Starz continues its string of historical dramas with a winner. “The Serpent Queen,” which premieres on Sunday at 8 p.m., takes on the juicy story of Catherine de Medici, an Italian noble who became the Queen of France from 1547-88 after being married off at 14. She is remembered as a cold, self-serving woman who was widely feared, with rumors that she practiced witchcraft — but the series approaches her reputation carefully and without a heavy hand.
Samantha Morton, whose career has brought her from strength (“Jesus’ Son,” “Sweet and Lowdown”) to strength (“Harlots”), is just right for the role. She doesn’t telegraph evil and occult so much as she gives us a woman doing what she can to survive in a man’s world, perhaps trying to use her spooky reputation to get what she wants from those who are frightened by her. In the five episodes (of eight in all) made available, Morton is somewhat peripheral, as we see how Catherine came to power through flashbacks featuring an excellent Liv Hill as the younger, more vulnerable version. But she nonetheless casts a powerful shadow across those episodes, as she frames the story of her ascent, including her early years as an orphan before her uncle, Pope Clement (Charles Dance), sent her to France.
The flashback sequences are steeped in castle romance and intrigue, as we see young Catherine learn that her new husband, Henri (Alex Heath), is already in love with a woman 20 years older, Diane de Poitiers (a wonderfully snide Ludivine Sagnier). She tries to lure him to her bed — she is in love with him, and she also feels pressure to bear them a son — but he has a deep connection with Diane that, we are led to believe, is tied to his grief for his late mother. She has her work cut out for her.
Morton’s Catherine is describing her history to a favorite servant, Sennia Nanua’s Rahima, whom Catherine appears to want to mentor. What are her true motives behind singling out Rahima and pulling her into her confidence? I’m assuming that will become clear as the present tense of the story takes over in the last three episodes. Meanwhile, it adds a nice sense of mystery to the mix, as we try to figure out who Catherine really is, and it’s amusing to watch Rahima gradually learn to use her position with the queen to her own benefit among the other servants. Like, as they say, finds like.