That Medici bitch was a name Catherine was called for no reason and one she subsequently earned on her own accord.
The Serpent Queen Season 1 Episode 1 introduced two versions of The Black Queen, Catherine de Medici, the longest ruling monarch in the history of France.
Catherine was born under a bad sign, and she vowed from the start never to squander her good fortune.
I haven’t read Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France by Leonie Frieda, but the showrunner noted that while the book provided the framework for The Serpent Queen, he infused The Black Queen with her acerbic wit.
Catherine’s on-screen presence is teased beautifully with a castle staff frightened to death of her, plucking a nobody they call “It” to service her weeks before her son is to be crowned king, a time of enormous preparation and great stress.
Don’t look in the mirror. She’ll suck the soul right out ya.
Expecting Catherine to be on her worst behavior, those in the know thrust It before her, but the queen surprised Rahima with kind words and a gift for gab.
Drew the short straw, did you?
This queen is aware of her reputation and doesn’t care how she looks to the outside world. But she’s also left herself open to discovering new, surprising things. One can always hope that the world won’t let you down even when you’ve come to expect it, to rely on it.
Catherine saw something in Rahima, whether it was just the fresh face or the earnest way in which Rahima answered Catherine’s inquiries, showing no fear of the woman she’d been warned would suck the soul right out of her if she could.
More likely, it was how those traits reminded her of her own years ago when she arrived at the castle to begin a life entirely foreign to her.
Catherine: What’s your name?
Rahima: They call me It.
Catherine: Do they? That’s not very nice.
Rahima: No, they’re not actually, very nice, that is.
So “Medici Bitch” is Catherine’s tale of her young life with a girl who reminds her a bit of herself. It’s an ugly story in which, from the moment of her birth, Catherine was nothing more than a pawn on a chessboard.
The daughter of the most hated family in Italy, Catherine was tossed aside like rubbish. She was alone in a sea of other unwanted children, no better or worse, under the tutelage of the Catholic Church.
But Catherine wasn’t alone. She was niece to one of the most important men in Italy, Pope Clement, who, when he saw his future hitting the skids, decided to pluck Catherine from the life she’d grown accustomed to so she could play an important role in his and Italy’s survival.
My first taste of the power of presentation made a lasting impression.
Just days after Queen Elizabeth’s death, it’s interesting to get this dour view of the monarchy. Women were treated callously and without kindness, their only purpose to further familial or political gain.
Only women with the fortitude shown by Catherine have a snowball’s chance in hell of coming out on top, and to get to the pinnacle, Catherine has to become as jaded and corrupt as any man.
Catherine stands up for herself from the get-go. She’s ornery and unwilling to sit back and allow all decisions made for her to be made without her. She’s called names and underestimated but stands tall in the face of such torment, pushing back to ensure the best outcome for herself.
If there was an option other than marriage, she wanted to explore it.
Catherine: What if I don’t want to be married?
Pope Clement: [chuckles] I’ll make this abundantly clear to you. Our armies are beaten; our soldiers who didn’t have the foresight to get themselves killed in the field of battle are all starving; the people blame the Medicis, which makes you the offspring of the most despised family in Europe. And without the protection of France, we will both find ourselves hanging by our feet in the Campo de’ Fiori before very long. In short, it doesn’t matter what you want. Hmm? You understand?
Catherine wasn’t above being humiliated for a cause. Even the atelier had a go at her, which showed just how far down the ladder Catherine was standing as her story began.
Atelier: Your Grace. To what do I owe the honor of my visit?
Pope Clement: My niece is to be married to the youngest son of the King of France, and you will make her the most beautiful bride the world has ever seen.
Atelier: I’m not a magician.
Pope Clement: Then I suggest you become one. You will be accompanying my niece to France as her personal atelier.
Catherine was like a sponge, listening and learning at every opportunity. She knew that she was never going back to her obscure life, which emboldened her to push more finery and increase the dowry when it became clear Clement was hoping to cheat the king and still get away with his life intact.
As smart as she was, Catherine still got swept up in the moment. The King of France wasn’t unkind; quite the opposite, in fact.
When his eldest son poked fun at Catherine’s lacking appearance, King Francis admonished him. That kindness emboldened Catherine even more, and she gave away as much as she could to remain at court.
The tragedy of this tale and what kept Catherine from being a righteous and noble queen instead of The Black Queen she became is that she fell in love with Henri.
Suddenly, bearing as many children as possible didn’t seem like such a bad idea. She was eager to get to know him and be his wife. All of that went out the window on her wedding day, thanks to her cousin, Diane de Poitiers.
Diane was a cunning bitch, er courtesan, many years Henri’s senior. Henri had been honest with Catherine at their first meeting about Diane’s influence on him, but Catherine thought that her kinship to Diane would endear her to Henri.
She had no idea that Diane had taken their relationship well beyond her place. Henri leaned on her as a mother and a lover in a very strange and downright icky way.
Cruelly, Diane stood her ground for her place at Henri’s side and in his bed by giving Catherine truly awful advice, which only drove him away from Catherine instead of drawing her near.
By the time Catherine and Henri were providing the evening’s entertainment by consummating their marriage for everyone to enjoy, she had already toughened up in many ways, not the least of which was watching her uncle’s ass abscess being lanced just moments before her virginity was checked before him.
Henri, though, didn’t do well with spectacle, and when Catherine climbed atop him, she embarrassed him even further, somewhat sealing her fate.
Henri ran to Diane’s bosom, and Catherine got the first glimpse of her future when she went to apologize to her new husband, only to find him in Diane’s arms.
That’s a part of Catherine’s history that still rankles decades later. Catherine’s kindness toward Rahima took a swift turn when she asked the young girl what she thought Catherine had learned that day.
With a sweep of her arm, the breakfast tray flew across the room. On that day, many years earlier, Catherine learned not to trust a single soul in the world.
Rahima lived up to the promise she’d shown Catherine by stealing an orange, much like Catherine had done herself in the orphanage. Despite herself, when Catherine noticed it was missing, she chuckled.
Life may have given her lemons, but she’d had a lifetime of making lemonade. Even if it was blood-soaked and tinged with sadness, Catherine could still recognize the sweet treat, which leaves the audience wondering which side of her is real.
Even without a full episode to show her prowess as Catherine, Samantha Morton gives a powerhouse performance. She can say so much by casting a glance or revealing a slight, sly smile across her lips.
Liv Hill doesn’t have the same screen presence, but she makes excellent use of the fourth wall to drive home where young Catherine stands.
Hill carries Catherine’s vulnerability and comedic undertones, while Morton showcases how years of heartbreak and political machinations turned a naive young woman into a powerful monarch.
In such capable hands, the stage is beautifully set for this drama to unfold.
Will you be watching more of The Serpent Queen?
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Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.