Though many a television series has attempted to rest its drama on lavish twists and turns and intrigue to keep audiences interested, it can’t hold a candle to the truths of the court at Versailles. The reign of Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, was one of the most influential — and fraught — in Western European history. In a Machiavellian power move, the young king decided to move his court outside of Paris to his father’s former hunting lodge, which became a kind of prison for his nobles so that he could ensure their loyalty and keep them under his control.
In Season 1, Versailles (an international co-production that airs in the U.S. on Ovation; and fear not, subtitle-adverse folk – everyone speaks English) focused on the move to the new court and Louis’ obsession with making it a crown jewel but expanded it to epic proportions. In Season 2, which takes place four years after the Season 1 finale, Versailles is as busy and opulent as ever, but the new challenge is to keep it fortified from enemies — many of whom are within its walls.
While the series alludes to discord of the time, including wars with other countries, the necessary levying of taxes, and provisions for the troops, the heart of the show is focused on court intrigue. And oh, what a gloriously bitchy court it is. Imagine: you have parcels of nobles all stuck in one place with nothing to do but get drunk, play cards, have parties and affairs. This results in an unending lobbing of verbal barbs, and (at least to start Season 2) the mystery of finding the person responsible for the most French of all the crimes: who is poisoning the king’s faithful?
In the new season, even more so than before, Versailles embraces its character and courtly drama. Louis (George Blagden) continues to ignore his wife, the pious Marie-Thérèse (Elisa Lasowski), in favor of his mistress, the Madame de Montespan (Anna Brewster), a savvy political player. Meanwhile, the king’s troublesome brother Philippe (Alexander Vlahos) has ensconced himself at the palace in Saint-Cloud, pouting that his lover, the Chevalier de Lorraine (Evan Williams) is in exile in Italy. But eventually Louis finds a way to bring his brother and the Chevalier back to Versailles, along with a new wife for Philippe, whose refreshing frankness may be a surprisingly good match for him.
This only scratches the surface of the drama, which thrives in moments like when a bitter Philippe complains about his brother to a friend, who gasps “the king enters!” as Louis appears. Philippe slaps the friend’s arm petulantly and hisses “don’t even look at him!” (Vlahos’ performance continues to be a truly outstanding part of the series, as he gives Philippe just the right mix of melancholy and spitfire).
One of the most delightfully horrible characters to returns in Season 2 is Pip Torrens as Cassel, a noble Louis sparred with and defeated and whom he now keeps more or less locked up in Versailles. When he’s visited by Louis’ extremely capable friend, confident, and enforcer Fabien Marchal (Tygh Runyan), he sneers and answers his questions about a slain minister by saying, “I wanted to plow my fields with his wife’s face. She has such an … agricultural jaw. But where are my manners, may I offer you a rat? Freshly caught.”
Everyone at Versailles can be wonderfully droll when it suits them, even the king. Blagden is measured and regal as Louis, but he’s occasionally mischievous, like when he brings both his wife and mistress into the room together to help pick out Philippe’s new wife. But no one comes close to the fun that shallow party boy the Chevalier is having. Draping himself in fabrics and declaring red the new color of the season (there is a lot of emphasis put on fashion at Versalles of course — I mean it’s France for goodness sake; you can’t be caught dead in last week’s cuffs!), the Chevalier is the king of trolls, never going long without a snarky comeback or pun-filled euphemism. And I haven’t even mentioned the amount cross-dressing from both men and women that could spinoff series of its own (particularly that of Lizzie Brocheré’s unexpected doctor and occasional mustache-wearer Claudine).
This all helps make Versailles a fun romp through history, often trading accuracies for entertainment. Yet how could you be mad? The first season’s final episodes provided some deeply emotional moments, but for now, the show is back to sex, inventive torture, and courtly intrigue. “Is it always like this?” Philippe’s new wife asks him after Montespan screams and collapses at a ball that has already been filled to the breaking point with snarky comments and cutting glances (and some nocturnal stabbings). “Yes,” Philippe sighs. “I’m afraid so.” Truly, what more could you want?
Rating: ★★★ Good – Un bon amusement français
Versailles Season 2 premieres Saturday, September 30th on Ovation; Season 1 is currently streaming on Netflix.