Starz’s The Serpent Queen is the latest entry in the network’s long line of sumptuous female-focused historical dramas, but it’s the first that tells the story of a woman who isn’t remembered particularly fondly. Even if you don’t know much about the life of Catherine de Medici, you’ve probably heard about what a (literal) witch she was, and you’ve likely never bothered to question whether that particular characterization of her was true. And, in fairness, it would have been incredibly easy for the show to fully lean into that interpretation, giving us a Catherine who reveled in her worst deeds, casting spells, brewing poisons, and committing murder with relative abandon. Give us your worst, girl. No one expects anything better of you anyway.
History loves bad women, after all. Or, perhaps more accurately, our modern-day pop culture loves the idea of bad women in history: sassy rebels who are held up as quasi-avatars of feminism or girlboss power and celebrated for the very aspects of their stories that likely saw them condemned in life. As a society, we love losing ourselves in the exploits of women like this, probably because we want to believe we’ve successfully smashed the patriarchy that held Catherine and so many women like her back. (Or at the very least that we would have valued her for more than her ability to produce male heirs for France.) But in a world where women are still all too often remembered for their worst mistakes—real or imagined—rather than celebrated for their best actions, we’re likely not as far away from Catherine’s reign as we might prefer to believe.
In many ways, The Serpent Queen is simply more honest about this fact than most shows of its ilk, and more forthright about society’s longstanding (and ongoing) unease with the idea of women in positions of power, something which we can sadly still see playing out all over the world today. But rather than privileging one side over another, it charts a third, more human and likely more realistic path, crafting a take on Catherine de Medici—-and even the similarly historically maligned Mary, Queen of Scots, to some extent—that is allowed to sit somewhere uncomfortably in the middle between gleeful devil and misunderstood saint. The show does its best to recontextualize our ideas of who this particular bad woman was, by giving her not just the agency that many women in historical dramas lack, but the self-awareness to purposefully shape the way she’s viewed in the world.
This is a Catherine who knows exactly what people are saying about her and leans directly into their worst imaginings of what that might mean, deliberately building the myth of the Serpent Queen in real time and consciously choosing to be feared rather than loved. (Machiavelli’s famous advice works for women too, apparently.) But while the show’s opening credits may embrace the image of Catherine as a black-clad badass with a literal nest of vipers under her skirts, the story of The Serpent Queen itself actually goes out of its way to complicate its portrayal of a historical figure who often isn’t remembered particularly kindly. And despite the fact that Catherine seems more than willing to allow those around her to believe the worst of her, the show she’s starring in isn’t. At least, not entirely.
This Catherine isn’t an evil sorceress who channeled dark magic and plotted murder against her enemies (and occasionally people she loved). But—perhaps more importantly—neither is she a misunderstood victim, buffeted helplessly by the whims and choices of those around her. The Serpent Queen is not a story about how history has done Catherine de Medici wrong or judged her poorly despite her best efforts. But it isn’t a celebration of her worst deeds, either, nor does it actively encourage us to root for her downfall. We’re not meant to feel sorry for Catherine or thrill at the successes of her various manipulations. Because while it’s true, she most likely wasn’t a witch who consorted with the Devil, that doesn’t mean she was an especially good person either. And you know what? That’s okay. In fact, it’s precisely the reason we need more stories like this on our screens. Because women don’t have to be likable or sympathetic in order to deserve to have their stories told.
The Serpent Queen certainly doesn’t shy away from the fact that Catherine was an ambitious woman who craved power of her own. Neither does it soft-pedal the idea that she was very good at wielding it, likely better than many (most?) of the men in her orbit, and was willing to make difficult, unpopular, or even potentially deadly choices to keep it. But it also remembers that she was a woman who was desperate to survive, dedicated to her family, loyal to her adopted kingdom, and heartbroken over her husband’s very public (and longstanding) infidelity. Over the course of her life, she outlived her husband and all but one of her 10 children, and was forced to navigate a series of seemingly endless civil wars as she fought to keep the Valois monarchy on the throne. Her sons probably would never have survived without her, yet she’s the figure most often cast as the monster in their stories.
“Tell me what you would have done differently,” Catherine says when she volunteers to recount the story of her life to the servant girl Rahima, who has heard nothing but the darkest tales about her mistress’s lifelong exploits. In many ways, this is also a challenge to the audience at home, asking us to realize that, while we may not always like or approve of Catherine’s choices, we certainly ought to celebrate the fact that she is allowed to make them, and that she willingly lived with their consequences, no matter how dark and grim they might be. And as we look toward the show’s second season, in which Catherine’s self-narrated origin story will necessarily morph into a more straightforward depiction of the life she’s living, we’d do well to remember that she’s still the force shaping her own narrative. And bad woman or not, her story is one that’s worth remembering, and one that’s worth confronting on its own terms.
After all, Henry VIII of England married six women and straight murdered at least two of them (your mileage may vary on whether you think his exile of Catherine of Aragon to a drafty castle in the back of beyond caused her death and should count as a third), and that hasn’t stopped us from repeatedly telling his story across virtually every medium. Doesn’t Catherine de Medici—and the other supposedly bad women of history, who have surely done no worse—deserve the same?
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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