“The Serpent Queen”, episode 2 recap: “To war rather than to bed”

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Aabis (Amrita Acharia), Catherine (Liv Hill) and Mathilde (Kiruna Stamel) (Starz)

At the start of this week’s episode, The Serpent Queen reveals that Rahima has been named Catherine de’ Medici’s personal maid, a significant boost in status and salary, new clothes, and more opportunities to learn deadly secrets. It seems the queen tolerates his company, despite knowing that she stole an orange late last week. But when Catherine lifts the lid off one of her breakfast dishes, there’s a pile of feces. Horrified, Rahima declares her innocence and Catherine believes her; Does Rahima know who was responsible, and what will she do?

Catherine de Medici: When you find that life is conspiring against you, you have to find a way to change it in your favor. You have to be willing to make sacrifices, to cross lines you never thought possible. If you don’t treat your enemies as a lesson, they will never learn.

Strolling through the gardens, Catherine continues the story of her rise to power. Teenage Catherine is in trouble at the hostile and corrupt French court, betrayed by her husband Francis and cousin Diane de Poitiers. Her uncle, the pope, has not yet paid the rest of her dowry. Catherine has a vision of her uncle hanging from a tree; she sometimes has visions, she informs us. When she returns to the stables, a groom proposes her, and she strikes him with her whip. But then her servants find out that Catherine is menstruating*, and now everyone is worried.

*(Karen Muller Serreau the costumes in this series are awesome. While not historically accurate, they represent the power and opulence of a 16th century court. But underwear is all false.)

Sebastio (Adam Garcia), Catherine (Liv Hill) and Mathilde (Kiruna Stamel).  (Starz)
Sebastio (Adam Garcia) and Catherine (Liv Hill) discuss tactics to rekindle Henry’s interest. Mathilde (Kiruna Stamel) is present. (Starz)

They will annul her marriage if Catherine does not become pregnant and send her to Italy. Sebastian (Adam Garcia), his butler, reveals that the pope and his aunt were murdered. They must keep her inability to conceive a secret, though Henri ignores it, obsessed with Diane de Poitier. Can Catherine trust her servants? Sent to the woods to burn Catherine’s bloody laundry, Mathilde meets Diane, who offers her money to keep her informed of Catherine’s menstrual cycle; Mathilde asks for access to the Dauphin’s room as payment. There, she admires Francis’ ship models and seduces him, as the future king, though a bit psychopathic, is a safer prospect than Catherine.

Aabis went straight to the top, sleeping with the king, but it’s not an exclusive club, because every time King Francis comes out of a door, he’s followed by an angry woman who straightens his clothes. Angelica (Ruby Bentall), Catherine’s perfumer, is close to Ruggiero, Catherine’s magician, who provided a smelly ointment to secure the conception, but getting Catherine’s husband to play his part is the real problem. Sebastio offers to approach Henri and escort him to the gardens where teenagers are fighting like a bunch of lively puppies. Henri and his brother Francis are there; young Francis, a chip from the lustful old royal bloc, makes a suggestive comment to Catherine and proposes Mathilde.

Catherine, remembering her husband’s interest in nature, tries to interest Henri by showing him a kestrel egg and asking him to go for a walk. He is not interested. She tells him that their horrible wedding night was “most enjoyable”. (She can’t resist rolling her eyes at us.) “Really?” said Henry. But the delicate negotiations are interrupted when the rest of the young aristocrats, led by François, throw a wooden chest from a bridge, which smashes dangerously close to them. Catherine is furious, but Henri reminds her that Francis is her future king and leaves.

Francois (Adam Amara), (Starz)
Francis, the heir to the throne (Adam Amara), competes with his younger brother Henry for the king’s attention. (Starz)

Those pesky Protestants cause trouble again, as the King discovers a pornographic engraving featuring him and the Pope planted in his bed. The Duke of Guise (Navid Negahban) proposes to burn a Protestant village, but Montmorency more reasonable (Barry Atsma) proposes “systemic change” since Protestants are here to stay. The king also officially announces the murders of Catherine’s aunt and uncle (“digestive problems”). The election of a new pope means changes of power in Europe; as a precautionary measure, Princess Adelaide of Prussia is chosen to marry François the Dauphin. She will visit her younger sister if a fertile new wife for Henri is warranted.

Catherine insists that Henri was very conscientious in his marital duty; even now, she may be pregnant! Henri is grateful for his lie and they start talking again. While walking in the park, they come across Sultan Suleiman (Memet Ali Alabera), who loved the French court so much that he decided to stay. Henry knows him well, having served as a hostage in the sultan’s court for three years after the king backed out of a deal. Catherine invites Henri to her room, to find Angélique and Aabis there. Aabis is pregnant with the king’s baby and wants to consult Ruggieri. Catherine is jealous and refuses to help Aabis (but the pregnancy mysteriously disappears anyway).

On the way to Catherine’s room, Herni is stopped by Diane, inviting him to read the Bible with her. (She promised her mother; this is wrong on many levels). Catherine, she tells him, has her period, so there’s no point in going there. Ruggiere’s ointment applied, Catherine is ready; when Henri does not show up, she forces Mathilde to show him a peephole in her bedroom. Diane, skilfully mixing religious and erotic ecstasy, stares at Catherine in turn. The next morning, Diana tells Catherine of the new Pope allied with the Holy Roman Emperor (the Queen’s brother). So much for her dowry. She offers Catherine a position as lady-in-waiting, perhaps as a servant, while Henri marries her. His first response is to laugh and says Diane is too old. She replies that she is not too old for a baby. Moreover, she has a repertoire of sexual tricks that a young woman could not imagine.

Henri (Alex Heath) and Diane De Poitiers (Ludivine Sagnier) (Starz)
Diane de Poitiers invites Henri for a Bible study. (Starz)

The king hilariously grumbles at court about the new pope, Italy, and Protestants and asks Henry for his opinion. He hesitates, and Catherine sees her opportunity. In an Oscar-worthy performance, she drops to her knees and delivers an impassioned speech, begging the king to choose a new bride for Henry, someone young and a virgin; Catherine will serve as her maid. (Diane looks annoyed.) The king assures her that he won’t let her go just yet, almost certainly planning to take advantage of her sexually. To seal the deal, Catherine applies the fertility ointment and visits Tim, the groom (Tim? Really?). “I think I can be forgiven for taking desperate measures,” she tells us. Awkwardly, when she returns, Henri is there. He smells the potion – anyone can – but more impatient than expected, he launches another excruciatingly awkward lovemaking session.

Informed by Mathilde, Diane lets Catherine know that she is aware of her secret meeting with the groom. Catherine sends Mathilde to Tim with a poisoned apple, the Evil Queen’s traditional weapon, to test Mathilde’s loyalty as the newly arrived princesses are taken through the court for a fun day of hunting and picnicking. However, it goes awry when Henri, delighted with the younger sister, captures a frog for her (treason!), and young François, showing off his techniques with the ladies, stabs the frog.

Drunk, Francis goes for more alcohol, but finds a copy of the pornographic etching and the groom, Tim, sick in bed. He drags Tim and shoots Tim’s wife. Montmorency tries to intervene, while the Duc de Guise complains of disgusting him with his food. The two princesses look horrified. Waving his pistol, Francis challenges his brother to kill Tim and his son. Henri refuses, telling Catherine that he hates his brother and his father. She tells him that he is twice the man her brother is, but Diane intervenes, and she and the king push Henry into action. Why, asks Diane, is Tim asking Catherine for help? Henry slams, ignoring the gun offered by his brother, slits Tim’s throat and yells at the son to run away.

Diane De Poitiers (Ludivine Sagnier) (Starz)
Diane de Poitiers (Ludivine Sagnier) on the hunt (Starz).

If that’s not enough, Catherine has her period again. She is furious but has a backup plan. Catherine and Aabis visit the sultan, who is well settled and speaks the language. She offers him to form a military alliance with Henry against the Holy Roman Empire to claim the Italian provinces promised in his dowry. Appealing to his sense of honor, Henri likes the idea, even if it is an Islamic-Christian alliance. His brother equates cruelty with bravery, but he can go to war and be a real soldier. Everyone gathers to salute the troops, Henri glamorous in his armor on horseback. It’s not a good idea for the future king to have a war hero brother, comments the Duke of Guise.

What if he is killed in action? asks Diana. In this case, replies Catherine, she will have reached the highest peak for a woman, widowhood, as Diane suggested. It’s a great gesture on Catherine’s part; his status at court is confirmed with the king at his side. However, there is a little more tidying up as Ruggiero and Angelica go out and find Tim’s son hidden away. Ruggiero hands him a doll with a straw effigy, a weapon of sorcery. Later, Catherine comes out and discovers her body.

But back to Rahima’s dilemma, finding a punishment for the cook, her enemy in the kitchen. Catherine gives her a packet of unknown substances, which she pours into a brioche mold under the dough. Later, Catherine looks from her window at the courtyard, where panic ensues among the servants at the death of the cook, and smiles.

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