Wolf Hall episode 4 review: The Devil’s Spit

Spying, bribery and torture all play a part in this week’s Wolf Hall. How very twenty-first century…

This review contains spoilers.

1.4 The Devil’s Spit

Aptly for the story of a man who seldom wastes one, words were a preoccupation of this week’s Wolf Hall. Legal or sanctified, empty or dissembling, words could get you killed or save your skin in The Devil’s Spit. Say the wrong thing – as Lady Rochford very nearly did to elicit Cromwell’s warning, “careful” – and court danger. Refuse to say the ‘right’ thing – as Thomas More did with the oath naming Henry as supreme head of the Church – and lose your head.

“Words, just words” is what the young More told a teenage Cromwell when asked what he was reading (cheekily predating Hamlet’s almost identical response by a good seventy years). More wasn’t so dismissive when it came to the importance of words in his prison cell. “You just have to say some words” Cromwell told him, showing his modern politician’s ability to separate public declaration from private conviction. An oath, whatsoever it swears, isn’t worth dying for according to Cromwell. More had his sights set on the long game, however. He planned to be rewarded in heaven and remembered as a martyr in history.

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The language of the law was also under question. “Forgive the language. We try to write the law so it is not personal”, Cromwell assured Anne. However he tries to write it, Wolf Hall shows otherwise.

That’s the beauty of this series. It busts open official records to tell the emotional stories curled up inside. It teaches that the Reformation wasn’t inspired by careful pragmatism or economic prudence, but by lust. A man wanted out of a marriage so he could get his end away with a new squeeze and he turned the country on its head to do it. Revenge, resentment, fear and desire are behind each letter of the law, says Wolf Hall. Why else would it revisit More’s youthful snub of Cromwell at the moment of his execution? Personal rivalries and ambitions cast long shadows over each bill and proclamation scratched out on parliamentary paper.

Episode four mirrored the preceding hour by showing Cromwell’s failure to persuade a prisoner of conscience to save his body by betraying his soul. Last week, Bainham was executed for refusing to cleave to Rome, and this week, More was executed for refusing to cleave from it. Putting the fates of the two men side by side gave the drama an opportunity to show casualties on both sides of the religious war, and to contrast the methods of the Henrician Court’s “great persuaders”.

While Thomas More recites Latin and uses the rack, Cromwell buys people and information. (Spying, bribery, blackmail and torture; open any twenty-first century newspaper to see just how similar those “disordered times” are to our own. “No madam, we don’t do that” Cromwell told an increasingly desperate Anne. If only our governments could say the same with any conviction. Mantel and Straughan knew precisely what they were doing bringing up such themes in the present day.)

Wolf Hall’s version of Cromwell may not be a torturer, but planting spies in rebellious households is hardly an upstanding approach. (Honestly, if these aristos just learned to spoon out their own peas and brush their own hair, they’d have got into a lot less trouble). That’s another entry to make underneath this drama’s enduring and fascinating question: what kind of man was Thomas Cromwell? A serpent? A ruffian? Strong and robust? Born tricky?

That’s what they’re saying about him at the time. How though, episode four asked, will he be remembered? With its portrait-sitting and talk of being recorded in the annals of history, the other preoccupation of the hour was posterity. In a rare glimpse of the author’s hand, Cromwell dryly observed that Thomas More’s account in which “we’ll be the fools and oppressors and he’ll be the poor victim” would be the one preserved. (Historians watching must have templed their palms and nodded at that, just as the rest of us swallowed uncomfortably and looked shiftily away when Henry or Anne spoke with certainty of their future son.)

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It’s a brilliant theme, one that demands the viewers ask in turn who will be recorded as the ‘oppressors’ and ‘poor victims’ of our own age. And perhaps more importantly for the media, who is currently writing the ‘play’ that will identify them as such.

Both oppressor and poor victim in this week’s episode was Claire Foy’s tremendous Anne Boleyn. Wolf Hall’s demonstration of the precarious positions of its women, who can be bought, sold, sent to nunneries or bricked up alive, is wonderfully frank. The history of women at court, it shows, is written in blood stains on the carpet.

The two episodes remaining suddenly don’t seem like enough of this terrific, grown-up drama, which has been criticised elsewhere for its slow pace. Wolf Hall is slowly paced, certainly. It’s slowly paced like moving treacle, gleaming, luxurious and irresistible. 

Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, Anna Regina, here.

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