Starz once again delivers its fearlessly anachronistic brand of history in The Serpent Queen, directed by Stacie Passon (Dickinson) and written by Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road). Was Catherine of Medici a monster or a damaged child? Was she reviled for not conforming to gender norms of the 16th century, a notoriously brutal misogynistic time, and if so, why did this period produce other strong, if flawed, queens? Let's dig into the first episode!
France, 1560: The aging Catherine of Medici (Samantha Morton), Queen of France, is bored. She's supposed to be arranging the coronation of the future King of France, but she isn't interested in all the girly stuff such a task demands (think of being "mother of the bride"). So when a lowly servant arrives with a trayful of food, Catherine decides to entertain herself in the way she does best––lure in a victim with easy, vicious charm.
Rahima (Sennia Nanua) is the very lowest in the servants' pecking order, and she's been chosen by the kitchen staff to serve the Queen because they're all terrified of her. And so they should be, given her reputation. As if the kitchen staff aren't bad enough, she has to run a gauntlet of obscene comments and whistles from courtiers and guards as she makes her way to the Queen's apartment.
Catherine quickly figures out Rahima's low status and casually suggests revenge. How about some poison, she suggests, offering the servant an orange, peeling it, and eating a slice herself. She knows all about the sort of treatment Rahima experiences.
I used to be just like you. Someone else’s shoes on my feet, shivering myself to sleep at night, nobody in the world to care about me. So the only question is, what are you willing to do to change it?
Well-versed in Christian obedience, Rahima replies, through a mouthful of orange, that she'll turn the other cheek. Catherine sneers but decides to tell her —and us — her story. Her parents died of syphilis, and her grandmother died shortly after when she was a young child. Like many upper-class women in the period, she was dumped into a convent where she ended up as a servant, like Rahima, bullied and abused. But she discovers she can make things happen, as an unlucky dog finds out when the Mother Superior administers a beating. (Liv Hill (The Great) is terrific as the young Catherine.)
Florence is at war with France; rampaging and lustful French soldiers break into the convent looking for the "Medici bitch." They could have been rougher with her, but she is dumped in the street, forgotten. She asks a passerby for help. He reassures her she'll be fine, and he should know: He's a magician! Sure enough, help arrives in the form of her uncle, Pope Clement (Charles Dance, enjoying his role immensely), who claims Catherine as his property.
While a servant tends to an abscess on his bottom, he tells his niece she will marry Henri, the King of France's second son, pondering how to make her more attractive, although he's confident the dowry, including a handful of duchies, will do the trick. She's intelligent, not a desirable trait, and although the Medicis are the most despised family in Europe (because they're rich but not aristocrats), money talks. Dear Uncle then makes sure she has a spot virginity test. (That could have been a deal breaker. That it occurs in a room with a group of supposedly celibate men doesn't seem to bother anyone except maybe Catherine).
It's makeover time: New clothes, dance lessons, the use of the fork (an unknown item in France). But Catherine's not satisfied. The marriage is not a foregone conclusion; she insists the budget be raised, and the wow factor upped. "She may not know her place, but she happens to be right," the Pope mutters with a reluctant smidgeon of avuncular pride. Catherine also chooses her retinue, Mathilde (Kiruna Stamell), a survivor of the convent attack, to be her fool; fortune teller Ruggieri (Enzo Cilenti) she met earlier as her magician; Aabis (Amrita Acharia), a dressmaker; and a parfumier's daughter, Angelika. After hearing the perfume's ingredients, Catherine asks if the combo could make someone unwell. It most certainly could, Angelika tells her, and she's hired on the spot.
The French court is surprised at her arrival, although they giggle at her high platform heels. (Kudos to costume designer Karen Muller Serreau for Catherine's gorgeous Asian-inspired outfit.) However, the Pope did not bring the entire dowry, claiming it was too risky when traveling overland. It's an awkward moment. Quick-witted Catherine announces that the dowry will also include the prosperous province of Urbino, forgiveness of the Bourbons' abandonment of the church, and a cardinalship for someone's extra son. Anyway, everyone is pleased, particularly about the land.
King Francis (Colm Meaney) suggests the two young people should get to know each other. Henri (Alex Heath, romantically disheveled from jousting) invites Catherine to visit the pond. He's a sweetheart, handsome, and adorably he tells this rather plain young woman she is much prettier than her portrait suggested. And then he catches her a frog! Catherine immediately falls in love, a big mistake.
Catherine meets her French cousin Diane de Poitiers (Ludivine Sagnier), who sings Henri’s praises. The King says Diane is like a mother to Henri. (Really?). The two women bond at the wedding banquet, and Diane gives her a quick rundown of the court, pointing out the members of the King's council and other power players. It's corrupt, devious, and competitive. And they're all related to each other and other European aristocrats and royalty.
Diane is a widow, very enthusiastic about being not under the control of a husband or male relatives. She manages to imply (and this is on Catherine's wedding day!) that she hopes Catherine will eventually enjoy the same status. Enchanted, Catherine fails to be offended. Diane's last piece of advice before the end of the celebrations is: "Do not let your husband fail."
Catherine remembers this at the official bedding, which historically required a lot of vulgar business. (Although I don't believe having friends and family as ringside spectators was the norm!) Henri and Catherine remain clothed in voluminous white nightgowns (Catherine looks like a giant meringue). Very awkward, especially with your father-in-law making jousting jokes. Catherine takes charge. "Look at me," she tells Henri. "Pretend we're alone."
After she does not fail, the audience leaves and Henri yells at Catherine to get out. She's led to another bedchamber; confused, upset, and then angry. She returns to Henri's room and receives a rude shock: Diane is in bed with Henri, smirking at Catherine over his head.
In the present, Catherine asks Rahima what she learned from this experience. Rahima mumbles out some New Testament platitudes, and Catherine, frustrated at her response, shouts, "I learned never to trust a single soul!" She sweeps the food off the table and calls the guards to take the "clumsy girl" out. Thrown onto the floor outside the royal apartment, Rahima reaches into her pocket for her stolen orange. Maybe she has learned something from Catherine after all.
How will Catherine navigate the treacherous, misogynistic French court, and how will she use her power with allies and enemies? And how will Rahima's life turn out? Let's find out in next week's episode!