'Marie Antoinette's' Deserved Better Than Its Dull First Season Finale
After such a dramatic run of episodes, it's a bit strange that Marie Antoinette concludes its first season with a finale that feels determinedly lackluster compared to everything that came before it. It's not clear if the production wanted to make sure this finale concluded the series at a high point for its central heroine (the birth of her son, the Dauphin) in case it wasn't renewed or hint at many of the scandals to plague the queen in the years to come, without being overt about it.
Almost nothing happens in "Queen of Hearts," save for King Louis's decision to back America against the British as a middle finger to France's age-old enemy. It's a reason to bring Benjamin Franklin to court. Provence thinks Louis's military instincts are crap and supporting America is dumb, with no evidence his position comes from anything other than contrariness or a general inclination to just do the opposite of whatever his brother does.
Antoinette gets too close to a male admirer, kissing someone who isn't her husband, and her friendship with Chartres takes a dark turn when she says she doesn't like him like that. (I really could have done without the rape vibes during their confrontation following his alleged military victory.) Oh, and she gives birth to a much-hoped son and loses her mother in a five minutes span and never utters a line of dialogue about either of these personal emotional earthquakes.
Despite the salacious rumors that have swirled around the queen virtually since she arrived in France, this finale is the first time we've ever actually seen Antoinette be unfaithful. (Yes, there was that weird sequence earlier this season when she found herself inexplicably drawn to a random stranger at a Parisian dance that the show never really explained in any way, but that's about it.)
Conveniently, that stranger is the same person she kisses in this episode, a Swedish count named Alex von Fersen. In real life, von Fersen, recognized for his political prowess and military exploits during the American Revolutionary War, did meet the queen at a masked ball and was a "close friend." The jury's out among historians about whether they had an affair; though surviving letters show the depth of their connection, they offer no insight on that particular matter.
Here, von Fersen is a cardboard cipher with little personality, serving no purpose beyond being attractive. Why is he captivated by her? Why is she willing to lure him to her little escapist country cottage when her husband's presumably up the way at Versailles? Since the two share little screen time, it's not clear what either sees in the other or why they stop before crossing into infidelity. (As my grandmother would have said, you might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.)
When he's sent off to fight in America, is Antoinette sad or relieved? The fact that I can't tell feels like it's a problem. It's a perfect example of Marie Antointte's biggest flaw, how little of the queen's inner life is shown. We've seen her struggle and visibly chafe under the sexist expectations that limit her life compared to her husband's or the other men around her. But we've seen shockingly little of her inner life or even how she truly feels about anything.
The show played Antoinette and Louis's relationship as a love story but then leans into her less-than-appropriate relationships with both Chartres and Axel von Furstein without explaining them. Is it attraction because she wasn't forced to marry them, or just a cry for attention? The show never gives us what's lacking with Louis that her connection with Chartres or von Furstein provides. Based on what it does tell me, she seems relatively happy in her marriage.
The finale also behaves as though her relationship with Yolande is a key part of her life, and historically, that's actually true! But it hasn't explored why Antoinette finds her so fascinating or why she's so willing to sacrifice her friendship with Lamballe to keep the other woman near (Also, it doesn't help that Yolande's only consistent personality traits are that she's openly living in a throuple and is taking cash to spy on her supposed best friend.)
At this point, I feel as though I know Antoinette's brother better than I know most of these people, and he's been in something like 1.5 episodes. As we look toward Season 2, it's hard to guess exactly where this show will go next. The strange time jumps mean that we've sped through some of the emotional fallout of several events, including Louis and Antoinette's break with Chartres, von Fersen's departure for America, and the birth of the Dauphin, Louis Joseph.
At this point, there's still about a decade left of Louis's and Antoinette's reign. She'll have two more children, at least one miscarriage, and lose both a son and a daughter before the Revolution comes. Her influence in the French government will grow, even as rumors of her supposed illicit affairs and profligate spending will increase, and her popularity among average French citizens will plummet as the country goes further into debt.
How Marie Antoinette will tackle these complex issues is anyone's guess, but for a show that so vocally touted its feminist bona fides prior to its release, it's probably time for the series to fully dig into the queen's inner emotional journey in a way these last few episodes of Season 1 have almost deliberately avoided. After all, isn't it what she, and we, as viewers, finally deserves?