New Television — From the July 2015 issue

New Television

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In the final seconds of Wolf Hall — the six-part BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s best-selling novels of high-stakes intrigue at the court of Henry VIII — the camera lingers on the terrified face of a man who has just achieved total political triumph. The man is Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister, a blacksmith’s son whose improbable rise to power has just been capped by the latest of his machinations on behalf of his monarch: the execution of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second queen, on trumped-up charges of adultery and treason. (Her real crime, as everyone knew, was her failure to provide a male heir.) Never mind that Cromwell had engineered the marriage to Anne in the first place. The perfect underling, he smoothly bends his ethics to his master’s whims.

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

Fresh from Anne’s execution, Cromwell seems to float (the scene is shot in dreamlike slow motion) down the length of a magnificent gallery in the palace toward a beaming Henry, who awaits him with arms outstretched in jubilation. As the king enfolds his minister in a bear hug, we see Henry’s exultant expression; he’s got what he wanted at last. Then the camera sneaks behind Henry’s back to give us a glimpse of Cromwell’s face, the lower half of which is pointedly obscured by the king’s massive arm: the minister is being literally as well as metaphorically smothered by the autocrat. The percussion-heavy music builds to a climax, and we see Cromwell’s green eyes staring horrified into space — into the future. At this moment we realize what he has just realized: from the heights of success, the only direction he can go is down. As, indeed, was the case. Within a few years it was Cromwell’s own head that rolled, after an attempt to orchestrate yet another marriage for Henry fell apart.

It was hard not to think of the perils of political success, and of the pleasures of political drama, as the recent television season came to an end — and the frenetic jockeying for the 2016 election began. Two of the great successes on TV this year have been shows about American presidential politics; in each, an underdog rises to power as relentlessly — and Pyrrhically — as Cromwell did. One is a drama: House of Cards (Netflix), about the revenge-fueled ascent of Frank Underwood, a Machiavellian congressman from the South, whose good-old-boy affability conceals a heart of ice. (The show’s first episode opens with him killing a neighbor’s dog with his bare hands: that’s how cold he is. When he pushes a pesky journalist in front of an oncoming subway train in the next season, you don’t even blink.) At the beginning of the first season, Underwood is passed over for a cabinet position he covets by the president he helped get elected — a betrayal that inspires him to concoct a vengeance of fantastic complexity. Among other things, he finesses a gubernatorial election to force the vice president to resign, allowing Underwood to replace him, and subsequently creates a scandal that causes the president to leave office. By the third season, which was released in February, Underwood has lied, cheated, cajoled, and murdered his way into the Oval Office.

If House of Cards holds up a cynical, only slightly distorted mirror to the ugly conniving that makes power possible, the other big hit about a presidential aspirant, the sourly comic Veep (HBO), satirizes the way in which ineptitude often seems to be rewarded in politics. Like Frank Underwood, Veep’s Selina Meyer is an underling who finds herself in the White House at the beginning of the new season (the show’s fourth, which ended in June). This being a comedy, Selina’s means of ascent are more or less the opposite of Frank’s: after three seasons of bumbling, babbling, and wisecracking herself into total irrelevance, she becomes president by pure accident, after her predecessor unexpectedly resigns. Thus far, she shows no sign that she’ll acquire any more gravitas as president than she had as veep. “Maybe we can put Afghanistan on eBay,” she tells her aides in the season’s first episode.

As different as these series are, their protagonists have both come to face what you might call the Cromwell problem: what happens when you finally get the power you’ve coveted for so long? Even more interestingly, the series are now facing that problem themselves. When the engine of your drama has been a character’s scheming for power, what happens when he or she finally gets it?

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