In the 1680’s, Louis XIV was unquestionably the most powerful man in Europe. Benefiting from internal peace and victory over the other great powers on the Continent, only the stubborn Dutch clung to their opposition. It’s in this atmosphere that season three of Versailles takes place. The season is an illustration of what happens when you’ve won all your most important battles. Enterprising men like Louis XIV try to find new ones, as he admonishes in his own memoirs, but this quest doesn’t always turn out so good. It didn’t in the third and final season of Versailles.
Sometimes, you wind up looking for demons to slay that aren’t there, and you become the demon yourself. This was what we saw. Louis XIV becomes in effect the villain of the third season. Whereas before, he was dealing with a group of insiders conspiring to overthrow him, and then a circle of poisoners emanating from satanic influences, in the third season, Louis becomes the biggest obstacle to his own success, but he doesn’t pay the price. France does.
Versailles‘ last season had some historical inaccuracies. The mystery surrounding the Man in the Iron Mask was the biggest of them, but we can forgive a show for taking liberties in order to be entertaining. Unfortunately, the Man in the Iron Mask felt like a dead end by the conclusion of the season, as nothing of real consequence truly developed from it. In this, I’m less forgiving. It felt like a historical deviation for no reason.
All that being said, Versailles season three did a very good job of exploring a very real and tumultuous event in French history – the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which guaranteed certain liberties to Protestants in the country. Persecution of the Protestants disrupted France’s internal peace and had deleterious effects on the French economy, as many of them were wealthier and more enterprising than the general population of the country. They fled to the Dutch Republic and England, the two countries which would become Louis XIV’s principal enemies during the latter portion of his reign. They were strengthened and he was weakened accordingly.
The future implications of his revocation are regrettably not explored in Versailles season 3, but as it goes on, we do see the present consequences of Louis XIV turning more and more into a repressive monarch. The people suffer as the noose increasingly tightens. While the Protestants bear the brunt of his fury, the people around France chafe at Louis’ increasing taxation, with rebellious sentiment concentrated in Paris.
Louis’ villainous turn was the most compelling part of Versailles this year. He didn’t think he was the villain though, which led to him becoming even more like one when he started taking countermeasures against the people who were aggrieved with him.
It was a vicious cycle. Versailles explored it perfectly.
Where it didn’t do as good a job was in making this story feel meaningful by its conclusion. As we neared the finale of the series, Louis XIV was leaving Versailles to venture into the dangerous heart of Paris. There, he was to touch for the King’s Evil, but he instead found himself facing a mob of his own people who had planned to assassinate him.
And yet, there was no real follow up to this as the season ended. Louis escaped just fine and Versailles wound down with a whimper, as if his villainous turn throughout didn’t matter or come to a head – whether that be him realizing the error of his ways or, in a more creative telling of history, falling from power and reaping the seeds that he’d sown. The ending was anticlimactic.
The same was true for the other major conflict within this third iteration of Versailles. Related to Louis’ repression of the Protestants was his coming into increasing conflict with the Roman Catholic Church. His revocation of Protestant liberties was in part calculated to bring him better favor with the Church, but that’s also a conflict that fails to come to a climactic resolution.
Louis XIV avoids excommunication seemingly by simply declaring himself to be the head of his own church, similar to what Henry VIII did but without the conversion to Protestantism and the history-changing course that would bring. After all the posturing of the Church, and even Madame de Maintenon telling Louis he couldn’t win against it, he won with a whimper. Even the Church being in possession of knowledge which could deligitimize Louis, and which they intended to blackmail him with, wound up not mattering in the grand course of events.
It would have been better if the season jumped forward further in time, and we saw the full consequences of the policies Louis XIV pursued after 1685. His enemies got stronger with the addition of France’s wealthy and enterprising Protestants. The Glorious Revolution toppled a Stuart dynasty in Britain that was well-disposed to Louis XIV and replaced it with his old enemy from the second season – William of Orange. In wars with coalitions led by him and his successor, Queen Anne, France was brought to the brink of collapse. Possibly for the first time, Louis XIV experienced the bitter feelings of defeat and humiliation as Duke of Marlborough trounced his armies. At the same time, the Great Frost of 1709 brought famine and starvation to the land. As Cicero would have appreciated, Louis’ over-expansionism and his repressive policies at home came back to haunt him. He had made too many enemies and it cost him.
This would have required some time skips between episodes, but it would have been worth it. The ending of Louis XIV’s story was sad compared to the vigor he had lived in beforehand. It would have been a more satisfying conclusion to the series, but none of it was explored.
Overall, Versailles‘ final season delivered in terms of its acting and its stage. It also delivered a compelling story with the king’s descent into villainy, but it didn’t conclude in the satisfying manner it could have, and left viewers wondering whether “that was it” at the end of the final episode. Season two ended dramatically, but this time around, it didn’t.
Read Stumped to find out how to tell stories in a manner that builds to a satisfying conclusion.