Review: The Spanish Princess Episode 2: “Fever Dream”

*Spoilers Ahead*

“Fever Dream” is a rollercoaster ride of an episode. The narrative picks up right where Episode 1 left off – with Catherine walking down the aisle. Catherine and Arthur exchange their vows and become husband and wife. Their marriage is to be the glue that binds Spain and England together, part of a treaty negotiated by their parents when they were just children.

Any pretense that the couple is marrying for love – rather than just for political expedience – is destroyed by Henry’s counterfeit love letters. If anything helped Catherine steel herself for the daunting journey to England, where her literal body was offered up to the Tudors on such a transactional basis, it was that she knew she would be received into the arms of a young romantic, a man whose passionate and poetic words had already softened her heart and given her strength.

Feeling cadaverous yet?

Henry’s proto-sexting is even more devastating for Arthur. Arthur may be the Prince of Wales, heir to all of England, but it’s clear he lives in his younger brother’s shadow. Henry is gregarious and lively. He excels at manly pursuits, such as sport and the hunt. He is clever. As we’ve seen, he’s also a bit of a poet. The Queen Mother clearly favors him too. She beams as she predicts how bright young Henry’s future prospects are.

Meanwhile, we’re inclined to agree when Henry mocks Arthur as “cadaverous” (an awesome burn, by the way). Henry’s mind games are so successful that Arthur is rendered literally flaccid. He fails to consummate his marriage on his wedding night. Catherine gamely tries to arouse the young man manually, but Arthur just ends up frustrated, protesting that he cannot be “rushed like a horse to stud.” They go to bed cold and alone. An inauspicious start to the future king and queen’s married life.

The next morning, Henry and his friends show up at Arthur’s doorstep in a ribald humor. Henry obliquely refers to his brother as a “celibate monk.” He crudely asks Arthur if he “mastered his Iberian thoroughbred.” Arthur, obviously unwilling to reveal last night’s impotence, instead brags to the other young men, saying “Gentleman, last night I was in Spain.” Catherine is none too happy with how events have unfolded.

Meanwhile, Lina learns some hard lessons about her future in Tudor England. A young courtier approaches Lina seeking to woo her. She rebuffs the man, claiming that the Infanta with choose her husband, but he informs her that, no, the Queen Mother calls the shots on that score. Strangely – because the courtier looks as least as old as the rest of the youngin’s on the show – Lina retorts that she’ll be marrying a man, not a boy.

Later, at the Tudor version of a wedding reception, we get ample family drama. We also meet Cardinal Wolsey for the first time, although he’s just a young chaplain here, and remarks to Henry that he hasn’t changed a bit from his school days, what with his antics and all. Arthur cajoles Catherine into dancing a dance she doesn’t know, but Aunt Maggie saves the day by whispering the moves (analogous to a dance Catherine does know) into her ear before they begin. After the first dance, Catherine follows Maggie out of the hall and falls on her knees before Maggie, begging forgiveness for the indirect role she’s played in Maggie’s brother’s death. Maggie refuses to address the controversy directly, but clearly she’s reappraising Catherine – not so bad after all?

Back at the dance, Henry has a bit of horseplay with Arthur that nearly escalates into the brothers trading blows. Arthur pushes Henry angrily. When Catherine returns to the hall, Henry literally sweeps her off her feet as part of the dance. The mood has soured at the perfect time, because the Scottish delegation arrives. King Henry is expecting them, but nobody let Catherine in on the secret. She advances on the hapless Scotsmen, exclaiming “you disgusting heathens, you dare to foul this day?” This was a fun line.

As it happens, the Scots are there to kick the tires on Margaret as a potential wife for their king, James IV. That’s a crass way to put it, but it’s about how Margaret feels. Margaret almost manages to convince the Queen Mother that the match is a bad idea. She can’t believe her father and grandmother are seriously considering letting those “Scottish thugs” take her back with them to Scotland “for that old king to pounce on.” When all is said and done though, Margaret is unfortunately sent off to marry the old king anyway. The crux of the matter is that Catherine’s dear mum Queen Isabella has never forked over the large dowry the English were counting on. The English are isolated, and they can’t afford to go on battling the Scottish. He may be old, fat, and not long for this world, but offering Margaret up to King James will buy at least a short reprieve from the incessant Scottish raids and the threat of invasion.

All is not right in Camelot with Arthur and Catherine, and the family knows it. The duo are bundled off to Ludlow Castle, on the Welsh border, in the hopes that the change of scenery with spark the flames of romance. A good talk with his Aunt Maggie lifts Arthur’s spirits. Nephew and aunt have a good hug and he heads off back to his room. When he arrives, we find Catherine still diligently strategizing on how to entice Arthur to consummate their marriage.

Catherine looks absolutely entrancing, as she embraces her Spanish roots. Wearing a white dress, which accentuates her flowing red hair, she’s sitting on the floor amidst a pile of pillows, a low table next to her illuminated by candles. Even cold-fish Arthur is moved by her entrancing visage. Arthur shows genuine interest in his new wife, and the two bond as Catherine shares stories about her life in Spain.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t love what came next. It felt hokey. A nod to our modern commitment to multiculturalism and diversity. Catherine wants to help Arthur understand who she is, so she shares a bit about her life in Spain. Essentially, she’s saying that Spain – and by extension she, Catherine – are unique from the rest of Christendom thanks to the legacy of Al-Andalus, and the blended culture it birthed.

“We are Catholics. And we made all of Spain Catholic. And yet there is another side to us. … A belief in the One True Catholic Faith, but I respect the beauty of Islam. I want you to know these two sides of me.”

No doubt there’s a great deal of truth in that sentiment. As I wrote in my review of Episode 1, I’m fully aware that The Spanish Princess is “woke,” and I’ve already made my peace with certain historical depictions that I find questionable. This dialogue is another example of a creative decision that feels like modern politically-correct pandering, and which pulls me out of a good period drama’s immersive effect. It’s not that I have any problem with the sentiment expressed. Rather, it’s that the dialogue doesn’t feel right for Catherine’s character. Instead, it feels like what it is: modern revisionist dialogue that force feeds a viewpoint to fans in order to establish the show’s politically-correct bona fides and, presumably, make Catherine more sympathetic to modern viewers.

But do we have even one iota of evidence that Catherine felt so appreciative of Islam? Not that they have to characterize her as hating it, but let’s be real: her parents completed the Reconquista and, moreover, she was a famously pious Catholic. Without some historical support, isn’t it a stretch to give her this level of fondness for the religion of her family’s erstwhile enemies? It just seems like such a distractingly modern touch.

In any case, Arthur and Catherine finally get over their rocky start, and seem to be falling in love. They also passionately consummate their marriage. This is kind of a big deal. In real life, Catherine denied ever consummating her marriage. The truth is, we don’t really know what happened. But make no mistake: depicting it this way is a major decision. Either Catherine lied all her life about this, or she didn’t. Either she and Henry were later married in accordance with church law or they weren’t. And, lest we forget, that question of fact was central to the debate over annulment, which, in turn, led to the destruction of the Catholic Church in England. I don’t know the true story anymore than you do, I’m just pointing out it’s noteworthy that the creators chose to portray Catherine’s marriage as something other than a loveless affair.

Tragically – or not – Catherine’s marriage to Arthur won’t last. Like the Plagues of Egypt, the “sweating sickness” brought misery to the people on more than one occasion. This time, it strikes down Lina and Arthur. Oviedo saves Lina, giving us a scene of literal bodice-ripping as he nurses her back to health.

Arthur, however, is not so lucky. He tries to keep Catherine away from his sick bed, but she insists on staying by his side. They exchange tender parting words, but he quickly succumbs to the mysterious sweating sickness (whose true cause is still unknown even today). Catherine is inconsolable. She hadn’t known Arthur long, but they were married before God, and, truly, they were starting to connect. Now she’s alone again (except for Lina, although that’s a master-servant relationship). She doesn’t get long to mourn, however, before she has to start thinking about her own future. King Henry essentially says “you better hope you’re pregnant.” We’re left wondering what dark fate awaits Catherine if her brief rendezvous with Arthur doesn’t result in a child.

Overall, this episode was a noticeable improvement over Episode 1. There were some gorgeous shots and sets. I really enjoyed the exchanges between Arthur and Catherine, and thought overall both actors did a fine job of selling their evolution as husband and wife. Lina’s storyline hasn’t been very interesting so far, particularly since her and Oviedo don’t have a lot of chemistry. It also seems to me that, if you’re going to sell me on the idea that this dark-skinned black woman is Catherine’s Moorish lady-in-waiting, I really want to know more about her experiences. Are we really supposed to believe she’s just going about her business in a Tudor England that’s just as “colorblind” as modern casting departments? In any case, she’s a likable character, and I’m still curious to see where her storyline goes.

Bottom-line: 6/10 The Spanish Princess has some beautiful visuals and a plot that’s getting more interesting as it goes. If the actors can pull it off, the shift in focus from Catherine and Arthur to Catherine and Henry could really kick the series into high gear.

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