The Serpent Queen review: Nostalgia is no friend

The Serpent Queen is the latest in Starz period drama collection. Instead of following the trend of the Tudor line and its dynasty, The Serpent Queen focuses on Catherine de’ Medici, the queen of France. Based on the 2004 non-fiction book, Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France by Leonie Frieda, The Serpent Queen is set to be a contemporary period drama detailing the rise of Catherine de Medici. The series follows Catherine de’ Medici, who marries into the French court as an orphaned teenager expected to bring in a fortune in dowry and produce heirs, only to discover that her husband is in love with an older woman and that she cannot conceive children. She manages to keep her marriage going, and rules France for thirty years.

Following the trend that all period dramas do, The Serpent Queen details Catherine de’ Medici’s rise to power but with the struggles she faces as a woman in a male dominated society. Orphaned as a teenager and left in a convent, Catherine de’ Medici’s life changes when her uncle, Pope Clement (Charles Dance) arranges an advantageous match between his 14-year-old niece Catherine (younger version played by Liv Hill) and the second born Prince Henry (younger version played by Alex Heath).

Changes in Starz’s usual period drama production can clearly be seen in the pilot. There is no longer a long opening credit with minute details of the characters. Instead, Catherine sits on her throne with serpents coming out from under her. Unfortunately, this is the only hint as to why Catherine is nicknamed The Serpent Queen. The series feels as if it were split into two parts, which translates well on the screen, but comparisons of performances, and character development seem worlds apart.

The series begins with present-day Catherine de ’Medici (Samantha Morton) telling her story to her new maid, Rahima (Sennia Nanua). Viewers see Rahima’s mistreatment by the serving staff at court, from refusing to give her a name to the general bullying she endures. As Catherine begins her story, her younger counterpart (Liv Hill) arrives in the French court, humiliated from the get-go but uses her cunning and political savvy to convince King Francis (Colm Meaney) to approve of the marriage to Prince Henry (Alex Heath). Of course, Henry presents himself as sweet, and caring but moments after their wedding night, things take a turn for the worse. Young Catherine is humiliated in private as she finds her new husband in the arms of his mother figure/her cousin, Dianne de Poitiers (Ludivine Sagnier).

The first episodes are the series’ strongest as it explores everything the show promises to be. From the political barriers younger Catherine manages to navigate to her own benefit, to the cost of Catherine’s early success. Performances from Sebastiao (Adam Garcia) and Aabis (Amrita Acharia) help elevate younger Catherine’s journey from an orphaned Medici to a promise of the Serpent Queen she is supposed to grow into. Garcia and Acharia find a way to have their characters and performances make an impact without overshadowing the main story of Catherine in her first few years in France. Unfortunately, once the younger cast is no longer needed, the show takes a bit of a turn and not for the better.

In the more recent past, Samantha Morton takes the helm as Catherine. It truly feels like a completely contrasting character. During a fifteen-year time jump, episode four shows Catherine in labour, with her husband (Lee Ingleby) and Dianne de Poitiers. The series of flashbacks follows Catherine constantly bending to Dianne’s whims and allowing Dianne to humiliate her in public and private. Where the younger Catherine was decisive and cunning with the political smarts shown perfectly throughout the first three episodes, Morton’s Catherine is weaker-willed and timid. History knows Catherine De Medici as the powerful Italian noblewoman; in fact, she was one of the most powerful women of the 16th century but The Serpent Queen finds a way to turn her into a timid woman, afraid of upsetting her husband and his lover. It is a shame, as it takes until the final episode for Morton’s Catherine to show a glimpse of the notorious French queen.

The first three episodes were directed by Stacie Passon and written by Justin Haythe and Elizabeth Chakkappan for the third episode. As the show progresses past the first three episodes, the directors are less consistent and different writers added. The constant director gave the first part of the season a cohesive vision that it begins to lack come episode four and beyond. The story line is not the only thing that suffers from the inconsistent writers in the latter part of the season. From motivations, desires and even loyalty within Catherine’s inner circle, it all seems rather lost and incoherent at times with only two or three characters remaining true to their core values and desires. With Haythe writing the story and directing the final episode, you do have to ask, was it only him who could consistently write Catherine as the powerful figure that history knows her as?

The inconstant vision for the last five episodes is now the show’s only problem and any historical drama is subject to scrutiny when it comes to the costumes. While The Serpent Queen does not get it completely wrong at times, some choices are odd. A perfect example of the odd costume choices is Dianne de Poitiers’s wardrobe. As you watch, you are reminded of a toned-down version of something from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Her costumes do not fit the tone of the show. While the other characters such as Catherine, both young and old, and the rest of the French royal court’s costumes fit the period, Dianne’s is strange. With her mixture of black and whites that are more often presented in a checkerboard / houndstooth pattern that didn’t come into popularity until the 1920s. When Dianne’s costumes are in a scene with any other, the comparison is a stark one and makes it feel as if the costume designers were bizarrely trying to represent two different styles and time periods between Catherine and Dianne, though Dianne’s was roughly three hundred years too soon.  

What is interesting is the historical accuracy of the mourning colours. While many would assume it would solely be black, the show does show white as a mourning colour, which is refreshingly accurate. These mourning colours are showcased more so in Catherine and Mary, one being dressed in black, the other in white. Traditionally, when someone wears white in mourning, it is to show the hope that their loved one’s are reborn. It’s a fitting choice for Mary, given how deeply she was supposed to love Francis. Her love isn’t expressly shown in the show, more so her desires to rule and control. Catherine’s black morning clothing is simply to show she is mourning the loss of someone. Given Francis and his father died in quick succession, it is never clear who she is truly mourning for. If for her husband, the blank choice contrasts the colder relationship she had than Mary had with Francis.

The overall theme of the show is supposed to be focused on cost and nostalgia being no friend. What good does looking back do if it cannot impact the present? Well, this theme certainly is lost in the remaining five episodes as it mostly centres around Catherine and Dianne trying to battle each other for Henry’s love. The true premise of the show is mostly evident in the first episode through the standout performances from Liv Hill, Alex Heath and Enzo Cilenti who portrays the mysterious Ruggieri. In the present day/more recent past of the show, the three characters that truly embody the theme of the show are François Guise (Raza Jeffery) and Charles Guise (Ray Panthaki). When these two are involved, the Guise brothers steal any scene they are in with their almost flawless delivery and portrayal of what the cost of power and influence are as well as the eventual consequences. One character I wishes we saw more of was Montmorency (Barry Atsma). As a solider and statesman, no one else understands the cost of power in the French court than Montmorency. 

Unfortunately, while those three are underused and deliver the best performances of the show, the same cannot be said for Samantha Morton, Ludivine Sagnier and Antonia Clarke portraying Mary, Queen of Scots. The show presents Mary as nothing more than a religious zealot, caught in the crossfire of Catherine and Dianne. While Clarke perfectly captures the writers view of this Mary, you cannot blame her performances. The same cannot be said for Morton and Sagnier. Morton seems bored throughout the project, with her whispering of the line while Sagnier tries too hard to be illustrious and sexy Dianne, it comes off as trying too hard. Many fans may even compare the characters and performance to Reign (CW, 2013), another show centring around the balance of power between Catherine and Mary. While Reign had many problems, Catherine was shown as strong and fierce. The Serpent Queen’s later episodes shows the complete opposite. 

The most valuable character would have to be Catherine, given that it is her story and she is telling it throughout the show. An honourable mention would have to be Cosimo Ruggeri, Catherine’s magician who seems to understand the cost and sacrifice of success but he is also the one to steer Catherine into the direction of the French throne. 

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Rating: 3/5

The Serpent Queen arrives on Starz on September 11th, 2022.

Episodes were screened for this review.


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