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 1, “Medici Bitch”
This sets up the series with a framing story in 1560 France, right before the coronation of Charles IX, who is the second surviving son of Catherine de’ Medici. She’s played as an adult by Samantha Morton, and, for no good reason except TV, she’s telling her life story to a random servant girl named Rehima (Sennia Nanua). She posits “what would you have done differently?” as she explains what has happened, and that’s apparently the theme for the show.
It’s hard to see much of Catherine’s first gown because it’s black on black with more black, which, sure, I love!, but that’s just difficult to see details in. The sleeve shape is about a decade out-of-date with the big turnbacks, but it’s not totally wrong.
For comparison, here’s a miniature of Catherine, attributed to François Clouet, before she went all widow’s weeds:
Oh and it looks like this part is filmed at the gorgeous Château de Chenonceau or a fucking brilliant recreation thereof. According to showrunners Erwin Stoff and Justin Haythe, they did film in many historical places in France and Italy, which was one benefit of shooting during the pandemic, saying in Cinemablend:
“The funny thing is, for as difficult as it was to shoot during COVID, COVID was actually very good to us. Because all of those locations were places that no one had ever shot … because they’re usually overrun with tourists. So because of COVID, there were no tourists, and they were in desperate need of money. So we actually got to shoot in the rooms, in the hallways, in the gardens, where Catherine lived. So that was actually for us and for the show, an incredibly lucky break.”
So we head back to Tuscany in 1536, where young Catherine is orphaned and living in a convent with abusive nuns. That’s only partially true, but whatev. She’s played by Liv Hill, who looks to be amazing in this role already. She’s appropriately moon-faced and plain while also wicked smart in a not-obvious way with subtle side-eyes and occasional breaking the fourth wall. Don’t worry, it’s not Netflix Persuasion BS, the dialog isn’t modern, young Catherine is just adding to the narrative when she talks to the camera. It isn’t obnoxious so far.
Catherine is taken by force from the convent and then rescued by her uncle, Pope Clement (Charles Dance). He has arranged a politically advantageous marriage for Catherine to Henry, the second son of King of France. And she’ll have an “friend” at the French court, supposedly, a distant cousin of her mother, Diane de Poitiers. HAR HAR.
As a girl, Catherine was described rather unflatteringly as “small of stature, and thin, and without delicate features, but having the protruding eyes peculiar to the Medici family” and as an adult she was described as “Her mouth is too large and her eyes too prominent and colourless for beauty.” The character admits she’s not a beauty and tells her uncle, “we must distract them with finery,” so there’s a fun makeover scene with dress-making, hair-styling, dance lessons, elocution practice, etc.
We could get nit-picky and note that it’s highly debatable if Italian women in the 1530s wore corsets (or were the gowns themselves stiffened), much the less bum rolls, but the silhouette is mostly accurate. Flattened and cone-shaped with a broad neckline works for most any 16th-century European upper-class woman’s gown. Note also she’s wearing chopines — high platform shoes that were found in Italy and Spain in the period.
There’s a quick scene of poor women selling their hair and then these hairpieces being assembled.
While I am always a fan of wacky hair, I have no idea what this is supposed to be. Maybe a hair version of a balzo, a typical Italian headdress of the period?
At some point in these recaps, I’m going to have a stern word with someone about the headdresses, just wait for it.
Next, Catherine chooses the retinue to accompany her to France. While they don’t do much yet, I’m guessing they’ll play bigger parts as the story moves along. We get a perfumer, who I bet also knows poisons, Angelica (Ruby Bentall, who played Verity on Poldark).
There’s a musician in cheezy renfaire outfit, Aabis (Amrita Acharia). She’s tagged as the pretty one so maybe she’ll be involved in some seductions. Mathilde (Kiruna Stamell) is a dwarf that Catherine knew from the convent, and she keeps her along as her fool. This is accurate since Catherine de’ Medici was known to have employed several dwarfs at court. Lastly, she adds the only guy in “Italy” so far with an Italian accent, Ruggieri (Enzo Cilenti), who’s a fortune teller, and you know that’ll come in handy.
Off they travel to France, arriving at what I believe is Château de Chambord. Catherine steps out of a golden egg-shaped sedan chair, which someone in the French court calls “typical Italian gaudiness.” She’s wearing those chopines and wobbles a little bit, which the court laughs at because they’re assholes (especially the Dauphin).
I get what this costume is doing from a story POV — she’s trying to impress the French court by going over the top in bling, showing off her money which is all she has. But it’s so theatrical, like a literal stage costume.
Compare with these extant examples:
The French court is a snarky bunch, and they’re dressed in an interesting mishmash of styles.
Compare with the historical person — Francis’ last queen was born an archduchess of Austria and had previously been queen consort of Portugal. Her marriage to the King of France was purely political, and the couple had no children together.
Francis’ mistress, Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly, Duchess of Étampes (Naomi Battrick), seemingly will play more of a role in this show, but I couldn’t get a good screencap of her because she flits in and out of view a lot. She wears her hair down, and that seems to be The Thing for mistress characters.
Not exactly the image of France’s great Renaissance king in his glory, but OK since this isn’t his TV show anyway.
After the King, the Pope, and Catherine settle on the dowry, they head to the joust where the bridegroom has been showing off for a certain lady in white and black. There’s that Diane de Poitiers (Ludivine Sagnier), supposed new bestie for Catherine, hahhahahahahahha.
Diane de Poitiers was 35 when she became 15-year-old Henry’s mistress, and she dressed according to the prevailing French fashions by all accounts. There’s only a few images of her but they show her wearing a hood covering her hair and a typical cone-shaped bodice with large turn-back sleeves.
Young Henry (Alex Heath) makes a dumb crack about Catherine not looking like her portrait, and no wonder, because he’s carrying around a knock-off da Vinci painting of a gal with a rodent from 40 years earlier.
At least it’s not a shitty historical movie portrait, I guess?
At least when the Pope showed Catherine a portrait of her future mate, it was the right one:
Catherine and Henry have a cute moment with a frog, and she falls in love with him, as teenagers do, I guess. He is less impressed with her, but then he’s already got a piece on the side. Who cares, because royal marriages aren’t about twu wuv anyway!
They get married and have a big ol’ feast, where everyone is wearing the same costumes from earlier except the newlyweds.
Diane tells Catherine (and the audience) who’s who at court, plus gives wedding-night advice. Of note, Sultan Suleiman (Memet Ali Alabora) is in attendance at the feast, which is a nod to the fact that King Francis was the first European ruler to establish relations with the Ottoman Empire.
Lastly there’s the wedding night bedding, performed in front of the King and Queen and others. It’s true that the King watched and supposedly said “each had shown valour in the joust,” though the show tweaks that and the King suggests that Catherine bests Henry because she gets on top.
After the crowd leaves, Henry yells at Catherine to get out. She does, but then turns around and goes back, only to find Henry fucking Diane.
We snap back to the 1560 scene, and she throws out the servant girl!
Episode 2, “To War Rather Than to Bed”
Picking up in 1560 again, Rehima is in the kitchens and has been called up to be the Queen’s personal maid. Some of the other servants are jealous and play a shitty trick on her.
Rehima gets new clothes for her new job. Meh.
Catherine takes her new maid out for a walk and gets back to the story of her life, 30 years earlier, noting that sometimes she has visions. Not always pleasant or clear, but they’re going to be a thing, I guess.
Catherine is riding astride and wearing chaps over linen bloomers. While it’s been said that she did wear some kind of pants / bloomers to ride astride, I don’t think this particular combo would work out well.
Everyone around court and even in the stable yard knows she isn’t getting laid by her husband. In her apartments, Catherine’s retinue reminds her that not being pregnant and the Pope not having paid her dowry puts them all in a dangerous position.
Since Catherine gets her period, she sends Mathilde to burn the evidence. Of course, Diane de Poitiers notices this happening, because she sees everything. Diane wants confirmation and will pay Mathilde, who asks for an introduction to the Dauphin.
Catherine gets a smelly salve to help with conception from Ruggieri, though why the fortune teller would have this and not Angelica the perfumer / poisoner, IDK.
For reference, let’s see what Catherine de’ Medici looked like around this time:
They go to chat up Henry, where he’s fencing and rough-housing with all the big boys of France. This is a pretty good scene that sets up how all these guys are total fucking assholes. This drama will be about the female ruling power, and these males only think they have the upper hand. They’ll be felled one by one by forces they have little control over, despite how they currently think they’re in charge of everything.
To emphasize the point, we jump back to 1560, where Catherine watches her 11-year-old son get knocked over by the backfire of his own gun. She says he’s pathetic, and that really sums up the whole of ’em.
Reminds me of portraits like this one from the 1550s in England:
On with the story, where horn-dog King Francis is fucking Aabis (did I call it or did I call it?), and somehow he finds a caricature of him being buggered by the Pope. Thus, everyone suspects a Protestant conspiracy, and the court is in an uproar about what to do. One of the councilors suggests a political alliance by marrying the Dauphin to some “Prussian princess” and he shows a portrait:
They say this is “Princess Adelaide,” though I can’t figure out what, if any, historical person that’s supposed to reference. The Kingdom of Prussia didn’t exist until the 18th century, and there was a Duchy of Prussia formed in 1525 but the Duke’s daughters would be too young. Also, this portrait is a riff on Marie de Médicis as a child, who was Queen of France in the early 17th century.
While they’re debating, word comes in that Pope Clement is dead, and, of course, Catherine’s dowry is still unpaid. She fakes that Henry is totally having sex with her so she just might be pregnant right now, as a way to save face for Henry and her own neck.
Catherine and Henry finally a good talk, where he opens up about how he and his brother were held hostage for four years. Henry’s all sensitive ‘n stuff.
These gowns Catherine has been wearing in the 1530s really would be more appropriate to the 1560s, especially with those sleeves. For example:
Since Aabis was fucking the King, she’s knocked up, which Catherine is naturally jealous of and not thrilled that Aabis asks for help getting an abortion via herbal means.
Mathilde meets with the Dauphin (as arranged by Diane), she fucks him or at least gives him a blow job. IDK what the point of this is or will be, other than to show that everyone’s getting laid except for Catherine.
Speaking of which, Henry is off for his big date with his wife, when Diane (in black and silver) intercepts him and says, nah, bro, she’s on the rag, you wanna fuck me instead, oh, I mean, I’ll read Bible verses. While he gives the lady some cunnilingus, as Catherine sneaks a peek when she’s stood up by Henry.
Catherine returns from riding again, and Diane meets her, just so she can needle the girl about the new Pope not paying her dowry. But let’s look at their riding clothes for a moment. Catherine is riding astride with her skirt split in the center and falling over the horse. If she were wearing wool or leather pants underneath, that’d make sense and have a vague historical precedent. It’s the occasional glimpse of white bloomer-type garments we get whenever she wears this outfit that’s super weird. It’s looks like her underwear is showing and not just a peek, but she’s walking around in her underpants with essentially a long shirt hanging over.
Diane rides sidesaddle in a relatively normal dress and a hat that I have issues with, plus she enters this scene wearing a vizard. These were face masks covered in velvet or satin and worn by upper-class 16th-c. ladies to protect their skin, so appropriate for this vain character.
Compare with this extant vizard:
Diane goes from riding to archery with Henry, where she suggests Henry ditches Catherine and marry her. His response: “But you’re old.” HAHAHAHHA. Take that, bitch.
Back in court, the King is bitching at the Queen about her relatives and about the Italian states. Cue Catherine to prostrate herself in front of the King, saying she’s ashamed, and he should find Henry a new wife, “a young, virginal, pure as snow” wife.
Catherine’s learning to play the game and get her digs in against Diane! Who is so pissed, she runs off from court to take an ice bath so her skin contracts, and I guess looks younger?
Catherine fucks a stable hand to try and get pregnant. Coincidentally, Henry finally shows up in her bedroom for another go at the same thing. She doesn’t take off her corset or bum roll, which makes an already awkward act even more so.
The fictional Prussian Princesses come to court. They’re pretty and have fun hairdos.
Diane tells Catherine these chicks are a threat to her marriage, and, oh by the way, Diane knows about fucking the stable hand.
Ever so slightly similar to this portrait of Diane, so her most accurate outfit -ish.
Catherine has to get rid of the stable hand, so finally we see the perfumer getting some poison together. Mathilde has to deliver it since Catherine suspects she told Diane (which she did).
Angelica has a different dress that’s a hell of a lot like her first one. It’s also in red and black, and I like that both are strongly reminiscent of Italian styles of the 1530s-40s (well, with modern materials). Compare with:
Then there’s the fortune teller dude, randomly hanging around in this shiny animal print waistcoat. Weird.
The court takes the princesses out on a hunt, so more riding outfits, plus some wacky hats.
At first, when the hunting party stops for lunch, Henry is getting cute with the Prussian princesses by having them sing to a frog (which he did to Catherine when they met). But then the Dauphin rudely interrupts and makes a big ol’ messy scene.
The Dauphin looks around for booze, and coincidentally, they’re near the cottage of the stable hand Catherine had fucked. He’s been made sick by the poison, and his wife is caring for him. Also very randomly, the Dauphin finds a copy of the caricature about the King and the Pope in this cottage, so he wants to punish the stable hand and his family. There’s some back and forth where the King, the Dauphin, and French courtiers are actively horrible, and then the Dauphin shoots the stable hand’s wife. He tells the King to make Henry shoot the stable hand.
Henry doesn’t want to and everyone laughs at him. Except Catherine who tries to convince him he’s a good guy. But Diane comes and says Henry has to do as his father says.
Catherine has her period again, so she tries something new. She talks to Sultan Suleiman, who’s been hanging around since the wedding feast, and she suggests an alliance against the Holy Roman Empire to regain the Italian provinces promised in her dowry.
Catherine tells Henry about her idea, and he’s onboard, so off to war he goes. The court waves buh-bye, and while Diane tries to get in a dig, Catherine reminds her that if Henry dies in this quest, at least Catherine will be the widow while Diane gets nothing.
Wrapping up in 1560, Catherine advises her new maid to “teach your enemies a lesson.” She gives Rehima some gunpowder to fuck up the jealous servant.
The show overall is enjoyable to watch. The pacing is tight, the acting is solid, and the dialog is snappy without being crazy modern. As you can see, the costumes are all over the place when it comes to time period — I think the designer Karen Muller Serreau is going for a very broad sense of “renaissance fancy dress” with only a few nods towards specific historical styles. The hair and headgear design is what irritates me the most so far, but that’s also a personal pet peeve. I mostly don’t mind the modern fabric choices, most of them aren’t jarring.
I do hope the series spends more time in the 1560s because right now Samantha Morton is wasted as a framing device! No shade on Liv Hill who does a spectacular job as young Catherine though. She’s one to watch for sure.
Are you watching The Serpent Queen? What do you think so far?