Wolf Hall episode 2 review: Entirely Beloved

Mark Rylance’s Thomas Cromwell gains a new master and retains all the best lines as the BBC’s splendid Wolf Hall continues…

This review contains spoilers.

1.2 Entirely Beloved

Let’s start by conveying an apology from the BBC to the people of York. Fine place, that. Lovely Viking centre. Excellent Park and Ride.

After last week’s episode of Wolf Hall featured disappointingly few actual wolves, this week made up for it with a veritable menagerie. Animals featured were as follows. Horses (several), kittens (1), greyhounds (4), rabbits (2 – 1 real, 1 human in bunny ears), monkeys (1) and wasps (1 – my mistake, that was Mark Gatiss relishing every poisonous sting the script gave to antagonist Stephen Gardiner).

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In Wolf Hall’s second handsome hour, animals and omens were both in fine supply, the latter used to show Cromwell’s honed powers of manipulation. After translating Wolsey’s (in hindsight, spot-on) dark omen for his journey to York into a blessing, Thomas moulded King Henry’s fearful dream into a shape that suited his own political motives. Your dead brother wasn’t cursing you, he told Henry, he was urging you to become the king you should be. And any other omens that might come your way are simply saying the same.  

And so the fissure between England and Rome inches a little wider.

We learned from his Italian reminiscence that Cromwell’s been playing the same game since he was a child, inventing his own story, passing off shams as real, and staying behind to sell the mules afterwards. Wolf Hall’s version of Cromwell is an underdog manipulator kicking skilfully against the pricks. He’s clever, conniving, humorously cynical, and enormously rewarding to watch.

Not least because he gets all the best lines. Mark Rylance’s cool delivery of Cromwell’s stage asides, jibes and threats is an even greater attraction for Wolf Hall than Damian Lewis’ tights. This one’s as good a shot with his tongue as he is with a bow and arrow. Cromwell’s calm response, “bribe people”, to Wolsey’s question of what they should do in the face of increasing political bad blood was fun, but the delicious promise that George shouldn’t trouble God about avenging Wolsey’s attackers because he’ll “take it in hand” sent shivers.

After father figure Wolsey was hounded to the grave, Cromwell is planning to strike back. And something tells me that this time he’ll use more than just the one finger. Now a sworn member of the Privy Council, he’s in even deeper with the tangle of court politics. 

Entirely Beloved didn’t only showcase Cromwell’s political abilities, but also his personal characteristics. Whatever history says, Wolf Hall’s Cromwell behaves admirably to twenty-first century eyes (having an affair with his sister-in-law may not be top notch moral behaviour, but it was, as she said, her pleasure). Like us, he’s an outsider in this world (when Bonvisi characterises Cromwell’s fellow English as odd, he laughs “Christ aren’t they?”). He refused Mary Boleyn’s proposal as an unwise political move for both of them. He stuck up for the notion of a woman ruler to Henry’s cronies. And the final entry on the good side of the ledger – his children, as was observed, love him. How could a modern audience not get behind a man like that? Break all the stained glass windows you want, Cromwell, we’re on your side.

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Damian Lewis is doing good PR for King Henry in the drama too, helping his portrayal to the viewing public as less Robert Baratheon, more Ned Stark (albeit a Ned Stark up to his voluminous skirts in mistresses). Lewis’ part and performance highlight Henry’s human characteristics and vulnerability as a man, not a king. His public face is as much a mask as those in that cruel pageant depicting Wolsey being welcomed to hell. This Henry might miss the Cardinal of York daily, but it not being politically expedient to admit it, he has to publicly laugh at his downfall.

This proper, grown-up drama is becoming more devilishly enjoyable by the minute, so much so that it’s getting hard to wait between instalments. Until next week then. In the meantime, send quails.

Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, Three Card Trick, here.

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