'Wolf Hall' Episode 6: 'Master of Phantoms' Recap

(Photo: Courtesy of Ed Miller/Playground & Company Pictures for MASTERPIECE/BBC)

Last week, Thomas Cromwell did what was right for the country, and saved Henry VIII's life. This week, his choice comes back to bite him. Wolf Hall reaches its inevitable conclusion, as Anne Boleyn fails to save herself. And Cromwell watches her fate, knowing one day it will most likely be his own.

Cromwell: I need guilty men, Harry. So I’ve found men who are guilty. Though not necessarily as charged."

Cromwell has, from the beginning, been a fixer for the various factions in the royal family when needed. Mostly for Henry, of course. Fixing it so the king can divorce Katherine, fixing it so he can marry Anne, and fixing it again when people, like Harry Percy, attempted to stand in the way of this project. But last week, Anne asked him for a fix too far - to compromise the Lady Mary, Katherine of Aragon's daughter, the only person who could be considered currently standing between Anne's children and the throne. It was the beginning of the rift that continues into this week, as Anne accuses him of betraying her, and reminds him in a rage that those who can be made, can be unmade. Little does she know she's speaking of her own fate.

This week opens with a stunning image, as Anne is dragged up the long dining hall for Cromwell to carve for the awaiting guests of her enemies at the table. Faced with Henry's request to remove this troublesome wife, Cromwell will take the easiest way. He will set up Anne, the same way she had requested last week for him to set up Lady Mary. Her ladies in waiting, including Lady Rochford, are ready to sing like canaries that she's sleeping with anyone and everyone but Henry. So much for "this is not my aim, these are not my methods".

(Photo: Courtesy of Ed Miller/Playground & Company Pictures for MASTERPIECE/BBC)

At least taking down Anne gives Cromwell the opportunity to take down the other targets he's been eying since Wolsey's death. They'll be the collateral damage: George Boleyn, Henry Norris and William Brereton. Nevermind that George is Lady Rochford's husband, or that Anne is his sister. Rochford will happily sit there accusing him anyway. This interfamily-incest angle might feel a bit to akin to Game of Thrones, but that's history for you. And it's easy to use a teenage braggart like Mark Smeaton to bostler these charges, especially after Anne humilated him in court. But even Cromwell admits he didn't think it would be that easy. He promised so long ago he'd make them pay for what they did, and Norris' horror in realizing that Cromwell has been biding his time all these years is a wonder to behold. Revenge is a dish best served cold, indeed.

Lady Rochford: "They can't call it a bastard if it looks like a Boleyn."

It’s the bit with Francis Weston that comes off the cruelest. Weston wasn't one Cromwell meant to catch in the net. The problem is, he's the closest to a genuinely guilty party, and the linchpin to make the charges stick. After all, unlike the other charges - which are all a bunch of he said she said - Anne actually did give Weston money. And it's here that Cromwell falters for a moment. After all, what has Weston done? His only sin was being guilty of loving Anne, and hoping one day to marry her after Henry died. One has only to look in Rylance’s eyes to see how much he hates this, even as he lumps the guy in with the others. But then again, most people hate their jobs. 

(Photo: Courtesy of Ed Miller/Playground & Company Pictures for MASTERPIECE/BBC)

It’s a brilliant bit of business, when it comes time for the trial, tricking Boleyn into reading aloud insults to the King he never uttered previously. Up until then George thinks he's winning the battle. All it takes is Cromwell telling him not to read the words aloud, and George is off to the races. "The king cannot copulate with a woman, he has neither skill nor vigour," indeed. But knowing how Cromwell feels about having to use Weston like this makes Anne's trial all the more difficult to watch, as Cromwell uses her kindness toward the young man against her in front of the court. It's the only charge she says yes to. It doesn't matter. They are both found guilty.

The hardest scenes to watch, however, are those surrounding Anne. Foy is brilliant here, as Anne holds out hope that she will survive, the whole way to the end. From the moment she's imprisoned with Lady Sheldon, all the way to the headsman's axe. Somehow this nightmare she woke up in, the day after Henry's accident and her miscarriage, will end. She'll just clutch her hands the right way, or be humble in just the right tone, and all will be forgiven.

Cromwell: "The phrasing is the kings, and don’t tell me what we can or can’t do, we’ve never tried a queen before."

Even the day of her execution - brilliantly interspresed with Cromwell inspecting the platform the day before - she still believes. Even as Anne's ermine is taken off, and they remove the halfmoon headdress she made so popular. If she just says the right words, standing on the platform, in a nice, quiet voice. Henry will walk out and save her, pull the blindfold off, and say "just kidding!" He'll change his mind, take her back. He changed the religious trajectory of any entire nation for her, after all. 

(Photo: Courtesy of Ed Miller/Playground & Company Pictures for MASTERPIECE/BBC)
(Photo: Courtesy of Ed Miller/Playground & Company Pictures for MASTERPIECE/BBC)

Anne maneuvered herself all the way to becoming queen, by forcing the king to promise to marry her before she would grant him sex. But, like all great Shakepearean tragedies, her greatest strength that got her to where she was also was her greatest weakness, and the reason for her downfall. She was never prepared to hold the Queenship once she got there. You see that hope in her eyes that she will wake up from this, all the way until those eyes are blindfolded and her head lopped off. From the look in Cromwell’s, as Henry joyfully embraces him afterwards, we know that when his own time to stand up there comes, he will have no such illusions.

One more item of note: as part of the opening scenes this week we see Anne sitting with Elizabeth in her arms, offering how cute she is to Henry. It struck me watching that scene how that little girl in her mother's lap will grow up to be Elizabeth I, one of the greatest monarchs to ever rule. And her forty-five years on the throne would make up a decent portion of England’s "1000 Years of Monarchy" highlight reel. Anne Boleyn may have died, but she got her wish - to give birth to a great monarch who would rule the kingdom for decades. Anne Boleyn gave birth to the child who will one day be Henry's greatest legacy, and he can’t see it, because she has the wrong parts.

PATRIARCHY! **jazzhands**


Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. A DC native, Hufflepuff, and Keyboard Khaleesi, she spends all her non-writing time taking pictures of her cats. Regular bylines also found on MSNBC, Paste, Primetimer, and others. A Woman's Place Is In Your Face. Cat Approved. Find her on BlueSky and other social media of your choice: @anibundel.bsky.social

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