History isn’t often kind to powerful women. For centuries, women who desire more than the circumspect, carefully prescribed roles society has allotted for them have been branded unnatural freaks at best and dangerous threats at worst. Even the so-called “strong women” we remember most fondly are often lauded for the ways their behavior either mirrors or specifically appeals to men. After all, there’s a reason that our most enduring cultural image of Elizabeth I is as sexless Gloriana defeating the Spanish Armada and going on about having the heart of a man.
It’s also why powerful women tend to be remembered badly. Call it the Lady Macbeth effect, if you will, but it’s always been easier for history (read: generally men) to call these kinds of women witches or accuse them of extravagant sin rather than admit their intelligence, strength, or political skill. From Cleopatra and Olga of Kiev to Catherine the Great and Mary Tudor, female rulers are often remembered for their worst actions—real or imagined—rather than their best. (And frequently slandered for the same choices men have been historically praised for.)
The Serpent Queen is the latest in Starz’s ongoing series of female-focused historical dramas, but it’s the network’s first that takes place outside of the familiar framework of England’s Tudor family. It’s also—perhaps most importantly—the first to embrace a female leader who is not remembered in a particularly positive light. Rightly or wrongly, much of history has decided that Catherine de Medici was a monster: a foreign commoner who poisoned her enemies, practiced the dark arts, and manipulated her children for her own ends. Was she? We’ll likely never know for sure—after all, the history of France after her death was mostly written by her enemies, who had more than a few reasons to blame her for things she both did and did not have a hand in.
Smartly, The Serpent Queen doesn’t ask us to believe that its version of Catherine (Samantha Morton) was just misunderstood, a helpless victim of the history that was written by the same patriarchy that ground down so many women before and after her. Instead, throughout the five episodes that were available to critics (out of a total of eight), the series allows its queen the agency to be the central architect of her own life, without judging her for her choices no matter how appalling they may seem in the moment. Catherine isn’t a particularly good person, but The Serpent Queen doesn’t ask her to be; rather than whitewash her worst traits, the show recontextualizes them as a necessary fact of her survival. (And something no man would be judged for.)
We initially meet Catherine in the aftermath of her eldest son Francis’ (George Jacques) death, just days before her second son Charles is to be crowned king. Her reputation is already such that her servants fear her and essentially draw lots to see who will be stuck with the task of taking her meals. Well aware of this, Catherine leans into their assumptions, slithering through her palace in dramatic black gowns and looking every inch the dark witch everyone says she is. (As fellow Italian Niccolo Machiavelli once said, it is better to be feared than loved, if one cannot have both.)
Surprisingly, Morton’s adult Catherine only appears on the edges of the series’ initial episodes, but her performance is mesmerizing from her first moments onscreen, and it’s her presence that carries this drama throughout. An unreliable narrator in every sense of the word, from the ways she decides to frame her own story to the reasons she has for telling it in the first place, viewers are left to sift through her murky motivations themselves. Her decision to take servant girl Rahima (Sennia Nanua) under her wing reads as both uncharacteristically selfless and deeply self-serving, though it’s unclear whether she simply longs for a willing audience to justify her behavior to or just thinks it’s fun to try to corrupt the God-fearing younger woman by tempting her with the power to finally strike at those that have abused and belittled her.
The show’s first episodes flash back to Catherine’s youth in Italy and early days in France. Liv Hill gamely tackles the awkward years of the so-called Medici bitch, portraying a Catherine that still lacks the hard exterior her later self will wear like armor. She suffers humiliations from both the French court and her own family (a hilarious turn from Charles Dance as her uncle Pope Clement VII is a highlight here) before learning that husband-to-be Henri (Alex Heath) has a preexisting romantic attachment with Diane de Poitiers (Ludivine Sagnier), a woman 20 years his senior who will become Catherine’s most hated rival for much of her life.
Like Starz’s other recent historical dramas, this may be a tale of kings, but it is ultimately a story about women and the things women must do to survive in a world that is shaped both by and for men. While we see the story from Catherine’s POV, The Serpent Queen also correctly refuses to present Diane as a stereotypical homewrecker—she may well genuinely care for Henri (and her pained reaction when he rejects her suggestion to finally put Catherine aside and marry her by calling her old speaks volumes) but she also understands that she has no future without him, and is willing to humiliate and even poison herself to keep his affection and her position secure. (Yes, that implied bit about her drinking gold is more than likely true.)
In a better sort of world, perhaps Diane and Catherine would have been allowed to have a relationship that doesn’t force them to be at odds with one another over a man—after all, they are distant family, and seem of a similar mind on many things. But, in this world, one in which Valois men are allowed to be cretinous and selfish by turns while the women are left to fight for the scraps, they are natural enemies forced to claw at one another rather than the systems that oppress them both. It makes for some darn good television, though, and The Serpent Queen is at its best when Morton and Sagnier are circling one another looking for emotional weak points to exploit. And though her presence in the series’ first five episodes is fairly limited, Antonia Clark makes a formidable Mary, Queen of Scots, whose performative entourage of lookalike young ladies (also hilariously all named Mary) indicates Catherine has another rival for power waiting in the wings.
Unfortunately, the rest of the supporting cast of The Serpent Queen struggles to stand out next to this battle of titans at the series’ center. Lee Ingleby makes the adult Henri a fully believable dishrag, but the various Guises and Bourbons at court all feel relatively interchangeable, with barely there motivations that don’t go much beyond simply hating their rivals or distrusting those who do not share their religion. (The show’s sketching out of the larger conflicts between French Catholics and Protestants that historically drive this era is, on the whole, painfully thin.) Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting are sadly similarly underdeveloped, meaning that most of their actions, whether it’s who they’re sleeping with or the particular ways they choose to betray Catherine over time, all feel as though they happen because the plot of the series says they have to, rather than because they make sense for any particular character.
But, at the end of the day, this is Samantha Morton’s world, and we’re all just living in it. I, for one, am very okay with that. And whether this Catherine de Medici will ultimately turn out to be the hero of her own story or the villain the world has long claimed, at least The Serpent Queen is finally giving her a chance to speak for herself.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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