We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re ready to talk about one of the key villains of the 16th century! I think we’re all tired of the “But was she really a villain?” question of the last 20 years and are ready for someone who just owns their terribleness. While Catherine de’ Medici might have had some cool motives in her life, she, without a doubt, was responsible for a ridiculous number of murders and various assorted crimes. Exciting! So let’s get into it!
The tagline for the series is “Tell me what you would have done differently,” and I can tell you that my own personal step one would have been not murdering all the Protestants in France. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. In our newest costume drama, Catherine de’ Medici (played by Samantha Morton) recounts her story to a servant girl while preparing for her son’s coronation the following week. The last time we saw Catherine on our small screens was in The CW’s soap opera-esque Reign, an amazing show that we should all go back and rewatch.
Catherine’s best quality is her practicality. Her worst is a seeming lack of any moral inhibition, but in a fictional character, this is fun, so let’s forget she was a real person and forge ahead. The year is 1560 and everyone is terrified of Catherine because they think she’s a witch. No one at court wants to go into her room, let alone bring her her food, so they make the servant girl, Rahima, do it.
The thing is, it’s not like people didn’t believe in witches at this time, so the idea of the queen being a witch is like, yeah, maybe. Especially because she was close with Nostradamus (the Nostradamus) and also maybe poisoned a bunch of people. The main reason people were initially suspicious of Catherine is she was Italian, and back then, the reputation of Italians was basically, “oh, so you’re a sorcerer who also poisons people?” It’s one of the weirder stereotypes but definitely not the weirdest.
So Rahima brings Catherine her food, and Catherine very quickly identifies with the girl and encourages her to avenge herself on her enemies (yesssss). Rahima is pretty sure praying for their souls will work out. Catherine wants someone to talk to for the next week while she prepares for the wedding, so she’s trying Rahima out.
Catherine’s parents are wealthy but die tragically (syphilis and suicide). As a child, she is sent to a convent, where she lives until her teens, stealing oranges from nuns and getting beaten for it. And then killing dogs in retaliation! She kills the dog!! Presumably. It’s implied. (But it really seems like she did.)
(Regarding historical accuracy with this series, I would advise just accepting some of the broad chronological strokes.)
Catherine is abducted after being punched in the face (“That was the first time I knew I mattered to anyone”) and marches off with the soldiers. But then who comes to ransom her but the pope. Not even his emissary! It’s just the pope himself. I should mention the pope is her uncle (can you imagine?) and he has plans. Big plans. Since she’s a woman, these plans consist entirely of marrying Catherine off to someone.
This pope is the same one who denied Henry VIII his annulment from Catherine of Aragon (it’s a complicated story), so he’s pretty much responsible for the birth of Anglicanism. For now, he’s telling Catherine she’s not much to look at, so she spits in his wine. She’s got gumption, that one. The pope tells Catherine that the Medicis need an alliance with France, so she will be marrying Prince Henri, the second son of the King of France. And good news, there’s a distant cousin of her mother’s at the French court — Diane de Poitiers. If I could add anything to this series, it would be a dramatic violin sound at this moment to indicate dark foreshadowing.
Catherine gets a makeover like we’re in a 1998 teen film (hurray!), and Catherine tells them all she needs to be fancier to impress the French court. Catherine also gets to choose her entourage. I guess her’s is a retinue, but we’re calling it an entourage. Hire No. 1 is Angelica, a perfumer who definitely knows how to poison people. Catherine also hires a woman the pope calls a “converted heathen” who will teach her how to charm people (does this ever happen? History says no), and a woman named Mathilde from the convent with dwarfism who says that whatever she does, people find amusing. When the pope laughs, she adds that people are idiots.
Catherine also hires a fortune teller, who I assume is Nostradamus, and off we go to France. I’m sad the pope won’t be staying, as he says things like “You should know that France is a shithole. But if you play your cards right, you could be a princess in that shithole.” He also, however, does tell her that she must conform to her husband’s wishes, and if he wants her to be pious, she’ll be pious, and if he wants her to sodomize him with a hairbrush, she’ll do that. Okey dokey.
I am not the Fashion Girl, so I can’t speak to Catherine’s whole powder-faced, gilded ensemble here, nor her arrival to the French castle in a giant egg. You could tell me this was all entirely correct for the time while completely lying, and I’d say yes, yes, very good. It does seem like A Lot. She also has platform shoes from East Asia, which look very cool but are also very hard to walk in with a giant heavy dress. Does she trip getting out of the egg? Yes, she does.
The French are shitty to the Italians and the Italians put up with it from the French because they want their soldiers. King Francis (yes, Francis of France), played by the incredibly un-French Colm Meaney, wants more for Catherine’s dowry. She speaks up and tosses in a cardinalship and a duchy, whatever that is, as well as papal forgiveness for some Protestantism in the family.
Francis accepts and Catherine meets Henri, who is very cute and charming. She falls in love with him immediately, which is really unfortunate, but here we are. On their wedding night, Catherine and Henri have that thing where the court sits in ringside seats to verify them doing it. It’s over pretty quickly, and Henri completely changes his vibe with her and yells at her to get out.
What’s up? you might ask. Well, Catherine goes back to his room to talk to him, and there’s her husband, nuzzling Diane de Poitiers’s boobs. Yes, she’s about 20 years older than Henry (who is 14! Historically, at least. Here, let’s say 18, because why not), and yeah, there’s probably some weird mom stuff going on here, but let’s not think about that. Catherine feels betrayed, because obviously, and decides never to trust anyone again.
We’re back to 1560 Catherine, who knocks over her food tray and then orders the guards to take Rahima away. Oh no! They lock her in a room and you think maybe her time with Catherine is done, but then bam! she pulls a stolen orange from her pocket. In her chambers, Catherine sees the missing orange and smiles.
• Part of the episode was filmed at the Château de Chenonceau in France, where I have not only been but where I have awkwardly tried to ask the front desk people in French if the tapestries are original to the sixteenth century (answer: undetermined!). Chenonceau has an amazing history that lasts through World War II, but for now, we’re focused on its beautiful gallery that spans the river and the smallish room where Catherine decides to tell Rahima her story to see if she would have acted differently.
• Regarding the pope/uncle’s plan to marry Catherine off: I get pissed off when I think about the millennia of wasted potential due to misogyny. If you talk about big plans for a man in the sixteenth century, he could sail off somewhere; he could join an army; he could explore other countries by camel; he could study astronomy and then get burned at the stake for talking too much about science — so many options. But for women, it’s like, hey, surprise; we planned your marriage. Boooooooooo.
• They all laugh at the stupid French for not knowing what a fork is. I’m trying to imagine only having a knife and a spoon in my cutlery repertoire and then being presented with a fork. It seems like it would be pretty instantly helpful, but I guess the knife can operate the same way, so maybe it looked redundant. What would be great is if she presented a fork to Henri and he combed his hair with it like a dinglehopper.
• Mathilde is played by Kiruna Stamell, who is very good at tap dancing! I love when people are good at one thing (like acting!), and you find out they have another skill set they’ve honed for years.