So, last year I launched my Musketeer Media Monday series, writing happy snarky essays about Musketeer movies and other media properties (but mostly movies) and then the BBC TV series came out, and blew my mind.
Part of what I love about the BBC series is that it’s not a straight adaptation at all, nor does it try to be – it works with the spirit of the swashbuckling original text, and the essence of the characters, to create a wild alternate universe in which the historical French Court and the Wild West come together to make beautiful leather-clad babies.
That sounded less weird before I typed the actual words.
So now the second season is done, and I have so many feelings about it, but instead of doing an episode-by-episode breakdown like last time (which turned into THREE essays) I wanted to talk about the characters who were really the centrepiece of this particular season of television: Queen Anne, Constance Bonacieux and Milady De Winter.
You might have been watching a show about four handsome fellows in leather and three hats (D’Artagnan still doesn’t have a hat), but I was watching a show about interesting, complex women who will probably stab you.
You can read my previous BBC Musketeers reviews here:
This essay will completely spoil Season 1 & 2. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Watch it first if that stuff matters to your brain.
At the end of Season 1, all three women were central to the resolution of the story. Cardinal Richelieu had been her main antagonist for most of the season, and it was Queen Anne herself who got to wield the final victory blow against him, not only because she could bear witness to his crimes, but because her pregnancy now ensured that the King would never believe the Cardinal’s word over her own.
The final episode also saw Milady come into her own as the Big Bad: turning D’Artagnan against his brother Musketeers, and apparently breaking the sanity of her former husband, Athos. When she discovered that her apparent victory over the Musketeers was actually an elaborate sting operation, she already had her revenge in play, having kidnapped D’Artagnan’s brave and resourceful mistress Constance.
Given the canon ending for both these characters, the final showdown was incredible tense to watch, and it was completely believable that one or both of them would be killed, as women generally are in unfluffy adaptations of The Three Musketeers.
Letting Constance live was a triumph, but even better was letting Milady live – Athos taking it upon himself to exile her (in the book, he presumed to re-execute her without higher orders). At the time, I honestly couldn’t imagine how the BBC version were going to bring Milady back into the show with any credibility.
But then along came 2015! And to my pleased surprise, the three female leads of The Musketeers had even more substantial roles than they had in Season 1.
Season 1 Constance was an anomaly in the traditions of the character: she’s a complex and interesting character in the book, and movies generally remove one or several layers of complexity. I get particularly annoyed when films take away the more interesting parts of her character – that she is D’Artagnan’s married landlady not an ingenue, that she is an active participant in palace politics, and that she knows more than D’Artagnan about what the hell is going on at all times. In the BBC series, they at least made a more unusual creative choice in de-layering Constance, keeping the married landlady aspect and leaving out the part where she was the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, which worked surprisingly well…
But the thing I wanted most for Season 2 was for Constance to step up and take her place in the Palace – and oh, it happened, and it was joyous. In amongst all the terrible, irritating and creeptastic things that happened in this season (yes Aramis, Louis and Rochefort, I am looking at all of you and judging you very harshly) the deep friendship between Anne and Constance was a thing of beauty.
This also allowed us to see Constance grow as a person – while she originally got the position because of her husband’s social climbing ways, she soon realised it was a chance to distance herself from her unhappy marriage, and several episodes explored how she was learning to trust her own instincts and intelligence without input from the men in her life. The one where she kidnapped the Dauphin to steam his little lungs in the laundry, saving his life at risk to her own after the male doctor failed to cure the boy with “modern medicine” was particularly good in this regard.
The development of Constance’s romance with D’Artagnan was frustrating and a lot less enjoyable than it had been in Season 1 – Constance had an amazingly powerful scene in the first episode where she got to lecture D’Artagnan about how his whole romantic ‘follow your heart and to hell with the consequences’ philosophy was so much easier for him as a man than for her as a woman. Her choice to stay with her husband was about survival, not just pragmatism or a misplaced sense of sympathy, and D’Artagnan never accepted her point of view. I know I’m not the only one who got cross at him because of that.
They both spent a lot of the rest of the season moping about each other, and I was somewhat disappointed that Constance came around to his ‘damn the consequences’ way of thinking largely because of his big brown eyes. Which, admittedly, are very pretty. Also, while I was happy to see the loathsome Bonancieux elbowed out of the way, having him conveniently killed by a female assassin (largely as a random gift because she shipped Constagnan) was a little too CONVENIENT. Constance’s resistance falling back into D’Artagnan’s arms right away – tying herself to a moneyless if pretty young Musketeer with few prospects for advancement immediately after escaping her prison of a marriage – was portrayed in the narrative as her being needlessly guilty and difficult as opposed to SENSIBLE CAUTION.
Despite my frustrations with her love life, Constance’s attachment the Queen quickly became her most important friendship in the show, and the relationship that provided the most tension and interest. (Hello, femmeslash fandom, come on in, the water’s fine) Anne’s delight and vicarious enjoyment of Constance’s romance with D’Artagnan went a long way to redeeming it for me – and it was so good to see these two women in precarious positions supporting each other. At a time when Constance did not dare choose D’Artagnan or her own desires over the needs of her worthless husband, she never hesitated to put the Queen before him. She stood up to Rochefort, she risked her reputation to save the baby, and she was unflinchingly loyal as well as growing in confidence and style as a lady of the court.
Then the finale approached, and we got to see exactly how brave Constance was. I loved that so much of her story had nothing to do with her romance at all – she was imprisoned and nearly executed because of the political and friendship choices she had made, to protect Anne and the Dauphin, not because she had been hanging out with handsome Musketeers.
And oh, she was so brave. To balance her traumatic near-execution experience (because women in this show are dealt fewer damsel cards than you might expect), Constance argued herself into to riding along with the boys on their ‘beat Rochefort’ mission. She wore a fabulous trouser outfit, and threatened a Spanish spymaster with a sword. When he mocked the menfolk for letting a woman fight their battles for them, Constance replied:
“Perhaps I bring men to fight mine.”
The wedding at the end felt far more like it was Constance’s reward than D’Artagnan’s (though obviously he is stupidly lucky to have her) because she worked so much harder than anyone else this season, for her own happiness. Then they apparently celebrated by having honeymoon sex in Treville’s office before she had to send her new husband off to war. (Seriously, watch that scene, it totally implies that’s where they spent their wedding ‘afternoon’)
MILADY DE WINTER
Milady had run through her entire plot in Season 1 – she was the Cardinal’s spy and assassin, she seduced D’Artagnan (and was seduced in return), and her entire ‘My Husband Executed Me And All I Got Was This Lousy Neck Scar’ backstory was finally revealed to everyone including Athos himself.
All that remained, after Constance was rescued from her clutches, was for Milady to be executed for a second time – and instead, Athos showed mercy. They both got closure to their awful, tragic love story.
Milady came back, not as the same vengeful assassin in fabulous frocks, but as a clever criminal somewhat humbled by circumstance and never one to miss an opportunity. When D’Artagnan and a disguised King Louis were accidentally delivered to her in chains during a slaving operation, she took the opportunity to rescue them, and to exchange the resulting brownie points for a chance to worm her way into the King’s bed.
It was excruciating to watch her affair with Louis – not just because of Queen Anne’s public humiliation and the grinding-teeth of the Musketeers (especially Athos) who had to silently endure her rise in society. They knew about her criminal past, but knowing Louis’ habit of shooting the messenger, they didn’t dare speak up while she was the new favourite.
Sadly, Milady herself did not realise quite how unreliable Louis was as an ally until it was too late. The episode “Through a Glass Darkly” was a magnificent turning point for her, as the whole court was abducted by a psycho astronomer puppeteer (you kind of had to be there) and she used her cleverness and bravery to escape and bring help.
Once again, Milady had an opportunity to say to hell with them all and disappear, and instead chose the riskier option of playing the hero. This time, the not only had to swallow her pride and team up with Treville and Athos for the rescue (IN TROUSERS, MAKE MILADY A MUSKETEER IN SEASON 3 PLEASE AND THANK YOU), but she kicked serious arse in doing it – because with the Cardinal dead, she’s always the most ruthless person in the room.
The King’s subsequent betrayal, taking out his embarrassment on her and stripping her of all the status she had earned as his mistress, was a devastating blow to Milady, and yet she still didn’t give up on Paris.
An obvious character development for her this season would have been for she and Rochefort to pair up and work as a devastating team as they have in nearly every film version of The Three Musketeers ever. Instead, she spotted his ingrained vileness and misogyny for what it was and refused to have a bar of him, offering him on a plate to the Musketeers instead – and that meant more and more instances of Milady helping Athos and his friends, often for no reward despite her very reasonable requests to be paid, goddamn it, it’s all very well to claim ‘I do it for France’ when you’re drawing a wage.
She’s not doing this shit for the exposure, Athos, stop trying to take advantage of her.
Anyway, Milady as the reluctant ally of the Musketeers – who still shoots whoever she likes, mocks their pompousness (someone has to, even if it gave Porthos less to do this season), and admits freely to past assassinations – is my favourite iteration of the character, and I would have adored it if Treville offered her a job instead of her final storyline being about whether or not she and Athos might be happy together outside France (duh, he’s never going to leave the Musketeers, war or no war).
Oh and she even got her own nemesis in Catherine, the awesome shooty woman from Athos and his brother’s past, who turned out to be completely crazycakes and only served to make Milady even more compelling – whether Catherine was trying to re-engineer Milady’s execution, or pointing out the elephant in the room (and in the secret cupboard, and up against a wall or two) which was that Athos and Milady were still hot for each other.
CATHERINE (to Athos): It’s written all over your face. You’re still in love with her.
MILADY: My god, does she never stop talking?
Season 3 had better bring Milady back either to work for Treville or the Queen, that’s all I’m saying. There’s a war on, after all…
After Anne’s triumph at the end of Season 1, I honestly didn’t think that so much of Season 2 would be devoted to the consequences of her affair with Aramis and her subsequent pregnancy. And yet… this season was All About Anne. (I choose to believe this because so much of the Aramis side of this plot was enraging and forgettable)
Rochefort is usually portrayed as a minion of the Cardinal, so bringing him in (played by a charismatically creepy and highly punchable Marc Warren) as a replacement for the main political antagonist felt like an odd narrative choice, at first.
It became clear very quickly that his character had taken on some of the less savoury aspects of the book Cardinal – namely, a disturbing sexual obsession with Anne, and a determination to come between the King and the Queen. It went much further than that, with Rochefort taking on all the cliche but highly believable qualities of a Nice Guy™ who believes he has been Friend Zoned™ and thus turns into a fucking psychopath.
It doesn’t help that Aramis, who was a lively and adorable character in Season 1, spent the first half of Season 2 moping about the baby son he can never acknowledge (including shagging the governess so he could hang out with the Dauphin, goddamn it, Aramis) and how his love affair with the Queen had no future (because that’s what happens when you sleep with the QUEEN, Aramis), while King Louis himself, without the stabilising effect of the Cardinal, mades a series of terrible life choises including parading Milady around Court as his new favourite mistress (though honestly that’s not as bad as the choice he made to force D’Artagnan to take him to a genuine tavern to hang out with the little people, where they were promptly press-ganged by slavers).
The lack of the Cardinal is a tangible though mostly unspoken plot thread throughout this season – Captain Treville falls apart as he realises that the devil he knew did was better at paperwork than the new guy; King Louis becomes a danger to everyone including himself without that patient father figure to steer him away from the sharp knives; and as for the Queen – well, sure, the Cardinal plotted against her all the time, but at least she never had to stick him with a hairpin to prevent him from raping her.
I am not the least ashamed that I squealed with utter glee when the hairpin provided Rochefort with the need for an eyepatch, after most of the season wondering where it was.
Poor Anne. It’s little wonder she ships D’Artagnan with Constance. All the men in her own life are idiots, wastrels and sexual predators. Still, we get to see her strength and her resilience as she deals with her insufferable husband and his creeptastic First Minister, and weathers all manner of accusations about her loyalty.
While we’ve never actually seen the Queen’s diamonds plot told in the BBC series, the spirit of it was definitely clear in the powerful season finale, in which Anne and Aramis were both put on “trial” for adultery – and despite being completely guilty, let’s face it – were able to claim moral high ground because the people accusing them were venomous assholes.
Everyone fighting to protect the Queen’s reputation and Aramis’ life knew that he was really the biological father of the Dauphin and that he and the Queen had committed actual treason as well as adultery, and yet they stuck with them because loyalty is not always about truth (when the King is a dickhead and Rochefort is worse).
Anne herself did not get to join the punch-and-swordfest that the Musketeers employed to bring Rochefort down (even Constance got in a blow, good on you, girl), but she got her own victory by sweetly informing him how little he mattered to her before his death, and by reclaiming her reputation and status with the King – effectively, returning to the status quo she had enjoyed before Rochefort’s arrival at court.
Hopefully, based on the hint of humble guilt we saw in Aramis towards the end, there will be no more of the bio father of her baby endangering her with his obvious stalking. Because yes, they love each other a bit, but come on, even if she didn’t have that whole Queen of France thing going on, it’s not like Aramis would actually make a good longterm boyfriend.
At least Anne came out of this Season with a reliable female friend who would literally die for her, and does her hair in new and pretty fashions. Now all I want is for her to hire Milady as her bodyguard/pet assassin in Season 3 and all will be perfect.
Despite the occasional ickiness of some of the narrative threads – the entire Marguerite the treacherous/lovelorn governess plot, and Rochefort being gross, and especially the bit with the prostitute dressed up as the queen ewwwww I’m so glad he’s dead – this was a great season of television as far as female characters are concerned. Yes, the show is called The Musketeers, and the posters normally focus on the pretty boys in their hats and leather and scruffy beards (and SURE they had some good plots too in this season but that wasn’t what I wanted to write about). Still, I really appreciate that a historical show with such a masculine tone provides us with plenty of varied and interesting women in the story – not just our main three, but the guest roles.
There were a few fabulous guest roles for women in Season 1, with particular shoutouts for the magnificent Flea and Ninon (who have huge followings in the show’s fanfic community despite only appearing in one episode each) and the devastatingly wicked Marie de Medici (Tara Fitzgerald) who has great hair. I think, however, that Season 2 did even better, with some interesting rarely-seen historical character types. Let’s run through some of my favourites:
Lucie De Foix (Olivia Llewelyn) who said what we were all thinking when faced with a naked D’Artagnan, was feisty and marvellous in escaping her imprisonment, and should have been made a Musketeer by the end of the episode – honestly, Treville, why are you hoarding those binders full of women? Just hire them already.
Samara (Antonia Thomas), a Moroccan intellectual and poet who Porthos tries to rescue (though he ends up getting captured alongside her instead), and is hiding a dangerous secret in her book of verses.
Emilie (Emma Lowndes), a Joan of Arc style prophet who sees visions and stirs up unrest against Spain, but is being manipulated by her pushy stage mother (also a great character). The scenes in which Athos tends Emilie through the painful withdrawal from the hallucinogenic drugs she has been dosed with for most of her life were genuinely heart-rending, and I really appreciated that there was an important young female character who wasn’t given a flirtation thread with any of the boys, FOR ONCE.
Jeanne (Linzey Cocker), an angry barmaid who masterminds the kidnapping of Athos to bring him home to the village he’s supposed to be protecting as their tame aristocrat.
Catherine (Marianne Oldham), a downright furious woman from Athos’ past who has been living in the servant’s quarters of his ruined house because she’s fallen from grace (and women aren’t allowed to find a new life by joining the Musketeers like SOME people, Athos). She starts out as a tough, interesting sharpshooter, and gradually unravels as we see how badly she is dealing with the loss of the privilege she was born to… she can’t cope at all with his communist, villager-friendly life choices, let alone the information that Milady still lives after everything she did to them all.
Louise of Mantua (Perdita Weeks), a clever, witty long-lost cousin to the King, or murderous assassin on a Bonnie and Clyde rampage through Europe? You decide!
Eleanor (Emma Hamilton), Porthos’ utterly appalling and morally deficient long-lost sister, who needs some kind of humble redemption arc stat, because giving him a family who traffic in vulnerable young women is mean on a zillion levels. Still, I appreciate when women are presented as out-and-out villains occasionally with no traumatic back story to explain why she’s vile. Porthos, you dodged a bullet when Treville stole you from this family, you owe him a fruit basket.
With a special mention for the return of the battle nuns, though sadly all too brief. Besiege the convent again in Season 3, please! And make sure they’re well armed, because nuns loading muskets never gets old.
Anyone who argues (still) that fantasy/historical fiction with dull, drippy and passive female characters is authentic because they can’t believe women in long skirts were capable of doing anything interesting? This show would be a great place to start re-examining your prejudices.
This Musketeer Media Monday post was brought to you by the paid sponsors of Musketeer Space, all 70+ of them. You guys rule! Previous posts in this series include:
Musketeers in an Exciting Adventure With Airships (2011)
Musketeers Are All For Love (1993)
Looks Good in Leather: BBC Musketeer Edition Part I (2014)
You Can Leave Your Hat On: BBC Musketeer Edition Part II (2014)
It’s Raining Musketeers: BBC Musketeer Edition Part III (2014)
Mickey Mouse the Musketeer (2004)
Musketeers Crack Me Up Seventies Style (1973)
Musketeer in Pink (2009)
Musketeers Break My Heart Seventies Style (1974)
Musketeers in Technicolor (1948)
Musketeer on Mars (2008, 2012)
Bat’Magnan and the Mean Musketeers (2001)
Russian Musketeers Own My Soul (1979)