I’m a sucker for the 16th century, and Starz is delivering a slightly new topic with The Serpent Queen! Check in on Tuesdays for my thoughts on the previous two weeks’ worth of episodes, mostly costumes.
Episode 6, “The Last Joust”
We dive right into a dream / vision that Catherine’s having where she pushes Diane out a window and Henry lays dying in bed and there’s serpents around. Then back to the framing story where Queen Catherine visits Rehima who’s being imprisoned for doing what Catherine asked in the last episode. But Catherine says, oh dear, getting her released isn’t within her power. Then she questions Rehima’s memory of events, trying to make her think Catherine didn’t send her on the mission. But hey, while brainwashing you, why not continue with the story?
First, there’s naked Diane getting painted with gold by Angelica, who’s also ingesting some gold too, why not?
Then Ruggieri has been found, so Catherine is talking to him about doing ‘something’ about Diane. She tells him about the vision, and he says Henry’s death is the price, but Catherine isn’t willing to pay it.
Antoinette de Guise is plotting with Mary Queen of Scots. They wonder why France is enemies with the Holy Roman Empire since they’re both Catholic, and apparently all Catholics should stick together. Maybe the Holy Roman Emperor could support Mary’s claim to the English throne? Oh and King Henry has been delaying her marriage to the Dauphin, they must work on that.
The Guise Brothers and Mary visit Diane and ask her to work on Mary and Francis’ marriage. If she does it, they’ll arrange so Diane earns money off bell-ringing, which will be big business with a wedding. Mary pipes up about being a Catholic queen, and OK WE GET IT.
Reminds me of:
Which maybe sorta could possibly be inspired by:
At Henry’s privy council, he drinks a lot, and the Bourbons are bitchy. In comes Diane with Francis and Mary, trying to speed up their wedding. Henry throws a fit and a glass, saying Francis will marry when hey says, not when Diane says. The Guise brothers tell Diane, “It appears we overestimated your influence.”
Henry goes off to shoot arrows, and Catherine follows. He complains that Diane never loved him, and he doesn’t want that for Francis. Henry’s thinks it’s dumb how Frances follows Mary around like a dog. Catherine suggests they need an impartial advisor, so they send a message to Montmorency.
Catherine then talks to the Bourbons about finances and austerity measures proposed by the King. They’ll just have to reject Diane’s wedding festivities, darn.
Next up, Catherine goes to tell Mary that her fiance is not so hot. She ‘fears he can’t have children’ and says that if Francis and Mary’s marriage is childless, Mary will have to forfeit Scotland and her claim to England. Which is a misrepresentation of reality — at her Guise relatives’ suggestion before her marriage to Francis, Mary bequeathed Scotland and her claim to the English throne to France if SHE died without a child. Not just if they didn’t have children, and if Francis died, all such claims would be invalid. Also, she willingly signed this, so it wasn’t a surprise that Catherine could throw at her.
There’s another scene between Aabis and Angelica, blah low-key lesbianism; their undeveloped characters and plot bore me. Then the Bourbons, where Diane is pissy about her wedding funds being cut, and she finds out it was Catherine’s idea. Back in her room, she finds Mary crying that she doesn’t want to be “a childless queen without influence,” which is kind of a dig against Diane, lol.
But Diane is still Team MQoS for some reason and goes to pick on Catherine about the wedding and Henry. At one point, Diane says, “Henry does not want to be a better man,” and this whole episode really makes me wonder WTF is going on. Henry is shown as wishy-washy and pretty much controlled by Diane. Is he just thinking with his dick? It’s a weird portrayal when contrasted with his father, who was totally into fucking his mistress(es) but also clearly had his own mind about what he wanted to do when it came to ruling the country and generally making decisions. And even Henry’s older brother was straightforward and decisive, even if he was an asshole about his choices. Henry is the “sensitive one” but also totally indecisive and totally dependent on Diane’s support and approval. She’s a mother and a lover to him in a weird, gross fashion.
Anyway, that night, Diane visits Henry to continue on the same topic. He says Francis is not ready to be married, he’s just a boy, and likewise Henry says Diane has kept him (Henry) a boy for her needs. Their relationship is maternal and sycophantic. Diane makes a self-serving semi-apology, saying he can send her away. Which he won’t do.
Btw, the whole “Henry delaying Francis’ marriage” plotline is dumb. King Henry arranged for the marriage to Mary Queen of Scots in the first place and considered it a feather in his cap. He was all set to put Scotland as a vassal state to France and hopefully add England in there too, and to accomplish this, he needed the two kids to marry as soon as they were reasonably of age. Henry was the one who had Mary and Francis’ arms quartered with the English royal arms to proclaim their right to that throne as well as France and Scotland upon their marriage. He was all for it!
The next day at the privy council, Henry invites Diane, and she announces that the wedding is on. And just for funsies, the Guise brothers suggest inviting the Holy Roman Emperor as guest of honor to show a “united Catholic Europe.” The Bourbons say this will piss off the Protestants and remind Henry that this is the same guy who held him and his brother hostage. So that’d be Charles V, who abdicated as emperor in 1556 and his brother Ferdinand actually became Holy Roman Emperor in February 1558. Francis and Mary were married in April 1558, in case anyone cares about the historical timeline.
Catherine is not thrilled that Diane did get her way, so she goes off to the woods to talk about her visions with Ruggieri again.
Here comes the Holy Roman Emperor, whichever one he is! IMDB isn’t helping me out here. Oh and the dowager Queen Eleanor is back, since the Emperor is her brother, but that could be either Charles or Ferdinand. I’m guessing the show is sticking with Charles, and he is a BRO.
Mary sucks up to the Emperor with Catholic zealot shit, which he returns in kind.
The exaggerated shape of her gowns are perhaps inspired by a few rather exaggerated period images, like this one:
This show’s portrayal of MQoS is incredibly poor, and I can only guess it’s supposed to be Catherine de’ Medici’s perception of her. But even then, the religious angle is not what I’d have gone with because Mary’s faith wasn’t extreme in her childhood. It didn’t need to be since the French court was understood to be Catholic. If the show wanted a conflict between the two women, a more accurate yet still juicy one would be their backgrounds. Mary was practically born an anointed queen, and she knew it. This was intrinsic to her personality and actions. Whereas Catherine was an orphaned noblewoman of dubious merchant, common roots. Of all the characters to be snobby jerks to Catherine, Mary would be ideal and it would have felt historically true. Oh well.
Henry imparts some words of wisdom to his son on his wedding day, suggesting Francis doesn’t need to obey Mary’s every wish, “You should be ruled by your own mind.” But Francis points out that Dad does everything Diane says, so what’s wrong with obeying a women? Especially since Francis will actually be married to this one. Touche.
Monmorency finally shows up, he’s opposed to Francis’ marriage (again, not historically accurate!), and just makes Henry mad, so he’s out.
Then we see Mary being laced too tightly into a corset. OMFG. THAT’S NOT HOW IT WORKS.
The shape and materials of a 16th-c. corset (aka “stays” or “bodies”) are not made for tight lacing. You need whale boning or steel boning, metal grommets, and an hourglass shape for tight lacing to be effective, and those aren’t widely available or fashionable until the 19th century. The 16th-c. bodice shape is an inverted cone with a full bust and a smaller waist, and this was created through either boning in the bodice itself or a separate garment. The boning could be rope cording, reeds, or whalebone. These materials are sturdy, will support the body, and create a smooth line under delicate fabrics, but they aren’t meant to be yanked tight. Metal grommets, in particular, were a key in helping create hourglass corset shapes because they’re even stronger than the hand-worked eyelets that had been used for millennia.
Compare with the only two examples of 16th-c. corsetry that survive, as far as I know:
Very conical, even straight, and those tiny little horizontal lines are for fine “boning” such as reeds. Not steel boning meant for tight-lacing. Check out Patterns of Fashion 5 for more on bodies, stays, and corsetry before the 19th century, since TV shows seem not to understand the nuances.
In the same scene, Mary renames her maid Claire, calling her, “Mary, after the virgin mother,” as alluded to in the framing story. UGH, MORE BS!!!! When Mary first arrived in France, she came with four girls the same age as her, all from prominent Scottish families: Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, Mary Fleming, and Mary Livingston. They just happened to all have the same first name because it was a common first name, FFS. All four stayed with Mary in France and returned with her to Scotland, staying at her court until most of them married. Mary Seton followed her queen into exile in England and retired from service in 1585 to the Convent of Saint-Pierre in Reims.
Meanwhile, Diane bathes in gold, and Angelica watches. They’re taking the nugget of truth about Diane’s death-by-gold rather far, aren’t they? Considering how wildly the show is veering away from historical accuracy in other areas, this is just silly and frankly exploitative as an excuse to show the actress naked a lot.
Another pre-wedding chat, this time Henry comes to Catherine to apologize for not following her advice. Sure, dude, whatever. She asks him to joust in the ceremonies that day so she can ‘see him as they first met,’ and gives him her green sash for luck. Is this where I point out that Henry had kept on jousting all his life and was wearing Diane’s colors at the joust when he receives the fatal blow?
The wedding apparently happens at Château de Chambord, although it actually happened at Notre-Dame in Paris. Also, Mary wore white or cloth of silver and a shitton of diamonds, not whatever this is.
The King jousts and falls, as in Catherine’s vision.
Back in the framing story, she says “accidents happen,” and Rehima calls her evil. Well, the girl gets her rations cut in half by the Queen, who then conspires with Ruggieri. Somehow they’re plotting to use Rehima to get rid of Mary Queen of Scots. eyeroll
Episode 7, “An Attack on the King”
Starting in with the framing story, Mary Queen of Scots visits Rehima’s cell unexpectedly. Still in the ridiculous white outfit, she suspects the maid was sent to her chambers by Queen Catherine and wants to know what she’s up to. With the idea of gaining Rehima’s trust, Mary tells her side of the story, starting at her wedding day and that joust.
For some reason, Starz thinks it’s a good idea to show everyone extended closeups on Henry with a broken bit of spear stuck straight through his eye socket and gushing blood. It’s almost cartoonishly gruesome, like Game of Thrones lite.
As everyone rushes around worrying about the King’s injury, the Holy Roman Emperor gets religious with Mary and the Guises. He asks for an alliance with France if Henry dies. Do I even need to point out that none of this is based in historical fact? OK then, moving on.
There’s a bizarre bit where Diane takes the doctor away and has a random criminal stabbed in the eye so the doctor can practice removing the wood to see if he lives.
Catherine seems to have taken a nap, then wakes up to find the whole court partying. Henry is sitting at a feast table and Diane insists that everything’s fine! Until Henry pukes up blood and dies. Diane begs pathetically for help, and Catherine declares the King is dead.
WAS ANY OF THIS NECESSARY? No. There were plenty of ways to show this happening that would been dramatic and moved the plot along, and this was not one of them.
Because we apparently need another reminder that Ruggieri exists, Catherine rides out to blames him for Henry’s death.
Ruggieri says he took the King’s heart from the embalmers made some kind of powder from it. He puts that in a tea and gives it to Catherine to drink so “she’ll be his living tomb.” Whatever.
Angelica leaves with Diane, and nobody but Aabis gives a shit. Pretty weak ending for such a major character. I would have liked a moment where Catherine demands she give back the crown jewels and Château de Chenonceau (which happened) and do it with a sneer or something.
Or maybe they found some leftovers from The Favourite (2018)?
Now Catherine dresses in black. Aabis says white is the traditional color for mourning — yeah, that’s a line that gets tosses around here and there and I just haven’t seen anything from the 16th century or earlier supporting the claim. Only much later folks saying it without evidence. The “deuil blanc” is the white veil often associated with mourning among the French elite women, but again, that’s just a veil.
At the funeral, Catherine tries to comfort Francis.
The Holy Roman Emperor hits on Catherine in a particularly slimy fashion, while revealing his plans re: Catholic Europe with Mary.
FWIW, Catherine did wear black from this point on. Many paintings of her were based on this drawing by Clouet that was done between 1559 and 1572:
Monmorency didn’t cross himself at the end of mass, so Catherine suspects he’s a secret Protestant.
Then we get another unnecessary scene where Antoinette de Guise is getting oral sex from Antoine Bourbon. EW. She’s a nasty bitch, he’s a jerkwad little shit. Please don’t show me anything more of them.
At Francis’ first privy council, the first order of business is the alliance between France and the Holy Roman Empire. Plus, they’re making a decree that makes Protestantism illegal on French soil — which is something King Henry did, not his son Francis sigh. Francis and Mary (OK, mostly Mary) banish the Bourbons, and the council devolves into a brawl.
Mary and Francis (again, mostly Mary) go nuts arresting Protestants and anyone they want. Mary goes on to threaten Mathilde, questioning her about Ruggieri.
Catherine finds Monmorency at his secret Protestant church. They contact the exiled Bourbons and hatch a plan to separate the King from Mary’s influence. They’ll have the King kidnapped by unknown Protestant militants, then the Bourbons will rescue him, and France will be grateful. This is at least based in a tiny grain of historical truth — the Amboise conspiracy was an attempt by the Bourbons to put either Louis, Prince of Condé, or Antoine of Navarre on the throne of France. Catherine de’ Medici and Monmorency weren’t involved, and the plot was rather swiftly discovered.
There’s another privy council where Mary has found Monmorency’s secret Protestant church, the Guises are kinda getting tired of all the bloodshed, Catherine suggests the King “shows support” which somehow means going out in a carriage, and Francis is all wheezy and sickly again.
Obviously, this show of support with a carriage ride is part of the kidnapping plot. Coincidentally, Francis starts coughing up blood in the carriage as he calls his mom “the serpent queen.”
Back in the framing story, Mary blames Catherine for “what happened to my husband.” Rehima buys into it or fakes she does, I don’t know and I don’t care.
Then Mary explains that what Catherine was probably looking for in Mary’s chambers was a letter from Queen Elizabeth of England to Mary, since she wrote “for help” to England since those two cousins could agree that Catherine is a commoner. AGAIN I LAUGH IN THIS SHOW’S GENERAL DIRECTION.
Mary wants Rehima to get this letter back and gives her a new dress (seriously?), so she can snoop through Catherine’s stuff. Where Catherine finds her, and these two make nice. Or pretend to. Or whatever. This show has gone off the rails, and I don’t really care what’s going on or who’s doing what. I’ll finish out the last episode, but I doubt I’ll have the stamina for recaps of the second season that was just announced
Episode 8, “A Queen Is Made”
Well the finale episode of this season doesn’t have a lot of new costume content till the very end, so I’m just going to hit the plot highlights (or lowlights, ugh) with those few screencaps. The framing story is told this time by Rehima, because apparently she knows more than it seems, although realistically she couldn’t know most of what she “tells” here.
The gist of it is that she finds out that Catherine had Ruggeri forge a fake letter from Queen Elizabeth I to Mary Queen of Scots, and that’s the letter Rehima retrieves and gives to Mary.
Back in time at the plot to kidnap King Francis II, Catherine regrets it immediately and stops the carriage. She alerts everyone to the plot, turning the Guises, et. al., on the Bourbons. Catherine jumps on a horse and runs after Antoine Bourbon, telling him where to hide, while she stabs Monmorency to stop him. Louis Bourbon is caught by the Guises.
That blood that Francis was coughing up in the carriage? The doctor says Francis has consumption, he was born with it, and he’s going to die soon.
Catherine ramps up her game-playing. She gets on Mary’s side, talking about the succession, suggesting Mary should be regent for Charles IX (who’s barely 10 years old) instead of Antoine Bourbon.
Next, the Guises try to conspire with Catherine to get Monmorency, who’s recovering from that stabbing, as the regent because he’s kinda neutral and the people will like him.
Out in a random farm house, Aabis is with taking care of Antoine in hiding. Catherine tries to get him to sign away the regency or his brother will be executed, but he thinks she’s lying. Aabis wants Catherine’s help saving her servant boy, but Catherine is too busy. She’s not to busy to get painkillers from Ruggeri though. Priorities!
Mary and Catherine cross-examine Louis in the dungeon, but he doesn’t have any useful info. Catherine suggests torture, and Mary cuts off one of his fingers. WTF?!? Only in the bizarro world of this show would Mary do this or Catherine egg her on.
Monmorency will help Aabis with her servant boy if she tells him where Louis is. That kid was literally a plot point, and a weak-ass one at that.
Catherine brings Louis’ severed finger to Antoine as proof to make him sign, but she’s interrupted by the Guises who want Louis to sign the regency away to Monmorency — and then HE interrupts by shooting one of the Guises and forces Antoine to sign, but gives the regency to Catherine, because ‘she’s the only one who can save France.’ Whoo-boy.
This show totally over blows the importance of Monmorency in the regency and the regency in general. While French law prohibited women from inheriting the crown, queen mothers were an obvious first choice as regents for their young sons since the Merovingian dynasty. The Duke of Montmorency was an important general for King Francis I, but that’s about it. He lost favor at court in 1541 due to a diplomatic failure, was reinstated by Henry II for some more war stuff, and retired permanently when the Guises came to power with Francis II.
Meanwhile, back at the castle, Francis yells at Mary because she asked him for the regency, and he accused her of being a greedy bitch who never really loved him and didn’t put out. Never mind that historians debate whether or not his testicles ever descended.
The deathbed scene where Catherine talks to her son and offers him painkillers is actually the one redeeming part of this episode. It really resonates if you’ve ever been in or had a loved one in excruciating pain, when she offers him the opiate and warns him that it may be deadly and he practically begs for it. After taking it, he signs the regency document, saying “I leave you to live with your choices.”
Outside, Louis’ execution is halted at the last minute because the King is dead and the new regent, Queen Catherine, has pardoned Louis. While it didn’t happen on the literal chopping block, Catherine did negotiate Louis’ pardon right after Francis’ death because the Guises were no longer in power.
Mary freaks out again, now saying that Cath has made a fool of her (no, the show-writers did that). Mary will write to Queen Elizabeth I for backup because she’ll be just as annoyed that ‘some commoner has stolen the crown of France.’ Um, wow. Mary Queen of Scots may not have been as politically astute as Elizabeth or Catherine but she wasn’t a fucking moron like this show wants to paint her as. Mary had been making her own play for being Queen of England for a year, since Mary Tudor died, which is exactly the kind of thing to piss off your cousin.
Case in point, Mary had been using this as her official arms after she and Francis were married. It shows the red and gold lion of Scotland, the gold and blue fleur de lis of France, the blue and gold dolphin foe the dauphin of France, and the gold and red lions of England. ENGLAND. WHERE ELIZABETH WAS CROWNED QUEEN.
Rehima picks up the story again, saying that as regent, Catherine moved the court to story, regent moves court to Château de Chenonceau, which she actually did as soon as Henry died, during Francis II’s reign. She famously kicked Diane de Poitiers out — now that would have been a deliciously dramatic scene instead of the fictional nonsense the series devolved into.
So Rehima aligns with Catherine and delivers the fake letter in exchange for titles, property, etc.
We get to see a big fancy coronation, and the whole gang’s there.
Even Diane de Poitiers and her sidekick Angelica are here.
According to Diane: “She cannot govern without women like me at her side, and I intend to dedicate myself to her cause.” HAHAHAHA, no. Diane de Poitiers was persona non grata at court the minute King Henry II died. She had to return to her dinky country estate for the rest of her life where nobody important saw her again.
Oh and in Scotland, Mary arrives at a random castle to find some guys in kilts (hey, at least they’re not glaringly tartan), who ask what she’s doing there.
She thinks Queen Elizabeth and her troops should be welcoming her, but kilt man says Elizabeth “would not tolerate your presence on British soil.” Yes, he said “British.” headdesk In Scotland. In the 16th century. When any dolt knows that the defining characteristic of the Scottish and English relationship was conflict and war for-fucking-ever. “British” is a more modern word, dating from the unification of the kingdoms. Who the hell wrote this show that didn’t know that?
Back at the coronation, Catherine takes the grown from the cardinal and puts it on Charles’ head herself. As if.
Rehima says to the camera, “Trust no one.”
This series had potential in telling some parts of history that haven’t been told endlessly. The first couple episodes with Liv Hill as Young Catherine were often more interesting to me because they storylines were less convoluted. My biggest complaint is that the series relied too much on women fighting with women as a motivation for the main characters — Catherine always had a female nemesis, first Diane, then Mary. She excused her uncle, her husband, her father-in-law, her son, and all the men around her for their roles in creating the problems that complicated her life. Then the show throws in some random bits about her going through various machinations to gain “freedom” for herself, not really wanting power. And it ends with Catherine as the most hated person in the country, if not the world.
This kind of show isn’t interested in historical accuracy, that much is clear, so then it must be trying to tell a story. But it’s muddled as to what kind of story it really wants to tell. I think of the various new series I’m watching, and very few of them are just good stories. Interview With a Vampire is — the characters make internal sense, they move within a world that works consistently how it’s been set up, and interesting things happen that explore character depths and expand that world. Likewise, A League of Their Own created fully realized, diverse characters who worked within their historical context. But The Serpent Queen‘s characters didn’t always make sense, nor did the world it created for itself. Similarly, Becoming Elizabeth was riddled with gross mixed messages and internal inconsistency. Why is going further back in time a license for poor storytelling? I expect playing fast and loose with history and if it was done to create engaging entertainment, I might buy it. However, I’m not seeing spectacular results here.
And even if I just stick to the costume side of things, that too is a pretty sorry situation. At best, we’re getting a broad 16th-century silhouette in the costume design. Then it’s off to crazy town with whatever fabrics, colors, and exaggerations seem cool, fun, lush, or relatable, I guess. Guess I’ll just have to keep rewatching Elizabeth R if I want a 16th-century period series with decent costumes and story.
What did you think of season one of The Serpent Queen?