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At halfway point, ‘The Serpent Queen’ commands attention

Samantha Morton as Catherine de’Medici in "The Serpent Queen."Jason Bell/Starz

I’m enthralled by “The Serpent Queen,” the most recent royal drama from Starz. It reminds me of “House of the Dragon,” the “Game of Thrones” spinoff, except there aren’t any dragons and there is no incest — not yet, anyway. The show is currently halfway through its eight-episode season.

On one level, it’s about the life and times of the French queen Catherine de’Medici, and how she came to power. It’s the 16th century, and she is seen as just another woman brought to court to produce heirs, bring in a nice dowry, and, possibly, cement a political alliance. As on “House of the Dragon,” the question of who will be the next monarch is always in the air, and backstabbing is constant. Catherine’s husband, Prince Henri, is in love with another woman, which makes getting pregnant complicated.


On another level, it’s about the relationship between Catherine and a servant, Rahima (Sennia Nanua), as Catherine tells her life story from the start. Catherine describes being an orphan from an Italian family who was raised in a convent, and then how she came to court at the behest of her uncle, Charles Dance’s Pope Clement VII — all of which we see in flashbacks. Why is Catherine so interested in and honest with the girl, who wonders the same thing? Is Catherine trying to empower another woman, is she just being whimsical and perverse, or is she manipulating her to some end? We know Catherine can be sly.

And on yet another level, “The Serpent Queen” is about Samantha Morton’s commanding lead performance. As Catherine, she is masterful, with piercing eyes that only reveal what she chooses. Her demeanor is calm, but not comforting, and her slight smile is just this side of threatening. She knows she is powerful, but she recognizes the importance of proceeding carefully. Occasionally, she looks directly at the camera, at us, as if we in the future will understand the corner she has been put in as a woman at that time. She is mesmerizing.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.