"The Serpent Queen" presents Catherine de Medici as a cultivator of chaos. She sows it carefully and waits for it to grow to its fullest height before cutting it down to weave it around enemies and would-be friends. It's a tough material to fashion, let alone master, which can only be achieved through conquering other areas of expertise . . . starting with survival.
With apologies to those mourning Britain's recently departed monarch, there's no shortage of TV queens at the moment. Between Westeros, Middle Earth, and the array of historic dramas that populate Starz's and PBS' respective catalogs, audiences are in no danger of forgetting how tough life can be for a royal.
There's no shortage of TV queens at the moment.
But the spirit of Samantha Morton's Catherine is forged in volatility that she also inflicts on others, whether for sport or, in the case of Rahima (Sennia Nanua), a servant girl she takes under her wing, as a pastime with a purpose. Rahima is a pious young woman who puts up with the other servants' dehumanizing treatment, saying nothing when they refer to her as "It."
Catherine pulls Rahima to her side supposedly to teach her how to battle her bullies, regaling her with tales of her rise from penniless orphan to the mother of European royalty as an example of how far she needs to go to achieve victory over her enemies. And she does this while regularly reminding Rahima that while she may be her benefactor, that could change on a whim.
Catherine is always circling Rahima, and neither she nor the audience can guess whether the ruler is protecting this girl in whom she claims to see so much of her younger self, or softening her up for slaughter. But she's also constantly on guard, knowing her daughter-in-law Mary Queen of Scots (Antonia Clarke) would gladly see her deposed.
Morton's cutting gaze, sly smile, and dangerously honeyed way of relaying Catherine's story establish an anxiety that buzzes with a seduction. Her understated performance plugs into a trickster's energy that constantly reminds us of why so many of Catherine's subjects fear her, and while the bravest of souls like Rahima keep returning to her side despite her artful pettiness and cruelty.
But the drama's creator and writer Justin Haythe earns the script's caustic humor by establishing the roots of Catherine's pragmatism and strategic ruthlessness through Liv Hill's wider-eyed portrayal of Catherine as a young woman who is constantly reminded of her unattractiveness. Nevertheless, her uncle Pope Clement VII (Charles Dance) deposits her into the viper's nest that is the French court to wed Prince Henri (Alex Heath), the King's second son.
Morton ... establishes an anxiety that buzzes with a strange seduction.
Clement underestimates how much the royals despise the Medicis, leaving it to young Catherine to win over her husband's father, King Francis (Colm Meany) since her spouse's affections lie elsewhere. If she can't get pregnant, she can't produce an heir for France. And if she can't produce an heir, what's the point in keeping her around . . . or alive.
There's little about the Renaissance-era politics at play in "The Serpent Queen" that isn't familiar to viewers who favor period pieces like this. Instead, the anachronistic flourishes in the editing along with the saucy performances make it piercing.
Both the younger and mature versions of Catherine have a feral tenacity growling under the surface of their opulent costumes and jewels that slips out only when her equals in cunning and sugared viciousness are watching. Everyone's working an angle to keep their heads on their shoulders, giving even her servants and confidantes who journey with her from Italy (wonderfully rendered by Kiruna Stamell, Amrita Acharia and Ruby Bentall ) a measure of power others don't possess.
In choosing to adapt Leonie Frieda biography's with more claws and swagger, Haythe vindicates Catherine in ways today's audience likely understands better than those who might've watch her even a few years ago. Women share writing credits with Haythe on six out of the season's eight scripts, and he split directorial duties with Stacie Passon, who helmed half the season's episodes, and Ingrid Jungermann, who directed two.
This collaboration yields a story that leavens its cutthroat honesty with empathy, granting a sliver of benediction to even Catherine's duplicitous cousin Diane de Poitiers (a lively Ludivine Sagnier), who sets the bar for frenemies.
Easy as it would be to make Diane and Catherine's rivalry into an episodic sport, Sagnier and Hill, and Morton in later episodes, knit an uneasy détente that waxes and wanes in a way that ensures the tension in their performances never slackens. The chemistry Morton shares with Nanua is also fresh, in a way that makes a person root for Nanua's small victories and root for her to circumvent the traps Catherine sets in her path.
"The Serpent Queen" may be the latest Starz drama that plumbs the ghastly inner workings of court intrigue to remind us that in the past, as now, a woman's life was far from the stuff of fables. But it distinguishes itself by rinsing away the cosmetics of royal etiquette and self-serious machination with bracing wit. Catherine may have been a mean woman, but she devised ways to enjoy herself — as should we.
"The Serpent Queen" premieres at Sunday, Sept. 11 at 8 p.m. on Starz.