KAtharina de Medici is considered one of the most hated figures in the French monarchy. She was in power as Queen and Queen Mother for almost forty years and shaped French politics in the 16th century like hardly anyone else. Not alone, but to a significant extent she is responsible for St. Bartholomew’s Night – the pogrom of the Catholics against the Protestant Huguenots, which began with the day of the “blood wedding”, August 24, 1572, on which Catherine’s daughter Margarete was to be married to the Huguenot Henry of Navarre. In Paris alone, 3,000 people were killed on the street, and up to 15,000 or even 30,000 people fell victim to the pogrom. Catherine’s son Charles IX. claimed responsibility for the assassination of leading Huguenot political figures.
“Supposedly Dark Character”
In the series “The Serpent Queen”, based on Leonie Frieda’s biography “Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France”, screenwriter Justin Haythe now gives Katharina the floor herself. She recounts her dramatic rise at the French court – sometimes addressing the audience directly. “I wanted this supposedly sinister character in history to defend himself and say to viewers, ‘If you had been born in 16th-century France, you might have made similar decisions, so don’t call me the Serpent Queen,'” Haythe said (he signed the screenplays for “Revolutionary Road” and “The Lone Ranger”) in an interview with the FAZ
The series (directed by Stacie Passon) is about a woman who turns her ill fate of childhood into an amazing career as she learns to direct the intrigues at the French court. The intrigues that are knitted here by Catholics and Protestants, maids and courtesans, by power-conscious mothers and ambitious followers of the occult are not coincidentally reminiscent of the “Game of Thrones” series, of which Haythe is a big fan. You can tell by the not exactly restrained staging of sex and violence. The humor is reminiscent of 2019’s four-parter Catherine The Great, starring Helen Mirren as Empress Catherine of Russia.
Women’s frustration is omnipresent
Haythe says he approached the characters in “The Serpent Queen” in the same way he did contemporary characters: “They have the same concerns and needs, strengths and weaknesses, they are just as petty and vain and jealous.” He had little interest in costume drama ( equipment by Dan Weil and costumes by Karen Muller Serreau are quite impressive). There is no lack of references to contemporary politics and culture, some of which are exaggerated and striking. “In trade, capitalism, globalization and exploring the new world is the future!” exclaims Louis de Bourbon (Danny Kirrane), a member of the royal council, and his somewhat underprivileged brother Antoine (Nicholas Burns) adds: “One French colony in the New World would be totally wow!”
The frustration of women in this male society, in which they are primarily intended to serve as political game pieces and birthing machines, is pervasive. “A widow is the best thing a woman can become,” it says at one point. And yet the women pull the strings – “because men are a simple species and God wants us to lead them,” as Antoinette Guise (Beth Goddard) notes.
Katharina comes from the powerful Italian Medici merchant family, whose members are despised as upstarts at the French court. Still a baby when syphilis took her parents, she was taken from the care of family members and raised in a convent school before, at just fourteen, she was taken in by her uncle, Pope Clement VII (Charles Dance) in a political maneuver with Henry (Alex Heath and Lee Ingleby), the son of the French king Francis I (Colm Meaney), is married. Meanwhile, Henry’s attention is drawn to the beautiful Diana of Poitiers (Ludivine Sagnier), who is more than twice his age and sees him as her puppet. Catherine realizes her survival at court depends on her bearing a male heir. And she has to keep the numerous schemers at bay who are struggling for power at court.
“When you find that life is conspiring against you, you have to find a way to turn things in your favor,” Katharina tells the young, dark-skinned maid Rahima (Sennia Nanua), to whom she tells her life story. Rahima represents Katharina’s younger self – an outsider who has to find her way in the world of aristocracy. Second, she takes on the role of an apprentice to a gifted strategist in a hostile world dominated by arrogant and boorish men. And Rahima is a fast learner – in one scene she envisions retaliation against security guards who tease her with lewd remarks. But Rahima also has to fear that she is just a pawn herself.
The series, which is very much trimmed to the present, knows how to win above all through the actresses. Liv Hill as young Katharina is a discovery. She combines vulnerability and determination to create a fascinating portrait. And the duel between Ludivine Sagnier as Diana de Poitiers and the dangerously somber Samantha Morton as (elderly) Catherine de Medici is a show in itself. For him, Catherine de’ Medici is a “very modern character, a classic anti-heroine in the tradition of Tony Soprano or Michael Corleone,” says Justin Haythe. The way he created the screenplay, Catherine de Medici fits into the series.
The Serpent Queen launches Sunday at Starzplay on Amazon Prime.