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Series / The Serpent Queen

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The Serpent Queen is an American period drama television series about the life of the 16th century French queen, Catherine de' Medici, portrayed by Samantha Morton as an adult and Liv Hill as a teenager.

The series follows Catherine as she is sent by her uncle, Pope Clement (Charles Dance), to France in order to marry Henri (Alex Heath), the son of King Francis I (Colm Meaney). However, on her wedding night, Catherine discovers that Henri is having sex with Diane de Poitiers (Ludivine Sagnier), a noblewoman more than twice his age.

In October 2022, the show was renewed for a second series.

The Serpent Queen provides examples of:

  • 0% Approval Rating: Catherine is this in the present timeframe—everyone either despises her or is terrified of her.
  • Ambiguously Bi:
    • Aabis has an affair with King Francis, but later is also shown sleeping with perfumer Angelica. The series doesn't really make it clear if she's bisexual or if she's a lesbian who had sex with Francis in order to assure her safety in France.
    • After drinking the liquid gold that Angelica has provided, Diane gives her a long, sensual kiss on the lips. The most likely explanation is that she's trying to seduce Angelica, who is unambiguously depicted as a lesbian, into giving her more of the gold solution, but it still opens up the possibility of her bisexuality.
  • Anachronistic Soundtrack: Most of the score averts this, but the show's theme song contains distorted guitar riffs, while the end credits of each episode typically feature a different punk or alternative rock song by a female artist.
  • Anti-Hero: Of the pragmatic variety. Catherine freely admits that she has made morally dubious choices, but argues that she had to in order to survive in the French court. Her comment "Tell me—what would you have done differently?" provides the series' Tagline.
  • Artistic License – History: A lot. For instance, in the series, Charles V (Rupert Everett) is the Holy Roman Emperor at the time of Henri's fatal joust in 1559. In reality, Charles V had abdicated in 1556, being succeeded by his younger brother Ferdinand I. (In fact, Charles V actually died in 1558.)
  • Authority in Name Only: When King Henri leaves for war, he names Catherine as his official regent. She soon realizes that she has no real power and the Bourbons and Guises can easily block her attempts to raise extra money for the king. She has to go around them and capitalizes on the fact that she can get the Protestants in Parliament something they never had before: direct access to the king.
  • Bedroom Adultery Scene: The first episode ends with Catherine walking in on Diane and Henri sleeping together.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Diane initially behaves in a friendly manner towards Catherine, casting herself as a helpful confidante who can show Catherine how to handle life in France. When Catherine finds out about her relationship with Henri, however, they become instant enemies.
  • Black Widow: Catherine makes a deal with Ruggieri to get rid of Diane for good...which involves Henri's death. Whether this actually caused Henri to have his accident at the tournament In-Universe isn't clear, but Rahima certainly believes she was responsible, and Catherine herself seems to believe it as well.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: In the flashbacks, Catherine often gives asides to the camera, particularly in the episodes when she's a teenager.
  • Bruiser with a Soft Center: For all his aggressive bluster and Jerkass tendencies, King Francis takes a genuine liking to Catherine and makes sure she's decently taken care of. He's also one of the few people who legitimately recognizes her potential as a political strategist, and on his deathbead he forces Henri to let her sit on his privy council.
  • Brutal Honesty: At one point Diane proposes that Henri simply marry her rather than attempting to get Catherine pregnant. Henri's response is rather blunt.
    Henri: You? But you're old.
  • Bullying the Dragon: People continue to harass Rahima even after Catherine makes it clear that any such behaviour will be punished by her directly.
  • Bumbling Sidekick: Dim-witted Antoine de Bourbon is this for his cannier younger brother Louis. The pair invert the stereotypes commonly associated with Fat and Skinny since Antoine is the slimmer of the two.
  • The Bus Came Back: Montmorency and Ruggieri, both of whom leave the court after Sebastio's death, return at the end of the fifth episode.
  • Captain Ersatz: Ruggieri seems to be a stand-in of sorts for the infamous French astrologer Nostradamus.
  • The Cassandra: Catherine claims that she has the ability to foresee things before they happen.
  • Corrupt the Cutie: The series is framed as a middle-aged Catherine telling her story to a pious Shrinking Violet servant named Rahima. Over time, Rahima begins to learn the lessons Catherine is teaching her, and becomes more ruthless and conniving as a result.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Poor Sebastio gets pulled apart by four horses after being falsely accused of poisoning Dauphin Francis. This is the meaning of the term "drawn and quartered".
  • Darker and Edgier: Although they still contain a lot of Black Comedy, the episodes post-timeskip are darker in tone than the earlier ones.
  • Disproportionate Retribution:
    • Catherine encourages Rahima to put gunpowder into an unbaked brioche loaf so that it will explode when a fellow servant girl, who has been harassing her, bakes it. This winds up taking out the other girl's eye—not that Rahima is particularly sorry.
    • After Catherine grants him an audience with Henri, Pierre Marques calls Diane out for being a shameless Attention Whore and states that she is an embarrassment to the throne of France. Diane completely loses it and slits Marques' throat with a knife in front of the entire court. Then she cries and begs Henri for forgiveness, to which Henri (of course) acquiesces since he is completely under her thumb.
  • Doctor's Orders: Catherine and Henri are forced to take the advice of the king's doctor, Doctor Fernel, in order to conceive. His theory is that they're not "well-matched" for one another physically and thus Henri must enter her from behind. Surprisingly enough this actually works, and Catherine and Henri wind up having a large number of children together.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Diane constantly demanding more of Angelica's liquid gold, and the increasingly erratic and destructive behavior she exhibits after consuming it, looks a lot like someone spiralling into a serious drug addiction. Made explicit when Catherine tells the story to Rahima:
    Catherine: When Diane was not in my husband's bed, she spent her time indulging her addictions.
  • Enemy Mine: Realizing that Henri's Italian mistress, and her baby, are going to be a big problem for both of them, Catherine and Diane work together to send her packing.
  • Ermine Cape Effect: Catherine argues that she needs an extremely lavish costume for her presentation to the French court.
  • Everyone Is Related: Justified as it's a show about nobility, so almost everybody has some connection, no matter how distant. For instance, Catherine and Diane are cousins, and the Guise brothers are the uncles of Mary, Queen of Scots.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: For all her failings - and there are many - Catherine flies into a rage and attacks Rugerri when her husband is killed in a joust given that he told her, via his magic, that if she spared Diane, Henry would live. Whatever their relationship, she did not want him dead - she's in a much weaker position if he dies and, despite everything, she did genuinely love him. And, of course, she and Diane have got the measure of one another now. What's that phrase? Better the devil you know...
    • She's also horrified when she realises that Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, has chosen Henri's funeral to flirt with her and has his hooks into Mary, Queen of Scots.
    • Having her son sign a law making Protestantism illegal is also not something she desires for she knows it will tear France apart and that religious tolerance is a much better route to go down.
  • Fall Guy: Catherine is informed that either she or her dressmaker Sebastio will be executed for causing the death of the dauphin, even though it was the result of natural causes. Catherine ultimately lets Sebastio—a very loyal mentor and arguably her only genuine friend in France—take the fall, indicating her increased ruthlessness, and the fact that none of the other members of her retinue are safe.
  • Fan Disservice: As Diane, noted Ms. Fanservice Ludivine Sagnier gets naked a lot...but her nude scenes tend to be more unsettling than they are sexy. For starters, one of her main plotlines in the show is that she's having sex with a teenager less than half Diane's age.
  • Foil:
    • Distrustful Schemer Catherine and emotionally manipulative Alpha Bitch Diane are this for one another.
    • The two factions of the privy council, the Protestant Bourbons and the Catholic Guises.
  • Freudian Excuse: The first Dauphin Francis begins a sexual relationship with Mathilde, Catherine's dwarf maid. He later reveals that when he and his brother were held captive in Spain, a dwarf was one of the few people who treated them with kindness.
  • Generation Xerox: Towards the end of his life, Henri comes to resent (to a degree, at least) Diane's overtly manipulative and controlling behavior, and the way in which just about everyone views him as her lapdog. At the same time, he begins regarding his son's relationship with Mary, Queen of Scots as a carbon copy of what he went through in his youth, and starts doubting the match.
  • Historical In-Joke: Pierre Marques' speech to Henri, in which he attacks the decadence of the royal court and states that if they continue to carry on in the way they are, the wider population will revolt against them. A couple of centuries later a little thing called The French Revolution happened.
  • Historical Beauty Upgrade: In her middle and later years, Catherine was quite overweight, while Samantha Morton clearly isn't.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade:
    • Most obviously, Catherine did not play a role in her husband and son's deaths, and she certainly did not drink her husband's heart in a broth.
    • Dauphin Francis (the first one) is portrayed as a Jerk Jock when he had actually become bookish and solitary during his years as a hostage in Spain.
    • Mary, Queen of Scots had her flaws, but she was not as viciously anti-Protestant as the show depicts, and never led a violent persecution of them.
    • Diane de Poitiers was by modern standards a sexual predator, but she wasn't was a violent murderess, as the show depicts.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Pope Clement laments the fact that Catherine is not very attractive—while he's in the process of getting an abscess removed. From his anus.
  • Idiot Ball: Teenaged Henri returns from his campaigns with a new Italian mistress and a baby, whom he promptly and proudly introduces to Catherine and Diane, seemingly expecting that they'll both welcome this development (needless to say, they don't).
  • Ignored Expert:
    • When Dauphin Francis dies, his father immediately suspects foul play. Doctor Fernel assures the king that the dauphin was born with an oversized heart and that the death was almost certainly due to natural causes, but he doesn't take heed.
    • Angelica repeatedly warns Diane that ingesting too much gold could make her go insane. Not only does Diane not listen but she actually increases her gold consumption. Eventually she begins bathing in it.
  • Implied Rape: Dauphin Francis tells Mathilde that when he and Henri were held captive in Spain, a group of Spanish guards took a liking to Henri, and that while Francis tried to fight them off, he was unsuccessful.
  • Inconvenient Attraction: Catherine admits that she actually did have feelings for Henri, while acknowledging that she wishes she hadn't.
  • "It" Is Dehumanizing: Rahima is bullied by a fellow servant girl who consistently refers to her as "It" as a means of insult.
  • Kick the Dog: Francis, the dauphin, shoots and kills the wife of a stableman as she is begging for her husband's life, cementing his status as a total Jerkass.
    • Shortly prior to that he stabs a frog and shoves it down the front of a noblewoman's gown.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: After marrying Henri, Catherine is desperately trying to get pregnant with his child, but is unable to. Adding insult to injury, her servant Aabis gets knocked up by King Francis and decides to abort the fetus.
  • Let's You and Him Fight: King Francis advises Catherine never to favour one of the court factions directly. Instead she should pit them against each other so they spend their time and resources scheming against each other and thus do no present a threat to the monarch.
  • Locked Away in a Monastery: After the deaths of her parents, Catherine was sent to live in a convent.
  • Master Poisoner: Angelica's other function in Catherine's retinue besides her official one as perfumer. It became clear to Catherine that Angelica had this skill set during her interview, after her abusive father's "illness" was mentioned.
  • National Stereotypes: A Discussed Trope. The Italians consider the French to be uncultured provincials who don't understand how to properly use cutlery. The French in turn think that the Italians are overdramatic, ungovernable prima donnas.
  • New Money: While Catherine wasn't a true commoner (although she does refer to herself as one), her family wasn't part of the older European nobility, which was part of the reason why they were regarded with such suspicion.
  • Not-So-Omniscient Council of Bickering: The Privy Council has two major factions; the Catholic Guises and the Protestant Bourbons. By the end of the first series, things have escalated to outright blows and slurs about people's mothers.
  • One-Steve Limit:
    • Averted; there are three separate characters called Francis, as it's a family name.
    • Averted again, and this time Played for Laughs, with the ladies-in-waiting of Mary, Queen of Scots, all of whom are also called Mary (having adopted the name at the behest of the "main" Mary, in honor of the Virgin Mary).
  • Only Sane Man: Montmorency, although he's rarely listened to.
  • Outgambitted: Rahima lies to Catherine by claiming that she can't read. Aware that she is being misled, Catherine decides to teach Rahima a lesson by sending her to retreive information from the room of Mary, Queen of Scots (something she wouldn't have been able to do if she was actually illiterate), where she's caught almost immediately by one of Mary's ladies-in-waiting, also sent by Catherine minutes later. After this, Rahima is locked in a small cell as punishment, and when Catherine visits, she gaslights Rahima about her own role in everything.
  • Parental Substitute: When Catherine sees Diane for the first time, King Francis explains that she has been like a surrogate mother for Henri after the death of his own mother. Which of course makes their sexual activity that much more disturbing.
  • Passive-Aggressive Kombat: Most of the feuding between Catherine and Diane takes this form, in particular with regards to which one of them holds more influence over Henri.
  • Pet the Dog: Despite her long list of serious character flaws, it does seem like Diane genuinely cares about Henri, particularly since their (admittedly very creepy) relationship began at a time when—being only the second son of the king—his political relevance was minimal to non-existent. Much later on, she begs him to let Francois de Guise take his place in battle against the Holy Roman empire, and immediately becomes worried when she realizes that he intends to take part in his ultimately fatal tournament joust.
  • Playing Both Sides: Catherine's servants, with the exception of the deceased Sebastio, all go behind her back to ingratiate themselves with members of the French court in one way or another:
    • Aabis has sex with King Francis (and winds up getting pregnant, though she has an abortion).
    • Mathilde starts a relationship with the dauphin prior to his death.
    • Angelica begins supplying Diane with bizarre methods for enhancing her appearance. Eventually she starts working for Diane full-time, which draws the concern and ire of the other members of Catherine's retinue.
      Mathilde: Traitor.
      Aabis: It's not her fault. She had a bad childhood.
      Mathilde: Mine wasn't exactly a bed of roses. You don't see me switching sides.
  • Political Cartoons: King Francis is extremely offended when he finds a drawing of himself being, uh...serviced by the pope.
  • Realistic Diction Is Unrealistic: Both played straight and averted depending on the character. Catherine and Diane use the heightened diction common in costume dramas, while the speech of most of the other characters is more natural, with Henri in particular tending to awkwardly stumble over his words.
  • Settling the Frontier: In his first privy council meeting, Henri is advised by the Bourbon brothers that establishing a French colony in the New World would be a great idea.
  • Speech Impediment: Henri and Catherine's sickly son Francis, the dauphin, has a very pronounced stutter that is often mocked by other characters.
  • Stood Up: Non-romantic example. When Henri is away, Catherine tries to call the Bourbons and Guises for a privy council meeting, but both claim that they can't make it, much to her frustration. Eventually she decides to address parliament directly.
  • Straw Hypocrite:
    • Charles de Bourbon, one of the members of the king's privy council, has converted to Protestantism for opportunistic and self-serving reasons. His descendants carry on the tradition after he leaves court.
    • The members of the Guise family seem to have a similar attitude towards Catholicism.
  • Summon Bigger Fish: Two guards harass Rahima so she brings the matter up with their superior. When he is reluctant to do anything about it, Rahima suggests that she will tell Catherine that they flashed her. The guy immediately acts and the guards are publicly humiliated.
  • Time Skip: The fourth episode moves the action forward fifteen years, allowing Catherine and Henri to be played by older actors.
  • Truth in Television: Surprisingly enough, Diane being depicted as the 16th century version of a Shameless Fanservice Girl is this, at least to an extent: the Real Life Diane de Poitiers enjoyed posing nude for artists, and some of the resulting paintings survive to this day.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Whenever Diane wants to have sex with the teenaged Henri, she tells him they're going to study the Bible together.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Concerned that she is going to be kicked out of France for having failed to produce an heir for Henri, teenaged Catherine prostrates herself before King Francis and begs him to let Henri choose another potential bride—but, as a deliberate slight to Diane, asks that this bride be young, pure and virginal. The success is twofold, as Francis takes pity on Catherine and allows her to stay in France, and Diane is extremely unnerved at being Out-Gambitted by a teenager who has also managed to prey on her greatest insecurities.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Mary believes Elizabeth will help her depose Catherine as regent. Anyone who isn't manically obsessed with religion would know A) Elizabeth doesn't give a fig about France; if they leave her alone to rule, she'll leave them; B) Elizabeth is more likely to sympathise with Catherine because she, herself, has been the commoner, bastardised and illegitimate, and she's had to fight for her throne; and C) Mary is much more dangerous to Elizabeth than Catherine, who's got France on her plate right now. Mary's Kingdom is on Elizabeth's doorstep and Catholics see Mary as the true Queen.