Starz’s new historical drama slithers ahead, buoyed by its collection of excellent women performers.
The Serpent Queen is the latest historical drama on offer from Starz. It will leave you wondering where the line between calculating ruthlessness and stone-cold survival skills lies. The series centers around the life of Catherine De Medici, Queen of France, during the Valois Dynasty. Samantha Morton stars as the titular character, giving a powerful and disarming performance, while Liv Hill portrays the younger Catherine in flashbacks.
Creator Justin Haythe puts an anachronistic spin on the series by ending each episode on grinding anthems by the queens of pop, punk, and rock and employing the Fleabag-esque direct narration so recently utilized in Netflix’s abysmal Persuasion. What didn’t work for Persuasion is seamless and thrilling in The Serpent Queen, however, due largely to the strength of Morton and Hill’s performances and the show’s irreverent punk sensibilities. This is no wine aunt crying in the bathtub but a young woman with a spine of steel unafraid to get her hands dirty. Her survival-and that of her retinue–depends solely on her ability to navigate the French court’s treacheries and intrigues. Queen trumps Girlboss every time.
Based on Leonie Frieda’s book Catherine De Medici: Renaissance Queen of France, the story is structured as adult Catherine telling her story to her new maid, Rahima (Sennia Nanua), who proves to be as clever and inscrutable as her mistress. Nanua and Morton play wonderfully off of one another, particularly when you see Rahima taking Catherine’s lessons to heart and learning how to exert her newfound power, like getting revenge on a fellow servant for a prank or humiliating two catcalling palace guards. As Catherine recounts her life, we see that Rahima is but clay shaped by Catherine’s clever hands.
From an early age, young Catherine learns that power and wealth provide neither comfort nor protection. Death comes for her family, once the wealthiest and most powerful in Italy, one by one. It only ends when her uncle Pope Clement (A hilariously scenery-chewing Charles Dance) arranges her marriage to Prince Henry (Alex Heath), the second son of the King of France. From the very beginning, Catherine suffers cringe-inducing humiliations, from having her virginity inspected in the papal chambers to catching her new husband in bed with his mistress Diane de Poitiers (Ludivine Sagnier) on her wedding night. But Catherine proves resourceful, impressing the boorish King Francis (Colm Meaney) with her talent for strategy.
While it’s not without flaws, The Serpent Queen taps into the feminine rage of the #MeToo era.
While it’s mostly a straightforward historical drama, the best parts of The Serpent Queen come when Catherine goes toe-to-toe with her counterpart de Poitiers. Diane seems to live for bedding Henry and torturing Catherine, giving the audience something meaty to chew on between the gripes and exploits of the courtiers. The screen fairly crackles with flinty tension and resentment once Catherine comes into her own and sees herself constantly undermined and usurped by de Poitiers. There are moments when the two seem to reach an uneasy accord, but the rivalry between the two is always just below the surface, waiting to bubble up.
After all, there was no certainty for either of them in a world where women were disposable. It’s the women who truly carry The Serpent Queen, including not only Catherine, Rahima, and Diane, but the clever and calculating Mary Stuart (Antonia Clarke). She and Morton compellingly capture the experience of women at loggerheads to maintain their hold on the French throne.
While it’s not without flaws, The Serpent Queen taps into the feminine rage of the #MeToo era, serving the audience with much delicious catharsis as Catherine consistently outmaneuvers her rivals. Though it might not fall under the umbrella of feminist storytelling, there is something inherently satisfying about watching a strong woman rise to power. Even if she had to bite a few ankles along the way.
The Serpent Queen emerges from the grass on Starz September 11th.