'Mary and George' review: The horniest period drama of 2024 is also one of its best

Julianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzine star in this historical drama about Mary and George Villiers, King James VI and I's lover.

'Mary and George' review: The horniest period drama of 2024 is also one of its best
Mary and George Villiers in Jacobean-era clothing, standing by a hedge.

If you like your period dramas dripping with political viciousness and lust, let Mary & George satisfy your every craving.

This miniseries, based on Benjamin Woolley's nonfiction novel The King's Assassin, offers up a seductive tale of power — and the lengths we go to to claim it. There will be educational threesomes, attempts at dark magic, and of course, good, old-fashioned murder. And at the center of it all lies the titular mother and son pairing determined to take Jacobean England by storm, played to perfection by Julianne Moore (May December) and Nicholas Galitzine (The Idea of You).

What is Mary & George about?

Mary and George Villiers drinking wine together at court.
Julianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzine in "Mary & George." Credit: Starz

Moore plays Mary Villiers, Countess of Buckingham. When we first meet her, she's just given birth to her second son, George (Galitzine), to whom she mutters such sweet nothings as "Perhaps I should have left you on the floor to rot" and "What use are you to anybody?" Her toughest-of-tough love — if that's even what you could call this — hides a kernel of truth. Being a second son means George won't inherit anything of value, so he will always be seen as less-than.

But as George grows up, it's clear Mary views him as the most "useful" of any of her children. Her first son, John (Tom Victor), is mentally ill, and therefore shunned, so she turns to George's good looks to try to secure a prosperous future for her otherwise penniless family. That means sending George to France to learn how to behave in high society. Lessons include sword fighting, etiquette, and leveraging your sexuality and your body to get just what you want, from men or women alike. Showrunner D.C. Moore brings these early scenes in France to life with equal parts titillating teasing and full-on debauchery, but they're only hints at what's to come once George returns home to England.

That's because Mary, in all her puppet master glory, has her sights set on the highest possible target for George's affections and newly honed talents. He isn't going to seduce just any noble: He's going to seduce King James VI and I (Tony Curran) and secure the Villiers family all the power and fortune Mary so desperately desires.

Mary & George is sexy, biting, and tragic all at once.

George Villiers and King James VI and I riding on the back of a white horse through the woods.
Nicholas Galitzine and Tony Curran in "Mary & George." Credit: Starz

George's path to becoming King James' lover isn't a straight line. The king's bedchamber is already full of young men clamoring for his favor, with Robert Carr (Laurie Davidson), the cunning Earl of Somerset, standing above them all. The interplay between Mary, George, and the Somersets makes for some delicious, The Great–style verbal sparring — especially in a scene in which courtiers admonish Mary for her overly rouged face. Some excellent editing choices, including perfectly timed smash cuts to title cards, add an extra level of humor to a show whose dialogue is already a riot.

But even with all its royal ruffs and political rituals, Mary & George isn't afraid to get down in the muck either. George bites it multiple times throughout his earlier attempts to meet James, at one point throwing himself into mud behind James' carriage in a moment of total desperation. Wooing a king, it seems, is not a pretty business. And Mary & George refuses to stay buttoned-up for the sake of keeping history prim and proper.

That sentiment extends to the show's treatment of sex. Raunchy love scenes abound, from royal orgies to secret meetups in dark alleyways. But what else would you expect from King James, a monarch whose constant public horniness seemingly heightens the lust in everyone around him? In his court, desire is the norm, as is queerness. ("Bodies are just bodies" is a common refrain throughout the series.) James is unabashed in his love for men, and it's a given that those who gain his affections, like George and Robert, are elevated in stature. If they are judged within the court, it's more due to envy of their status than their sexual orientation, although there are certainly members of the greater public who consider James' behavior to be taboo.

In a court where love and sex are as good as currency, Mary & George still works hard to position James and George's connection as (mostly) genuine. Galitzine and Curran are magnetic as this deeply flawed couple, at one point declaring their love, at others taking different lovers in order to make each other jealous. There's fun in their petty moments of revenge, but there's tragedy here, too — especially as James' health declines and George grows further into the role of a politician interested only in his own best interests.

George's relationship with Mary compounds this tragedy even further. Mary is so obsessed with protecting herself by raising her family up in the world that she reduces each of her children to tools who can get her what she wants, most often via strategic marriage or seduction. If everyone in your family has been alienated or turned into some warped version of themselves, is the status you achieve even worth it?

Julianne Moore, Nicholas Galitzine, and Tony Curran make Mary & George a must-watch.

Mary and George Villiers sitting on a wooden bench.
Julianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzine in "Mary & George." Credit: Starz

As Mary schemes and plots, Moore attacks every scene she's in with cold ferocity, transforming Mary into a ruthless political maneuverer who never lets her guard down — not even around her children. Even when George tries (and fails) to hang himself to avoid traveling to France, her reaction is one of blasé disgust. Yes, she's despicable, but in Moore's hands, Mary is so heinous it's fun.

As Moore's onscreen son, Galitzine continues his rise to stardom following his turns as a dumb jock in Bottoms and an English prince in Red, White & Royal Blue. Hilariously, his role in Mary & George serves as a kind of crossover event, as Red, White & Royal Blue's Prince Henry cites George Villiers as King James' "dumb jock boyfriend" in the novel. Despite this strange coincidence, Galitzine's performance here is nothing like his prior work. He begins Mary & George as a charming, if angsty, young man, and his transformation into a vicious power player over the course of the show is mesmerizing to behold. Watching him and Moore go from conspiring together to butting heads becomes one of Mary & George's great joys.

Another of those great joys is Curran's work as James, who serves as Mary & George's sad, and surprising, heart. Curran's James is bombastic and brash as he oversees his court, yet there's a constant sense that he knows he's being used. No matter how much George offers his love, or Mary her friendship, there's always the slightest hint of fear in James that none of this might be real.

These touches of pain serve as the perfect foil to Moore and Galitzine's more devious performances, although there's no doubt that Mary and George come with their own baggage. This trio's dynamic may be royally screwed, but Moore, Galitzine, and Curran make them a mess you simply can't ignore.

Mary & George is now streaming on Starz.

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