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Amazon's My Lady Jane Gives Historical Accuracy the Bird

This is a TV show that knows it's a TV show, and is all the better for it.
  • Emily Bader as My Lady Jane (Photo: Amazon Studios)
    Emily Bader as My Lady Jane (Photo: Amazon Studios)

    What a time for fans of TV shows that fall under the umbrella of “History, But Make It Cheeky.” Series such as Mary & George, The Buccaneers, The Great, The Serpent Queen, and Harlots have made themselves right at home en masse, dramatizing both obscure and well-known stories for contemporary audiences. When executed well, they offer a sprightly, self-aware counterpoint to traditional, deeply earnest costume dramas; think of them as scions of the marriage between Masterpiece Theatre and A Knight’s Tale

    Prime Video’s My Lady Jane bears many of the hallmarks of this genre, which are either catnip or repellent spray for prospective viewers. Anachronistically plucky female protagonist? Check! Contemporary needle drops, many of them songs by men, now covered by women? Check! Matter of fact approach to sex and sexuality? Check, check, check! Behind these trappings, though, lies a compelling story about civil rights and gender parity. “No one is free until we are all free” may not seem the most obvious central theme for My Lady Jane, but Gemma Burgess does a very fine job of it, all while serving viewers a highly bingeable, funny, sexy, and occasionally quite moving summertime treat. 

    My Lady Jane is a fix-it fic, a popular fanfiction method that reimagines and corrects flaws in its story’s roots. As a helpful, tartly comic voiceover explains, in our historical reality, Lady Jane Grey is largely understood as a political pawn in the crisis of succession to the throne of England following the death of King Edward VI. Edward had been the sole male heir to Henry VIII, and had named his cousin Lady Jane as his successor in order to protect the Church of England and Protestants generally from likely persecution should his eldest sister and fervent Catholic, Princess Mary, become queen. Lady Jane’s reign lasted all of nine days in July 1553, and both she and her husband, Lord Guildford Dudley, were executed the following year. Those are the facts everyone with access to Wikipedia knows, but to quote the voiceover narrator, f*ck that.

    Instead, My Lady Jane posits a world where the great political schism in 16th-century England was not the divide between Catholicism and Protestantism, but between Ethians and Verities. Ethians are people with the ability to shapeshift at will, but only into one animal; if you’re an Ethian who shifts into a magnificent eagle, as Jane’s maid and confidante Susanna does, you won’t later develop the ability to transform into a rabbit or dog. Ethianism is poorly understood — it runs in families, but can skip generations — and because Verities, who are just regular, non-shifting humans, have successfully cast Ethians as evil and dangerous, guess who holds all the power and persecutes Ethians every chance they get? 

    Into this climate drops Lady Jane Grey (Emily Bader), the cleverest and best-educated young woman of her age, whose status as a Verity of a noble house makes her extremely marriageable in spite of her tendency to think for herself and then share those thoughts out loud where men can hear them. The world is constantly letting her down: her mother, Lady Frances (Anna Chancellor) burns Jane’s manuscript for an illustrated compendium of medicinal herbs and then affiances her to notorious lout and rake Guildford Dudley (Edward Bluemel). Even her cousin and dear friend King Edward (Jordan Peters) refuses to intervene on her behalf, citing her duty to marry and bear heirs. Everyone’s wondering, what’s wrong with this girl? Meanwhile, Jane’s come to the realization that it’s not her, she’s not the problem — deeply ingrained and lawfully followed sexism is the problem! 

    Well, it’s part of the problem. Quite realistically, it takes Jane time, mistakes, and being called in by Ethians to grasp that although she is oppressed on the basis of her gender, Ethians, through no fault of their own, are in constant danger of punishment by death for having the temerity to exist. Lest we start to think that My Lady Jane is all earnest self-examination and the development of an intersectional view of power and its abuses, though, the series stops well short of declaring any of its characters purely noble, or even of consistently doing the right thing by others. It’s a choice that’s great for plotting purposes — so many twists, turns, reversals of fortune, and alliances forming and collapsing! — and reflective of the way people actually are, evaluating opportunities to do the most good or the least harm on a case-by-case basis. 

    It was a smart decision to adhere as closely as possible to accurately representing complex, messy people, rather than hewing strictly to events as they unfolded in reality. My Lady Jane extends a gleeful double middle finger to the notion that straightforward historical accuracy is even a goal worth pursuing. This is a TV show that knows it’s a TV show. It knows that “accuracy” is both a construct, and a gatekeeping tool used to maintain the status quo, employed by people who’ve always found themselves very comfortably centered in historical narratives. By throwing that idea out the window, series creator Gemma Burgess and her team of writers have cleared out and claimed space to ask “what if?”, finding all sorts of interesting answers along the way. 

    For example, what if Guildford turned out to be an Ethian using his ginned-up bad boy reputation as a party animal to protect himself from being discovered as a (more caring than anticipated) horse? What if he agreed to divorce Jane if she applied her brilliance to finding a cure for Ethianism, but fell in love with her along the way? For that matter, what if they eventually concluded that Ethianism doesn’t need to be cured? What if Princess Mary wasn’t so much a religious zealot as an unhinged megalomaniac calling to mind both Veruca Salt and Prince John (Peter Ustinov’s version, from Disney’s Robin Hood), with a soupçon of dominatrix thrown in for good measure? 

    To be clear, this is an unqualified compliment to Kate O’Flynn. Between her work here and on the late, lamented cop shop workplace dramedy No Offence, she’s an eminently watchable actor. The entire cast approaches their roles with gusto and verve. Nothing about My Lady Jane would work without immediately and enduringly appealing lead performances; fortunately, Bader and Bluemel deliver in abundance, and have industrial-strength chemistry as they earnestly try to do right by each other and mess up a lot on their way to falling in love (and maybe saving the kingdom while they’re at it). 

    The supporting cast is no less noteworthy: As Lady Frances Grey, Chancellor summons every ounce of hauteur at her disposal and then adds touches of raunchy humor and the occasional flash of actual motherly concern. Rob Brydon is so adept at playing fools that it’s really fun to see him balancing Lord Dudley’s studied foppishness, wily political acumen, and sincere fatherliness to his boys. Dominic Cooper furnishes peak smarminess in every scene, capturing the essence of the conniving, sniveling Lord Seymour. As the embodiment of still waters running deep, Abbie Hern’s Princess Elizabeth is a sweet, steely foil to Princess Mary (and a secret Ethian, herself). And as King Edward, Jordan Peters pulls off one of the toughest performances of the series, playing England’s most powerful man as imperious, chronically ill, and clever, yet lacking in wisdom. 

    There are a few needle-scratch moments here — virtually every male character harps on about how silly it is for women to have anything resembling self-determination, and virtually every episode includes winking allusions to influential films and TV series — but none of them is a dealbreaker. Overall, Burgess’ touch is a deft one, and her insistence on keeping Jane on the hook to fulfill her obligations to both Ethians and Verities portends something interesting and worthwhile, should My Lady Jane snag a second season order.

    My Lady Jane premieres June 27 on Prime Video. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Sophie Brookover is a culturally omnivorous writer covering TV (everything from sci-fi to sitcoms to prestige drama to sports docuseries), costume design, music, books, and podcasts. Her bylines are at Vulture, The Daily Beast, Town & Country, Fashionista, and Hey Alma, among others.

    TOPICS: My Lady Jane, Prime Video, Anna Chancellor, Dominic Cooper, Edward Bluemel, Emily Bader, Gemma Burgess, Jordan Peters