Entertaining and off-kilter, The Serpent Queen still needs a little more of Samantha Morton to live up to its potential.
This recap of Starz’s The Serpent Queen season 1, episode 1 contains spoilers.
If there’s anyone who suits a voluminous black dress spewing literal serpents, it’s probably Samantha Morton – which is more of a compliment than it sounds. In the new Starz period drama, The Serpent Queen, she plays the notorious Catherine de’ Medici, one of the 16th century’s most powerful, manipulative, and potentially evil monarchs, but we mostly see her throughout the premiere being portrayed by Liv Hill as the unwanted orphan scion of one of Europe’s most despised families.
The Serpent Queen season 1, episode 1 recap
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This is still Morton’s show, in many ways. She adorns all the marketing, her name takes top billing, and her presence is deeply felt in every scene she’s in. After a strong recent turn as Alpha in Tales of the Walking Dead, Morton is becoming the go-to choice for faintly creepy women who exude a lot of menace.
But how do you scale that down into kid form? The fact The Serpent Queen does that so well is probably its secret weapon. The framing device is that an adult Catherine is recounting the story of her life to one of her servants, Rahima (Sennia Nanua), so we spend much of our time being told – sometimes directly via fourth-wall breaks – by a young Catherine how she went from a reviled orphan to being married off at 14 to the second son of the French king.
This is all a scheme by Catherine’s uncle, Pope Clement (Charles Dance), with whom she has an interesting relationship. Clement reminds his niece constantly that she isn’t exactly fetching, but he quietly respects her intelligence and ambition and lets her speak out of turn whenever he knows she’s in the right. Together they cook up a scheme to get her married off by lowering the French guard with finery so that they don’t linger on Catherine’s appearance, but sparing no expense getting Catherine ready means that her considerable dowry can’t be paid in full, leaving Catherine essentially behind enemy lines with few allies except an eccentric retinue and an older cousin, Diane de Poitiers (Ludivine Sagnier), who is sleeping with Catherine’s new young husband.
If this all sounds like a farce that’s largely the point since The Serpent Queen very much treats it as one. The show’s very good at presenting a serious or unpleasant situation in such a frank or slightly absurd way that it can’t help but get an uncomfortable chuckle – Clement having something removed from his back passage, say, or Catherine and her husband consummating their marriage in front of various onlookers passing commentary (“Rather him than me!”). This satirical edge keeps the show entertaining even when it sometimes runs the risk of becoming overly bleak and serious.
It’s also given a jolt by various in-vogue touches like a contemporary soundtrack and those aforementioned fourth-wall breaks, and there’s little shyness around bad language or nudity. There’s also a suggestion that Catherine has a strong enough imagination to impact things in the physical world, though it’s hard to tell at this stage whether that was just an eccentric joke or is going to add some meaningful edge to proceedings. Either way, it should be fun finding out, even if an underused Morton deserves more of the focus as the drama goes about rewriting or reinforcing the Serpent Queen’s less-than-favorable reputation.