Versailles End-of-Season Review: Intrigue, rebellion, and heartache

The popular BBC drama exited on a high this summer

Just like many a history student, it’s always difficult to watch an historical drama without pointing out the historical inaccuracies. Like in many of these TV shows, Versailles is also guilty of occasionally deviating from events as they happened. Characters who have gone down in history as loathing each other begin the season having formed a close friendship, and it is not always easy to follow such tales of events. However, Versailles does better than most: Louis’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes is emphasised, as is his struggles with the papacy. A combination of history and fiction means Versailles is satisfying for both history enthusiasts and drama lovers alike.

This is undoubtedly a lavish production. The photography of the series can only be described as stunning, as the sumptuous costumes set against beautiful scenery and architecture offer a feast for the eyes. Watching Versailles, it is understandable why the series was so expensive to make, but considering the end result, the expense was well worth it. The effort that the crew put into constructing sets that look authentic is evident in the difficulty the viewer has in trying to distinguish the set from the actual palace itself.

But it is the level of mystery that season three has introduced that makes up for past shortcomings. As well as handling history, the show does not shy away from the capacity of a core French history myth to create dramatic tension; namely the man in the Iron Mask. This is one of the most intriguing storylines of the season and one that Alexander Vlahos who plays Louis XIV’s brother, Philippe, Duke of Orleans handles with aplomb. His performance of the Prince’s growing obsession with uncovering the truth is carried in an emotive portrayal of the character. The scene where he finally breaks down from the toll that his quest has taken on him, including isolating himself from his loved ones, is very moving and whilst watching the series my enjoyment of it was never higher than when Vlahos was on the screen.

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The final season also widens the scope of the show in an important way. Whilst seasons one and two were largely confined to the affairs of the Sun King, his family and the court, season three ventures into the suburbs of Paris where the inhabitants have grown tired of Louis’ absolutist ways. The escape from the world of the nobility that these scenes offer is a welcome one, as it offers a glimpse of early modern France beyond the dazzling façade of Versailles and makes the world of the Sun King larger and therefore, more realistic.

Not to forget the Sun King himself, it feels with the third and final season that George Blagden has really settled into playing the role of, arguably, France’s most famous king. He portrays Louis as someone far more human than the history books often present, as he struggles throughout this season with his identity and what it truly means to be king. There is also much to be said of the chemistry that he enjoys with Catherine Walker who plays his third mistress Madame de Maintenon, as their relationship is a central part of this season, and an important part of Louis’ struggle with his identity. But this does not mean that the show uses its female characters simply as ways to deepen the stories of its male ones. In particular, the down to earth personality of Princess Palatine (Jessica Clarke) injects some refreshing life into the Court.

The finale itself did justice to a season that has been very strong, as although the final episode left us with much of Louis’ reign untouched, it felt that we had been told a complete story.  Relationships that had been key aspects of the show from its first episode, particularly that between Phillippe and his lover the Chevalier de Lorraine were brought to a fulfilling ending. Causing a stir at times for its more raunchy scenes, the actors and crew involved have gone beyond what they set out to achieve.