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Mary & George Is a Steamy Drama Worth Lusting Over

Julianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzine wield sex as a weapon in Starz's propulsive limited series.
  • Julianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzine in Mary & George (Photo: Starz)
    Julianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzine in Mary & George (Photo: Starz)

    It doesn't take an expert in 17th-century English history (or 21st-century media maneuvering, for that matter) to see why period piece Mary & George was snapped up by Starz after it was dropped by AMC late last year. The British drama is right at home on the premium cabler, where shows like Outlander and The Serpent Queen offer sexually explicit takes on major historical events, and various Power spin-offs take a hard look at the cost of ambition. D.C. Moore's Mary & George seeks to do both as it dramatizes the true story of Mary Villiers (Julianne Moore), who schemed her way into King James' (Tony Curran) court by molding her son George (Nicholas Galitzine) to be the King's lover.

    As the wife of a prominent landowner, Mary has material wealth, but what she really wants is influence — and she's savvy enough to know that it can't be bought. Enter George, her beautiful, rebellious son. With eldest Villiers boy John (Tom Victor) suffering from an unidentified mental illness, it's up to George to secure the family's fortunes, and though he initially resents the pressure, he thrives under it. Mary sends George to France to be educated in the ways of refinement and charm; upon his return home, George takes steps to embed himself within the coterie of handsome young men eager to fulfill the King's every desire. Before long, he makes his way into the royal bedchamber, where he and James discuss important matters of state as they lay naked, the sheets tangled at their feet.

    Mary's plans for her son hinge on the fact that James is "a dead-eyed, horny-handed horror who surrounds himself with many deceitful, well-hung beauties," as Sir Thomas Compton (Sean Gilder) so eloquently describes the first King of England and Scotland. So, it's no surprise that the limited series embraces the sex in this story of sexual politicking, treating viewers to intimate scenes of George and James in bed, as well as myriad orgies and explicit encounters between courtesans, male and female. (Starz has deemed nearly all of these moments spoilers, even though the entire season premiered in the U.K. in early March.)

    While these scenes are often graphic (the realistic depiction of gay sex is a far cry from Bridgerton) they're never gratuitous. Each serves a purpose in the context of the narrative, whether to advance the plot — George's relationship with James puts him at odds with the King's longtime favorite Robert Carr, the Earl of Somerset (Laurie Davidson) — reinforce or upset existing dynamics, or complicate prevailing notions about homosexuality in Jacobean England. Much like Mary and George, Moore and his team of directors (Oliver Hermanus, Alex Winckler, and Florian Cossen) see sex as a tool, and they use it to convey important information about these characters and their shifting position at court over the course of the season.

    Mary & George's more explicit moments are enough to draw eyeballs, but it's the show's incisive exploration of power — how one amasses it, the difficulties of maintaining it, and the consequences of losing it — that's likely to keep viewers coming back for more. Hardly a second is wasted as the characters backstab and plot to get closer to the King, who's aware he's being manipulated, but fails to recognize the degree to which it's happening. (Curran expertly toes this line, imbuing James with the outward confidence of a man who has it all figured out, and the hidden sensitivity of someone looking to be led.) The landscape shifts so often and so sharply that it can be difficult to keep up, particularly in later episodes as James' trust in George inflames tensions with Spain, but their machinations prove consistently thrilling, and they give the season a propulsive energy.

    These rivalries, including Mary's prolonged battles with attorney general Francis Bacon (Mark O'Halloran) and the commanding Lady Hatton (Nicola Walker), also contribute to the series's unique tone, which vacillates between irreverent and deeply earnest. When Mary & George leans toward the former, the cast commits wholeheartedly, delivering deliciously campy line reads — Moore's "hot dogs" aside in May December is rivaled only by her uttering the words "foul, wretched c*nt" — that relieve some of the pressure of this high-stakes story. Then, it's right back to wheeling and dealing, with Mary using her cunning to protect her closest confidante, brothel keeper Sandie (Niamh Algar), and clean up whatever mess George has made for himself.

    While Galitzine finds impressive depth in George's desire to be seen as more than the King's lover — he wants a seat at the table, not just a spot in James' bed — the show belongs to Moore. She's magnetic on screen, teasing out just enough vulnerability to allow audiences to sympathize with Mary despite her calculated cruelty. Mary's standing, both before she pushes George into James' bed and after, is a direct result of her determination to overcome the many obstacles holding her back (including the secret of her lineage and her own queer identity) and claw her way up the social ladder, but the writers and Moore resist the urge to depict her as some sort of idealistic hero. Even when she's reached the pinnacle of success, she remains firmly aware of the limitations of her position as woman in 17th century England: "What are we allowed to be but our children's keepers?" she asks the Queen (Trine Dyrholm) as they gossip over dinner. Moore does some of her best work in these scenes, which offer nuanced insight into a woman who could have easily come across as either cartoonishly devious or a feminist crusader, neither of which applies to Mary.

    If the back half of the season drags, it's because Mary ends up on the fringes of the action and Moore's role becomes diminished. But her time away from the spotlight is blessedly short lived: When George, having overestimated his position and fallen out of favor with the King yet again, comes crawling back, Mary's return jolts the show awake just in time for the twist-filled finale.

    Like the most seductive of lovers, Mary & George's appeal goes beyond the physical. The Starz drama explores lust in all its forms: sexual, of course, but also of the professional, financial, and spiritual varieties. Viewers may come for matters of the flesh, but the show's value lies elsewhere — not in bedrooms filled with naked bodies, but in the backroom meetings and secretive council halls where true power is conferred.

    Mary & George premieres April 5 on Starz. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

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