Set in 1464, the pilot sets up the larger story that will play out over the course of the series. We meet Elizabeth Woodville, a young widow with two sons, who, in a desperate plea to retain her husband’s lands with the recent change in the English throne, ventures into the woods with her boys to meet the King and his men out on the road. That new king, Edward IV, is intrigued enough to stop and hear her case, and over the protests of his cousin, the Earl of Warwick, he follows her home to meet the family. He tells her to write down her claim and he will return to retrieve it the next day, which he does.
The two are immediately smitten with each other, and although Elizabeth’s brothers fear she will be yet another conquest for the playboy king, she swears she won’t, and she’s true to her word when she meets Edward in the woods to wish him well in battle and he very nearly rapes her until she gets the upper hand with his dagger. She tells him she’ll cut her throat before she’ll be his mistress. Shamed, he throws the belt and sheath for the dagger at her feet and tells her he won’t see her again.
That lasts about as long as you think it will. Elizabeth’s father tells her the next day that the king has summoned a dozen men and will be coming to get them. Her mother, Jacquetta, insists on a big show of support and when the contingent arrives, Edward dismounts and tells Elizabeth he can think of nothing but her; she says the same (he does not apologize). He says he must have her and if she won’t be his mistress she will have to be his wife. She’s disbelieving but he swears it’s true, and the next morning her marries her in front of her mother and crosses the palm of the suspect priest with a bag of coins and a knowing look.
Afterward, Jacquetta sends the newlyweds down the path to a hunting lodge and they fall into bed and spend the day there, leave it long enough to dine with her family, and then fall in bed again until he leaves for battle. As he dresses to depart, he starts listing out what she should do if he’s killed–the marriage must be secret, any heir must be whisked away, etc. As he leaves, her brother storms up and tells her she’s a fool, and worse. She shows him the ring and he softens but tells her she’s been duped–that the marriage isn’t real.
She frets on that while Edward is in battle, but when he returns safe and sound, she says nothing. She does ask when they can tell people, or even her father, and he says not yet. She consults with her mother, who’s gifted with magic and tells her she can have anything she wants if she is willing to pay the price for it. She’s put things in motion toward that end by having Elizabeth select a thread with a submerged ring on the end. When Elizabeth reels that ring in, it’s the one she’s married with.
Edward returns to court and summons the local Earls for an announcement. Jacquetta fears it will confirm her son’s thought that Elizabeth’s marriage was a ruse and he will announce his engagement to another, but Edward comes clean to Warwick and tells him the truth. Warwick rages and tells Edward it will be his ruin but Edward announces it to the full court anyway.
Back at home, Elizabeth finally gets a love letter addressing her as Queen and collapses with the realization that now everyone knows, and it was not a lie. As she dresses for the trip and her mother discusses the plans for her sons, Elizabeth has her first vision and tells Jacquetta her sons must stay close to her. Jacquetta says they will.
Elizabeth rides into London with her family and gets her father’s blessing and is then introduced to some of the women of the court who will challenge her–Margaret Beaufort, who knows Jacquetta; Warwick’s wife, and Duchess Cecily, Edward’s mother, who loses a pissing contest with Elizabeth and Jacquetta when she threatens to disown him/out him as a bastard son to signify her disapproval of the union.
As Edward and Elizabeth retire from their first day as a formal marriage, Elizabeth asks if Warwick likes her and Edward says it’s not an easy task because Warwick had his own plans but she is his queen. Later in the evening, Elizabeth leaves her bed and goes to check on her sons and finds her mother scrying with a candle. Elizabeth admonishes her for practicing witchcraft so boldly and then asks what she saw. Jacquetta confirms that Cecily and Warwick are not to be trusted. Elizabeth asks about the children she will have, but before Jacquetta can answer, she has another vision of her own, of someone holding a blade with her blood on it. And so we begin.
The cast from the top down is superb, from Max Irons (son of British theater/film royalty Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack) as Edward to the always-awesome Janet McTeer as Jacquetta; James Frain, duplicitous as ever as Warwick, and Caroline Goodall as the seething Cecily. Elizabeth is played by Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson, who is new to me. She plays the character as sort of bewildered by her circumstance and emboldened to do something with it, and it works.
I liked the meandering way the pilot unfolded–it was, dare I say, mild compared to what we know STARZ for. Some PG-13 sex but no blood and gore. You can catch the pilot online as part of a free STARZ preview in the U.S. here.
New episodes air on Fridays at 9 pm E/8 C on Starz in the US and on Super Channel in Canada beginning September 6th.
Photos courtesy of STARZ.