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Even For Twisted Mother-Son Duo Mary & George, Incest Is Off the Table

On this one front, Starz's historical romp shows greater restraint than other prestige fare.
  • Julianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzine in Mary and George (Photo: Starz)
    Julianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzine in Mary and George (Photo: Starz)

    Without the aid of modern medicine, period and fantasy TV shows tend to portray childbirth as a traumatic and extremely bloody experience (looking at you, House of the Dragon). Psychosexual historical drama Mary & George takes a different approach, not by turning labor into a fairytale, but rather by underscoring the stacked odds of prospering outside your station during this era.

    When George Villiers (Nicholas Galitzine) lands with a literal thud in 1592, his mother, Mary (Julianne Moore), radiates irritation at the midwives who dropped her child and toward her newborn, who happens to bear the weight of being a second son that will inherit nothing of worth. George has only been in the world for mere minutes, and already his mother has condemned him: “You will merit nothing of any human value. What use are you to anybody?” Certainly, it is an inauspicious beginning for a mother-son pairing that will use sexuality to rise through the ranks. Thankfully, the boudoir antics are not with each other.

    Opening with Mary’s cruel pragmatism immediately conveys a relationship with her offspring that is more about survival than nurture. While Mary’s instruction to not cut the umbilical cord (“leave him attached for now”) might hint at an overly close bond to come, this twisted dynamic never strays into intimate territory. Social climbing is at the heart of a Jacobean setting that places a premium on sexual fluidity without resorting to the tried-and-tested period and fantasy incest narrative. “He’ll be yours, mine, ours,” Mary tells her son about the King, but she doesn’t plan on entering a romantic threesome. The steamy series artwork is the only evidence of a Mary, George, and King James (Tony Curran) ménage à trois.

    Adapted from historian Benjamin Woolley’s The King’s Assassin: The Secret Plot to Murder King James I, George is described as becoming the “embodiment of her [Mary] hopes and ambitions.” The series sticks close to this observation, and Lady Macbeth springs to mind while watching Mary scheming in a world that favors men and lofty titles. In fact, Macbeth was first performed in 1606 (and first published in 1623), in the early years of King James I’s reign. Instead of whispering in her husband’s ear, Mary has her son seeking approval from his mother. “Are you pleased with me?” he asks in the first episode, which takes place less than a decade after Macbeth was written. Mary’s ascent isn’t possible without grooming her son, and it unfolds with various allies and enemies aiding and blocking her path.

    Mary certainly crosses what might be considered appropriate boundaries during her plotting, but never into the disturbing ground previously covered by Game of Thrones or Boardwalk Empire. Nor is there any hint of the intense jealousy and lust depicted in Bates Motel or the comedic momma’s boy setup in Arrested Development. Instead, Mary takes on the 17th-century equivalent of an ambitious stage mom persona with George as her child set for stardom. The premiere, “The Second Son,” establishes an enticing push-pull that shifts throughout the seven-episode limited series.

    So often in historical dramas or romances, daughters are the most valuable when using their wiles to be wooed by the rich and influential. Before Bridgerton returns for its third season of debutantes looking to score a husband, Mary & George turns this trope on its head, with George becoming the diamond of the season. In this case, the King is his prize. Mary sees firsthand that King James prefers the company of men in his bedchamber or at the dinner table, and the moment she clocks James openly kissing the Earl of Somerset (Laurie Davidson), you can practically see the wheels turning in her head.

    George might suffer the fate of a second son who shall inherit nothing; however, his older brother John (Tom Victor) has an undiagnosed mental illness that means John’s marrying prospects require a boost from his handsome younger sibling. Like many daughters in these stories, George initially refuses to embrace his mother’s ideas; he is in love with one of the servants and refuses to go to France to further his prospects.

    Throughout her career, Moore has played an array of mothers unafraid to manipulate, but Mary is far more direct than Gracie in the recent May December. Passive aggression is not Mary’s style, openly scoffing at George’s elaborate suicide attempts to get out of this trip, knowing full well he is bluffing. Annoyance rippling through her veins, she tells her attractive son, “If I were a man and I looked like you, I’d rule the f***ing planet.” To pay for George’s education, the recently widowed Mary finds a new husband who agrees to supplement this trip, so this is not a woman who will back off just because her son doesn’t want to go abroad.

    Even before Mary realizes the key to her fortune is who the King desires, she knows George doesn’t have the wealth or property to elevate his position. Instead, George has gifts that require refinement — hence the French excursion. It is an education not predicated on academia but on charm, beauty, entertainment, and even seduction. Dancing comes easy to Mary’s son, but how he responds to various writhing bodies littering the French estate underscores his initial naivete in the bedroom. Mary & George doesn't play coy regarding George’s attraction to men, leaving a breadcrumb trail of queer desire. Undoubtedly, there is a power imbalance; still, George is not forced into this quest. “Bodies are just bodies” is one lesson George passes onto his mother that she will later use to guide a romantic entanglement — again, incest is off the table.

    Before France, mother-son conflabs are combative, with Mary practically rolling her eyes when George speaks. Galitzine depicts George’s growing confidence but also imbues him with nervous energy. He oscillates between fear and effortless charisma, the latter confirming why the Villiers family's future rests on his attractive shoulders. Upon his return, Mary continues to wax lyrical about how “second sons are usually a waste of life,” though George has found a way to be an exception to the rule. Sure, you can accuse Mary of being casually cruel in her observations, yet she has scratched and clawed to gain as little ground as she has (“I raised myself,” she emphasizes), and finding a wealthy wife is no longer the goal. Even after George thinks he has blown his chance to curry favor with the King, Mary spots the opportunity in the mess.

    “We face the world together” is a rather sweet overture uttered by Mary when George is bereft at starting a fight in front of the King. You might lose some warm and fuzzy feelings when you realize Mary is positioning her son to out the Earl of Somerset and that she has the backing of other powerful men who want an Englishman in the King’s bedchamber. No, Mary doesn’t want to sleep with her son, and there is no Oedipus situation with George. Is the bar so low that it doesn’t seem that bad that she is willing to put her son up to go head-to-head with the vindictive Earl of Somerset so he can end up in bed with the King?

    It's nothing the Feathertingtons or Lannisters wouldn’t do on Bridgerton or Game of Thrones — okay, using Cersei is not the best example — but Mary’s ambitions don’t make her a total monster even if she is weaponizing her son’s physical attributes. Mary Villiers might not win any Mother of the Year awards, but her second-born son is far more useful than she could have imagined.

    New episodes of Mary & George air at 9:00 P.M. ET on Starz. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina

    TOPICS: Mary & George, Starz, Game of Thrones, Julianne Moore, Nicholas Galitzine, Tony Curran