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The Serpent Queen Review: Starz's Venomous Historical Drama Has Bite

Samantha Morton is fearsome as Catherine de Medici

liam-mathews
Liam Mathews
Samantha Morton, The Serpent Queen

Samantha Morton, The Serpent Queen

Starz

The Serpent Queen, Starz's new historical drama, is a show for people who like dark humor and moral turpitude mixed in with their beautiful period costumes and sets. The show makes me think of the famous Lou Reed lyric "Vicious, you hit me with a flower." It revels in creating an antiheroine who understands better than anyone around her that the only way to survive in a dog-eat-dog world is to be the meanest dog. 

The series tells the tale of Catherine de Medici, the most powerful woman in 16th century Europe. Born into the Medici family — a noble family whose vast wealth still could not buy royal blood — and orphaned as an infant, Catherine grew up to be the queen of France and one of nation's most influential political figures during her rule, first as wife as King Henry II and then as queen regent and advisor to her three sons who sat on the throne. She was a brilliant, ruthless woman who figured out how to amass and wield as much power as she could within the confines of her patriarchal society.

Creator Justin Haythe's interpretation of Catherine's story unfolds in two timelines. In 1560, while Catherine (Samantha Morton) prepares to fend off a challenge to the throne from her eldest son's widow, Mary, Queen of Scots (Antonia Clarke), she narrates her life's story to her new maid Rahima (Sennia Nanua). Rahima, a smart outsider, reminds Catherine of herself when she was young, and the queen wants to impart what she's learned about power to the young woman. Most of the show unfolds in flashback, as Catherine (played as a teenager by Liv Hill in the first three episodes) tells her nasty, brutish, and long story, with asides to the camera as Catherine editorializes from the future. 

7.8

The Serpent Queen

Like

  • Gorgeous and stylish visuals
  • A wicked sense of humor
  • Strong performances
  • Dead-on needle drops

Dislike

  • Overly gruesome violence
  • An imperfect balance between its two storylines

The show is beautiful to look at. Pilot director Stacie Passon, a veteran of Dickinson, establishes a visually dynamic style through Scorsese-style fast zooms and a vibrant Renaissance color palette, and the costumes and production design are top-notch. The beauty is an ironic counterpoint to the ugliness of the story, which is full of revenge, backstabbing, and cruelty. The scheming court politics, vulgar language and sexuality, and gruesome violence make The Serpent Queen reminiscent of Game of Thrones. The violence sometimes goes further than necessary. There are lingering looks at dead bodies and torture that are horrifying in a way that feels a little incongruous with the arch tone of the rest of the show. They're not gratuitous, exactly — they're sort of the opposite; too realistic in a show that feels ironically heightened the rest of the time.  

Morton brings the intense mix of fearsomeness and vulnerability she brings to all her roles (notably including Minority Report and The Walking Dead) to Catherine de Medici, and the supporting cast is great, too, especially Ludivine Sagnier as Diane de Poitiers, Catherine's cousin and her husband's mistress. Catherine and Diane's constantly changing dynamic is the show's most fascinating relationship. 

The closing credits of The Serpent Queen typically feature a thematically relevant song from a woman known for challenging the status quo — the pilot closes with Patti Smith's defiant "Gloria," while episode two goes out with PJ Harvey's vengeful "Rid of Me" — and the songs do an impeccable job of setting the tone. The Serpent Queen is a hip show about a woman who understands her power and is not afraid to use it, even — especially — if it means stepping on people's throats to get to where she needs to be.     

Premieres: Sunday, Sept. 11 at 8/7c on Starz
Who's in it: Samantha Morton, Sennia Nanua, Enzo Cilenti, Ludivine Sagnier, Colm Meaney, Charles Dance
For fans of: Cersei Lannister, PJ Harvey
How many episodes we watched: 5 out of 8