Don't make the mistake of trying to correlate, the two parts of Shakespeare's Henry VI with the dramas by the playwright. This will lead only to frustration: The Hollow Crown's telos is Benedict Cumberbatch, cast as Richard III, and so everything that doesn't lead directly to that character has been ruthlessly eliminated from the plays. The first part of Henry VI as shown in last week's episode is not, in fact, the first part of the Henry VI trilogy as written by Shakespeare -- rather, the two-hour episode, as I have earlier observed, more or less completely eliminates la Pucelle (Joan of Arc), and culminates in events that comprise the third act of Henry IV (Part Two). Accordingly, the episode designated Henry VI (II) as part of The Hollow Crown begins with the fifth Act of that play as composed by the Bard and, in fact, eliminates the very best thing in Shakepeare's second play in the trilogy, his rough-and-ready sketch of the "rude mechanicals" following Jack Cade in their abortive rebellion against the Crown, a sort of uprising of the proletariat against the elites that has a peculiar resonance in this moment of history but that does not comport with the program's teleology -- that is, its presentation of a history that must lead by all avenues to the crook-backed villain. Thus, The Hollow Crown's second episode actually combines the fifth Act of Henry VI (II) with bits and pieces, mostly the brutal and gory stuff, from Henry VI (III). The compression of the three parts of the trilogy into a couple of two-hour shows yields a presentation that is sometimes unwittingly funny -- it's like a comedy that is periodically produced: "All the Deaths in Shakespeare in less than 70 Minutes". There's so much hewing, hacking, stabbing, and bludgeoning that the pageant of horrors gets a wee bit tedious. In an effort to inflict HBO-style brutality on PBS' ordinarily decorous audience, the director contrives a sort of anti-Downton Abbey, a non-stop sequence of murders with most of the explanatory integument cut out and, certainly, vast amounts of ranting eliminated: all classical allusions are ruthlessly stripped from the text, probably a good thing -- no one gets to claim that he will cut someone into "bloody gobbets" like Cambyses the tyrant. By peeling away all the rhetoric to get to the "good stuff", there is a risk that the spectacle will devolve into a sub-Sopranos procession of murders -- and this is, more or less, what happens in the Part Two. There are, to be sure, some revelations -- we get a mad-scene involving King Henry running naked through a moor: he speaks some pretty language about time before some rural swains catch him to be confined for the bulk of the show in the Tower. (In the actual play, Henry runs amuck during one of the interminable battles and isn't alone on the moors like a proto-Lear). I have always thought of Margaret of Anjou as a tedious scold who obstructs the action of Richard III by her perpetual whining and her long laundry-lists of kinfolk killed by Richard and his henchmen. But she's a real power in this show, a sort of Amazonian warrior-queen, careening around in armor and hacking off people's heads and arms: she takes particular delight in torturing her enemies and it makes no sense that the House of York spares her once she's down and out. (Although I suppose, she has to be kept around to play the Cassandra-role in Richard III).
Part II starts with a battle shown rather absurdly from the point-of-view of a knight glaring out a slit in his helmet. It's a sort of Monty Python effect that doesn't bode well for the rest of the show. Some of the King's loyalists are killed and the House of York marches on Westminster. (Somerset, Margaret's boyfriend is killed and his head brought back to be presented to the shrieking Queen). During a confrontation at Westminster, King Henry agrees to relinquish his power to York upon his death, thus, in effect,prospectively dethroning his own son, Edward. Edward and his ferocious mother, Margaret of Anjou, decamp to form their own army -- Margaret is not about to see her son deprived of the throne by his feckless father. Obviously, Henry has made a bad deal. He has promised to give the Crown to York upon his death, a death, that, it seems, can be swiftly and efficiently arranged. But it is Margaret who first breaks the fragile peace. With her troops, she attacks York who is weirdly unprepared for the onslaught. She forces old York to kneel on a manure pile, kills his youngest son before his eyes, and, then, crowns him with thorns before chopping him into pieces. (This is spectacularly gruesome and, more or less, accurate to Shakepeare's text). The three surviving sons of York engage in battle with Henry's forces, ambushing his troops while they are marching through a stream for some reason. (This leads to lots of shots of blood suffusing the water of the creek). Henry is useless -- he hides behind bushes watching the mayhem, observing at one point a father discovering that he has just killed his own son; another son, comforting him by noting that he has just unwittingly (everyone wears armor) killed his own father. This scene, horrific if palpably absurd, so oppresses the King with the futility of the Civil War that he goes mad and pitches his crown into the bloody lagoon. The eldest son of the House of York, Edward, is now installed on the throne. Henry is seen running naked across the moors. He's captured and locked up in the Tower. Margaret with her son, Edward, flees to France.
Warwick, an ally of the House of York, is dispatched to Paris to ask for the hand of the King of France's daughter to cement an alliance with King Edward in London. But Edward has fallen in love with a widow, the pert and insolent Lady Anne Grey. He marries her and sends word to Warwick to withdraw the offer to the Princess of France. This humiliates Warwick and, so, he switches sides and allies himself with Margaret of Anjou and her son, the legitimate heir to the throne, Edward. (It's confusing, of course, to have Edward of York on the throne and challenged by Edward, the son of Henry VI and Margaret.) Warwick leads a French invasion of England and the second son of York joins his army. There is a parley with King Edward that leads the second son to switch sides and join the House of York in the fight against the invaders led by Warwick and Margaret of Anjou. In the ensuing battle, Richard III, who has been thrusting out his lower jaw in a most belligerent way, and making reptilian gestures, comes into his own. Strutting around the battlefield like a velociraptor, Richard III stabs Warwick from behind and, then, kills young Edward (Henry's son) in front of the howling Queen Margaret. Richard starts soliloquizing as he is rowed to the Tower of London where he puts poor Henry VI out of his misery, thus concluding Shakespeare's trilogy here distilled into two episodes.
Benedict Cumberbatch is undeniably effective as Richard III and seems to vastly enjoy the role -- he rants and raves, whispers and howls, and spits out invective with crazy intensity. Sometimes, he seems like a rabid dog, but he is always insistently witty and self-aware. Noting that his deformities will not allow him to play the part of a lady's man, he vows to do bloody deeds and to seize the crown, an ambition that will require that he massacre all of his own family as well as what remains of Henry's supporters. In the final scene, Edward's Queen has given birth to an heir and the tiny infant is handed to Richard who gloats, confesses to his plan to slaughter everyone else on stage, and, then, Judas-like kisses the child, all the while fixing his beady eyes on the camera.