Will S01E03: The Two Gentlemen

Director: Shekhar Kapur
Writer: Craig Pearce
Starring: Laurie Davidson, Olivia DeJonge, Ewen Bremner, Mattias Inwood, Jamie Campbell Bower, William Houston, Lukas Rolfe, Colm Meaney

A review by Samantha Pearson

Will S01E03, The Two Gentlemen, moves the secret Catholicism plot forward at a rapid rate. Simultaneously, it dives into Will’s struggles to write good plays.

Although The Two Gentlemen starts off with a quote from Hamlet (“Those friends thou hast, And their adoption tried, Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel”), the episode title comes from the comedy Two Gentlemen of Verona. Will writes the latter in this episode with the help of Alice Burbage, who quite literally teaches him to steal.

Historically, the timing of the play is accurate. Two Gentlemen of Verona is believed to have been written between 1589 and 1593, so pushing it to the forefront of Will makes sense.

It also makes sense within the context of the show. James Burbage and his players are clamoring for a comedy and Will keeps writing tragedies. Alice’s interference pushes him to write a play that is poetic and funny. By the end of the episode, Will is finally able to send money home to his family.

Though let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Will S01E03 begins with Will having a horrible nightmare about Baxter’s death, which prompts the ghostly appearance of Will’s father. Uncle? Whomever it was that asked him to take a letter to his cousin, Father Southwell, in London. That guy. 

Will finally goes to see his cousin in The Two Gentlemen. Father Southwell is in hiding at a safe house, where visitors can ask to commune with Mr. Cotton. This alter ego, as well as inconspicuous travel across unoccupied land, keeps Father Southwell off the radar of Richard Topcliffe.

To spread the word of the Catholic Church, Southwell employs a printing press. He produces booklets and hands them out to believers via the secret community of Catholics. This process also seeks to convert Protestants, one of whom actually attacks a Protestant minister during church. He is taken into custody by Topcliffe as a colleague. Then he reveals his new beliefs and is tortured for information about Southwell’s location.

Will gives confession to his cousin, explaining what happened to Baxter and even discussing his undeniable attraction to Alice. “She is but a toy sent to test you. These feelings will pass if you are strong,” Southwell says. The statement, like everything else on this series, is obvious foreshadowing for later events.

Following the confession, Will goes back to the playhouse to present his latest effort. James Burbage rebuffs him and says, “I have a queer feeling about you, Master Shakespeare.” The double meaning of the word “queer” is a curious use of dramatic irony, depending on how much an audience member knows of Shakespeare’s London affairs. Burbage likely means that he has a “strange” feeling about Will, but the implication that he isn’t straight still comes through loud and clear.

At any rate, even with some well-placed toilet humor and lots of poetry, Will’s play is rejected. When Alice offers to help him make it better, he tells her he has no time for toys. Instead, he says, he’ll take it to Henslowe of the Rose, a business man who will see sense. 

Following this tense exchange — which is acted quite brilliantly by Olivia DeJonge, whose Alice is honestly perfect — The Two Gentlemen checks in on Kit Marlowe. The scene cut is well placed, seeing as series creator Craig Pearce and director Shekhar Kapur have already established serious sexual tension between Will and Alice, but also Will and Kit.

Kit, apparently, has regular gay orgies in his Slytherin-esque writing dungeon. He wakes up with his lover sprawled across him and the camera slowly pans to reveal several more naked, young men asleep all over Kit’s home. He tells them that it’s time to leave, for he has to fight with his muse. Kit goes into a rage as soon as the men are gone. He breaks furniture and throws things, but cannot seem to get down even one word of a play. It calls into question whether he is truly on contract at the Rose to not write, and also begs the question of why he can’t. 

Jamie Campbell Bower fully embodies Marlowe’s madness in a way that is desperately chilling. Throughout S01E03, the hints of darkness and snakelike behavior we saw from Kit in Will‘s first two episodes are even more blatant. They also seem to be taking deeper root as his actions reflect a desire for power and money, but also for the ability to do his life’s work. 

After Kit’s breakdown, Will takes his play to Henslowe only to be rejected once more. He’s advised to “go home to whatever backwater spawned [him]. That is [his] only chance.” Then he’s kicked out of the inn where he’s been staying, as flattery toward the innkeeper can only get him so far. To make matters even worse, Will leaves the inn during a rainstorm to find Kit waiting outside to taunt him.

The scene is an obvious commentary on similar moments where men waiting outside for their lovers are considered romantic rather than creepy. Marlowe following Will to Father Southwell’s safehouse is in no way romantic, nor is his antagonism. There is sexual tension, yes, but certainly no romance.

The directorial decision is an interesting one. Laurie Davidson waffles between playing Will as a moony, lovestruck poet desperate for success and the fierce, opportunity-seeking whelp who left his family behind for glory. These attitudes seem to come out swinging whenever Marlowe is around to challenge Will. It makes their interactions particularly tense but also lends credence to Kapur’s directing.

Will stays with his cousin for a night, then learns that Father Southwell is working on a book for the queen. It’s a treatise that pleads for religious freedom. The book will be mass-produced on a printing press and delivered far and wide to gain everyone’s sympathies. Southwell needs Will’s help to make it poetic. Southwell’s writing is in the name of God, which means it focuses on truth rather than poetry.

During this conversation, Will agrees to help but says he first has to attend to “pressing business.” That business is apologizing to Alice. He informs her that he means to study others’ plays to find “hidden patterns” that make them successful. Then he will be able to write a successful play himself.

The “hidden pattern” Will discovers is the plot structure we all learned in high school, usually via the works of Shakespeare. It’s another clever, metatastic nod to how important Shakespeare was and is to the English language today. Young Will never could have known that would come to be, but we certainly do.

When he expresses concern over finding the right hero, quest, and setting, Alice tells him, frankly, to steal them. She says all the playwrights do it — yes, even Kit Marlowe, Will — which again nods to the scholarly debate over whether or not Shakespeare actually wrote all of his plays.

Will and Alice go to the market and she literally steals a book from a vendor when he refuses to extend them credit for it. Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” blares as she runs through the crowded marketplace, book in hand. Before she’s caught, Alice gives the book to Will and publicly shames the vendor when he apprehends her. She says “a self-respecting woman” would never steal something she couldn’t eat, drink, or read. For good measure, she throws in some garbage about how books will be the downfall of society. DeJonge plays the scene for comedy and it works brilliantly. Alice is freed from potential punishment and she and Will go on their way.

They spend the rest of the weekend in her father’s playhouse writing Two Gentlemen of Verona. Meanwhile, Marlowe informs Father Southwell that the queen’s men are planning a raid of his safe house. Then he sells Southwell out to the queen’s men, as well as Topcliffe. As he explains to his lover — a member of the queen’s men — during another orgy, the move is brilliant. Marlowe is paid twice for the information, but can still warn Southwell to clear out.

Will employs its first non-punk song here, a slow ballad by James Vincent McMorrow called “We Don’t Eat”. The song repeats at the conclusion of the episode, when Will ignores the advice of Southwell and sleeps with Alice. He doesn’t break all of his promises, though. Will takes Southwell’s treatise and agrees to keep it safe should anything happen to him. He also writes a well-received play and is able to send money home to his wife.

Of course, the latter he is only able to manage because Alice stands up to her father and demands that he put on Will’s play. She is incredible in this episode, from beginning to end. Alice Burbage for president. (Or something.)

Verdict
Watch Will! The pacing is breakneck but doesn’t abandon character development to move forward. It’s witty and well-edited with great performances and even better music. If you’re in the US and you want to binge watch, you can see the first six episodes on TNT’s website.

Samantha Puc
theverbalthing@gmail.com
Samantha Puc is a freelance writer, editor, and social media manager residing in southern New England with her partner and three cats. She likes Shakespeare, space babes, bikes, and dismantling the patriarchy. She also loves vegan food. Her work has appeared on Rogues Portal, SheKnows, Femsplain, The Tempest, and elsewhere. For more, follow her on Twitter!

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