The problems, punctuated by Morton and Hill’s reptilian asides to the camera, pile up quickly. First, she can’t seem to get pregnant by Henry (Catherine would end up producing ten children, but not after ten years of sterility); second, it would seem Henry is in love with Diane de Poitiers (Ludivine Sagnier), a maternal figure twice his age. Diane and Catherine fast form a rivalry, some of the most compelling bits of the series coming when the two slither about each other’s orbit, trying to find the thing that will bring the other down.
And yet, like the other women in the show, they are united by their shared oppression by the beastly, rude, lewd men around them. Henry hardly rises to the compelling levels of “The Great”’s King Peter—that’s the job of Colm Meaney’s King Francis, who blusters and shouts with compelling pomposity—but his power in the face of such emotional impotence makes him a compelling obstacle for Catherine nonetheless. That both Diane and Catherine must make entreaties for his milquetoast affections, neither of them ceding ground for fear of losing what little status his proximity affords them speaks volumes to “The Serpent Queen”’s take on the pettiness of European court politics.
Unfortunately, when the series strays from Catherine to focus on the internecine conflicts of its supporting cast, “The Serpent Queen” loses momentum. There’s a huge cast of competing forces, whether French, Italian, Catholic, Protestant, or other, and even in the first five episodes provided to critics, it’s a lot to keep straight. Many conflicts feel interchangeable, the politics impenetrable, and the palace intrigue hardly intriguing. The show livens up when Hill (or eventually Morton, as Catherine ages into adulthood in the framing device) struts in to perform her Machiavellian calculations, but until she does, the show can be a bit of a bore.