After two rather negative analyses of films and TV, I decided to watch (and analyse) one of my favourite TV shows. The White Queen and His Dark Materials are my favourite BBC programmes. They are endlessly re-watchable, and massive comfort series.
The White Queen is based on three books by Philippa Gregory – THE WHITE QUEEN, THE RED QUEEN and THE KINGMAKER’S DAUGHTER. I adore this series – and re-watching for this post has made me eager to re-read the books. I went through a massive historical fiction phase about five years ago, and the original four installments in the Cousins’ War series remain my favourite historical fiction books. It also happens to take place in my favourite period of English history!
The reason these three book in particular work so well is that they tell the same story from three perspectives – the turmoil over the English Throne, spanning about two decades from the beginning of Edward IV’s reign (1461) to the ascendancy of Henry VII (1485).
Elizabeth Woodville is a Lancastrian “commoner” (the daughter of a country squire and a scandalous French noblewoman). She falls in love and marries Edward IV, the Yorkist King who’s taken the throne. Many are displeased by her rise – and the subsequent power of her family – and seek to destroy them all, particularly as she and her mother have dangerous powers granted by their water goddess ancestor.
Margaret Beaufort is a fanatical Lancastrian who despises the usurper Yorkists. She’s convinced it’s God’s will that her son, Henry Tudor, should ascend to the throne – and she’ll scheme his way onto it.
Anne Neville’s father is the King Maker – a powerful noble responsible for Edward IV’s ascent to the throne. He wants to be the power behind the throne, even if it means using his own daughters as pawns.
This triple perspective is what makes the TV show so incredible. These three women are the focus of the story, changing between enemies and allies as they forge their own paths to the crown.
Multi-POV is hard – I’ve talked about it before – but this show avoids one or more of the perspectives feeling less developed by really taking the time to establish their desires, but also the stakes and consequences of their decisions. They all feel real and complex, and thus the conflict in their goal doesn’t come across as superficial.
Their vastly different goals pits them against one another, and is responsible much of the tension. You want them each to succeed, but to do so means the others need to lose. Every victory is therefore also a loss, and so you feel both sets of emotions. It creates a depth and nuance to the show that would be missing if it focused on only one of them. Naturally, I have my favourite (and my least favourite) POV, which means some victories/losses are more powerful than others.
While Elizabeth is the “star of the show”, it’s not by much and not at the expense of the others. Margaret and Anne both have their independent story lines and aren’t relegated to secondary characters who “adorn” Elizabeth’s goals. This is partly due to how they’re introduced.
The first episode is almost exclusively centred on Elizabeth, which allows the world and external conflict to be set up as there aren’t two other character crowding the introduction. Once the Lancaster/York and Edward IV/King Maker tensions are established, Margaret and Anne are introduced. This means that the second episode can start delving into their desires without worrying whether the audience understands the external war that these three must take sides in.
When multi-POV is done right, written with care, it elevates a story, building emotional complexity as well as conflict.
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