The Serpent Queen

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What it’s about:

A fresh, sardonic take on the historical drama that explores the unlikely rise of Catherine de Medici, the orphaned daughter of an Italian shopkeeper who rose up to lead France for three decades at the height of the Renaissance.

Names you might know:

Samantha Morton (The Walking Dead, Harlots, Minority Report) leads as the older Catherine.  Show creator Justin Haythe wrote Red Sparrow and Revolutionary Road.

Why it’s worth your time:

With blanket coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’s death occurring just as two of TV’s biggest fantasy epics pivot around fictional queens from places like Westeros to Middle Earth, The Serpent Queen takes us to a place and time that actually existed — 16th century France — and delivers a kind of origin story for maligned female monarchs, one that asks viewers to question what they would do in their shoes.

At the height of the Renaissance, Europe was dominated by religious wars between Protestants and Catholics, the politics surrounding monarchies, and a patriarchy that insisted succession be granted only to male heirs. Against this backdrop, two women rose to become unlikely leaders of Europe: Queen Elizabeth I and Catherine of Medici.

Catherine’s rise was far more unlikely. Born a merchant’s daughter in Italy, she was orphaned as a baby and sent to a convent, and as she shares with her servant, Rahima, in the first episode, her childhood was a series of traumas. She was eventually pawned off at 13 to marry Prince Henry II of France by her powerful uncle, Pope Clement VII, and while fertility granted women power and longevity in marriage, she failed to deliver any children for 10 years.

Catherine De Medici with her husband’s mistress. (Starz)

Yet she remained Henry’s wife and became his eventual Queen, despite his public preference for his much older mistress. When she eventually did bear children, a nonstop 10 births, three rose up to become king — at very young ages. Catherine ruled on behalf of or alongside them.

Her story has been largely neglected in film and TV, and to the extent she receives any portrait, it is often that as a Machiavellian “snake” who used poison, black magic, and a “flying squadron” of attractive young women to seduce noblemen for their secrets.

In The Serpent Queen, Catherine’s story is told from her point of view, and while it doesn’t shy away from depicting her more ruthless side, it drops you into her world and all of its stakes, and forces you to see the larger context.  “I liked the idea of a villain from history who would address us and say, ‘Let me tell you why I did the things I did, and you’ll judge me differently,” show creator Justin Haythe told Town & Country.  “You have to really wonder if this is an evil person with shards of good, or of it’s a good person who’s capable of evil to survive.”

You don’t have to keep track of endless made up names and far-flung fictional kingdoms, as the conflicts and rivalries are all part of history, including her conflicted relationship with Queen Elizabeth I — to whom she was related as mother-in-law of Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I’s cousin.  So consider this a prequel to that other big epic franchise dominating screens: the British royal family.

The takeaway:

If you’re looking for some historical context for all the news and fictional obsession with monarchs, The Serpent Queen offers a modern, often funny take on one of the most powerful female rulers in history, one that sheds light on our current preoccupation with all things royal.

Watch it with:

As this is a Starz version of historical drama, expect it to earn its TV-MA rating.  Watch this one with your date, significant other or that history buff in your life — one who might be able to add some additional insight into the Renaissance, the Medicis, or European history.

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