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Behold, behead: Showtime's The Tudors begins the end of Henry VIII's reign

Henry VIII and his wives, not necessarily in that order. Showtime photo

Returning: Sunday, April 11th at 8 p.m. (central) on Showime
Starring: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Tamzin Merchant, Torrance Coombs, Joss Stone, David O'Hara, Tara Breathnach, Sarah Bolger and many more
Created by: Michael Hirst

Not a lot happens -- except in the bedroom -- during the first five hours of The Tudors' fourth and final season.

That's saying quite a lot, though. After all, this is the saga of Henry VIII, who went through six wives and many more mistresses during his 1509-1547 reign as England's oft-despotic, occasionally benevolent, throughly consumptive king of kings.

The Tudors: The Final Seduction picks him up in August, 1540 at the outset of his fifth marriage. The bride is 17-year-old Katherine Howard (Tamzin Merchant), a vacuous wisp of a temptress who in contemporary times would be right at home on Gossip Girl.

Henry (played throughout The Tudors by Jonathan Rhys Meyers), is intoxicated by his new conquest, who's quickly seen naked amid red petals in the king's bunk. "Will you not come to bed, milord?" she beckons. Done and done.

Grayer and a little heavier in his late 40s, Henry has slowed a step or two. He's earlier to bed when he has a big day ahead. And his nastily ulcerated leg is ever-problematic, eventually both threatening his life and forcing him to get around with a cane.

The lithe Rhys Meyers has never fit the conventional paunchy portraits of the king. But the producers at least have aged him to the point where he no longer looks like a kid in a medieval candy store. He's never received an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Henry. But this final season finds him eminently Emmy worthy in a role he's clearly grown into. He's mastered the boisterous laugh, the manic rages and the overall bearing of a ruler who's nothing if not a command presence.

As the 10-part final season unfolds, Henry has a daughter, Mary (Sarah Bolger), who's older than his latest wife, a second daughter, Elizabeth (Laoise Murray) and his only heir, Edward (Eoin Murtaugh and later Jake Hathaway). He dotes on his kids, but sees them seldom. Royals must learn to be royals, and are sent away to master the craft.

Henry, meanwhile, has no big battles with the Catholic Church and fairly minimal problems with France and Scotland. But unbeknownst to him there's plenty of palace intrigue. Wife Katherine, feeling a bit neglected, grows ever warmer to the advances of the king's groom, callow Thomas Culpepper (Torrance Coombs). She's also covering up a pre-nuptial dalliance with a latter day drunken pig who bribes her into giving him a prized job as a courtier.

None of this, of course, can end well. But five episodes will pass before everyone gets their just/unjust desserts.

Through it all, Henry at times is rendered an almost sympathetic figure. He becomes friendlier with his sweet, and deferential previous wife, Anne of Cleves (Joss Stone), whose marriage to the king was almost instantly annulled after he dubbed her a horseface. Long story -- which was told in Season 3.

Hour 3 of Season 4 also has a surprisingly touching scene in which a newly recovered and previously near-death Henry is beseeched by ill commoners to put his hands on them.

"By the grace of God, I command you to be healed," he says to one after another. All are exceedingly grateful before Henry rides off, still experiencing his own pain from that damnable leg.

Katherine is heavily into the affair with Culpepper by now. And Tamzin Merchant's portrayal of her is gradually graduating from a one-note giggle-puss into a layered conniver whose climactic scenes are a marvel.

Since Henry's story is hardly a well-kept secret, it's probably not giving away too much to say that he's back in play by the end of Hour 5. It's a medieval form of The Bachelor, with the king again positioning himself amid a bevy of supplicant beauties while Katherine will know no more rose ceremonies.

Henry's sixth and last wife, Catherine Parr, will be played by the estimable Joely Richardson (Nip/Tuck) in the second half of this climactic season. That should make for some interesting, high voltage interplay.

A peek at Showtime's synopsis for the 10th and final hour reveals that Henry will encounter the ghosts of his past wives before calling it a day. That should make for some welcome curtain calls, particularly by his first spouse, Queen Katherine, who was magnificently played by Maria Doyle Kennedy.

As costume dramas go, The Tudors has been all dressed up with plenty of places to go and ample beheadings to behold. It's been a romp at times, but also a richly textured morality play in which an all-powerful king cast himself as God and greatly relished the role.

Showtime's 38-hour dramatization of his life and times certainly won't be the last we'll hear of him. But future efforts will face a formidable task in wresting its crown.

GRADE: A-minus