted upon her maidhood at the time of the wedding in front of men who would rather make bawdy jokes about her wedding night. Every one of them a failure. And though Henry may be throwing him over now, Wolsey still loves the King and wants to do whatever will pull himself back into the man's good graces.
Wolsey just keeps losing - much like Cromwell, who during the same time loses his beloved wife and daughters to the sweating sickness. Cromwell is, in our present, a man who has little left but his work, and his ties to the man who gave him a chance to be more than someone who sat around hearing about fence line complaints. Too bad that man is sinking fast.
Perhaps that's why, when we finally rejoin the present for good, we see Cromwell sticking by his man, even as the rats around him, from Bishop Stephen Gardiner (Mark Gatiss) to the lute player Mark Smeaton (Max Fowler), desert the sinking ship. In quick succession over the back half of the hour we have one-on-ones with the most important principle players. There's the aforementioned Norfolk, who learns that Cromwell once fought with the French army. There's Thomas More (Anton Lesser), who we learn is Cromwell's main personal enemy. There's Anne herself (Claire Foy), who clearly has no interest in anyone who is not going to get her what she wants. And finally, after waiting almost the entire episode, we finally meet King Henry (Damien Lewis), to whom Cromwell puts himself forth to argue for and plead his master's case.
Henry: You want a king to huddle indoors like a sick girl?
Cromwell: That would be ideal, for fiscal purposes.
But our earliest flashback is actually one of the last of the hour, a memory within a flashack, to 1495 or so. After his wife passes Cromwell honors her by fulfilling her (foolish) request for him to see his father one last time. It brings back memories of when he was blackmith's boy Thomas Cromwell, being beaten half to death by his drunken father. It's an important memory - this is the lowest place he once was, the place he is working hard never to get back to. This is the story of how he rose.
As the hour draws to a close, we see Cromwell, defiantly insisting on painting the Cardinal's Coat of Arms brighter, even as they arrive in exile. Loyal until the end - or until the time is right to change sides. Next week, we'll find out just how long until that moment arrives.