Will S01E02: Cowards Die Many Times

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

As part of its two-hour series premiere, Will aired the first two episodes of its first season. The Play’s the Thing set the tone for the series. Then Cowards Die Many Times dove into the overarching plot: Will’s struggle to become a great playwright while also struggling under the guilt of betraying his Catholic roots.

Show creator Craig Pearce apparently has no qualms about introducing every William Shakespeare theory into his show. There is no conclusive evidence that the real Shakespeare was a secret Catholic. However, making Will a secret Catholic provides a conflict that is hammered home by his involvement with Christopher Marlowe, as well as his leaving behind his wife and children for the selfish pursuit of a writing career in London.

Cowards Die Many Times is named for a famous quote from Julius Caesar:  “Cowards die many times before their deaths, The valiant never taste of death but once.” The quote is seemingly used as a commentary on Will’s choice to let Baxter die in his place after Kit Marlowe frames him for Catholicism. In doing so, he leaves behind a part of himself in pursuit of greatness.

Throughout S01E02, Will struggles to earn recognition for his plays. He wants more money from James Burbage, wants more opportunities to write new plays, and wants the actor William Kempe to take his parts more seriously. These desires push Will straight into the arms of Kit Marlowe, who recognized genius in Will and therefore couldn’t hand him over for his Catholicism.

The tension between Kit and Will is absurd in this episode. It was immediate in S01E01, but in Cowards Die Many Times, it continues to build. Jamie Campbell Bower’s portrayal of Kit as a gay-coded, gothic playwright who is overeager for fame and maybe a bit mad is brilliant. Opposite Laurie Davidson’s guilt-ridden but fiery Will, their scenes jump off the screen in a fit of crackling, overwhelming sexual tension that isn’t even broken by their physical disagreements… or their kiss.

There is a theory among some scholars that the real Shakespeare did not, in fact, write all of his plays by himself. Many believe that Marlowe co-wrote several of the scripts that made Shakespeare famous. This theory is yet another one explored by Pearce in Will. The rivalry between Kit and Will is alive and well as they push and prod at each other. However, collaboration has also occurred, and the tension between them suggests that more is forthcoming. Whether they actually write together has yet to be seen, but it would be an incredibly interesting take, especially if the series makes them lovers.

When Will asks Kit why he wants to help him, Kit replies, “‘Who knows why,’ said the spider to the fly.” It’s a predatory statement played so casually that it almost slips by in the tension of the moment. The development of this relationship thus far, especially knowing what eventually happened to the real Christopher Marlowe, has me on the edge of my seat. I’m begging for more.

Meanwhile, Cowards Die Many Times also builds more tension between Will and Alice Burbage. It’s possible that Laurie Davidson has undeniable chemistry with all of his castmates. I am as eager for more Will/Alice as I am for more Will/Kit. Olivia DeJonge plays Alice with such undeniable wit and fearsome independence that it is impossible not to love her.

Alice learns from a stage hand at her father’s playhouse that Marlowe cut Baxter’s hand before handing him off to Richard Topcliffe, who’s determined to single-handedly hunt down and disembowel every Catholic in London. Then, she immediately interrogates Will. After some hesitation, he opts for honesty. Will tells Alice about his faith, the letter he was carrying, and his relationship to Father Southwell, “the most wanted man in England.” His guilt is a major focus. Will opts to follow Marlowe’s advice and leave Baxter in Topcliffe’s custody for fear of condemning himself, his friends, his family… and Alice.

Baxter ends up dying during torture and Will, desperate to do something to make it right, collects Marlowe’s finders fee and gives it to Baxter’s family. Alice agrees with Will that it isn’t enough, but also tells him that he cannot change what’s passed. Marlowe encourages Will to throw others to the wolves in order to succeed. On the other hand, Alice informs him — without mincing words — that he cannot bring any more danger to her family or the theatre.

“You think, because I’m a woman, that you can smile and smile and play me for a fool? Believe me, you bring danger to the theatre or my family, I will not rest until your head is on a spike.”
— Alice Burbage, Will S01E02: Cowards Die Many Times

In the midst of all of this drama, Will struggles to write his next great play. He drafts lines that will later become famous in Romeo and Juliet, one in the empty theater and another to charm the owner of an inn into letting him pay rent late. Will writes down the drunken shout of another inn guest, as well: “Get thee to a nunnery!” (Hamlet), possibly one of Shakespeare’s most famous pieces of dialogue. He writes all the time and speaks with incredible eloquence.

It’s this eloquence that allows Will to convince William Kempe to return from The Rose after he abandons ship. Kempe, offended that Will won’t write him comedic parts that make him shine, leaves the playhouse he founded with James Burbage.

Kempe’s actions read as a major betrayal of his business partner and friend. However, he is promised better pay and better parts at The Rose. The majority of London’s best playwrights — Kit Marlowe included — are on contract there. Burbage has no one to write for him but Will, who’s yet to fully prove himself. Plus, Kempe doesn’t like him. He won’t be disrespected in a playhouse he helped to build, even if it means his departure will likely shut the place down.

To entice Kempe to come back, Will describes the part of Falstaff in Henry IV and tells Kempe that Will will make the whole world laugh with him and cry for him. He pitches the part so beautifully that it reinvigorates Kempe and puts Will firmly in his good graces, which is a feat considering how deeply Kempe disliked him. 

Cowards Die Many Deaths ends, therefore, in a party. After an hour of death, explicit torture, extreme guilt, and desperate tension between Will and his two love interests (yes, two, I’m convinced), seeing the entire theatre troupe sing Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” in a drunken harmony is quite surreal. Yet again, the music in Will is perfectly placed to continue the narration.

Other songs featured in S01E02 are Raury’s “God’s Whisper”, Adam and the Ants’ “Stand and Deliver”, and Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant”. In addition to bringing a punk twist to the life of young Will Shakespeare, the music serves to underscore character development and plot twists, as well as scene transitions. It is absolutely brilliant and helps the show keep up its incredibly fast pace.

The Verdict
Definitely tune into Will on TNT. The series airs Mondays at 9 PM EST and has kicked off to a stunning, visceral start. I can’t wait to see more. 

Samantha Puc
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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