The Serpent Queen is the latest anachronistic period drama to use the past to illuminate contemporary gender politics. The grind of rock guitars accompanies the opening credits, which reveal a 16th-century French empress on the throne, computer-generated snakes oozing from beneath her gown. The show’s title is not a complaint about Catherine de Medici but a compliment to the queen who slithers this way and that to evade treachery and overcome disappointment.
The Lionsgate Play series is based on Leonie Frieda’s non-fiction book Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France. Adapted by Justin Haythe and directed by Stacie Passon and Ingrid Jungermann, The Serpent Queen is a down-and-dirty pop history lesson in the mould of Marie Antoinette, The Favourite and The Duel. The dialogue includes such decidedly ahistorical utterances as “This is a teachable moment.”
There are direct-to-camera addresses by the young Catherine, hand-held camerawork, and an absence of the bowing-scraping that we might have expected from a show about royalty. There’s even a touch of Monty Python to some of the courtly shenanigans, which paint the French monarchy in unflattering colours.
Married into the French royal family at the age of 14, Catherine (Liv Hill) struggles to overcome the scandal attached to her Medici legacy. She is expected to get to work immediately – pop out the heirs that will seal her place in the court. The marriage is a duty, the sex a chore except when it’s not with legal partners.
Catherine’s husband Henri (Alex Heath) is more interested in her cousin Diane (Ludivine Sagnier). The more experienced Diane gives Catherine an early survival hack. A widow is the best thing a woman can hope to be, the closest thing you have to freedom, Diane tells Catherine – one of the many instances of foreshadowing across the show’s five episodes.
Catherine’s misadventures are narrated by an older version of the queen (Samantha Morton) to the idealistic maid Rahima (Sennia Nanua). Catherine’s desperate attempts to become a mother take place even as Protestants and Roman Catholics fight for the King’s ear. Catherine appears to have defeated her adversaries by the time she meets Rahima, but a new enemy turns up: her virtuous, and scheming, daughter-in-law Mary Stuart.
The Serpent Queen is a minor addition to the “Past is prologue” approach that has become au courant. Among the instances of foreshadowing is a warning by a courtier that if the monarchy doesn’t pay attention to its citizenry, its members will be publicly slaughtered (the French Revolution is a couple of centuries away).
Catherine is presented as a flawed survivor of a social structure not of her making. The other women, especially Diane, who pull the strings from behind the scenes, are similarly shown to be products of their times. The men suffer too, the show suggests.
Fleet pacing, a strong cast led by the wonderfully enigmatic Samantha Morton, and a cheerful lack of deference towards the aristocracy partly overcome the feeling of watching a contemporary power struggle in period costumes. If the sixteenth century is no different from the present, what have we gained and lost with the passage of time? This show won’t, or can’t, tell.