The Samantha Morton-Led Series Is A Brutal & Anachronistic Reclamation Of Catherine De Medici
Dec 20, 2022
In recent years, Starz has built a cottage industry off of the success of “Outlander.” If it’s historical, sexy, and deals with some type of palace intrigue that doesn’t include dragons or elves, there’s a good chance that it’s ending up on Starz. In just the past decade, the network has released “The White Queen,” “The White Princess,” The Spanish Queen,” and “Becoming Elizabeth.” They return to their royal monikers with the Samantha Morton-led “The Serpent Queen.” While the Catherine de Medici series is definitely in the same wheelhouse as those aforementioned series, it’s also a bit more brutal, nastier, and, ultimately, more interesting.
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Following de Medici as she rapidly ascends the French royal hierarchy, the first episode begins as she is an orphan before being rescued from poverty by her Uncle, Pope Clement VII (Charles Dance). Immediately, he sets about finding her a husband, settling on Prince Henri (Alex Heath). Along with her maids — Mathilde (Kiruna Stamell), Aabis (Amrita Acharia), and Angelica (Ruby Bentall) — the Italian de Medicis arrive at the French royal court, meeting King Francis (Colm Meaney) and de Medici’s older cousin Diane (Ludivine Sagnier), whom the younger Henri has taken on as a mistress. While the earlier episodes centralize the tension between Catherine and Diane, we also get glimpses of her antagonistic relationship with Mary, Queen of Scots (Antonia Clarke).
The anachronistic details — beginning with an ‘80s guitar solo as the credits roll — would suggest something more akin to “Bridgerton” or “The Great” updated with a Hot Topic aesthetic. Yet instead of fully embracing Catherine as some type of proto-goth Queen, “The Serpent Queen” is far less interested in any contemporary parallels than it is in exploring Morton’s de Medici survival at all costs. It’s not exactly an act of historical reclamation for the infamously cutthroat Queen, but it’s also not not that either. Save for a number of “Fleabag”-esque winks towards the camera, and some contemporary idioms, “The Serpent Queen” is rooted at least in the spirit of 16th century France, if not in its minutia.
There’s also far less of Morton than the advertising material would suggest. While only having screened five out of the eight episodes, her Catherine acts as a frame narrator — telling her servant Rahima (Sennia Nanua) about her life — as a younger Catherine (Liv Hill) moves through the court. Morton only really takes over during the fourth episode. While the show is being sold on Morton’s icy black portrayal — which is very much present and will be even more in the later episodes — it’s really Hill that leads the show and proves to be something of a revelation. As she adjusts to the constant politicking that comes with being a princess, her gradual transition from virtuous child to ruthless ruler is impeccably rendered.
Adapted from Leonie Frieda’s 2003 biography “Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France” by Justin Haythe, the series moves very quickly through Medici’s life, jumping some fifteen or so years into the future in between episodes — never-mind that no one, except Catherine, actually ages. Haythe has had a curious screenwriting career, careening from literary adaptations (“Revolutionary Road”) to WTF blockbusters (“The Lone Ranger” and “A Cure For Wellness”). “The Serpent Queen” seemingly marries those two opposing interests, winking at the camera while all sorts of sordid things happen but still grounding its central historical figure in the class and gendered social structures of the time.
“The Serpent Queen” grafts its kitschiness onto the nominally bookish genre. While it definitely shares a kinship with Starz’s other Tudor-centric series, Morton’s knowingly malevolent portrayal, alongside Hill, spices up the proceedings just enough to elicit interest. [B]
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