When King Henri goes to war in The Serpent Queen, Catherine De Medici acts as Regent and is stunningly successful. But Henri betrays Catherine time and time again, in response to his mistress Diane De Poitiers' demands. How much more can Catherine take?
Episode 5 of The Serpent Queen opens as Catherine de Medici and her favored maid Rahima stroll in the forest. In fitting with the series’ fairytale themes, the forest is so often the place where bad things happen, and where supernatural beings roam. Rahima spots a man, or a creature, lurking in the shadows. Today Catherine is uncharacteristically silent, concerned by the contents of the treacherous letter she received at the end of the last episode. It revealed a plot between Mary and Elizabeth I (England) against Catherine.
Catherine: He could trust me as Regent even if he couldn’t love me as his wife.
She needs to find more proof, more letters between the two royal women, almost certainly hidden in Mary’s rooms and asks Rahima if she will help. It’s a grave situation –– everything is at stake, the future of France, of Catherine, and even of Rahima: “Our fates are intertwined,” Catherine intones. We know Rahima, emboldened by her new power and flattered by her intimacy with Catherine, will accept the challenge, which is just what Catherine intends.
And back to Catherine’s troubled marriage and her struggle for acceptance. She is, she reflects, Queen in name only. The latest design for the royal seal, incorporating the entwined initials H and C (Henri and Catherine) also includes a hidden D, for Diane de Poitiers, the third party in the marriage.
Catherine is so angry she wishes her former magician Ruggieri was back with them. Mathilde, ever the realist, comments that’s because he always said what she wanted to hear. Since his disappearance, Catherine has not allowed his name to be mentioned, yet claims she appreciates him because he never underestimated her. Aabis agrees with Mathilde, saying he always asks too much in return. Catherine reminds her that Aabis’s convenient miscarriage and her pregnancy were the results of Ruggieri’s powers.
Henri’s preparing to go to war with the Holy Roman Emperor and wants Catherine to act as Regent. This is a significant gesture. She was proved right about the coming hostilities, and although she is not in line for the throne, he trusts her with the position. Diane, meanwhile, is getting very fond of her gold potion, though Angelica warns her it will drive her mad. She’s afraid Catherine will find out, but Diane wants greater control over her supplier. She gives Angelica a gold ring to ensure future supplies. She purrs seductively, like a Bond villain, “Together we could accomplish great things, Angelica.” Aabis is suspicious of Angelica’s frequent disappearances and jealous, as she’s in love with her. However, when Angelica produces the ring as a token of affection, she’s not fooled.
Henri formally names Catherine as Regent, warning Guises and Bourbons to behave. At least the Guises are diluted since Francois, Duke of Guise, is Henri’s second in command, leaving only Cardinal Charles to cause mischief. Henri bids his family a farewell, and as the army is about to leave, Diane, sporting some fancy armor that we fervently hope will cause a nasty rash on her collarbone, rides in to announce she will accompany Henri to war. As usual, Henri goes into limp noodle mode and agrees. Diane will, uh, advise on strategy.
Catherine has more significant problems to deal with: the army needs funding. She calls her first Privy Council, but no one shows up. Guise at least sends an excuse, so she starts with him. He says the Privy Council can’t/won't do anything. She’ll have to go to the Treasury, but she’ll find it empty because those darn Protestants have spent it all. She’ll have to go to Parliament (the French one!), where the Catholics always vote with him. His price: Chenonceaux, the beautiful moated castle he and Francois seized for the Crown from its Protestant owner, Pierre Marquez (David Denman). Catherine rolls her eyes. The Bourbon Bros give her the same song and dance, except their price for the Protestant vote is the expulsion of the Cardinal from the Privy Council.
Catherine, unwilling to play games with the Bourbons and Guises, must now rely on her skills to persuade Parliament. She’s nervous, saying the Rosary before she addresses them. Even though she’s Queen and Regent, all the representatives ignore her. She makes her case with confidence and intelligence. Their King needs food, weapons, horses, and armor. She has always appreciated Parliament’s loyalty, including the Protestants. She launches a passionate defense of the King, whose tolerance she praises, and offers the Protestants a private audience with him. Pierre Marquez accepts the offer, and Catherine comments to us that people only ever want to be heard.
The Bourbons are not so happy. They can’t believe she just won the Protestants’ support without their help, without giving them anything in return. Do you know what that makes them? They think it makes them arseholes, but honestly, it makes them something far worse: Irrelevant.
On the battlefield, Diane advises Henri not to fight. He argues with her––he’s always led his men in battle; it’s his job. She makes an impassioned plea for him to think of France (and her). Francois agrees with Henri but eventually offers to lead the troops, expressing silent disapproval of the King’s cowardly behavior. Henri and the army return from the battlefield to a tumultuous welcome. A little girl steps forward with a bunch of flowers which she offers to Francoise (apparently, everyone knows he led the battle), who accepts only when the King insists.
The Guises’ reaction to Catherine’s triumph is as you’d expect. Their mother, Antoinette (Beth Goddard), is furious that Antoine let Catherine outwit him but lavishes praise on Francois, who’s having a bath on his return from the war. Antoinette is too enthusiastic about having her (stark naked) son back. She has plans. Antoine needs to be back in favor with the King, and Mary must be trained to take her place in the power structure of the court.
Diane discovers the King’s guard will not let her into the King’s chambers. She is now even more dependent on her gold dosage and continues her pursuit of Angelica, kissing her when she confronts her about taking too much of the substance. Meanwhile, Aabis has found out Angelica’s secret and returns the ring.
Henri invites Catherine to ride out with him, and the trip ends with a beautiful view of Chenonceaux, which he wants to give Catherine in gratitude. Is this a new beginning for them? He is proud of her achievements as Regent, and Catherine glows with happiness. She tells him she has one small favor to ask, her promise to arrange an audience for Pierre with the King.
Pierre, in his turn, is astonished that she kept her word. He speaks plainly to Henri, telling him that the structure of the Estates cannot last, anticipating a bloody outcome. The King, Church, and aristocracy are living on borrowed time. Diane criticizes him for threatening violence, to which he replies his words are a warning, not a threat, and she snaps back at him to mind his place.
Clearly, the audience is going pear-shaped, and both Catherine and Henri are becoming concerned. Out of patience, Pierre criticizes Diane for her intrusive management of the coronation, for persuading Henri not to fight, and for not being a royal mistress who is seen and not heard and at whom everyone laughs. Diane launches a long-winded, hysterical defense, claiming that since God appointed Henri to be King, he chose her to be Henri’s mistress.
“Not my God,” Pierre replies. As he turns away, Diane snatches a knife from a guard and cuts Pierre’s throat. She falls to her knees, saying she did it for Henri, who kisses her, murmuring words of forgiveness. Catherine stands in shock, horrified. Pierre bleeds out on the floor at her feet.
Following this horrendous episode, Catherine seeks to retreat from the court and from Henri’s continued betrayals. As she and her women ride into Chenonceaux, she is greeted by none other than Diane, with Angelica in attendance. (You didn’t think she was going to get any sort of punishment for murder, surely?) Diane has decided it will be a country home for herself and Henri. It’s yet another betrayal. Catherine walks away and mutters, “Who will rid me of this troublesome woman?” It’s a paraphrase of the famous royal comment that led to the murder of Thomas Becket.
Meanwhile, in a tavern, Catherine’s former magician Ruggieri meets another character we haven’t seen in a while, Montmorency, the advisor King Francis banished. Both are down on their luck and drunk. Ruggieri’s prediction for Montmorency is absolutely accurate –– he’ll become drunker, and pick a fight, although since getting older that may not be a smart thing to do.
Sure enough, Montmorency staggers out, throws up, and picks a fight with a man who tries to help him. He then offers to buy the man’s daughter and then attacks him again when he agrees. But the daughter intervenes and asks Montmorency to spare her father, and then announces she wants to go with him, wherever he’s going. She looks very young.
Back in the present. Rahima tells her mistress she is willing to search Mary’s room. Catherine distracts Mary by engaging her in a discussion of scripture as Rahima slips away. In a surprise twist, Catherine directs one of Mary’s women to fetch her mistress a shawl, with the consequence that Rahima is discovered where she shouldn’t be, rummaging through Mary’s belongings.
Is Catherine testing Rahima's loyalty? Let’s see next week.