As Henry VIII (Ruairi O’Connor) and Catherine of Aragon (Charlotte Hope) suffer personal losses and consider what might have been, I too pondered what Starz may have missed out on by not greenlighting its own full Tudor series from the start so we could spend more time in this world. The Spanish Princess is the only installment—of what can loosely be called the War of the Roses Anthologies—to get a Part 2; the journey began with Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson) in the BBC’s The White Queen, and continued to her daughter Lizzie (Jodie Comer) in what became Starz’s The White Princess. These short series (each with a different set of actors) all highlight the richness inherent in an investigation into the lives and hidden agency of women in England’s courts, and how much more time we could and should have spent with each. Based loosely on the historical novels of Philippa Gregory, the stories of these women connect in so many ways, including players who may not be sovereign themselves but whose influence was keenly felt.
Because of their short episode counts, though, these series have to more or less race through time. The Spanish Princess got a reprieve after it was officially picked up for a second run of eight episodes, but even still, there is hardly time to catch one’s breath before we speed into another tragic pregnancy for the now-Queen Catherine. And yet, what the first four episodes of the new season show with great success is the albatross effect that has on Catherine and her abilities as a ruler. The other queens of these series have had a certain amount of influence thanks not only to their wit and wiles but in their ability to produce heirs. Catherine doubles down on the first, but falters in the latter; she is shown unabashedly as a warrior queen—in striking pregnancy armor—one who is more than able to rule and provide good counsel to Henry. But her inability to produce a son for Henry erodes his confidence and ultimately his adoration for her. Increasingly, she’s essentially patted on the head and sent to the shadows to focus on her pregnancy rather than matters of state.
This is also mirrored in the struggles of Henry’s sister Meg (Georgie Henley) in Scotland, a strong woman who must nevertheless constantly fight for any kind of respect from the clansman. Her being English is a barrier, like Catherine’s Spanish heritage was regarding the English throne, but it’s really more that she’s a woman—and specifically a mother. The series in no way reduces the importance of motherhood, though; Lina (Stephanie Levi-John), a fan-favorite from the first season (giving a historically-accurate portrayal of a WOC in Tudor England), is in a loving marriage with Oviedo (Aaron Cobham) and has a happy home life where she relishes her domestic role that he shares in. Lady Pole (Laura Carmichael), too, lives for her children and to keep them safe, even though her ever-changing role in the court’s political favor—by no fault of her own—has put that safety in jeopardy more than once.
What it comes down to, as it always does, are the whims of Henry VIII. He is one of England’s most infamous and legendary monarchs for a reason, and in Part 2 we start to see the paranoia and uncertainty that would ultimately consume him. Unsure that his marriage to his brother’s (probably-not-virginal) widow is blessed by God given the miscarriages and infant deaths Catherine has sustained, we see him start to consider other counsel and methods of proving that he is, indeed, the rightful king.
One of those choices is to bring the future Cardinal Wolsey (Philip Cumbus) into his confidence, a religious figure who would have an outsized influence on the king and the eventual schism between Henry and his wife. Amid many horrors, one of the pure delights of this new run of episodes is when the women of court (and some of the men) scheme against the smarmy and overly-ambitious Wolsey. Still, given the speed at which these plotlines happen (including interludes to Scotland, France, and the namechecking of a dizzying number of historical figures) the tone and pacing can wobble as we’re introduced to so many competing narratives. (See also, pun intended, an eye casually being torn out after a joust as nearly an afterthought).
Having said that, there are some things that are consistent both within this overall anthology and in the series by which all Starz historical shows are measured: Outlander. There are equals parts battles and romances, and the set designs, careful costuming, cozy exteriors, and rainy gray moors create a fantastic aesthetic. But it’s ultimately the intrigue of the court that garners the most interest, along with the faltering of the desired “Camelot” that Catherine planned for with Arthur and later with Henry. Because while history focuses on Henry and his mistresses and wives, The Spanish Princess continues to show us that Catherine is the beating heart of this court, and one of the only things holding it all together. While Henry is wrapped up in himself and his legacy, Catherine—over and over again—displays her unyielding optimism and loyalty to England itself. Like in the first installment, Charlotte Hope carries this series on her petite shoulders, summoning a constant inner strength from Catherine as she recovers from repeated losses. She is a warrior, after all—even though there is a simmering dread on our part knowing this is a battle she will not conquer.
The Spanish Princess premieres Sunday, October 11th on Starz.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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