‘The Serpent Queen’ Season 1, Episode 2 Recap
Photo: Shanna Besson/Starz
I have identified the sole hindrance to my total enjoyment of The Serpent Queen: there is not enough Samantha Morton (a.k.a. older Catherine de’ Medici). All the young people in the show are very good, but can they measure up to the icy steeliness Samantha Morton summons at a whim? No. Also, I’m really enjoying seeing her teach Rahima how to get shit done and bring the battle ax of vengeance down upon one’s enemies.
Despite Rahima being dragged away at the end of last week’s ep, she now finds out she’s officially Catherine’s new maid. Everyone is a real asshole to Rahima — possibly because she’s not white — but especially this one girl in the kitchens. The guards outside Catherine’s rooms, too, but this kitchen girl really has it out for Rahima. Kitchen Girl gives Rahima the tray with Catherine’s food, except!! Except! As Catherine discovers when she lifts the lid, there is a goddamn turd on the plate.
I have a lot of questions. Like how did Kitchen Girl think she would get away with this?? Isn’t the whole point of Catherine that she is terrifying and everyone thinks she’s a witch? It’s not like no one knows who prepared the tray! And if Catherine already met with Rahima and was like, yes, great, you’re my maid now, she presumably likes something about her, whereas she has no reason to like Kitchen Girl. Think it through, Kitchen Girl!
As it stands, Catherine tells Rahima she has an enemy and has to teach her a lesson. Samantha Morton is giving A+ evil stepmother/wicked queen vibes, and I love this weird-ass tutelage of Rahima. When Rahima says Catherine punished her unjustly but then hired her, Catherine reveals that she knows about the stolen orange, and she orders Rahima never to steal from her again. Catherine seems like a real “it’s the principle of the thing, but only the principles I choose” kinda lady. She tells Rahima that the next time Rahima wants something, she should just ask, and then Catherine gives her an orange. And we resume our journey to the past!
The Medici continue to hold an unstable place in what will eventually be Italy, and Catherine is still not pregnant. Why? Because Henry has literally not had sex with her since their uninspiring wedding night. What’s worse is everyone knows it, so she’s having to deal with things like getting propositioned by the stablehand (CAN WOMEN JUST). Her dowry hasn’t been fully paid, which means her marriage could still be annulled.
Catherine’s goal is to get Henry back to her bedroom, only Diane de Poitiers keeps cockblocking her. Diane! Her clear Meredith-Blake-in-the-Lohan-Parent-Trap vibes are shocking because I’ve mainly seen Diane de Poitiers portrayed as a sympathetic figure, and here she is the worst. Like just such a dick at every turn. My impression was that she was like, yes, here I am installed as Henry’s mistress, and so I shall remain while also supporting his marriage. But no! She is actively trying to destroy Catherine so that she can marry Henry (and maybe be queen someday) while occupying a place that is the Height of Creepiness — some maternal but sexual role for Henry? She is twenty years older than Henry! His mother died when he was five, and Diane was her lady-in-waiting at the time of Henry’s birth. I cannot.
Henry, who was so charming when he first met Catherine, is now a whiny little baby and I am annoyed with him. You’re married — figure it out, dude! I mean, sure, he is a teenager, but people placed a lot of expectations on teenagers back in the day. Like maybe chatting with their new spouse at some point instead of hanging out with their thirty-five-year-old girlfriend. Their new spouse who, for some reason, loves them. Maybe because almost everyone else is terrible and Henry acts like a disoriented duckling.
There’re a lot of plot threads here. Catherine wants to get pregnant, King Francis wants to find out who drew the picture of him getting banged by the pope, Bourbon wants to bring in two princesses for Henry and his brother to take a look at, and Suleiman the Magnificent has apparently just been hanging out around the palace for the last month, post-wedding, and no one knows why? Aabis, from Catherine’s retinue, thinks she might be pregnant with Francis’s baby and wants to end the pregnancy; Mathilde seems interested in the Dauphin sexually (but it’s unclear why since he is literally the worst person?), and Diane is tracking what Catherine is doing at any given moment, which she accomplishes via spies.
Wow, the Dauphin. The Dauphin is also named Francis (François, but I guess everyone is English here in sixteenth-century France, per usual), so we’re calling him the Dauphin. And yes, “dauphin” means dolphin. You’d think the reason would be fun, but it is instead both boring and complicated. Should people still talk about the Dolphin and the Prince of Whales? YES, yes, they should. But anyway, this particular dolphin is a real asshole. I mean, like the most sociopathic, morally bankrupt, wow-someone-stop-that-kid-from-ruling piece of work. Again, this is not the historical Dauphin, who apparently preferred reading to his fictional counterpart’s apparent favorite activity of randomly shooting peasants in the head.
Which, damn, I did not see that coming. I thought this series was like, haha, we’re all having a good time, with some serious bits thrown in, and then — BAM! — the Dauphin shoots the woman trying to protect her husband (the flirting stablehand!), who had one of those “the king’s getting banged by the pope” illustrations in his home. Then?? Francis tells Henry to shoot the man and his son. Henry runs away because, of course, he does, and Catherine follows/supports him, but Diane arrives and tells him to find the courage and shoot the literal child, or he will “bring shame to the Valois name.” Oh my god, the aristocracy is so WEIRD. Henry ends up stabbing the stablehand in the NECK, then tells the kid to run.
If you’re like, wait, didn’t something else happen with the stablehand? Yes! That man is all over this episode. When Catherine is particularly concerned about her place at court and Henry keeps having sex with only Diane while she reads to him from the Bible (whyyyyy???), Catherine has sex with the stablehand, then later poisons him to make him sick so he doesn’t talk to anyone at court. So yes, he was sick from poison at home when he was then murdered by Henry. Looking forward to more petty vengeance from Catherine and hopefully fewer shootings/stabbings of innocent people. And yes, I am vaguely hoping the show ignores the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.
King Francis, who I still cannot believe is played by Colm Meaney (a PERFECT Henry VIII if ever I saw one!), does sanction this murdering of peasants, but he’s at least a complicated character, unlike the Dauphin. Catherine keeps manipulating him just enough to keep her at court and married to his son. He’s mad at the pope, but he also asks what the Protestants have ever done except “nail the contents of a suggestion box to the front door” (that’s very good). I like him, but I will not be sorry when he’s gone.
Catherine finds her way around the visiting princess obstacle, has sex with Henry (uninspiring yet again!), asks her magician to help Aabis with her pregnancy (he does!), and negotiates with Sultan Suleiman to help Henry regain her dowry lands in Italy. Truly “winning” this episode.
At the end, we again see Older Catherine talking to Rahima, telling her that when you see life conspiring against you, you have to find a way to change it to your favor, no matter the cost, and if you don’t teach your enemies a lesson, they will never learn. Then she gives Rahima a bag of gunpowder and tells her it goes well with brioche. So Rahima takes the gunpowder and puts it in the cooking pan that Kitchen Girl uses, and Rahima is well outside when there is an explosion in the kitchen.
This show is the girl smiling outside the burning house meme.
• Does everyone know about that Bible verse where it’s like, be kind to everyone, including your enemies because then you will be heaping burning coals upon their head? I love this verse, but Catherine would say to cut out the middleman and just dump the coals right on the head. Probably via an elaborate trap so it can’t be traced back to you.
• Wouldn’t Catherine and Henry’s marriage have to be annulled by the pope? Who is her uncle? Although I guess she’s mainly worried about what would happen if her uncle died, in which case who knows who the pope would be (it would be Paul III). So yes, then I guess Catherine is right to be worried, and it makes sense that she is smearing what is likely cow dung on her nether parts. Look. It was the 1530s, and you might as well try anything.
• Historically, it seems that Diane did want Catherine to remain queen, but for the purposes of this fun and dramatic show, she is an arch-villain, and I cannot wait for her downfall. In fact, for this whole show, assume none of this is grounded in fact other than the idea that there were people with these names who lived in France about 500 years ago.